“The Truth of Sunlight:” When the Daguerreotype was the Technological Vanguard

When a new technology comes along, like the iPad or the Kindle, human consumers are naturally fascinated. We admire our colleague’s new-found technological abilities; we test the gadgets in the stores; we read about them in the press.  Some among us predict the end of older technologies.  Others scoff and stick with the tried and true.  Lest you think this is purely a twenty-first century phenomenon, we blog here today about a technology that took America by storm in the 1840s – the daguerreotype.

Two Examples from AAS Daguerreotype Collection
(see the online illustrated inventory for many more)

Woodward Daguerreotype
Above: Mrs. Samuel (L.E.R. Treadwell) Woodward (d. 1857), sixth plate daguerreotype, 1856;

Right: Luther Holman Hale (1823-1885), sixth plate daguerreotype, late 1840's

Luther Holman Hale

Click either image to enlarge.

We have blogged about photographs elsewhere, and, if you want more images, you can certainly link to any of the Society’s wonderful online photographic resources to see more. But today we are thinking about the first photograph, when the whole idea was new and the technology was completely mystical to most Americans.  We don’t necessarily want to look at images – but we have included a couple here for your viewing pleasure.  Mainly what we are interested in is how daguerreotypes were perceived by those early consumers of this new technology.  Often we rely on critical reviews in periodicals or newspapers for this sort of information, but every once in a while, we get a rare first-person account.

Washburn Papers
Item from the Emory Washburn Papers, which AAS acquired in 2009

Recently one of our valued volunteers, Jane Dewey, was helping us to process the Society’s Emory Washburn (1800-1877) Papers (you can read more about this recent acquisiton in our Fall 2009 Almanac). While working with the collection, Jane discovered an interesting quote about a daguerreotype. In 1841, just a few years after the technology was invented and made available in the U.S., the future Massachusetts governor sat for his portrait in Worcester or Boston. He sent the image by mail to his wife, who, with their three children, was visiting her parents in Walpole, New Hampshire.  Alas, the American Antiquarian Society does not have the 1841 daguerreotype, just a very important letter from Mrs. Washburn back to her husband, written upon receipt of the portrait.  This is what she wrote on July 29, 1841:

I thank you most sincerely for sending the daguerreotype – to me it is invaluable. The truth of sunlight cannot be questioned or criticized.  The dimness and indistinctness at first sight are pleasant to me in a miniature; you look at it, it seems like a shadow or a spirit; you turn it into a stronger light & the spirit becomes embodied.  The longer you look & the brighter the light; the more & more you find comes out & he seems to be yours only. He seems to be yours, bright, clear & distinct, but dim, unreal & shadowy to others – & this feeling of monopoly, love, in its selfishness, likes. Father and Mother were affected almost to tears.  Minnie declared it looked like Mr. Van Buren. Charlie said at first it was a little looking glass and then smiling said he “could see his Father, Mr. Washburn in it.” Emory said, “That is my Father.”

Later photograph of Emory Washburn

In 1841 Minnie Washburn was age 10, Charlie was 8, and little Emory was just 5.  One can almost picture the family gathered together in the parlor in New Hampshire passing around the small silvery daguerreotype and exclaiming over the surface, the image of Emory Washburn looking back at them.  It must have been a somewhat disconcerting feeling to see an image of a loved one, reduced in size, set in a small book-like case, knowing in reality that their father was miles away in Massachusetts.  This might be akin to our modern apps like FaceTime or Skype – where we can see people half way around the world and talk to them, too!  The delight we take in these new developments is exactly like the feeling captured in Mrs. Washburn’s letter.

If you think you might know where the original image of Emory Washburn lives, do let us know!  We have no idea who the photographer might be and would be delighted to learn more.  The Society has several images of Emory Washburn in his later years, and would love to see him at age 41, looking out of the mirrored surface of the daguerreotype, a confident lawyer and young father.

Published by

Lauren Hewes

Andrew W. Mellon Curator of Graphic Arts, American Antiquarian Society

3 thoughts on ““The Truth of Sunlight:” When the Daguerreotype was the Technological Vanguard”

  1. Lauren,
    Thanks for the great post.

    I was talking with my son about daguerreotypes the other day and trying desperately to come up with a digital analog for how people must have felt in the 1840s about the magic of photography. While people, of course, had seen portraits, silhouettes, engravings, Daguerre’s process is not the natural outgrowth of anything. I believe the term is sui generis. Maybe I am cynical, but I doubt modern people will ever be amazed in that way again.

    Thanks again for the thoughtful post and for sharing Mrs. Washburn’s beautifully literary sentiments.


    1. Dear Maurice Bouchard,

      I am glad that you found today’s post helpful! Mrs. Washburn’s prose is so elegant and descriptive, it really captures the awe that the small, silvered daguerreotypes must have elicted from family members. The quote was a wonderful find and we are very pleased to share it! Lauren Hewes

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