The Daguerreian Society

An introduction to the text
The Two Daguerreotypes

Nineteenth century popular literature is filled with exhortations to repent and turn from the bottle, from demon rum and its accompanying horrors. Other than slavery, no social issue so gripped nineteenth century America and inspired such a wealth of poems, stories, and essays. Of course, as literature 99.9% of it is worthless. The plots are always the same: a wife "with a heart of gold" tries to redeem her "vile husband," and "with God's help" or "the heart-felt pleas" of their always "mortally ill child," she succeeds. Or she fails; this is the one variation on the theme, and it always leads to tragedy. In a well-known example of this sort entitled "Girls Never Marry a Drunkard," a drunken husband kills his "sick child" and his wife goes crazy. But it is told in such a melodramatic manner that the contemporary reader can only laugh.
   Of course, the real value of this "literature" is social and cultural history, not as art. Nineteenth century temperance literature was the soap operas of their time. And no social critic can fully appreciate the nineteenth century without an understanding of it. It seems comic to us today, but it was as much a part of nineteenth century romantic fervor as were the paintings of Delacroix, the essays of Marx, or the novels of Dickens. The nineteenth century was devoted to a belief in the perfectibility and improvement of man. Delacroix's Liberty storming the barricades, or Marx's workers throwing off their chains, or Dickens' Scrooge with his change of heart and big turkey for Tiny Tim's family, were all marching side by side with Carrie Nation and the ax-wielding members of the Women's Christian Temperance Union. And they all knew that they had THE answer, and they were RIGHT. Of course, that spirit did spawn real social change and improvement, but man clearly was not as perfectible as the century had hoped and many of its social ideas look to us today like utopian schemes—and none more so than temperance.
   "The Two Daguerreotypes" is a particularly important example of temperance literature because it yokes together both the social issue of alcohol and the century's great new technology—daguerreotypy. What is most amazing about "The Two Daguerreotypes" is that the drunken husband is redeemed not through the aid of God, wife, preacher, or sick child, but by the technology itself. The daguerreotype saves him! And that may be the most utopian of all nineteenth century dreams, one that still has its millions of true believers; the idea that we can be saved by technology. And perhaps we can be. Who knows? But the temperance issue itself should have taught us something about simplistic approaches to complex problems. The temperance forces finally won out, though it took a century. They changed the law. Alcohol was banned, but the Peaceable Kingdom did not descend, and America did not turn as pure as the vile drunkard's wife. But stories like "The Two Daguerreotypes" help us to better understand the social impulses of the nineteenth century and serve as history's warnings to the future that simple solutions only solve complex problems in the world of fiction, a world where good and evil are more clearly defined than in any world we are lucky enough to inhabit.

—John Wood, in The Daguerreian Annual 1993, page 106. The tale also appeared, with slight variant wording, in The Iris (Binghamton, New York), September 9, 1853.

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