The Daguerreian Society



EDITOR'S NOTE: The following account was written as a direct rebuttal to the historical essay by Mrs. Davis. Together, the two essays may well reflect the disparities common to most historical accounts written years after the fact. Even those individuals who were actually involved in the original events, frequently lived to disagree with each other, as well as with whatever stands as the prevailing historical record. The bottom line may be, in the words of the old adage: "Take everything you hear and read with at least a grain of salt."
       —Peter Palmquist, editorial comment from "The Daguerreian Annual 1993" (pg. 103)

From The American Journal of Photography (December 1896) pp. 552-557.

THE DAGUERREOTYPE IN AMERICA

by Julius F. Sachse


   An interesting paper by Mrs. D.T. Davis appears under above title in the current number of McClure's Magazine. The article is illustrated with a number of portraits of well-known people, such as J. Fenimore Cooper, Daniel Webster, John C. Calhoun, Jenny Lind, and others from carbon reproductions of the original daguerreotypes, all neatly worked up to give them a wood-cut effect.
   Unfortunately the paper is of little or no intrinsic value, as it perverts history. It is like unto the play of Hamlet with the Prince of Denmark left out. Think of it! A sketch of the "Daguerreotype in America" without any mention of Philadelphia, or of the great pioneers in heliography—Goddard, Cornelius, or the Langenheims—men who perfected the crude process of Daguerre, and made portraiture possible.
   The name of one Philadelphia pioneer, Mayall, is mentioned but not in connection with his native city, but as the best daguerreotypist in London. Well, we all know that fact. But why not mention that he was a Philadelphian, and there learned his art, in which he gained so great renown in Europe. It was here in the Quaker city that he was instructed in photo-optics by Dr. Paul B. Goddard, and in photo-chemistry by Prof. Boye, who is still living, and who organized the first class in photo-chemics in the world.
   Why was Philadelphia ignored? Was it through ignorance, or local jealousy? When a person presumes to write upon an important topic, he should at least study up the subject somewhat before rushing into print.
   As a matter of fact, the first portrait of a human being was taken in Philadelphia in November, 1839, by Robert Cornelius, and was exhibited before the American Philosophical Society, as is noted in the minutes of the Society, December 6, 1839. This identical portrait is now in possession of the writer. Further, a studio for "Daguerreotype Miniatures" was established and was in successful operation long before either Draper or Morse claim to have made their first successful attempt.
   Even Morse's view of the "old brick church" was made long after Joseph Saxton, of Philadelphia, had made his experimental exposures from the window of the United States Mint on Chestnut Street, the original of which is now in possession of the Historical Society of Pennsylvania.
   These facts and many more have been repeatedly set forth upon the pages of the American Journal of Photography and the Journal of the Franklin Institute.
   The claims made in McClure's Magazine as to the priority of Morse and Draper are not warranted by the facts. It is not the wish of the present writer to detract one iota from the credit due to Morse and Draper in their researches and attempts to perfect and introduce the heliographic art in America. The claims and successful efforts of Philadelphia scientists, such as Dr. Paul Beck Goddard, who first introduced bromine as an accelerator, Boye, who made the chemicals, and the experimentalist Robert Cornelius, who obtained the first portrait and opened the first heliographic studio in the world, are too well known and established to be passed by, even by an average magazine article.
   In connection with this interesting subject, we republish the following communication to the New York Times, relating to the Draper-Wolcott controversy; it was made February 10th, 1883, by Prof. Charles E. West, who is still living. It settles the date claimed by Prof. Draper for his first portrait, March 31, 1840, at which time there had existed a public studio in Philadelphia for over two months. It may be of further interest to mention that the minutes of the American Philosophical Society, before quoted under date of March 6th, 1840, contain the following entry:
   "Dr. Patterson exhibited some specimens of the heliographic art [daguerreotype] of a large size [4 1/2 x 6 1/2—Ed.] executed by Mr. Robert Cornelius of Philadelphia, and stated to the Society that Mr. Cornelius had succeeded in obtaining beautiful representations upon highly polished silver plates."
   The above were portraits taken at the studio at the corner of Eighth and Lodge Streets, Philadelphia. Further, there are yet three persons living who recollect this incident and were present and examined the portraits. In another entry a few weeks later the names of the portraits are given, one being Mr. Duponceau, president of the Society. The Wolcott episode has also been fully dwelt upon some years ago in the columns of the American Journal of Photography.
   Another interesting feature connected with Prof. West's communication is that it was given to the writer by Thos. H. McAllister, Esq., the well-known optician of New York, whose father, John McAllister, was the first person to sit for Robert Cornelius at his studio who paid for his portrait. As a matter of fact John McAllister, Esq., of 48 Chestnut Street, Philadelphia, was the first person to have his heliographic portrait taken commercially. This was in the latter part of January or early in February, 1840. This portrait until a short time ago was still in the possession of the family, but now appears to be mislaid.
   Professor West, in his letter to the New York Times, writes as follows:

THE DAGUERREOTYPE.

To the Editor of the New York Times:

   In a late issue of The Times it was claimed that the honor of taking the first daguerrean portrait of a living person was not due to Prof. John W. Draper, but to Mr. A.S. Wolcott, of New York. As I was a resident of New York at the time Daguerre's process was brought from Paris, and was intimate with the gentlemen who were the first to try the novel process, I wish to tell what I know about it. Daguerre's discovery was reported to the world in January, 1839. The 19th of August of the same year Daguerre illustrated his process by experiments in the presence of Arago and a large company of distinguished persons. As Daguerre's pictures required an exposure of twenty minutes—too long for taking portraits-he stated that living objects could not be taken; they could not keep still long enough.
   By order of the French government the secret was purchased of Daguerre and published. A pamphlet describing the process was brought to New York by a Mr. Seger, who took it to Professor Morse, of telegraph fame. Morse was quick to see that a new field of art industry would be opened. He took it to his instrument-maker, George W. Prosch, and said: 'Make the apparatus described in the pamphlet as soon as you can.' In a few days it was done, and the first trial was a picture of the old Brick Church (Dr. Spring's) and the City Hall. In the foreground stood a hack and horses on the stand and the driver sleeping on his seat. This picture was a great curiosity. Prosch's shop was in the basement of the old Morse Building, No. 142 Nassau street. The camera was placed on the steps leading to the basement. This was the first daguerreotype of still life taken in this country. It was done in October, in less than a month after Seger's arrival. As Prosch did work for the institution I represented, Rutgers Female Institute, I was in his shop almost every day and saw him making the camera for Prof. Morse. I saw this first picture many times, which was a great curiosity. Besides Messrs. Morse and Prosch, I frequently met Dr. James R. Chilton, chemist, and Dr. John W. Draper, who were deeply interested in the new art. I experimented a little myself. The first thing of importance was to get a good working achromatic lens, and the second, chemicals more sensitive to the action of light than iodine. Draper succeeded in both. He had a good lens, and was successful in preparing a bromide of iodine, which greatly reduced the time for exposing the plate. The end was achieved in his taking the first portrait of the human face by Daguerre's process.
   Morse afterwards tried it and took a portrait of his daughter. Prosch immediately opened a daguerreotype gallery at the corner of Broadway and Liberty street. I was the first to sit for my portrait. By means of a mirror suspended outside of a window the light of the sun was thrown directly upon my face. Of course, my eyes were closed, and the portrait was without these important features of the human face. These daguerreotypes—for I had several—I used to exhibit in my lectures till they entirely faded out. The process of gilding was not then known. About this time, or soon after, others went into the business, and among the most successful was A.S. Wolcott, who opened rooms in the granite building, No. 273, corner of Broadway and Chambers street. I immediately made his acquaintance and sat for my portrait. Several of these are still in my possession. Wolcott contrived an elliptical mirror, which he used in place of a lens, which possessed the advantage of presenting the picture in its right position and not reversed, as in case of the lens, but it had the serious disadvantage of limiting the size of the plate and representing parts which are not at all distant from the centre in a very confused manner. Still, Wolcott was successful in taking the best portraits of the city. He was not ready for work till the spring of 1840. He described his apparatus in Prof. Mapes's American Repository, a short-lived journal; but in no instance can I find in that journal that he took the first portrait, nor was it claimed for any one else than Draper, for that was conceded by all those early daguerrean workers. About the year 1860 the question of priority was raised by the friends of Wolcott in the American Institute. A committee of investigation was appointed, consisting of Messrs. Mendez Cohen, Samuel D. Tillman, and Charles A. Seeley, members of the Institute, to call on Dr. Draper and learn from him what he had to say on the subject. They did so, and Dr. draper afterwards sent them a written statement, which was published in his 'Scientific Memoirs,' which appeared from the press of Harper & Brothers, in 1878. The friends of Wolcott were unwilling to give a written statement. This did not satisfy the committee, and the subject was dropped. Wolcott had died in London many years before. Priority to an invention is always determined in favor of the party who is first to publish it in some newspaper or journal. That is the universal rule.
   Now let us apply it. I will quote from Draper's Memoirs just referred to. He says, page 215: 'This memoir contains the first published description of the process for taking daguerreotype portraits. . .That it was possible by photogenic processes, such as the daguerreotype, to obtain likenesses from life was first announced by the author of this volume in a note to the editors of the Philosophical (London) Magazine, dated March 31st, 1840, as may be seen in that journal for June, 1840, page 535. The first portraits to which allusion is made in the following memoir were produced in 1839, almost immediately after Daguerre's discovery was known in America.' In the Edinburgh Review for January, 1843, there is an important article on photography. In that the invention of the art of taking photographic portraits is attributed to its true source—the author of this book. It says: 'He was the first, we believe, who, under the brilliant summer sun of New York, took portraits by the daguerreotype.' Why does the champion of Wolcott challenge the record of the past so soon after the death of Draper? Why did he not do it before? It is like digging into his grave for hidden treasure. If he can bring a well authenticated date prior to that just noted, viz., March 31, 1840, in favor of his claim, then it will be time to reverse the tables; but if not, then let the honor remain as a memorial of the great and world-renowned scientist.

Charles E. West
Brooklyn, Saturday, February 10th, 1883.


   In regard to the above claim for Prof. Draper in the Edinburgh Review, it is but necessary to call attention to the statement that Draper claims to have taken his first successful portrait "under the brilliant summer sun of New York." The account of Daguerre's process did not reach America in those day of limited communication until October 14th, 1839, a period of the year when the "brilliant summer sun" had long ceased to shine for the year.

(End of text. Please refer to our textnote regarding this text.)

Return to: Histories
  Daguerreian texts index


homepage society info search
resources galleries


Copyright 1995-2005, The Daguerreian Society - http://www.daguerre.org