A Moment In Time: Collecting Antique Photographs

As I was busily dusting photos of various family members whose faces line the stairway of our home I was suddenly struck with the thought “What if photography had never been invented?” What impact would this have had not only on our culture but to humanity as a whole?

I immediately thought of my photograph albums and the many moments frozen in time which they contain. These chronicle not only my life but those of my parents, grandparents and great grandparents. While painted portraitures would have been available, do these truly capture that very moment that the picture was conceived? Do they provide us with the ability to see the soul as is possible while viewing photographs?

The first photographs were daguerreotypes and were also known as “mirrors of true” or “mirror images” due to their vivid clarity; they seemed to have the ability to reveal the soul of the person whose image had been immortalized.

Daguerreotype and two Ambrotypes from B. L. Williams Collection Used with permission

Daguerreotype and two Ambrotypes from B. L. Williams Collection Used with permission

The daguerreotype was developed by Louis Jacques Mande Daguerre of France and introduced to the world in 1839. Daguerre was a very successful artist and scenic painter who was also the proprietor, promoter and creator of the Diorama, a famous giant illusionist theater located in Paris. In 1829, Daguerre, working in partnership with Joseph Niepce, experimented in techniques to develop a means of obtaining permanent images using a camera. After the death of Niepce in 1833, Daguerre continued to perfect this very complex, 10-step process. The first daguerreotype images were first seen as a mere curiosity, however, within a short period of time, they were viewed as an important means of preserving an ever-changing America. The span of the daguerreotype was short, though, lasting only 16 years, from1840-1855. Millions of these pictures could be found by the mid 1850s, covering every aspect of life and death.

Then came Ambrotypes, whose name was derived from Greek word ambrotos, meaning “immortal.” Patented in 1854 by James Ambrose Cutting of Boston, this was the second type of photography and was much less expensive to produce than daguerreotypes. The ambrotype lasted from1855-1865. It was during this time that photography had begun to become commonplace, and many ambrotypes were hand-tinted, making them visually appealing.

Due to the fragility of both the daguerreotype and ambrotype, they were housed in similar protective cases, which can cause confusion to the novice collector. One way to distinguish between them is to view the photo from all angles. The ambrotype will always appear as a positive no matter which angle it is viewed from.

Hamilton Smith of Ohio followed by patenting tintypes in 1856. Tintypes—also known as ferrotypes—are not actually on tin but are on a thin metallic sheet which was cut to size by the photographer. By the end of the Civil War, tintypes had superseded ambrotypes in popularity in the United States. These are probably the most readily available of early photographs. Tintypes continued to be produced into the early part of the 20th century. The study of these endearing images can reveal much to collectors as well as historians regarding the customs, clothing and normal events of daily life.

Early photographs of dogs, cats, horses, homes, scenery and toys can be found. While these type of images are much scarcer, it is possible to do a search and view several examples which have been posted on the internet.

Photography had become a means to document the most important to the most mundane moments of our lives. I should think that there are few, if any, married couples who do have at least one picture that was taken to mark this milestone in their lives. The birth of a baby also is an event that brings out the photographer in a new dad. With the advent of the digital camera, images of the newest member of the family can be instantaneously sent to grandparents, aunts, uncles and close friends. The flash of a camera can be seen at graduations, birthday parties, family reunions and sporting events. Moments frozen in time, moments that are preserved for our enjoyment, will be used by future historians to study and document our time in history.

Some of my favorite family photos from my personal collection.

Some of my favorite family photos from my personal collection.

The use of photography to document the history of children’s growth from infancy to adulthood, either through the use of the family camera or a professional photographer, has long been employed by parents. I am sure we Baby Boomers can all remember the special orders issued to us on “picture day” at school. I can still hear my mother’s voice instructing us to stay clean and tidy till after the click of the photographer’s camera. Looking back over my grade school pictures, it seems that this admonishment was seldom regarded.

All photos from my personal collection.

All photos from my personal collection.

Among my favorite early photographs are those which are taken of children and their toys. As a doll collector I am always on the look for early photographs that include a child pictured with their favorite, and possibly, only doll. I am fortunate to have a few examples of these types of photographs. One of my favorites is a tintype of a young girl who is proudly displaying her large papier mache shoulder head doll. Examining the clothing and hair style of the child, I think the tintype dates from the mid 1860s to the early 1870s. I have often wondered what happened to this beautiful child. I hope that she was able to live a life that was fulfilling and happy. It is interesting to me how we are drawn into these photographs and can still see with such clarity that which has been long ago departed from this worldly realm.

Have you ever considered the wonder that one of your descendants may feel when looking into a photograph of your face? There is an old saying in my family that you are only truly dead when you are no longer remembered. Will your moment of immorality be loving preserved?

Letha Berry is a Worthologist who specializes in dolls and accessories, but has other interests as well.

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No Comments

  1. Cathy Walsh says:

    Interesting. I have an old photo in a decorative leather holder. The cover on the inside has velvet to protect the photo. When viewed the picture changes to the negative.

    It’s from about 1856 and is a piture of my great,great grandparents.

    There are a few spotty marks on it.

  2. Letha Berry says:

    Hi Cathy,

    How wonderful to have such a family treasure. If your photo changes from what appears to be a positive to a negative image I think you have a daguerreotype, which is the earliest of photographs. Daguerreotypes are on polished silver plate which give them a shiny reflection like a mirror and can make the photo appear to be a negative image when viewed from different angles. The photos were sealed in the cases to protect them.

    To protect your treasure avoid exposing it to direct sunlight and extremes in temperature.

    Letha