Daguerreian Society

On this day (January 15) 
in the year 1859, the following account appeared in "The American 
Journal of Photography." Vol. 1, No. 16 (15 January 1859) pp. 233-237.
  This text is now available on the Daguerreian Society web site (and
may also be obtained in Word format): 
- - - - - - - - - - - - - 


   There never was anything like it.  True, a multitude of "types" and 
"graphs" have been brought out since then, and glass and paper and iron 
and leather and divers vehicles have been covered with impressions, and 
I have seen them, but nothing ever filled my eye so completely as that 
first daguerreotype.

   For hours I have held it, carefully noting all the soft minutiae of 
light and shade: and still the little rough-edged silver tablet was a 
joy forever, discovering some merit of complete similitude hitherto 
unnoted;  it seemed inexhaustible, yielding new pleasure as often as 

   A small and pleasant village in central Indiana was the locus of 
this primitive achievement;  the time I think, the fall of 1842.  Seth, 
my coadjutor and compeer in the enterprise, and myself were denizens of 
a cosy Law Office, in the second story of an unpretending building, 
where we tumbled the musty tomes of legal lore, hoping in good time to 
make lawyers of ourselves.  Seth was an artist, that is, he had wielded 
a pencil in his day and produced some landscapes, and even portraits 
which were not without merit; at least, so said the knowing ones, who 
pronounced him a genius undeveloped, and bewailed his aberration in 
reading law.  At one time he had tried his hand at farming, being 
beguiled by the smell of new-mown hay, or more probably by the per-diem 
to the harvest hands, (for Seth was poor.)  But that was only a 
temporary expedient, and he did not take kindly to association with 
those "whose talk was of oxen."  I may mention that he afterwards 
turned up at New Orleans, where he verified the predictions of his 
quondam friends, by making a sensation in the way of landscapes and of 
portraits, and so the world lost a poor lawyer and gained a reputable 

   Having an eye out for the new and curious, I had seen some time 
before intimations in the public prints of a wonderful French discovery 
in the art of portraiture, whereby it seemed quite probable there was a 
royal road to drawing and picture-making;  and indeed, that the time 
was not distant, when one might look in a mirror, and leave his image 
sticking there.  But as greater marvels have in like manner been 
announced and never heard of afterwards, I was disposed to regard this 
new wonder as belonging to the same class, until I saw another account 
of the mystery, and this time coupled with the more tangible statement, 
that the images of a camera obscura were made permanently visible, and 
giving a kind of outline of the method.

   Seth and I talked over the new discovery for several days, 
determining, if possible, to verify our deductions by a practical test, 
and with a view to elicit all the paragraph contained, and to obtain a 
more complete clue to the modus operandi, we tried our hand on 
interpretation, and by dint of different emphasis and modulation, we 
thought we could more completely evolve the seeming mystery.  The 
result of this unfledged exercise of legal acumen was, that silver 
plates properly exposed to the vapors of iodine, and thus coated with a 
thin film of a yellow or golden color, became sensitive to the action 
of light and received the image, which could be made visible by the 
fumes of mercury, and rendered permanent by a wash of salt and water.  
There was allusion to the employment of hypo-sulphite of soda, but as 
this was an unattainable salt in that region, it was not to be thought 
of.  One great obstacle in the accomplishment of this and similar 
enterprises in an out of the world place like that, lies in the 
difficulty of obtaining suitable instruments wherewith to operate.  The 
chemicals, the mercury, the iodine and the salt were at our command, 
but Seth's rather abrupt inquiry as to where in thunder we should find 
the tools and traps to work with, was quite pertinent.  However, genius 
overcomes all difficulties.  After another day's consultation, we 
brightened up our optics, consulted the authorities with a view, as 
Seth expressed it, of "understanding the principle on which it works," 
and set about building a camera obscura.  It was easy to see how it 
might be done if we only had the lens, but a plano or a double convex 
was scarcely to be hoped for in that locality.  The possible union of 
two watch crystals, with water or alcohol interposed, was debated, but 
after an examination of a score or two of glasses belonging to a 
friendly jeweler, we relinquished that idea.  Our next endeavor was to 
obtain a large sized sun glass.  The general introduction of lucifer 
matches had rendered this article obsolete, and so we asked everybody 
if they knew of anybody who was the owner, in fee simple, of an old-
fashioned sun-glass.  Here fortune favored us, and after a few 
inquiries and considerable negotiation, we succeeded in dispossessing a 
boy of a veritable sun glass, for a sufficient consideration.

   The rest was easy of accomplishment, and with the judicious 
employment of pocket knives, tacks, paste, and the division of labor, a 
cigar box was soon transformed into a camera.  Our sun glass was 
mounted in a paste-board tube, and made adjustable.  The rear end of 
the cigar box being left open, we made a frame to fit, over which we 
pasted a paper rendered semi-transparent by an artistical application 
of a tallow candle.  This was our " ground glass."  Another frame, or 
rather a combination of frame-work and a flat piece of cigar box, 
served for a "plate holder," and was nicely adapted to take the place 
of the ground glass when removed.  A "slide" was not thought of, and as 
to the "chemical focus," we let that take care of itself, for the 
excellent reason we did not know of its existence.  With a quill and 
the contents of the ink bottle, we blackened the inside of the camera, 
tube and all.  So far, all was right.  After a few trials, we succeeded 
in so adjusting our tube as to obtain quite a respectable view on the 
ground glass.  Now for a plate.  This, which we had deemed to be a 
matter of small moment, proved to be most difficult.

   From preliminary experiments on small pieces, we felt certain we 
could precipitate a metallic coating of silver from the nitrate, on a 
copper plate, by the use of moist cream of tartar.  But after preparing 
a copper plate of suitable dimensions, we found we could not produce a 
coating thick enough to bear the required polishing.  A day of repeated 
trials and failures settled that.  We therefore, at the suggestion of 
our friend, the jeweler, undertook to beat out a five-franc piece.  
This time we had the tools, and by repeated annealing and persistent 
hammering, we ultimately succeeded in obtaining the wished for 
platitude, and the head of the citizen king was extended to 
hydrocephalic dimensions.  Then the polishing was long and tedious: but 
pumice, scotch gray and rouge did the business.  So, after two or three 
days' labor, we were the proprietors of a complete daguerreotype 
apparatus--that is to say, of a camera obscura, plate, the requisite 
chemicals, and two tin cups, to be used respectively for the iodine and 

   On the morning of a clear, cloudless day, we set about the first 
experiment.  We called into requisition all the old coats, pantaloons, 
cloaks, &c. about the establishment, to darken the three windows of our 
office, leaving an accessible place in one corner of the single back 
window, whence we proposed to aim our camera.  We were much pleased to 
observe that, the picture on our ground glass was much more distinct 
than before, though Seth still objected to its being upside down.  Our 
plate being well polished, and affixed to the plate-bolder by a few 
tacks, we inverted it over tin cup No. 1, containing the iodine.  Not 
daring to admit sufficient light to determine when the gold color was 
produced, we concluded to make it a question of time. We accordingly 
exposed it five minutes, and then carefully removing the greased paper 
frame from the camera previously adjusted, we placed our plate in 
proper position in its stead, at the same time removing the blacking 
box cover from the end of the tube.  Then came an anxious consultation 
as to the time required for exposure. Seth thought ten minutes 
sufficient; I, fifteen; and we finally compromised on twelve, and at 
the expiration of that time we removed it (carefully covering it with a 
hat to preserve it from any light,) and placed it over tin cup No. 2, 
containing the scrapings of a piece of looking-glass, gradually heated 
on the stove.  After the plate had "stewed" as long as we thought best, 
we admitted a little light; Seth, raising it up cautiously, took a 
judicious peep, and protested the picture was there.  Well, we removed 
it--took out the tacks, placed it in the salt and water a few moments, 
let in more light--when lo!  our plate was as clean and well-polished 
as at first, without a trace of anything.  This was a great 
disappointment, but we immediately set about a new trial, and with no 
better success.  The third time we substituted real quicksilver for our 
looking-glass scrapings, and warmed the iodine that it might vaporize 
more readily.  Hitherto our great anxiety had been to exclude all 
light, presuming very naturally that a plate sufficiently sensitive to 
receive the impression, must necessarily be destroyed by contact with 
any light, however feeble.  Entertaining strong suspicion that hitherto 
we had had no iodine on the plate, we ventured this time to admit 
sufficient light to show us that we had succeeded in producing the 
desired golden hue.  Once more the plate was in the camera, and for 
twenty minutes we sat down and calculated chances.  It was a long 
twenty minutes, but it ended--our tin cup was again heated up with the 
real mercury, and iodine on the plate to a certainty.

   "A regular built picture, by jingo!" said Seth, as we slipped it 
into the salt water and admitted the light.  Sure enough, there it was.  
The iodine was slowly clearing off; and as more light was admitted we 
saw our miniature landscape--that old shed, with its water-stained 
shingles in the fore-ground, the barn yard and its carts and wagons, 
and even those horses--a little misty, to be sure--but that white horse 
was unmistakable.  The building in the distance--the church and its 
steeple, and the leafless trees.  There was a dim, hazy look about the 
horizon, and a sad want of what I have since learned to denominate 
"aerial perspective;" but Seth said that softening down of the harsh 
lines was decidedly artistical.  To me, it seemed a realization of what 
I suppose everybody has thought of--the skilful combination of all the 
elements of that delicate frost work which we see on the windows of a 
cold morning into the perfect semblance of a real and familiar scene.

   After repeated rinsings we dried it on the stove.  I confess there 
was quite a crystalization of salt on the surface, and some streaks, 
but still there was a picture--to me an inexhaustible source of wonder 
and admiration.  Afterwards I progressed somewhat in the art; adopted 
new improvements, and took likenesses of learned lawyers, with 
numberless imposing looking volumes piled on the table beside them 
sentimental young ladies with guitars in their hands, and beautiful 
boquets in the back ground; matronly ladies, with pocket handkerchiefs 
of table-cloth dimensions; children, with staring eyes and cork-screw 
faces, and love-sick swains who persisted in sitting with a huge hand 
placed over the region of the heart, and who brought back the picture 
after a few days because the heart was on the wrong side.

   All these, of course, I admired exceedingly--but still, I repeat, 
there never was anything like that first daguerreotype!

Posted for your enjoyment.     Gary W. Ewer     

Return to: DagNews 1998

galleries society info what's new feedback
resources homepage search

Copyright 1995-2005, The Daguerreian Society -