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By Colin Harding on

How to spot a daguerreotype (1840s–1850s)

Dating early photographs by process and format can be a useful skill, especially if sitters’ clothing offers no clues. Colin Harding provides some expert advice on how to unlock their secrets.

Over the next few weeks, I’ll be showing you how to date your old family photographs by format and process, using the photographic techniques that dominated the first 100 years of commercial photography.

Frustratingly, old family photographs often come without any accompanying documentation so it can be very difficult to identify their age. Old photographs are full of clues that can help you to do this, such as clothes or hairstyles, and we have a list of useful contacts and resources that may be able to help you date your photographs by fashion.

Portrait of a woman, c. 1846, Antoine Francois Jean Claudet, The Royal Photographic Society Collection, National Media Museum
Portrait of a woman, c. 1846, Antoine Francois Jean Claudet © The Royal Photographic Society Collection

But even without these pointers, it is possible to date a photograph by its type, rather than what it depicts. One way to do this is to consider the methods used to create photographs.

There have been hundreds of different photographic processes, each with their own distinguishing characteristics. Fortunately, most family photographs were made using just a few photographic techniques—for example daguerreotypes, collodion positives and ferrotypes.

As well as the process, you can also tell a lot from a photograph’s size or ‘format’.

Most processes and formats were only popular for a limited time, so if you can identify these you will also have a rough idea of the photograph’s date.

With just a basic knowledge of what these physical clues can tell you, you are well on your way to revealing the mysteries of your family photographs and their subjects.


How to identify a Daguerreotype (1840s–1850s)

For the first in this series of posts, we’ll take a look at some clues that can help to spot a daguerreotype among your old family photographs.

About the daguerreotype process

The daguerreotype was invented by Louis Jacques Mande Daguerre (1787–1851), and it was the first commercial photographic process. A highly polished silver surface on a copper plate was sensitised to light by exposing it to iodine fumes. After exposing the plate in a camera it was developed with mercury vapour.

Richard Beard opened England’s first public photographic studio in March 1841 in London’s Regent Street, after buying the rights to be sole patentee of the daguerreotype process in England.

'Jabez Hogg and Mr. Johnson', 1843, Richard Beard, National Media Museum Collection
‘Jabez Hogg and Mr. Johnson’, 1843, Richard Beard, Science Museum Group collection
A daguerreotype from 1843 which is thought to be the first photograph showing a photographer at work. The image depicts Jabez Hogg photographing W.S. Johnson in the studio of Richard Beard.

Daguerreotypes were sold in Britain throughout the 1840s and into the early 1850s. Access to the studios of photographers working with the daguerreotype process around 1850 would have been limited to the middle and upper classes.


Use these clues to identify a daguerreotype

Cases
Daguerreotype images are very delicate and easily damaged. Daguerreotypes always come in protective cases, often made of leather and lined with silk or velvet.

Group portrait of a woman with two children, c. 1850, National Media Museum Collection
Group portrait of a woman with two children, c. 1850, Science Museum Group collection

Plates
They were made on highly polished silver plates. Depending on the angle at which you view them, they can look like a negative, a positive or a mirror.

Tarnish
If exposed to the air, the silver plate will tarnish. Though they were sealed under glass, it is very common to find characteristic signs of tarnishing around the edges of the daguerreotype.

Size
Daguerreotypes were produced in a range of sizes, but most portraits are quite small, usually around 2×3 inches.


Examples of daguerreotypes in our collection

The Moon, 1851, John Adams Whipple and George Phillips Bond, National Media Museum Collection
The Moon, 1851, John Adams Whipple and George Phillips Bond, Science Museum Group collection

John Adams Whipple (1822–1891), working with George Phillips Bond (1825–1865), the director of the Harvard College Observatory, endeavoured to create lunar daguerreotypes of a quality never seen before. One of Whipple and Bond’s lunar daguerreotypes was shown at the Great Exhibition of 1851 where it won a medal.

Hawaiian Princes, Alexander Liholiho & Lot Kamahameeaha and G. Parmele Judd, 1850, Albert Sands Southworth and Josiah Johnson Hawes, National Media Museum Collection
Hawaiian Princes, Alexander Liholiho & Lot Kamahameeaha and G. Parmele Judd, 24 May 1850, Albert Sands Southworth and Josiah Johnson Hawes, Science Museum Group collection

Inscribed in ink, ‘For Mrs Bridges Taylor / with the very sincere regards / Prince Liholiho / Gerrit Parmele Judd / Prince Kamahameeaha / Boston 24th May 1850. To be left at St Katherine’s Lodge / Regent’s Park / or the Foreign Office / London’. Signed by all three sitters.

Judd was a Congregational cleric and Foreign Minister to the Hawaiian Kingdom. He and the Princes visited Europe and America on a diplomatic mission in 1849 and 1850. The Boston portrait studio, Southworth and Hawes, operated from 1843 to 1863.

Portrait of a child (hand coloured), c. 1850, J. Paul, Kodak Collection, National Media Museum
Portrait of a child, c. 1850, J. Paul, Kodak Collection, Science Museum Group collection
Portrait of a young woman, c. 1860, Rufus Anson, The Royal Photographic Society Collection, National Media Museum
Portrait of a young woman, c. 1860, Rufus Anson © The Royal Photographic Society Collection
Portrait of a dog, April 1846, Kodak Collection, National Media Museum
Portrait of a dog, April 1846, Kodak Collection, Science Museum Group collection
Portrait of a young girl being held still by a woman, c. 1850, Kodak Collection, National Media Musuem
Portrait of a young girl being held still by a woman, c. 1850, Kodak Collection, Science Museum Group collection
Portrait of two men, c. 1850, Kodak Collection, National Media Museum
Portrait of two men, c. 1850, Kodak Collection, Science Museum Group collection

Next week I’ll show you how to identify collodion positives, aka ambrotypes (early 1850s–1880s).

32 comments on “How to spot a daguerreotype (1840s–1850s)

  1. Have just discovered Colin Harding’s photo-history blogs. Informed and accessible: required reading for all.

  2. I found this article to be a informal and a great attention grabber.
    I find it to be a unique thing that he used Mercury vapor to develop something like this.

  3. I really like the one entitled Portrait of a young women. You can really see all the detail and the light of the room on her skin. Very nice exposure she must have been super still or it was shorter than most.

  4. I found the portrait of the young girl being held still by the woman to be very interesting. I have never seen an image from this time where everyone is not sitting upright & still as they had to so I enjoyed seeing a portrait where a situation is being shown that is often a common problem attempting to capture a child’s image even today.

  5. I enjoyed reading about how to identify the Daguerreotype process. I have so many old family photos that I do not know what time period they came from or who they even are other than what is written on the back. I am looking forward to learning more on how to identify the era that these photos came from.

  6. I find it so incredibly interesting that the Daguerreotype is able to be seen as either a positive or negative image based on how the light hits the plate.

  7. The idea that the daguerreotype is capable of being viewed as either a positive or negative image based on the way the light hits the plate is amazing. I love that!

  8. I really liked seeing Portrait of a dog, April 1846, Kodak Collection, National Media Museum posted. It shows that while there is quite a difference in generations people back then thought of their pets as being an important part of their family, or at least important enough to make and keep images of!

  9. I, too, enjoyed the article. It is amazing to me the clarity of the portraits and the close up of the moon is remarkable.

  10. This article was very informing and gave a lot of different examples of daguerreotype. After reading this article it made me want to create a daguerreotype art work myself. I really like the portrait of the little dog is was so cute and very detail that it seem very alive.

  11. I have a large photographic print (about A1) of a family group of victorian children which seems to have been printed on fabric, possibly silk. Do you know what this technique was called?
    Thanks.

  12. i have several daguerrotypes and have been told the ‘fancier’ the case, the newer the plate. is that so? is there any way to restore tarnished images without ruining what’s left of the photo? Is it true that a photo would have been quite an expense for most families so taking and giving one would have been quite meaningful im guessing. (sorry, lots of questions)

  13. I am a photography student and in my history class we are learning about daguerrotypes. this is the first I have heard of them but in my research I found it is an incredible process with mind blowing results. The images captured on a metal plate are truly spectacular.

  14. I found the time frame on how fast the word got out about the portraits made to the public to be quite fast! The process seemed very tiedious, although I did find interesting that the photograph is a negative and positive image at the same time.

  15. The portrait of the young girl who is must be held still by a woman amazes me. I’ve worked with some children photographers and often we are running around the studio to capture them! I can only imagine the patience it must have taken to get the child to be still for simply 20 seconds!

  16. I found this very interesting on how so much information about daguerreotype. It amazes me how photography has been going on for so long, that I did not know. I am a student at RCC and I am going for Commercial Photography, so this was good info about photography(:

  17. I am a photography student at RCC and going to major in commercial photography. This blog amazes me the fact that photography has been going on for so long and all the negative and positive in the pictures.

  18. I found it interesting that the photos got to public very fast. It didn’t take much time at all for everyone to know about the photography pictures.

  19. Photography in those days sounds like a slightly dangerous profession because of the toxic fumes used to develop the image on the plate. Its pretty incredible the clarity produced by the daguerreotype. How did some of the images receive color?

  20. Is there any way I can identify the precise age of an ancestor of mine. A finely dressed lady with chatelaine this has always been referred to as a Dagerrotype, is ‘painted’ on the reverse of what appears to be glass,, 3 inches by 4 1/4 inches, backed by velvet, and with a metal frame at the front. I assume it was done in this country, possibly Portsmouth, or London.

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