The Daguerreian Society

From The Life and Travels of John W. Bear, "The Buckeye Blacksmith." (Baltimore: C. Binswanger & Co. [printers] 1873) pp. 138-152.

C H A P T E R   V I I.


ON the day of the election I returned home in time to vote, almost penniless and broken down in health after a years hard labor speaking in the South in favor of Henry Clay's nomination, and in the North in favor of his election after he was nominated in Baltimore in May of that year.

   As soon as the election was over and I had got a little rested, I concluded to leave the West and go East where I thought there was a better chance to get a start in life than in the West; I therefore went to Philadelphia where some of my old Whig friends assisted me with funds to learn and start the daguerrotype business. I started my business in Philadelphia but owing to its being a new thing I did not succeed as well as I expected, so I packed up in the Spring of 1845 and went to Boston, believing that if ever I got a start in life again it must be among the Yankees; accordingly I opened up in Boston where I had but one or two oppositions to contend with; I hung out my sign and at the end of the first month I found I had made a failure; I could not get the people to come into my place; I saw plainly that I must burst up or use some other plan to attract the attention of the people; we were charging three dollars for a small picture in a morocco case which was considered very high. So I concluded to reduce the price, and in order to attract attention to the price, I concluded to play a Yankee trick on the Yankees. I got up a large placard on each side of a frame that I fixed on the top of a pole ten feet high and hired a boy to stand at the corner of Court and Hanover Sts., the most popular corner in the city, and hold this pole so that all the passers-by could see it, (from five to seven in the evening when thousands passed on their way home from work.) The people of the country had just began to talk about a war with Mexico; this subject was in everybody's mouth, I took advantage of this and had my placard headed in large letters: "War with Mexico, (then under that) or not (in small letters) J. W. Bear will furnish beautiful daguerreotypes at No. 17 Hanover street, colored, true to life, in fine morocco cases for one dollar and a half, with a premium to the first setter every morning." This was all that I had on my large placard.
   I stood a short distance off to see the effect it would have; it had the desired effect, for the people came running from every direction to see what that war news meant; after reading the whole bill they would go away laughing, saying, "that it was the best dodge of the season."
   The bait took like hot pancakes, for next morning early when I got to my rooms I found a score or more waiting ready to enlist as they said for one of my cheap pictures. I gave a premium of fifty cents to the first one that came every morning, (this hurried them up.)
   The result of my experiment was: that rich and poor, high and low, all flocked around me, and many of them said that I must be a Yankee for none but a Yankee could ever have got up such a good dodge as I had to get custom, and many of them offered to assist me with means to increase my business, and I have no doubt had I have stayed there that I should have been a rich man today, for the Yankees are the best people I have ever seen to help a stranger along in business who is willing to help himself, and I would here advise every young man who wishes to make a good start in the world to make that start among the Yankees.
   I stayed in Boston until the winter set in, and then concluded that the climate was too cold for me and that I had better go South. This was the greatest misfortune of my life. I had made money enough to furnish myself with the finest set of instruments that the world could produce with a fine stock of materials for a tour to the South and a nice little pile of cash in my pocket.
   The first place I stopped at was Wilmington, Del., where I stayed a few weeks, but done but little business, owing, I suppose, to its being a new thing it did not take with the people there. I very soon saw that it was no go at that place, so I pulled up stakes and went to Annapolis, Md., where I opened up in the Court House with an excellent light for the business. I had no sooner hung out my sign than the people began to crowd around me, and for five or six weeks I done a most excellent business; I took in over five hundred dollars in less than two months, then when all that wished pictures had been supplied I packed up and went to Alexandria, Va.
   I opened up in a fine room and went to the printer to get some bills printed, when he frankly told me, that he would charge me five dollars for them and that I would never get it back for pictures in that city for said he, "daguerrotypes are played out here, there are three men at it here already that can't make their rent, and they are citizens, so it is no use for a stranger to try it." All right, said I, "print my bills, I will try it a few days and see what I can do."
   I changed my bills from what I had intended to put up; in place of putting the price at two dollars I concluded to play a Yankee trick on them, so I got up the following bill:
   Only $1.50 for the best daguerrotype ever seen in Alexandria, put up in fine morocco cases; colored true to life and warranted not to fade at — Washington street, (adding below,) how many have lost a father, a mother, a sister, a brother, or an innocent little prattling child, and have not even a shadow to look upon after the separation; some little toy or trifling article are often kept for years and cherished as a token of remembrance. How more valuable would be one of the Buckeye Blacksmith's beautiful pictures of the loved and lost.
   Reader you could not do a better thing now, while your mind is on the subject, than to take a stroll to the Buckeye's Place, you may have reason in future years to feel thankful for these gentle hints from a stranger:
For think not these portraits by the sunlight made,
Though shades they are, will like a shadow fade;
No, when this lip of flesh in dust shall lie,
And death's gray film o'erspreads the beaming eyes,
These life like pictures mocking at decay,
Will still be fresh and vivid as to day.
   A call is respectfully solicited. I hung out my sign at 12 o'clock, went to my dinner and returned at 1, and found a dozen or more looking at my pictures. "Are you the gentleman that makes these pictures," said a pretty young lady to me. I told her I was. "Will you make me as pretty a picture as this (pointing to one in my frame) for a dollar and a half?" "oh, yes, and prettier too, for you are a better looking young lady than the one that set for that picture," said I. This raised a great laugh among the crowd; we went in, and I not only took her picture but nine others, thus before night I had taken in fifteen dollars. I went to the printer that night and told him what I had done, "that I had taken fifteen dollars the first day and intended to take in fifteen hundred; before I left;" he said, he hoped that I would but doubted it. The next day I was full from morning till night with the fashion and beauty of the city, and so I continued from day to day, until finally the families of all three of the other operators came to me to get pictures, for none of these operators knew how to take good pictures and had quit the business as soon as I got under way.
   The result of my operations in Alexandria was, that in seventeen weeks I took in over fourteen hundred dollars in cash. But notwithstanding all my prosperity in my business going to Alexandria was the most unfortunate step of my life for the following reasons:
   At the time I commenced business there, they had the Virginia lotteries drawn in Alexandria. I was induced to try my luck in them, hoping from day to day to make a fortune in that way, the more I lost the deeper I went into it, for I was made to believe that if I would hang on I would certainly get a prize sometime. Well I had got such a mania for the lottery that I could scarcely eat or sleep without a ticket in my pocket. I kept this all a secret from my true friends and seemed to allow those lottery swindlers to have full control of me, the result of the matter was that when I left Alexandria and went to Frederick, Md., I had but about ten dollars to begin with, all the money that I had made in Alexandria and over five hundred dollars I took there with me, was gone for lottery tickets and I had no prize yet. So you will see that this move in going there was a very unfortunate one, for I commenced there to lead a life that has ruined thousands of good men, and next to rum has ruined more men and women than anything that has ever cursed our country, and I would here say, my dear young reader if you value prosperity, if you value happiness and character, I warn you to let liquor and lotteries alone; for the two together or one alone must in the end prove your ruin; I know what I say, for I have travelled that road.
   I went to Frederick, opened up my business, but soon found that the old proverb is a true one, when it says, that a prophet is not without honor save in his own country; I was borne there and the people thought it was impossible for me to take as good pictures as a stranger that was there at that time. He professed to be from New York, and the people of course thought that he knew more about the fine arts than a man that was born a poor child in their own county, when at the same time his pictures could not compare with mine, the result was, I stayed there several weeks and then had to go away without being able to pay all my board and rent.
   I packed up and went to Hagerstown and left my instruments in pawn for my board, until I could get something to do. I got to Hagerstown without a cent in my pocket and over twenty dollars in debt at Frederick. I felt like the old irish woman, who said while drunk and being hauled to the watch house in an ash-cart—"I have been in many a scrape before and got out of all of them, but this one," so I thought that I had been in many a tight place in my life and had got out of all but this; and although I felt a little down hearted, felt certain that I could work my way through this difficulty also.
   While in Boston I had got hold of a receipt to make cement for mending glassware, crockery and all earthen wares. I concluded that I would try that business in Hagerstown, so I went to a druggist and got credit for eight cents worth of the materials for making the cement; went to the hotel where I had put up at, got to work and prepared it for sale. I had enough cement to bring me ten dollars, (it was nearly all profit.) I went to work to sell it and succeeded first-rate that afternoon, and by night everybody found out that I was in town. During the evening many of the leading Whigs of the place called on me at the hotel (which was kept by Mr. Robert Fowler, who has since that become a very active politician in the Conservative party of the state, and is still living.) After conversing some time with them, I told them that I was considered the best daguerrotypist in the country, and that I had failed to do anything in Frederick and had to leave all my aperatus there in security for my board and rent, and that I had taken this method of raising money to pay this debt and get a small stock of materials to begin with, when I intended to start business in their town. They asked me how much it would take to start me. I told them fifty dollars would get me a good stock of materials and twenty dollars would redeem my tools; with seventy dollars I could make a good start.
   Mr. Fowler, the landlord, proposed that seven of the party then present should advance me ten dollars each to start on, and take it out in pictures after I got under way, (for he said that I had done enough for the party to entitle me to a living as long as I lived;) he had no sooner made the proposition than every man present (one or two Democrats among them) responded that he would be one of the seven; and in a few minutes the money was raised, and before I went to bed I had started fifty dollars to Philadelphia for goods and twenty dollars for my tools, (well, you can bet your bottom dollar that I slept good that night.)
   The next day I got a first-class room in the Court House, rent free, and went to work to fit it up by the time my tools and goods would arrive, which they did in due time; in the mean time I kept on selling cement so by the time that I got ready to work I had several dollars picked up in that way. I put out the same handbill that I had at Alexandria and it took well, all declared that my specimen pictures were the best they had ever seen; I got several prominent men to let me take their pictures to hang at the door in my show case before I opened up for the public, so that when I did open up everybody admired my work and commenced to crowd around me by dozens at a time, all anxious to have their pictures taken.
   I never shall forget to my latest hour the people of Hagerstown, for no sooner than they found out that I was poor and needed a friend than they came as one man to my relief; from the morning that I hung out my sign to the day that I left their town they never ceased to patronize me, but here also as well as in Alexandria I found a lottery office, I had not gotten over my mania for tickets notwithstanding my sad experience but a short time before, and here, too, I had the misfortune and weakness to spend nearly all that I had made; I made up my mind to leave the South where lotteries were tolerated and go to Pennsylvania where there were none, so I packed up my kit and went to Chambersburg, Pa., almost penniless but enough left to stand a decent business.
   I opened up there, and for several weeks done a small business, so very small that I began to fear that I should make a failure of it at this place as I did in Frederick, Md. About this time the Methodists had a great meeting to dedicate their large new church, and Bishop Janes, one of their big guns, was to preach the dedication sermon for them; I was not long in making up my mind what was best for me to do.—I went to hear him preach on Sunday, and when he was through a celebrated preacher by the name of Collins, from Baltimore, was to do the begging of money to pay for finishing the church. I immediately bit at that bait; at the proper time Mr. Collins called on all that felt like giving anything towards paying the debt, that were not members of the church, should raise up and say what amount they were willing to give; I took advantage of this and sung out, "I will give you ten dollars." "Your name, sir," said Mr. Collins, I told him, when he sung out in a loud voice: "the Buckeye Blacksmith gives ten dollars." All eyes were on me for a moment, and I felt that I had gained a point.
   The next morning early I went to see the Bishop, invited him to my rooms, took a splendid large picture of him, made him a present of it, and so made one for myself for my show table; this had the desired effect, for in less than twenty-four hours everybody knew what I had done and commenced to call and see the Bishops picture and to get a copy of it, and in less than ten days I sold over a hundred dollars worth of copies. I had raised myself in the estimation of the Methodists so high that they came in droves to my place and got their pictures taken, and I done excellent business for a number of weeks after that and had succeeded in saving several hundred dollars.
   I then concluded to go to Carlisle, Pa., where the people had the name of being very high minded and aristocratic, here, I thought, would be a fine field for me. When I got there I found two men engaged in the business but neither of them understood how to make a good picture. I went to see them and one of them told me that he was not a country artist as I was but a New York city artist that took pictures by an entire new and improved plan; that his pictures could not fade and therefore were more valuable than any others, and even dared me to open, up against him. —I told him the people would speak of him as they would of Noah of old, as one that once lived, but was no more, as soon as I opened for he would not get another picture to take after I got under way.
   The other fellow came frankly to me and said that he knew that he did not understand the business, and asked me to learn him so that he could make a living for his family. I told him I would do so, which I did, without charging a cent. As soon as I got open for business I hung out my sign and filled the town with flaming hand-bills, and in three days had the pleasure of seeing my New York artist take the cars body and baggage for parts unknown, and have never heard of him since nor never expect to.
   I stayed at Carlisle some four month and done a most unparalled business; I had sent to Vienna, in Austria, and got a set of the best instruments made that was ever imported, and was in a fair way to make a fortune again, but the devil or something else put it in my head to go to the South again; I started for Winchester, Va., with the finest outfit that ever crossed the Potomac in my business; my outfit was so extensive that I had to pay some eight dollars extra fare on the cars. I had also a nice roll of cash in my pocket.
   When I arrived in Winchester I found a young man engaged at the business, but as he was rich he only followed it for pleasure and was glad that I came to relieve him of the bother of taking pictures for the public; he rendered me all the assistance he could in getting a suitable room to operate in and issued a card recommending me to all his friends as a first-class artist; this was very valuable to me as it brought me at once into notice, he being one of the first families of the place, his father was a Senator and stood high among the people of Winchester, which gave a decided advantage over any place that I had been; here I had no opposition, and with a fine stock of the best materials and the finest instruments extant I was prepared to do a fine business.
   I opened my business here with the fairest prospects that I had ever had. The people had never had a picture taken for less than three dollars, so when I hung out my sign at one dollar and a half everybody came to see me; in this place I reserved every Friday afternoon for colored people, this seemed to please both white and colored; I also published that slaves would be taken for fifty cents less than others, this made me very popular with them, they came in droves to see me on their day, the white people all agreed that my plan was a good one, so much so that the owners of them willingly gave them time to get their pictures taken, and many of them came with them to see that they got good ones taken. I had lots of fun with them, no odds how black they were I made their pictures light, this would please them, they would say "bless de Lord it looks just like dis chile," and when a black man and a yellow girl would set together I would throw the largest amount of light on the man so as to make them both as light as possible, this took with them like hot pancakes, and pleased their owners also.
   I very soon became very popular, not only with the white ladies and gentlemen, but with the colored ones too; the result of my popularity with the people here, was, that I had a successful run of business from early in the Fall of '47 to the Spring of '48. I took over fifteen hundred pictures there, the lowest at a dollar, the highest at five dollars. But lo! and behold, right opposite my place of business was a lottery office and, here, as before, the mania took hold of me, and every dollar that I made as well as what I had taken there with me was spent in that way, and before I left there I was compelled to sell one of my instruments to get away.
   I now made up my mind fully that I would forever leave the South to return no more, but I stopped at Charleston (a place that has since been made memorable in this country as the place where the first martyr to liberty was hung.) for a few days, just long enough to make a raise to take me to Pennsylvania. I done an excellent business for a week or two, and then packed up and went to that State, fully intending never to return. I arrived there safe and sound just about the time the Presidential question began to be talked of, but had not made up my mind what I should do on that question. I had not taken any interest in politics since the defeat of Mr. Clay, and thought that I never would, but as soon as the Whigs at their National Convention of that year had nominated Gen. Taylor as their candidate for President, I saw very plainly that the South had gained their point in placing a strong pro slavery man on the Whig ticket against Gen. Cass one of the best men that the Democratic party ever had placed before the people. I had known Gen. Cass well and had known him to be an honest man, which was more than I could say for the most of them. I knew very well that the South would not trust Cass, although he was a much superior man to Taylor. Yet he was a man that they could not use, and they knew it, hence their lukewarm support of him. Although I knew him to be the best man for the place, party lines were so tightly drawn that I could not vote for him.
   I took but little interest in the election, further than to speak three or four weeks around through three or four counties of that State. I saw from the first that Cass was beat, Taylor's war record was carrying him flying over the Presidential race course, like a tornado, and that nothing but a miracle could stop him. I told the Democrats so, but they were foolhardy enough to think up to the day of election that they would carry their point and I could not pursuade them that the South would not allow him to be President. Well the election came off, and the result was just as I had told them Taylor and Filmore were triumphantly elected. I had told some of my friends that men were like water, it would seek its level, so would men. Cass had not equals enough he was too distinguished a man, the same as Mr. Clay was. Polk and Taylor were ordinary men, and a very large majority of the voters of this country being but ordinary men, sought their level by voting for them in place of Mr. Clay and Gen. Cass, hence their defeat.
   Gen. Taylor look his seat with as little pomp and show as any other President had done; and I have no doubt, but had he lived, that he would have made a pretty fair President; but before he had been eighteen months in office, he died, and Mr. Filmore took his place, then came the tug of war. Mr. Filmore very soon became the pliant tool of the slave power, and through him, as the best compromise that Mr. Clay (who was in the Senate at that time) could get, we got the fugitive slave law. That law made every white man in the North a negro-catcher for the South, for if one of their slaves ran away and got into one of the Northern States, and his master followed him and called on you to assist him to catch his slave, that law compelled you to help catch him; if you refused to assist him and was worth the price of the negro, you would be compelled to pay for him. To this state of things I most positively demurred, and this law I re-fused to obey. Look at the unfairness of the thing. —Negroes in the South were by law goods and chattels, the same as horses and oxen are in the North—well let us see how this law worked; if my horse or yours ran away from us in the South, there was no law to compel them to help us catch him, neither could we make them pay for him if he got away from us; but if one of their black cattle got away from them, we must assist in catching or pay for him. Look at it, Northern Democrat, and tell me, did you ever support such a measure as that? I tell you you did when you supported Mr. Pierce in 1852.
   After the campaign of '48 was over I concluded to go to work again at my business, but by this time every little town in the country had a daguerrotype saloon in it and the large places had two or more men running opposition in them. Every fellow who could raise a few dollars would get up a small outfit, mostly almost worthless, and put cut into some country town and stick up his cards and pretend he knew more about the business than any man living, when at the same time all that he knew and his tools in the bargain were not worth ten dollars. Almost every town I went to I found one or two and sometimes more of these fellows blowing their own trumpets, and as soon as I would open tip and commence business they would generally put the price of their pictures down to about half what I charged in order to burst me up, but I generally made them leave, and that very soon after I got under way.
   The greatest difficulty I had to encounter with these men, was the want of a suitable room with the right kind of light to make good pictures with, they being there before me, would generally get the best places to be had, and I would have to take an inferior place to compete with them, but having more knowledge of the business than they had, and the best instruments in the country, I could always put them to flight.
   I saw very plainly, that there was something wanting. I knew what kind of light I required to do good work with, and this light I could not get in country towns. There being a little Yankee in me, I set to work to build me a house adapted exactly to the business, with a large, splendid sky-light, made in such a manner, that I could, by taking off a few screws, take it all apart in small compartments and load it on a car or big wagon and move it to any place I might wish to, where, with the aid of two men, in three hours I could put it up, ready for work. It was three times as large as those saloons which were built on wheels years after that, and far superior; those saloons were too small and were never adapted to the business, consequently I never had one.
   As soon as I got my house done I had no more trouble with opposition. My sky-light made such fine even shades over the face, everybody said they were just the thing they wanted, and everybody admired my enterprise in getting up such a novel plan of doing good work, and they fully rewarded me for my outlay and skill. I would go into a town; get a vacant lot whereever I could; get two or three men to help me, and have my house all ready for business before any person knew what was going on. The first thing they would know about m y being there would be when they read my bill, which I would have thrown into every house as well as all over the country around. I put up my bills thus:
The great crowd you see moving from morning till twilight
Are enquiring the way to the Buckeye's great sky-light,
To have a daguerrotype view of their faces
Put up for a dollar, in the very best cases.
   A call is respectfully solicited—saloon on—lot — &c.
   This saloon as I called it was a decided success, for in it I did the best work I had ever done, and where-ever I went, I did a very nice business. I continued to travel about through Pennsylvania, from town to town, from the time of Taylors election until the Spring of 1852, when another political campaign was about to open, but as yet nobody knew who were to be the candidates.
   The result of the two National Conventions was that the Whigs nominated General Scott and the other side nominated General Pierce of New Hampshire. . .

. . .(remaining text not transcribed; contains no further daguerreian-related content of any consequence.)

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