One of the most exciting things about having such a wide variety of materials in the archives is that there is always something different to look at. I recently rehoused our collection of daguerreotypes, in order to better preserve them, and found some spectacular examples of Lexington history!
But first, what is a daguerreotype?
Daguerreotypes (pronounced da·guerre·o·type) are the earliest form of commercial photography. The process was invented in 1839 by the Frenchman Louis-Jacques-Mandé Daguerre, hence the name. Unlike modern photography, which seems so quick and painless, the process to create a daguerreotype is long and complicated. First, a silver plated piece of copper is polished in a very particular way to create a completely smooth mirrored surface. Then the plate is exposed to iodine gas to “prime” the plate and make it light sensitive. Then the plate is exposed to light, imprinting the image onto the plate. Finally, the image is “fixed” meaning that the residual light-sensitive chemicals were removed through being washed with another chemical so that the image would remain on the plate. The plate is then mounted in a decorative wooden case with gold trim and a velvet lining. It’s quite a process, if you ask me!
The French government in exchange for a lifetime pension bought Daguerre’s invention for a lifetime pension, and the process was given freely to the world (except England where it was patented). Daguerreotypes were popular from 1840-1860. Besides daguerreotypes, you may also hear the terms ambrotype and tintype used to describe photographs from this period. These are similar methods to daguerreotypes but use different chemistry to create their images. Luckily, modern photography has moved beyond this extremely labor-intensive process, but history has left us to reap its benefits.
For more information on daguerreotypes:
Now, on to the cool photos (below)!
-Lina Rosenberg, Operations Manager and Archivist
Featuring the voices of Lexington Historical Society permanent staff and occasional guest authors.