The material and social history of the daguerreotype is surveyed here in five thematic sections, from the evolution of the American daguerreian camera to studio promotional and advertising ephemera. These objects have both a technical and human importance, and prove the truth of Louis Sullivan's adage, "Form Follows Function." Created to accomplish specific tasks, many of these items have a compelling physical presence, almost like miniature sculptures. At the same time, they are part of a rich and fascinating narrative: the story not only of how the first photographs were made, but of the tastes, values and ideas of the people for whom they were made.
These objects also have much to tell us about the beginnings of modern commercial culture. The daguerreotype was big business. From a handful of images produced in 1839, the profession grew within a decade to an annual production of millions of plates. Large cities had dozens of daguerreian studios; small or remote settlements were served by intinerant (traveling) operators. Manufacturers of equipment and supplies competed for the business of these thousands of daguerreian entrepreneurs. On the retail level, photographers found clever and innovative ways to satisfy the public's hunger to be immortalized through this most modern of processes. Advertising played an important role in this competitive field, and daguerreotypists used sentiment, poetry and hyperbole to promote their work.
The daguerreotype represents a unique marriage of art, craft, science and commerce. It had many uses, and it appealed deeply to American tastes. The daguerreotype has much to teach us about the basic character of mid-nineteenth-century America—and this lesson can only begin with an appreciation for how these remarkable images were made and used.
Matthew R. Isenburg