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Facts about Daguerreotypes
What is the difference between a daguerreotype, an ambrotype and a tintype? How old are they?
Daguerreotypes (1840-1855) are on polished silver so they are very reflective, like a mirror. Since they are on silver and subject to tarnish, daguerreotypes were put behind glass and sealed with paper tape so air cannot tarnish the plate (there often is some tarnish around the edges of the picture). This was then put into a small hinged case, similar to a woman's compact. But, the easiest way to tell if you have a daguerreotype is to see if it has that reflection, just like a mirror. You have to tilt it back and forth to see the image.
The second type of photograph, ambrotypes, (1855-1865) also came in hinged cases but in these there is a photographic emulsion that has been coated onto glass so they do not have that "shiny mirror" reflection (but, being on glass they are somewhat reflective). If you take an ambrotype out of a case and hold it up to the light you can usually see through the picture (since it's on glass). Ambrotypes don't tarnish but the black paint painted on the backside of the glass often dries out, cracks, and then peels off. The second biggest problem is the emulsion turns dark making the image look dark. This problem is similar in appearance to when a daguerreotype's silver plate is tarnishing but that (the tarnish) has a bluish tint to it.
Tintypes (1855 through the turn of the century) are made using the same photographic emulsion as the ambrotypes but, rather than coated onto glass, the emulsion has been coated onto black-painted tin and then exposed. Since they are not on silver they do not have the reflection and, since they were not fragile, are not usually found in cases. Early tintypes are sometimes found in cases as that was still the convention at the time but most often they're loose or have been placed in photo albums along with later paper photographs. These are usually about the size of a business card and, in fact, the paper photos that size are called CDVs for the French term Carte de Visite, or "calling card" as people would give them to their friends when the visited. Sometimes they dropped them in a basket in the parlor and the friend would then collect them in an album.
For examples of daguerreotypes please view the Gallery Section of this web site.
Why are daguerreotypes backwards?
Daguerreotypes are normally a reversed (or, correctly stated, a laterally-reversed) image. The only way to get a correct orientation was to copy the image with a second daguerreotype, or to make the original daguerreotype using a reversing prism or mirror. Besides the complexity, a problem with a reversing mirror was, if taken outdoors, it may be subject to movement by a breeze causing a blurred image. So typically people just lived with a reversed image.
What are the sizes of Daguerreotypes?
Approximate sizes of the images, including the portion of image hidden under the mat, but not including the case:
Whole plate : 6 1/2" x 8 1/2"
Half-plate : 4 1/4" x 5 1/2 "
Quarter-plate : 3 1/4" x 4 1/4"
Sixth-plate (the most common size) : 2 3/4" x 3 1/4"
Ninth-plate : 2" x 2 1/2 "
Sixteenth-plate : 1 3/8" x 1 5/8"
What are those hard plastic cases called?
A "Union Case" and is an example of an early thermoplastic technology, being produced from about 1855 to 1865. Some people call them gutta-percha cases but that is not a correct term, better being "thermoplastic case" or, as we use, a "Union Case". Littlefield, Parsons & Co. was one such case manufacturers. A mixture of shellac and wood fibers were pressed into a steel mold. And to think we thought "plastics" were new in the 1950s, look at the quality they achieved in the 1850s!
What is the best way to reproduce Daguerreotypes?
The most difficult part in reproducing daguerreotypes is keeping the mirror-like reflection down so you don't see the camera being reflected (on ambrotypes and tintypes this is not as much of a problem). The simplest way is to take a piece of cardstock about 10" square, cover it with black velvet or velveteen and then cut out a hole in the center to stick the lens through.
This is assuming you have a copystand or at least a tripod, as well as a close-up lens. If you do not, any good photographer should be able to photograph the image(s) for you. Here in Pittsburgh one of our major department stores has a photo studio in their big downtown store that has been offering such a copying service for many years and are probably experienced with daguerreotypes. You might try your area.
An alternative method would be to scan the image on a computer. They often turn out dark but, using a graphics program like Photoshop, they can be lightened up. To do this you may wish to remove the image from the case. Doing this will get the image closer to the scanner's glass and help keep the focus sharp. Just gently pry the package (glass and all) out but do not take the packet (glass, metal plate, etc.) apart. If the glass or mat is loose, carefully put it back together and scan it case and all, read the caution below.
Caution: No matter how you chose to reproduce the daguerreotypes, do not take off the coverglass as the image is fragile and any damage (scratches, fingerprints, etc.) would be permanent. This can be done but is best done by someone with experience and with the proper materials to reseal the daguerreotype properly to prevent future tarnishing. Ambrotypes and tintypes are not as susceptible to damage, but do be careful.
How can I tell if a daguerreotype is a fake?
There is no easy way to detect fakes -- daguerreotypes produced recently but sold as 19th-century -- other than by looking at a lot of images/cases and learning when something just doesn't look right. Talking to fellow collectors and learning from them is also important.
People can fake all image types but daguerreotypes are much more difficult. The best way to avoid those which are fakes is to know who you're buying from. Make sure they're reputable dealers who will take back items later questioned. At one of our Symposia we had a discussion of Internet buying and one of the points discussed was that Internet-auction sites are full of fakes. One speaker went as far as to warn the audience to NEVER buy any American Indian images off eBay. Many of these are fakes.
Cases are difficult to fake and I don't think there are more than one or two designs being knocked-off and they do not get all the details (hinge design, fabric lining, etc.) correct. There again you need to talk to other collectors. The Krainiks and Bergs are all Society members. Old cases can be restored and those may look as good as new, maybe they look too good. Myself, I like images and cases that look 150 years old.
What are some book recommendations?
There are now any number of recent books on the daguerreotype. You may wish to check Amazon.com for the many titles with descriptions. Your librarian should be able to get many on inter-library loan. A good standard history of early photography is Beaumont Newhall's The Daguerreotype in America. The Silver Canvas, by Bates and Isabel Lowry, published by the J. Paul Getty Museum is an especially great book on daguerreotypes as is Floyd and Marion Rinart's The American Daguerreotype.
Where can I find books on Daguerre's life?
The best book on Daguerre's life and art (as well as about the Diorama) is L.J.M. Daguerre by Helmut and Alison Gernshiem, published in 1968 by Dover Books but it is out of print. You might ask your librarian to see if they can find a copy for you. Other potential sources for this book may include Alibris, AbeBooks and Powells.
What's a good book for technical information on the daguerreotype?
You need to get a copy of M. Susan Barger and William White's The Daguerreotype: Nineteenth Century Technology and Modern Science. It is available from Amazon.com. Nineteenth Century Technology is the best book about the technical (condition, storage, etc.) aspects regarding daguerreotypes.
Where can I find a good database of 19th century Daguerreotypists?
For an excellent historical-photographer's database listing thousands of American daguerreotypists and ambrotypists, go to Craig's Daguerreian Registry.
Who can identify my famous person?
That's the big question -- who can authenticate a lookalike for a famous person?
In general you need some provenance or supporting documentation. Not too many people are willing to stick their neck (or their wallet) out based upon a resemblance. I would start with the National Portrait Gallery in DC and any illustrated books on the person. See if you can find other daguerreotypes of him or, even better yet, an engraving that might have been made from YOUR daguerreotype or a least at the same sitting (judged by the clothing, backdrop, etc.) Sometimes things do fall into place.
What is the best way to store my Daguerreotypes?
To protect Daguerreotypes, keep them away from direct sunlight (but it is OK to display them occasionally) and, most importantly, away from extremes of temperature. A drawer in a "living" space is fine, not the attic or a damp basement. To protect the cases you might want to bundle them in clean cloth (old t-shirt material is fine) but use no rubber bands. We feel it's generally best to store them glass side down or on edge.
How can I put a new tape seal on a Daguerreotype?
Reseal a daguerreotype using archival tape like Filmoplast P90, which is available from many sources on line -- or a good frame shop may be willing to sell you a couple of feet. Don't tape directly onto the back of the plate (like they did originally) but, rather, cut a piece of thin acetate or unbuffered archival paper (also available from framing and archival supply sources on line) to the same size as the image and tape onto that. This makes a small package with the plate in the middle. Tape it all around and, to seal it good, run the tape up onto the face of the glass a little bit (this will be covered by the preserver if the image has one).
Where can I get thin leather to repair hinged cases with?
We now stock paper-thin pneumatic leather to repair the torn hinges on leather daguerreotype cases, as well as archival glue for attaching the hinge, both available from the Daguerreian Society Store.
Where can I buy archival supplies?
There are a number of dealers in archival supplies. They are easy to find on the Internet, or contact a local archival supply store or a good framing shop for ideas. Ask for a catalog and you will see what they recommend for storing/repairing your antique photographs.
How do I undertake Daguerreotype restoration?
For a good background on daguerreotype restoration and technology you should try to get a copy of The Daguerreotype: Nineteenth Century Technology and Modern Science by M. Susan Barger and William B. White. Amazon.com has it.
This form letter I have on file touches on restoration:
Daguerreotypes (1840-1855 +) are on polished silver so they are very reflective, just like a mirror. Since they are on silver and subject to tarnish, daguerreotypes were put behind glass and sealed with paper tape so air cannot tarnish the plate (there often is some tarnish around the edges of the picture). This was then put into a little hinged case, similar to a woman's compact. But, the easiest way to tell if you have a daguerreotype is to see if it has that reflection, just like a mirror. You have to tilt it back and forth to see the image.
The second type of photograph, ambrotypes (1854-1865 +_), also came in hinged cases but they were photographs on glass so they do not have that "shiny mirror" reflection (but, being on glass they are somewhat reflective). If you take an ambrotype out of a case and hold it up to the light you can usually see through the picture (since it's on glass). Ambrotypes don't tarnish but the black paint painted on the backside of the glass often dries out, cracks, and then peels off. Putting a piece of black velvet behind the image will make it look better.
The second biggest problem seen in ambrotypes is the emulsion has turned dark, usually starting near the mat and proceeding inward. This problem is similar in appearance to that seen when a daguerreotype's silver plate is tarnishing but the daguerreotype's tarnish has a dark bluish tint to it while ambrotype's are a brown or grey darkening. As far as I know nothing can be done for an ambrotype's darkening.
A daguerreotype's tarnish can be cleaned by a conservator but that can be costly ($200 - 300 per plate) and most conservators will do nothing if it's not very bad since any cleaning can potentially cause permanent damage as well as remove tinted accents such as rouge on the cheeks or "gold" on the sitter's jewelry. A patina "ring" is not necessarily a bad thing and can sometimes actually add to the beauty of a daguerreotype.
If a daguerreotype is properly resealed the "rings" do not seem to get worse. Most often on cased images it's actually the coverglass that's dirty. It's relatively easy to take an ambrotype apart and clean the glass since they don't have a paper tape seal, but on daguerreotypes there is a paper tape seal (it may have dried out and become loose but at one time it was a tight seal) that prevents air from getting to the daguerreotype's silver plate. That seal can be cut, the glass cleaned or replaced with new single-strength glass, and resealed using archival tape like Filmoplast P -BUT- if you intend on selling the image you would no longer have the "original seals" that many people want to see. For my own collection I have no qualms about replacing the seals as, once I own an image, I keep it.
My interest is in protecting the daguerreotype itself and in the worst glass problem, what we call "weeping glass" (a milky oily substance that's actually weeping out of the antique glass) the substance can drip onto the plate and permanently damage it, causing pits.
A word of caution regarding daguerreotype: Unless you have to, do not take off the coverglass as the image is very fragile and any damage (scratches, fingerprints, etc.) would be permanent. This can be done but is best performed by someone with experience and with the proper materials to reseal the daguerreotype properly to prevent future tarnishing. Ambrotypes and tintypes are not as susceptible to damage but do be careful.
As far as storage: To protect the images, keep them away from direct sunlight (but it is OK to display daguerreotypes occasionally, ambrotypes are more susceptible to light damage) and away from extremes of temperature. A drawer in the bedroom or living room is fine. To protect the leather or the thermoplastic cases you might want to bundle them individually in clean cloth (old t-shirt material is fine) but use no rubber bands.
Where can I learn about making Daguerreotypes?
Our society has an active group of Daguerreians and they help each other. You might also want to order the booklet of reprints pertaining to making daguerreotypes from our Daguerreian Annual. One of the articles is on the Becquerel Process that develops under intense yellow light, no mercury is involved. It's not fast but is much safer. In all, the process can be very difficult to learn and you have to build some of the equipment yourself (buffs, fuming boxes, etc.).
Another place to look for information is Contemporary Daguerreotypes, a web site established to support the community of contemporary Daguerreians.
Where can I find camera plans?
One set of camera plans may be found here.
Further questions about the daguerreotype?
Do you have further questions about the daguerreotype?
Are you a Society member with a question-and-answer you think should be added to our FAQ?
Please feel free to contact the Society with your question.