Part 2: A Philadelphia snapshot from when daguerreotypes were new

Guest blogger Sarah Weatherwax, a photography curator at the Library Company of Philadelphia, brings her expertise to bear on several daguerreotypes (an old type of photograph that was made on a piece of silver or a piece of copper covered in silver) from the Photographic History Collection at the National Museum of American History. Her collaboration and shared research provide deeper knowledge and historical understanding of the Smithsonian's collections. Read part one of her post.

By examining both the National Museum of American History's and the Library Company of Philadelphia's daguerreotype collections, a fuller understanding emerges of the earliest days of American photography. Philadelphian Walter R. Johnson (1794–1852) did not leave behind a large number of daguerreotypes, but his legacy illustrates the challenges and rewards faced by the earliest experimenters.

By spring of 1840, University of Pennsylvania chemistry professor Walter R. Johnson had several months' experience taking daguerreotypes. As one of America's earliest experimenters, he had given public lectures and demonstrations about the exciting invention and had mixed success in creating daguerreotypes himself. His daguerreotype of Philadelphia's Merchants' Exchange building taken in February 1840 is a masterpiece (see my previous post), and the National Museum of American History's collection includes two other daguerreotypes of buildings by Johnson. Leaving the confines of a laboratory or a studio posed challenges to daguerreotypists, but Johnson successfully overcame these obstacles as can be seen in the clarity of his extant images.

In March 1840 Walter Johnson traveled approximately ten miles from Philadelphia to Germantown to take a daguerreotype of Wyck, the Haines family residence. Embarking on a photographic excursion required careful planning. Johnson needed to bring with him not only a camera, but also chemicals, metal plates, and the additional equipment necessary to take and develop the image on site. The whereabouts of his daguerreotype of Wyck are not known, but the image lives on in an early 20th century lantern slide in the Library Company of Philadelphia's collection. Photographer John G. Bullock took the lantern slide about 1913 for possible inclusion in Charles F. Jenkins's The Guide Book to Historic Germantown.

Black and white photo of building with leafless tree in front

Given the difficulties in traveling around making daguerreotypes, it is interesting to speculate that the National Museum of American History's whole-plate daguerreotype by Johnson of Cliveden was taken during the same photography excursion.

Black and white photo of building, framed in circle

Cataloging information filed with the Cliveden daguerreotype records that this daguerreotype was made in 1840, and the lack of foliage makes March 1840 seem like a reasonable assumption. Located only about a half mile from the Wyck residence, Cliveden was home to the Chew family. The Cliveden daguerreotype, however, seems less personal than Johnson's view of Wyck. No family members can be seen and the house is shot from a greater distance. While Walter Johnson may have known the Chew family like he did the Haines family, and took the daguerreotype for personal reasons, he may also have wanted to record the house because of its historical significance as a site of a Revolutionary War battle.

Johnson, however, did not confine his daguerreotype experimentation to recording buildings. Two Philadelphia area brothers, Robert B. and John S. Haines, corresponded with one another about Johnson's failed attempts at making a daguerreotype of his sister-in-law Mary Donaldson. In a letter among the Wyck Papers at the American Philosophical Society, Robert Haines wrote on December 7, 1839 to his older brother John:

"The other day I went to town with Cousin Mary to see the Daguerreotype which was at Mr. Johnson's. The instrument belongs to the Medical branch of the Pennsylvania College at Philadelphia but Mr. Johnson had it at his house to make some experiments. He was going to try to take a portrait which had never succeeded on account of the difficulty of keeping features still as the slightest motion spoils the operation and Cousin Mary was to sit. It always requires ten or fifteen minutes to take a picture and Cousin Mary had sat but eight when a kitten came into the room and was going to jump into Cousin Mary's lap and she could not help laughing and there was no impression."

Although Johnson did not succeed in obtaining a daguerreotype of Cousin Mary, other early experimenters successfully took portraits. Philadelphian Robert Cornelius, who opened the city's first daguerreotype studio in May 1840, took an outdoor self-portrait in October or November 1839. That portrait is now in the collection of the Library of Congress. Robert Haines's letter, however, underscores the difficulties experienced by both the daguerreotypist and the sitter in creating a portrait when such long exposure times were necessary to create an unblurred image.

Like the other Walter Johnson daguerreotypes in the National Museum of American History's collection, Mary Stroud, Johnson's daughter, donated the Cliveden daguerreotype to the Smithsonian in the late 19th century.

Sarah J. Weatherwax is curator of Prints and Photographs at the Library Company of Philadelphia.