News From Terre Haute, Indiana


January 25, 2014

GENEALOGY: Study daguerreotype features to estimate photo age

TERRE HAUTE — Many families have collections of old photographs, some identified and some not. The oldest photos in your collection might be found in little individual cases, simple or ornate, of wood and leather or something else, and with a hinged cover that latches. A cased photograph can be a daguerreotype, an ambrotype or a tintype.

The earliest photographic process, the daguerreotype, was created in 1839 in France, and the technique rapidly spread to the United States. A copper plate that was coated with light-sensitive chemicals was exposed in front of the desired subject, then taken back to the studio to be developed and fixed with other chemicals. The resulting one-of-a-kind image would appear on the plate as a positive image of the person when viewed straight on. A unique characteristic of the daguerreotype is that it reflects light at an angle and appears almost as a mirror. If your cased photo is mirror-like or the positive image changes to a negative image when viewed at an angle, it is definitely a daguerreotype.

The daguerreotype was encased because the image on the plate was very fragile and had to be protected. The case in which the image was placed had several parts. First, a brass mat was placed over the image, encircling the portrait, and then a piece of protective glass went on top of the mat. Next a “preserver” was placed around the entire assembly including the glass. This was like a tiny brass frame that held everything together. The entire assembly, surrounded by the preserver, was then inserted down into the case, which was lined in cloth, such as velvet.

Even without considering the clothing and hairstyle of the person pictured in a daguerreotype, its approximate age can often be determined by examining the features of the case, mat and preserver. Here are a few things to remember:

• Daguerreotypes were popular from 1839 through the early 1860s. Their height of popularity was 1842 to 1858.

• Preservers were introduced in 1847. If there is no preserver, then the photo predates that year. Early preservers were plain and simple brass frames and were inclined to crack easily.

• Around 1859 more embellished and ornate preservers were introduced. These had reinforced corners to avoid cracking. They were actually thinner, but stronger.

• Mats were brass. The earliest mats were thick and heavy, and had a pebbly or sandy surface texture. Their shape (the opening for the picture) was usually octagonal, rectangular or oval.

• Around 1850, more shapes for the mat openings were introduced. During the 1850s the surface of the mats became smoother and then gradually more ornate, with elaborate designs stamped into them by 1859. The mats also became thinner and lighter during this time.

• The first cases were made of wood and were covered with embossed leather. The interior was lined with velvet, felt or silk. These were used from 1839 to the 1860s.

n During the 1840s papier-mâché cases were also used. Some were decorated with mother-of-pearl inlays.

• In 1854, the thermoplastic or “union case” was patented. It was called by this name because it was fabricated by a blend of several materials that created a moldable, plastic-like product whose surface could embellished and dyed any color.

• The surface design on cases varied over the years. Early designs copied Greek and Roman motifs. In the 1840s, images from nature, especially the rose motif (1844 to 1850) were also popular. In the mid-1850s union cases allowed for more intricate designs to be molded into the case, such as religious, military and family scenes.

View various daguerreotypes online at and


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