National Media Museum blog

We explore the science, technology and art of the still and moving image, and its impact on our lives.

Date your old photographs using format and process – how to spot a daguerreotype (1840s – 1850s)

Over the next few weeks, I’ll be showing you how to date your old family photographs by format and process, using the photographic techniques that dominated the first 100 years of commercial photography.

Frustratingly, old family photographs often come without any accompanying documentation so it can be very difficult to identify their age. Old photographs are full of clues that can help you to do this, such as clothes or hairstyles, and we have a list of useful contacts and resources that may be able to help you date your photographs by fashion.

Portrait of a woman, c. 1846, Antoine Francois Jean Claudet, The Royal Photographic Society Collection, National Media Museum

Portrait of a woman, c. 1846, Antoine Francois Jean Claudet, The Royal Photographic Society Collection, National Media Museum

But even without these pointers, it is possible to date a photograph by its type, rather than what it depicts. One way to do this is to consider the methods used to create photographs.

There have been hundreds of different photographic processes, each with their own distinguishing characteristics. Fortunately, most family photographs were made using just a few photographic techniques – for example, daguerreotypes, collodion positives and ferrotypes.

As well as the process, you can also tell a lot from a photograph’s size or ‘format’.

Most processes and formats were only popular for a limited time, so if you can identify these you will also have a rough idea of the photograph’s date.

With just a basic knowledge of what these physical clues can tell you, you are well on your way to revealing the mysteries of your family photographs and their subjects.

How to identify a Daguerreotype (1840s – 1850s)

For the first in this series of posts, we’ll take a look at some clues that can help to spot a daguerreotype among your old family photographs.

About the daguerreotype process

The daguerreotype was invented by Louis Jacques Mande Daguerre (1787 – 1851), and it was the first commercial photographic process. A highly polished silver surface on a copper plate was sensitised to light by exposing it to iodine fumes. After exposing the plate in a camera it was developed with mercury vapour.

Richard Beard opened England’s first public photographic studio in March 1841 in London’s Regent Street, after buying the rights to be sole patentee of the daguerreotype process in England.

'Jabez Hogg and Mr. Johnson', 1843, Richard Beard, National Media Museum Collection

‘Jabez Hogg and Mr. Johnson’, 1843, Richard Beard, National Media Museum Collection
A daguerreotype from 1843 which is thought to be the first photograph showing a photographer at work. The image depicts Jabez Hogg photographing W.S. Johnson in the studio of Richard Beard.

Daguerreotypes were sold in Britain throughout the 1840s and into the early 1850s. Access to the studios of photographers working with the daguerreotype process around 1850 would have been limited to the middle and upper classes.

Use these clues to identify a daguerreotype

Cases
Daguerreotype images are very delicate and easily damaged. Daguerreotypes always come in protective cases, often made of leather and lined with silk or velvet.

Group portrait of a woman with two children, c. 1850, National Media Museum Collection

Group portrait of a woman with two children, c. 1850, National Media Museum Collection

Plates
They were made on highly polished silver plates. Depending on the angle at which you view them, they can look like a negative, a positive or a mirror.

Tarnish
If exposed to the air, the silver plate will tarnish. Though they were sealed under glass, it is very common to find characteristic signs of tarnishing around the edges of the daguerreotype.

Size
Daguerreotypes were produced in a range of sizes, but most portraits are quite small, usually around 2×3 inches.

Examples of daguerreotypes in the National Photography Collection

The Moon, 1851, John Adams Whipple and George Phillips Bond, National Media Museum Collection

The Moon, 1851, John Adams Whipple and George Phillips Bond, National Media Museum Collection

John Adams Whipple (1822 – 1891), working with George Phillips Bond (1825 – 1865), the director of the Harvard College Observatory, endeavoured to create lunar daguerreotypes of a quality never seen before. One of Whipple and Bond’s lunar daguerreotypes was shown at the Great Exhibition of 1851 where it won a medal.

Hawaiian Princes, Alexander Liholiho & Lot Kamahameeaha and G. Parmele Judd, 1850, Albert Sands Southworth and Josiah Johnson Hawes, National Media Museum Collection

Hawaiian Princes, Alexander Liholiho & Lot Kamahameeaha and G. Parmele Judd, 24 May 1850, Albert Sands Southworth and Josiah Johnson Hawes, National Media Museum Collection

Inscribed in ink, ‘For Mrs Bridges Taylor / with the very sincere regards / Prince Liholiho / Gerrit Parmele Judd / Prince Kamahameeaha / Boston 24th May 1850. To be left at St Katherine’s Lodge / Regent’s Park / or the Foreign Office / London’. Signed by all three sitters.

Judd was a Congregational cleric and Foreign Minister to the Hawaiian Kingdom. He and the Princes visited Europe and America on a diplomatic mission in 1849 and 1850. The Boston portrait studio, Southworth and Hawes, operated from 1843 to 1863.

Portrait of a child (hand coloured), c. 1850, J. Paul, Kodak Collection, National Media Museum

Portrait of a child, c. 1850, J. Paul, Kodak Collection, National Media Museum

Portrait of a young woman, c. 1860, Rufus Anson, The Royal Photographic Society Collection, National Media Museum

Portrait of a young woman, c. 1860, Rufus Anson, The Royal Photographic Society Collection, National Media Museum

Portrait of a dog, April 1846, Kodak Collection, National Media Museum

Portrait of a dog, April 1846, Kodak Collection, National Media Museum

Portrait of a young girl being held still by a woman, c. 1850, Kodak Collection, National Media Musuem

Portrait of a young girl being held still by a woman, c. 1850, Kodak Collection, National Media Musuem

Portrait of two men, c. 1850, Kodak Collection, National Media Museum

Portrait of two men, c. 1850, Kodak Collection, National Media Museum

Next week I’ll show you how to identify collodion positives, aka ambrotypes (early 1850s – 1880s).

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About Colin Harding

I am Curator of Photographic Technology at the National Media Museum. As well as looking after the camera collection I have curated many special exhibitions over the years.

21 comments on “Date your old photographs using format and process – how to spot a daguerreotype (1840s – 1850s)

  1. Anonymous
    May 10, 2013

    Have just discovered Colin Harding’s photo-history blogs. Informed and accessible: required reading for all.

  2. Brian Small
    August 22, 2013

    I found this article to be a informal and a great attention grabber.
    I find it to be a unique thing that he used Mercury vapor to develop something like this.

  3. Seth Combs
    August 23, 2013

    I really like the one entitled Portrait of a young women. You can really see all the detail and the light of the room on her skin. Very nice exposure she must have been super still or it was shorter than most.

  4. Danielle Cardille
    August 24, 2013

    I found the portrait of the young girl being held still by the woman to be very interesting. I have never seen an image from this time where everyone is not sitting upright & still as they had to so I enjoyed seeing a portrait where a situation is being shown that is often a common problem attempting to capture a child’s image even today.

  5. Anonymous
    August 24, 2013

    I enjoyed reading about how to identify the Daguerreotype process. I have so many old family photos that I do not know what time period they came from or who they even are other than what is written on the back. I am looking forward to learning more on how to identify the era that these photos came from.

  6. Anonymous
    August 25, 2013

    I find it so incredibly interesting that the Daguerreotype is able to be seen as either a positive or negative image based on how the light hits the plate.

  7. Sarah Martin
    August 25, 2013

    The idea that the daguerreotype is capable of being viewed as either a positive or negative image based on the way the light hits the plate is amazing. I love that!

  8. Chelsea Jothen
    August 25, 2013

    My Favorite image is the portrait of a small child. I really like how the coat pops. I find it amazing that these images are preserved so well today.

  9. Kelly McMillian
    August 25, 2013

    I really liked seeing Portrait of a dog, April 1846, Kodak Collection, National Media Museum posted. It shows that while there is quite a difference in generations people back then thought of their pets as being an important part of their family, or at least important enough to make and keep images of!

  10. Tonya Sheffield
    August 25, 2013

    I, too, enjoyed the article. It is amazing to me the clarity of the portraits and the close up of the moon is remarkable.

  11. Anonymous
    August 25, 2013

    This article was very informing and gave a lot of different examples of daguerreotype. After reading this article it made me want to create a daguerreotype art work myself. I really like the portrait of the little dog is was so cute and very detail that it seem very alive.

  12. Belinda Lansley
    October 25, 2013

    Great post. Trying to figure out if the oldest photo I own is either daguerreotype or ambrotype. I think now it might be the latter. Thanks so much.

    • Emma Thom
      October 25, 2013

      You’re very welcome, Belinda. Glad we could help.

  13. Ann
    December 29, 2013

    I have a large photographic print (about A1) of a family group of victorian children which seems to have been printed on fabric, possibly silk. Do you know what this technique was called?
    Thanks.

  14. megan
    February 23, 2014

    i have several daguerrotypes and have been told the ‘fancier’ the case, the newer the plate. is that so? is there any way to restore tarnished images without ruining what’s left of the photo? Is it true that a photo would have been quite an expense for most families so taking and giving one would have been quite meaningful im guessing. (sorry, lots of questions)

  15. Anonymous
    August 18, 2014

    I am a photography student and in my history class we are learning about daguerrotypes. this is the first I have heard of them but in my research I found it is an incredible process with mind blowing results. The images captured on a metal plate are truly spectacular.

  16. Vanessa Vareha
    August 20, 2014

    I found the time frame on how fast the word got out about the portraits made to the public to be quite fast! The process seemed very tiedious, although I did find interesting that the photograph is a negative and positive image at the same time.

  17. Sarah Mitchell
    August 21, 2014

    The portrait of the young girl who is must be held still by a woman amazes me. I’ve worked with some children photographers and often we are running around the studio to capture them! I can only imagine the patience it must have taken to get the child to be still for simply 20 seconds!

    • Sarah Mitchell
      August 21, 2014

      *young girl who must be

  18. Caty HernandezReyes
    August 21, 2014

    I am a photography student at RCC and going to major in commercial photography. This blog amazes me the fact that photography has been going on for so long and all the negative and positive in the pictures.

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