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[Detail] United States Capitol [ca 1846]

Collection Overview

Daguerreotypes includes images captured with one of the earliest photographic techniques. The images show portraits of politicians and activists (including Abraham Lincoln and Stephen Douglas), laborers, early views of the U.S. Capitol, and African Americans who became leaders in Liberia.

Special Features

These online exhibits provide context and additional information about this collection.

Historical Eras

These historical era(s) are best represented in the collection although they may not be all-encompassing.

  • The Civil War and Reconstruction, 1850-1877

Related Collections and Exhibits

These collections and exhibits contain thematically-related primary and secondary sources. Also browse the Collection Finder for more related material on the American Memory Web site.

Other Resources

Recommended additional sources of information.

There are currently no other resources for this collection

Search Tips

Specific guidance for searching this collection.

Search on American Colonization Society for portraits of African Americans who colonized Liberia. Search on congressman, senator for portraits of elected officials. Search on occupational portrait for images of laborers with the tools of their trades. Search on individuals by name.

For help with search words and names, go to America's First Look at the Camera: Daguerreotypes, 1839-1864 Subject Index.

For help with general search strategies, see Finding Items in American Memory.


U.S. History

The daguerreotype marked a milestone in photographic history as portraits became popular among politicians, celebrities, and the growing middle class. America's First Look into the Camera contains hundreds of portraits of both famous and anonymous men and offers insight into the people and policies of the nineteenth-century United States including politicians, the colonization of Liberia, effects of the Industrial Revolution, and reactions to high mortality rates.

America's First Exposure to Photography: The Daguerreotype Medium

Louis-Jacques-Mande Daguerre invented the daguerreotype in 1839. Within a few years, daguerreotype studios appeared in United States cities and the popularity of the medium grew through The 1850s. A brief history of the daguerreotype medium, its camera, and its image processing are available in the collection's,"The Daguerreotype Medium." The collection's Glossary provides a list of relevant terms.

Daguerreotypes were popularly and primarily used for portraits. Unlike most photographs today, in which images are printed from transparent negatives onto paper, the daguerreotype was a polished copper plate upon which an image was directly exposed. No negative used in the process and so each daguerreotype was a unique, one-of-a-kind object. With its brilliant, mirror-like surface and its ornate case, small enough to hold in the hand or carry in the pocket, the daguerreotype was suited to a vivid and intimate representation of a loved one.

Despite its value as a means of memorializing friends and family, photography did not have an immediate market. In fact, it was photography's almost magical ability to reproduce life that elicited fear and suspicion from many people. In an effort to assuage anxieties about the medium and to gain public credibility, photographers sought to take and to display portraits of America's elite. In an age when phrenologists offered to read a person's character based on their physical characteristics, portraits of society's leaders were thought to have an edifying and moralizing influence on the viewer. Portraits of esteemed personages such as Lyman Beecher, Cornelius Vanderbilt, Dolley Madison, and Abraham Lincoln drew the public to the photographers' studios and provided the genesis for a cult of celebrity that would grow with the evolution of photography.

  • Why do you think that portraiture was the most popular use of the daguerreotype? How might precedents in painting and drawing, the business needs of the studios, and the constraints of the medium have contributed to this popularity?
  • Why do you think that more men were photographed than women?
  • Why would portraits of prominent Americans encourage the public to sit for their own portraits?
  • Why would the display of these portraits lend the photographer credibility?
  • Why might early photographers have had a difficult time being taken seriously as professionals? Who would their competitors have been?
  • How might an early photographer have convinced an esteemed political or social leader to sit for his or her portrait?
  • How might an early photographer have distinguished himself from his competitors?

Some artists brought the daguerreotype outside of the portrait studio to capture images of buildings and places. In addition to hundreds of portraits, this collection also contains pictures of Niagara Falls, an American Indian camp, and a monument commemorating a battle from the War of 1812. Washington, D.C. locations featured in the collection include the General Post Office, and the Patent Office. Many daguerreotype images were later reproduced as engravings and drawings in newspapers and other periodicals.

  • How do you think that the realism of these images impacted the value of illustrations and written descriptions of these people and places?
  • How do you think that people might have responded to such images?
  • How do you think that the daguerreotype medium may have set a precedent for subsequent attempts at documentary photography?

For an understanding of how portrait photography evolved after the daguerreotype, browse American Memory collections, including William P. Gottlieb: Photographs from the Golden Age of Jazz, America from the Great Depression to World War II, Creative Americans: Portraits by Carl Van Vechten, 1932-1964, and By Popular Demand: "Votes for Women" Suffrage Pictures, 1850-1920.

  • How did elements within a portrait (clothing, backgrounds, props, etc.) change over time?
  • How did expressions and mannerisms change over time?
  • How do the subjects affect the nature of the portrait?
  • Do you think that portraits are an accurate reflection of a person in a specific historical era?


Political Portraits

Many galleries displayed images of politicians to entice the public to visit and to sit for a portrait. Searches on terms such as Democrat, Whig, and Republican yield portraits of some of the major figures from the U.S. political parties. Images of Democratic presidents such as Andrew Jackson and James Polk might be compared to ideological adversaries such as Henry Clay, a Whig senator and 1844 presidential candidate, and the 1848 Whig candidate President Zachary Taylor with his cabinet. Republican Abraham Lincoln is also represented in portraits as a clean-shaven senator and as a familiar presidential figure. Additional searches on terms such as senator, congressman, and governor also produce a number of local politicians from the different parties.

  • Do you think that these portraits reflect the ideological differences between politicians or do they present a standard image?
  • To what degree is each person's uniqueness represented in these portraits?
  • How do these portraits compare to the occupational portraits and other images in the collection?
  • What do you think the comparison implies about the role of politicians in American society?
  • How are politicians represented in today's media? How does their representation compare to other "celebrities" who frequently appear in the media?
  • What is the value of a photograph of a historic figure to researchers?



In 1817, the American Colonization Society established the settlement of Liberia on the west coast of Africa. This colony was created in part for free African Americans to enjoy the civil rights denied to them in the United States. While some documents in the American Memory collection, From Slavery to Freedom, question whether Liberia was a land of opportunity or an opportunity to avoid civil rights issues in the United States, it is clear that many African Americans moved to the colony to start a new life. The American Memory collection, Maps of Liberia, 1830-1870, features a timeline history of Liberia from its early days as a colony to its recognition as an independent nation in 1847.

A search on Liberia in this collection yields a number of portraits from the American Colonization Society. Images include Liberian presidents Joseph Jenkins Roberts and Stephen Allen Benson, senators Edward Morris and Edward Roye, Senate Chaplain Philip Coker, and a number of anonymous colonists.

  • Many daguerreotype galleries showcased portraits of United States politicians to attract interest from the public. Do you think that it was likely that portraits of Liberian politicians were used in the same manner? Why or why not?
  • Are there any other images of African Americans in this collection?
  • What do you think the relationship of the Liberian portraits to the rest of the collection suggests about how they may have been used? What does it suggest about the status of African Americans in the early nineteenth-century?
  • Senator Edward Roye appears with his left hand raised in the air. What do you think might be the significance of this pose?
  • How do the clothing, facial expressions, and poses of these Liberian politicians compare to those of white politicians featured in this collection?
  • Why might differences in these aspects of the portraits exist?
  • What might such differences imply about the efforts of the American Colonization Society?
  • How do you think that the American Colonization Society might have used these images?


Tools of the Trade

Workers during the first half of the nineteenth century faced a series of transitions in the wake of the Industrial Revolution. Inventions such as the steam engine and the cotton gin prompted the creation of assembly lines and factory systems as Americans began discovering the benefits of mass production.

At the same time, many craftsmen faced a transitional time as mechanization threatened their livelihoods. A search on occupational portrait yields a number of images documenting the different disciplines of this industrial age. Traditional workers such as a blacksmith, carpenter, latch maker, watchmaker, clergyman, and stonecutter are featured along with people whose jobs were byproducts of the Industrial Revolution such as a woman working at a sewing machine, a man in front of an engine, and men on a crank handcar on the tracks of a railroad.

  • How do different workers pose with their tools?
  • How are these people dressed compared to other people featured in this collection?
  • What do you think that the clothes and mannerisms of these craftsmen imply about their social class?
  • How do these images of craftsmen differ from others in the collection (clothing, facial expressions, etc.)?
  • What do you think is the relationship between the worker and his or her tools?
  • Do you think that there is a difference between the depiction of traditional crafts and new industrial efforts? Why or why not?
  • Considering that these workers are anonymous, do you think that the people or the trades are the real subject of the portraits?
  • How do these portraits reflect nineteenth-century attitudes towards the value of work?
  • How do these images compare with how tradesmen are depicted today?
  • Do you think that these portraits appeared in studios alongside images of politicians and other famous people?
  • How does the way these portraits may have been presented impact their significance?


Death and Memorialization in the Victorian Era

People living in the nineteenth-century United States endured a higher mortality rate than subsequent generations and the memorialization of loved ones held special importance in the all too frequent grieving process. Those with more money could afford to have portraits of family members drawn or painted. Death masks placed over a person's face, shoulders, and sometimes hands just after death were also popular. The advent of photography made it possible for the middle class to afford portraits as well. If a portrait was not made prior to death, it was not unusual to obtain one after the fact. Portraits drawn or photographed just after death were often said to capture a heavenly look of serenity, suggesting that the horrible inevitability of death also held a beauty.

Daguerreotypes often required a subject to remain still for several minutes to ensure that the image would not blur. Some subjects were more still than others. It is unclear exactly when Mary Gideon sat for her portrait in 1853, but the notes in this collection indicate that she died the year that the image was taken. Such a memorial was likely to have been displayed in a special place in the family's home or embedded on a tombstone. Another potential post-mortem daguerreotype comes in the form of the Adams family portrait featuring a somber couple dressed in black holding what appears to be their sleeping daughter on their lap. Animals, too, may have been so cherished as to have been memorialized in photographs such as that of an unidentified man with a cat in his lap.

  • In what ways does a portrait memorialize a loved one? Why would memorials such as photographs help a friend or family member cope with the loss of a loved one?
  • Is a portrait of the deceased different from a portrait of the living? If so, how?
  • What impact would you expect the Civil War to have had on the use of photography for memorialization?
  • How have notions of death and memorialization changed over time? To what might these changes be attributed?
  • How might the increased ease of taking and duplicating photographs have affected the value of portraits and the meaning of memorialization?


Critical Thinking

The daguerreotypes available in America's First Look into the Camera provide an opportunity to assess the value of research tools such as timelines and visual biographies. The subtle details within occupational portraits of tradesmen and other working classes can be interpreted to determine the status of each group in the nineteenth-century United States. Portraits of politicians provide a starting point to gain a better understanding of the rise and fall of the Whig Party. These and other images also allow a number of opportunities for future historical research.

Chronological Thinking: Timeline and Biography

The collection's Timeline of the Daguerrian Era provides a brief history of the United States from 1839 to 1860. It also provides the opportunity to understand that timelines are interprative tools that enhance the study of history by focusing on select events at the expense of other historical moments. Assess this collection's timeline by identifying the specific themes and ideas that it emphasizes and those themes and ideas that are left out.

  • What themes are represented in this timeline? How are these themes related to each other?
  • Do you think that this timeline is helpful in understanding the collection? Why or why not?
  • What other events or themes could have been included in a timeline for this collection?

Chronological thinking can also be practiced in biographical projects. Select a photograph of a famous person represented in the collection. Research what was going on in this person's life in the year that the photograph was taken. Determine what the main events were in this person's life. Take on this individual's persona, and write a journal entry for the year in which the photograph was taken. Try to make the entry reflect the significance of this time in the person's life.


Historical Comprehension: The Whig Party

The Whig Party's history coincided with the era of the daguerreotype. Its origin and dissolution were based on various political conflicts. In 1834, Henry Clay and other members of the National Republican party joined forces with disgruntled Democrats to establish the Whig Party in opposition to President Andrew Jackson's policies.

Six years after the party's formation, William Henry Harrison won the presidential election on the Whig ticket, but he died one month into serving his term. His successor, Vice President John Tyler, demonstrated loyalties to the Democrats and was kicked out of the party. Henry Clay earned the 1844 Whig nomination but his refusal to discuss the issue of the annexation of Texas as a slave state prompted many northern abolitionists to leave the party. This ensured victory for Democratic candidate James K. Polk.

Whig candidate Zachary Taylor won the presidency four years later but his opposition to admitting California prompted debates over what would be known as the Compromise of 1850. Taylor died in the midst of the debate and his successor, Millard Fillmore, supported the Compromise despite objections from within the party.

The debate over the Kansas-Nebraska Act of 1854, which nullified the ban on slavery in U.S. territories established by the Missouri Compromise of 1820, ultimately caused the remaining members of the Whig Party to split and join the Democrats, the new Republican Party, or the anti-immigrant Know-Nothing Party.

Searches on Whig and Democrat provide a number of portraits of various Congressmen associated with both parties. These portraits can be organized according to political affiliation and used to create an illustrative timeline documenting the rise and fall of the Whig Party.


Historical Analysis and Interpretation: Portraiture

A search on occupation portraits results in a number of images of anonymous workers such as a blacksmith and a tinworker posing with the tools of their trade. These portraits are filled with subtle details such as the workers' facial expressions and their clothes and tools. An analysis of these visual details provides information about the subjects in these portraits and their relationship to other groups featured in this collection.

Such groups might include military and religious figures. Searches on terms such as army and military yield portraits of men such as U.S. Army General Hugh Brady in both his civilian clothes and his military uniform and a photograph of the U.S. Military Commission to Crimea. A search on terms such as clerical results in portraits of men such as Bishop Frederic Baraga and Cardinal Nicholas Patrick Wiseman.

  • What are the similarities and differences between the portraits of these different types of people?
  • What do the subjects' clothing suggest about their occupations and social status?
  • What do the subjects' poses and props (or lack thereof) suggest about their occupations and social status?
  • Do the captions shed any light on the subjects and their status?
  • How do these portraits compare to the collection's images of politicians and authors?
  • How do you think that these visual details influenced the way viewers responded to the images?
  • What kinds of values would you expect the society that created these portraits to have had?


Historical Issue-Analysis and Decision-Making: The Rise of Photography to an Art

The business potential of the new daguerreotype technology attracted many tradespeople who, once having acquired the right equipment, needed only to acquire a new skill. Even the more amateur photographers could make a profit as itinerant daguerreotypists, selling cheap portraits in one town after another. Most of these former jewelers and druggists lacked any kind of artistic training and their photographs were more affordable than aesthetic. Given the proliferation of mediocre photographs, the money-making motives of many early photographers, and the mechanical nature of their medium, photography was considered inferior to the true arts of painting and drawing.

Mathew Brady was working as a jewel-case manufacturer in New York City in the early 1840s when he learned about the daguerreotype process from inventor Samuel Morse. Brady soon established himself as a portrait photographer with his New York City Daguerrean Gallery. Brady longed to raise the status of photography to an art. He improved the quality of his images to appeal to customers of high taste and sought out only the most esteemed subjects. This collection contains hundreds of portraits attributed to Brady's studios including images of presidents Andrew Jackson and James Buchanan, senators Sam Houston (Texas) and Daniel Webster (New Hampshire), authors Washington Irving and Nathaniel Hawthorne, and celebrities such as Tom Thumb.

Brady never operated the camera himself, but was celebrated as the designer of the portrait, posing his subjects and eliciting the desired expression. Brady was soon heralded as the champion of a growing art form that not only reproduced the subject's image, but also expressed the subject's true character.

By the 1860s, the popularity of celebrity portraits had developed into a craze for collecting small copies of these portraits and organizing them into albums. These small portraits, or cartes-de-visite, sold well, but Brady never liked these cheap copies. He preferred the Imperial portraits he had created when paper photographs replaced daguerreotypes. These large-format portraits were often retouched with inks and paints to give them the uniqueness and status of paintings. The uniqueness of the Imperials gave them a higher value, but one that was not easily marketable. Eventually, Brady's business failed as he refused to put aside his artistic pretensions to cater to middle-class customers.

  • What is the difference between art and a craft?
  • Does the money-making motives of itinerant daguerreotypists disqualify them from the status of artists? How does the creator's motives relate to his or her status as an artist?
  • Is the ability to draw an income from one's craft necessary to qualify it as an art form?
  • What does the fact that Brady was renowned for his design of his portraits but did not have to operate the camera imply about the role of the artist and the definition of art?
  • What is the value of the artistic effort put into the design of a work? What is the value of the effort put into the implementation of the design in crafting the work? Is the value of one greater than the other?
  • What is implied by the fact that the status of daguerreotype portraits was elevated when they were thought to express the subjects' inner characters? Does an image need to have moral value in order to be considered art?
  • Is the status of photography different from that of painting or drawing because the image is created through a chemical and mechanical process?
  • Are the demands upon the photographer different from the demands upon the painter or illustrator? If so, how? Does one medium require more artistic skill than another?


Historical Research Capabilities

The portraits in this collection offer an ideal opportunity for further biographical research. Images of renowned individuals can be printed and organized by any number of themes such as politics, presidents, authors, artists, or women. Relevant biographical information can be placed on the back of each printed portrait to create biographical flash cards that might include the following details:

Political Affiliation:
Personal Achievements:
Professional Achievements:
Important Events:
Attributed Quotes:


Arts & Humanities

America's First Look into the Camera offers portraits of authors, politicians, tradesmen, and other people in the nineteenth-century United States. These images can be used to spark biographical and critical assessments of an author's work. Other portraits can be used in creative writing projects and can prompt the analysis of the evolution of media outlets from their origins in the 1830s.

Walt Whitman and the Picture Gallery

In a July 2, 1846, edition of the Brooklyn Daily Eagle, editor Walt Whitman described daguerreotype portraits as a spectacle:

In whatever direction you turn your peering gaze, you see naught but human faces! There they stretch, from floor to ceiling--hundreds of them. Ah! what tales might those pictures tell if their mute lips had the power of speech! How romance then, would be infinitely outdone by fact.

Whitman celebrated the connection that a viewer has with the subject of a portrait and noted, "An electric chain seems to vibrate. . . between our brain and him or her preserved there so well by the limner's cunning. Time, space, both are annihilated, and we identify the semblance with the reality." Whitman made reference, again, to this spectacle in his poem, "My Picture Gallery."

In a little house keep I pictures suspended, it is not a fix'd house,
It is round, it is only a few inches from one side to the other;
Yet behold, it has room for all the shows of the world, all memories!
Here the tableaus of life, and here the goupings of death;
Here, do you know this? this is cicerone himself,
With finger rais'd he points to the prodigal pictures.

  • In "My Picture Gallery," what does the metaphor of the "little house" represent?
  • What does the metaphor of the pictures represent? Why are they described as "prodigal"?

Whitman's biographer, David S. Reynolds, observed in Walt Whitman's America, that "photography was an essential metaphor behind [Whitman's] democratic aesthetic." This collection provides the opportunity to examine Whitman's work with an understanding of the impact of early photography in mind.

I believe the likes of you shall stand or fall with my poems, and that they
are my poems.
Man's, woman's, child's, youth's, wife's, husband's, mother's, father's,
young man's, young woman's poems.

"I Sing the Body Electric" (1855)

  • In what ways does Whitman's poetry resemble photography or a picture gallery?
  • Do his poems annihilate time and space?
  • What are some examples of what Reynolds calls Whitman's "democratic aesthetic"?
  • What does photography have to do with democracy?


Creative Writing

This collection can be used for creative writing projects based on an imagined visit to a daguerreotype gallery. In 1840, the first commercial portrait gallery, New York's Wolcott and Johnson, used large mirrors mounted outside the studio to project as much sunlight onto the customer as possible, in a sitting that could last for as long as eight minutes. As daguerreotype technologies improved, sitting times decreased and attention to artistry increased. Photographer, Mathew Brady, achieved fame for his skill in posing his subjects, eliciting from them the desired expression, and then telling the camera operator when to take the picture. Portraitist Napoleon Sarony was known for dramatic poses made possible by an innovative posing machine with separate controls for the sitter's back, arms, head, etc. Like Brady, Sarony employed a camera operator while he elicited a pose and expression from his subject, in one case sparring with a boxer to evoke the image of a prizefighter.

Browse the collection's photographs and imagine either what it would have been like to see such images in a daguerreotype gallery or to sit for a portrait. Describe this experience as if writing about it in a letter to a friend.

  • Was this the first time that you were in a daguerreotype gallery? What is it like to see all of these portraits hanging on the walls?
  • Which people do you recognize? Why?
  • How did you pose for your portrait? What objects did you include in the picture? What clothes did you wear? Why?
  • What was the photographer and the studio like?


Literary Biography

This collection contains portraits of literary figures from the nineteenth century including poet, William Cullen Bryant, authors, Samuel Goodrich, Nathaniel Hawthorne, and Washington Irving, and publisher, James Brown of Little, Brown & Company. The lives of these people can be researched and serve as the basis for a biographical sketch that includes a discussion of the subject's major contribution to nineteenth-century American literature.

  • What is the social and educational background of the writer?
  • Do you think that the writer's personal life is reflected in his or her work?
  • If so, to what extent does it influence the story or poem? Does it play out in a semi-autobiographical fashion or is it merely reflected in the work's themes?


Ichabod Crane

Authors often choose names for their characters that reinforce certain qualities about them. When Washington Irving wrote his classic tale, "The Legend of Sleepy Hollow," he named the protagonist, terrorized by the Headless Horseman, Ichabod Crane. This collection, however, contains a portrait of the real Ichabod Crane, a U.S. Army colonel who Irving met when the soldier was stationed in Sackett's Harbor, New York during the War of 1812.

  • How does the portrait of the real Ichabod Crane compare to the author's description of his protagonist?
  • When you hear the name, "Ichabod Crane," what types of qualities do you imagine this person possessing? Why?
  • Do you think that these qualities can be attributed to the person in the portrait, to Irving's character, or to Walt Disney's portrayal of the protagonist?
  • Do you think that the character would be different if his name was "John Smith" or "Thomas Wintergreen"?
  • How does the effect of a name compare to the influence of a person's appearance?
  • What is the difference between the ways that characters are developed in fiction and in dramatic arts such as theater or film?
  • What types of techniques are used to introduce a character?
  • When is it necessary to introduce the name of a character to further the plot?
  • When is it necessary to introduce the name of a character to develop the character?
  • Why do you think that Irving used the name of a real person?
  • What qualities do you think of in regard to your own name? Why?


Penny Papers

Mass-produced newspapers costing a penny per issue entered United States cities in the 1830s. Their emphasis on sensational stories of criminal activity and general human depravity established a loyal readership. In 1835, Scottish immigrant James Gordon Bennett entered the growing market by founding the New York Herald. Within two years, he sold approximately 20,000 copies each day.

The New York Herald and other "penny papers" often competed with papers of integrity such as Horace Greeley's New York Tribune. Greeley founded the Tribune in 1841 and provided space for intellectual discussions of politics, social reform, and news. Searches on editor and journalist provide portraits of newspapermen such as Horace Greeley, James Gordon Bennett, and members of the New York Tribune editorial staff. A search on news also results in an 1853 image of a man stranded on a log in Niagara Falls that provides an early example of a news photograph.

  • What sort of information does this news photograph of Niagara Falls convey to the viewer?
  • Why do you think that Greeley posed with a copy of a newspaper on his lap?
  • Why do you think that Bennett did not appear holding a paper?
  • Do you think that these portraits are more similar to the collection's occupational portraits or its presidential portraits?
  • Do you find sensational newspapers today similar to the "penny papers" of the nineteenth century?
  • Do you think that certain media outlets attempt to establish an audience through sensational stories?
  • Which forms of reporting (radio, print, television) are more sensational than others?
  • What do you think are the potential benefits and potential dangers of sensational reporting?