Right to the Source
It is 1860. A young girl wearing a pretty dress is taken to a photography studio to pose for a portrait (above). She must sit patiently, not moving a muscle until the image is complete. Her family paid a large sum to obtain this daguerreotype likeness of their child, and kept it in a small case for protection. Eventually, the child, Mabel Hubbard, grew up, became the wife of inventor Alexander Graham Bell, and her image became part of the Bell family papers now held at the Library of Congress.
A year later a young boy also posed for a portrait (below). His was taken in front of a painted backdrop resembling a military encampment similar to those where the soldiers fighting for the Union or the Confederacy may have been living. The boy is wearing a cap and looks like he might be heading to war. The case protecting this ambrotype photograph also holds an image of Abraham Lincoln. The portrait of this unknown child cost much less than Mabel Hubbard’s, but its value to a family member was likely just as great.
Both images might interest students in learning about how, its infancy, portrait photography was time consuming and expensive, a luxury reserved for the wealthy. But, in a relatively short period of time, technological advancements and new techniques helped equalize access to this important medium, enabling portraits to become available to nearly everyone.
Photography essentially began on August 19, 1839, when the French Academy of Sciences announced that Louis-Jacques-Mandé Daguerre had invented a process which was capable of capturing a “truthful likeness.” It required a sheet of copper, plated with a thin coat of silver, along with iodine, mercury, sodium thiosulfate, gold chloride, and demanded great care.
Though daguerreotypes were popular, they were expensive and had to be kept in specially made cases as they were extremely fragile. Photographers and inventors looked for other ways to create the “truthful likeness” and open photography to a wider audience. The creation of the ambrotype and the tintype offered such a solution. Both involved a process where a plate of either glass or iron was coated with light sensitive chemicals to create a negative image. The exposure time was shorter and the process more efficient than for the daguerreotype. In addition, the subjects could take the image with them on the same day. Though the ambrotype was made of glass and could be fragile, the tintype was made of iron and could be easily slid into a pocket and carried around. They were also much less expensive than the daguerreotype, costing as little as twenty-five cents an image. This helped make the tintype very popular with soldiers in the Civil War. They could leave an image of themselves with their family and take a family portrait with them onto the battlefield. Within two decades, a technology that had been limited to the wealthy was available to nearly everyone.
The daguerreotype of Mabel Hubbard is available online from the Library of Congress at https://www.loc.gov/item/2004664323/; and the ambrotype of the unidentified African American boy is available at https://www.loc.gov/resource/ppmsca.36463/. A collection of more than 800 daguerreotypes, with essays explaining the process, is available online from the Library at www.loc.gov/collections/daguerreotypes/about-this-collection/; and The Liljenquist Family Collection of Civil War photographs at the Library includes both ambrotypes and tintypes, is available at. www.loc.gov/collections/liljenquist-civil-war-photographs/about-this-collection/ A primary source set on Civil War Photography, containing a teacher’s guide with information about the different types of photographic techniques used to document this seminal event in United States history is also available at www.loc.gov/teachers/classroommaterials/primarysourcesets/civil-war-photographic-technologies/
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