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Daguerreotype or Ambrotype?

Most of the "old time" photos (1860-1900) people see are tintypes because they were very inexpensive and accessible to a larger percentage of the population. They became popular beginning in the American War Between the States (as the saying goes, "there was nothing 'civil' about it.) Most photographs of that period (1861-65 into Reconstruction [1870s]) captured Union soldiers, camps, activities and such because that region had better access and more money. Photographs of the destroyed southern cities, farms, etc. were also photographed primarily by photographers visiting from the northern region of the country, again, access and money. Today, I'm looking at daguerreotypes and ambrotypes. Why? Because they were the first and the more rare; and the Museum has them in our Collection.


The Metropolitan Museum of Art, Gilman Collection, Gift of The Howard Gilman Foundation, 2020 / public domain

In 1832 Louis Jacques Mandé Daguerre and his partner Joseph Niepce used a photosensitive agent based on lavender oil in which they were able to achieve stable images in less than eight hours. This process was called Physautotype. After Niepce's death, Daguerre continued experimenting and through a fortuitous accident, he found that mercury decreased the time required to develop a latent image to a "mere" 30 minutes. (It was later reduced to one minute.) Daguerre introduced the daguerreotype process to the public on August 19, 1839, at a meeting of the French Academy of Sciences in Paris and the process eventually made its way to the United States.

To make a daguerreotype, the photographer exposed an image on a sensitized silver-plated sheet of copper. This resulted in a polished silver surface that produced a shimmery image when developed. You usually had to tilt the photograph to see it clearly.

To the right is a daguerreotype of Louis Jacques Mandé Daguerre around 1844. Courtesy of The Metropolitan Museum of Art, Gilman Collection, Gift of The Howard Gilman Foundation, 2005 / public domain.

Daguerreotype: Lewist Burwell Williams, Sr. James Madison Museum.

In our Collection, we have one daguerreotype (left) and it is a photograph of Lewis Burwell Williams (Jan. 27, 1802 - April 20, 1880). Williams was the son of William Clayton Williams whose living room is exhibited in Metropolitan Museum. In 1815 Williams began attending The College of New Jersey (re-named Princeton in 1896) but was dismissed Jan. 21, 1817 "for being in a riot." He became a lawyer and had his practice (with his son [Williams & Williams]) in Orange, Virginia and served as Commonwealth's Attorney in Orange from about 1832 to his death in 1880. A Staunch Unionist, Williams upheld the Constitution's premise of national unity. (Note: A sad representation of the split family over the war, his son, Lewis Burwell Williams, Jr. was a Confederate Colonel of the 1st Virginia Regiment and at the head of Pickett's Charge at Gettysburg. He was one of first to be killed.) In the 1861 Virginia Convention to consider secession (the second time around) Williams was the active unionist candidate who eventually lost to Mr. Morton.

While the daguerreotype produced a clear image it did have two problems. (1) the length of time the subject had to be perfectly still (Four then One Minute), and (2) the image was only visible at specific angles.

In the picture to the right you can see the mirror-like quality of the daguerreotype along with the "disappearance" of the image.

This photograph was created by Jesse H. Whitehurst (born in Virginia 1820; died in Maryland1875). Whitehurst was one of the first photographers active in the American South, opening his first gallery in Charleston, SC, in 1843. He quickly developed the business into a chain of studios with outlets in Wilmington, North Carolina, Lynchburg, Norfolk, Richmond, and Petersburg in his home state of Virginia, and even Washington, Baltimore, and New York. Whitehurst said his businesses served over 20,000 customers a year in the 1850s, including nearly all members of Congress, but the empire did not withstand the transition to newer forms of photography, and he spent the rest of his professional life in the guano exploration business.


The Ambrotype on glass did not have the tilting/disappearing issue nor the length of time to hold a pose required by the daguerreotype. It was also a little less expensive, so was able to surpass the daguerreotype by the end of the 1850s eventually fading away by the 1870s.

Frederick Scott Archer

The ambrotype or collodion positive, was invented by Frederick Scott Archer (left) in 1851.

It was then patented by James Ambrose Cutting of Boston(right) in 1854. His process was briefly called the "Archertype" but changed to ambrotype or wet-collodion. By either name, the process reigned supreme in photography for 30 years.

An ambrotype was less expensive to produce, required a shorter exposure time of 20 seconds, and one did not have to tilt the plate to see the image. Following normal economics, the lower cost to the photographers/artists; the more affordable for the less affluent. Unlike the daguerreotype, the ambrotype was made on a glass plate with a wet, light-sensitive medical substance - gun cotton in ether. When developed, the dried product produced a negative image, which was then mounted against a dark background or coated with a dark varnish which then allowed you to view the photograph.

The collodion positive: Using a medical dressing solution called collodion made of gun cotton in ether, Archer coated a glass plate with the collodion mixed with potassium iodide. He then immersed the plate in a sensitizing silver nitrate solution. The plate, while in the camera and still wet, was developed and "fixed" immediately. In a matter of a few seconds the crisp detailed photograph was ready.

In our Collection we have several ambrotypes, but I thought these two might be of the most interest. Photographed by Roderick M. Cole, these two images of young boys were at one time attached at the spine, could be folded and secured with a hook.

Ambrotypes - James Madison Museum.

While we do not know who these two boys are, we know they were photographed during the Antebellum (1830-1860) period based on their clothing. On the left the boy is wearing a dress, so he must be under eight years old. During the Victorian Era (1837-1901) infants and young boys wore dresses until about the age of eight; or the age of reasoning. This made it much easier to change diapers and to potty-train. From ages eight until turning thirteen, boys wore breeches or short pants and what becomes known later (1880s) as "Little Lord Fauntleroy" suits. When a boy turned thirteen he was able to wear trousers and suits as a symbol of entering manhood.

About the photographer/artist: Roderick M. Cole was born in Otsego County, New York on September 12, 1822. He married Lydia A. Corliss in Chicago on March 3, 1850. They had two children who both died tragically young. Lydia was one of the first women to enter into the photographic business and worked with her husband in Peoria. Roderick purchased a 215 acre farm on the East Bluff upon which they continued their business until 1884, when he returned to the city upon retirement.


Langberg, Karen. Skinner Auctioneers & Appraisers.

National Media Museum of the United Kingdom.


Metropolitan Museum of Art

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