A Frenchman named Louis-Jacques-Mandé Daguerre invented the daguerreotype in 1839. Despite its European lineage, the daguerreotype is often associated with images of mid-1800s America. That’s because daguerreotypes were warmly embraced in the United States—in 1853, there were more daguerreotype galleries in New York City than there were in the whole of England.

Daguerreotypes are sometimes called the first photographs, but in truth they were more like the first Polaroid prints. Like a Polaroid, and unlike photographs exposed from negatives, a daguerreotype was a unique image that could not be reproduced.

Subjects were required to sit perfectly still for minutes at a time while their images were exposed onto silver-plated copper which had been polished to a mirror-like sheen before being coated with a light-sensitive silver halide. The subject’s image would be projected onto this photo-ready surface via a lens, and then mercury vapor would be introduced to develop the image on the plate. Once that was accomplished, the plate would be dipped in a fixer, which would wash away the unexposed halides.

Leaving aside the hazard to the photographer’s health of working around mercury vapor, the resulting print was extremely fragile. The solution to this problem was generally to seal the daguerreotype in a glass case, preferably one whose air had been replaced with pure nitrogen. That’s why the antique daguerreotypes that appear on the market today are always sold enclosed in a glass case, most of which are ornately framed.

Because daguerreotypes required a subject to remain immobile while their image was captured, most were shot in studios where conditions could be controlled. In 1850, Mathew Brady published a famous series of portraits called the Gallery of Illustrious Americans, one of whom was politician and newspaper publisher Horace Greeley. Another photographer, Nicholas Shepherd, got a young congressman named Abraham Lincoln to still long enough for his portrait to be captured.

Other interesting categories of antique daguerreotypes include the occupational photographs. Stonecutters, watch makers, and seamstresses are all represented. Then there was the series of daguerreotypes taken of members of the American Colonization Society, the organization that helped relocate freeborn and emancipated slaves in Africa—in 1847, the group helped establish Liberia for this purpose. More rare are exterior scenes, which ranged from pictures taken in the gold-mining camps of California to views of Niagara Falls.

In 1851, daguerreotypes were the toast of an exhibition at London’s Crystal Palace. But the labor-intensive—and dangerous—daguerreotype would fall out of favor by the end of the 1850s, eventually being replaced by the ambrotype and tintype.

Best of the Web (“Hall of Fame”)

The Daguerreian Society

The Daguerreian Society

Explore the history, art, and science of antique daguerreotypes. Includes extensive galleries browsable by subject … [read review or visit site]

The Scrap Album

The Scrap Album

Malcolm Warrington’s The Scrap Album is a handsomely organized site, as you’d expect from an articulate champio… [read review or visit site]

Stevengraphs Bookmarks and Postcards

Stevengraphs Bookmarks and Postcards

Malcolm Roebuck's tribute to the ornate silk picture bookmarks and postcards ('Stevengraphs') produced by Thomas St… [read review or visit site]

Clubs & Associations

Other Great Reference Sites

Most watched eBay auctions    

Victorian Solid 14k Yellow Gold / Daguerreotype Large Locket Pendant1840's Daguerreotype/little Girl Looks DownwardAntique Daguerreotype French Soldier Jean Sylvain National Guard 1848 Military Antique Daguerreotype Military French Soldier Officer In Uniform Mid 1800'sIncredible Daguerreotype Women's Portrait In Case 3" X 2.5"Lot Of 12 Antique Daguerreotype Tin Type Photos In Cases L@@k!!Beautiful Daguerreotype Elderly Gentleman W/ Wise Eyes & Long Flowing Gray BeardBeautiful Daguerreotype Photo Of A Man In Excellent CaseDaguerreotype ? Early Richard Beard Original Photograph & Frame Dated 1846Vintage Daguerreotype Post Mortem Child 1/4 PlateRare Us Civil War Daguerreotype Firefighter Cabinet Photo Box Laquer 1890sMother & Tough Pretty Daughter Huge Fingerless Gloves Dag DaguerreotypeAmazing Magic Background Daguerreotype Of A Gorgeous Woman W/ Crucifix Pendant !Beautiful Daguerreotype Portrait In Elegant Case Plumbe Daguerreotype1/4 Plate Daguerreotype Young Man W/ Book & Riding Crop, Rare CaseEstate Fresh 19th C. Quarter Plate Daguerreotype Attrib. To Southworth & HawesSweet Little Girl W/a Purse, Basket Filled With Frut - 1/6 Plate DaguerreotypeExtremely Tight Choker Girl Tintype In Vase Fruits Harvest Dag Daguerreotype CasDaguerrotype/ambrotype Of A Young Well-dressed Female In Thermoplastic FrameOccupational Gold Prospector In Shirtsleeves Wearing Gold Ring DaguerreotypeDashing Affluent Man W/ Mutton Chops & Velvety Black Cape ¼ Plate Daguerreotype!Seated Woman DaguerreotypeRare Post Mortem Daguerreotype Photo C1840, Woman With Child On Lap In Half CaseAntique,daguerreotype,case,frames,lot Of Imperfect,scrap,for Repair Use,R. Cornelius Frame For Repairing DaguerreotypeVery Cute 1/6 Plate Daguerreotype Of Sisters -i Particularly Like The Little OneCa. 1843-44 Daguerreotype - Image With Lots Of Motion - Absolutely BeautifulGutta Percha Union Daguerreotype Case Relief Shield With CannonsSealed Sixth Plate Daguerreotype Man Woman Glass Eye Or Blind? Clasped Hands3 Antique 1/6 Plate Daguerreotype Photographs 2 Women & 1 Man, Nice Gold FramesRare "double Door" Case/frame For Daguerreotype Ambrotype Tintype-leather, EaselDaguerreotype Man & Woman - Sixth PlateTyler & Co. Daguerreotype Depot, Cincinnati, O. Sample Advertising DaguerreotypeDaguerrotype/ambrotype Of A Stunningly Beautiful Young FemaleAntique Daguerreotype Photograph In A Case W/mother Of Pearl Inlay~plus Bonus!1840's Handsome Young Man DaguerreotypeDaguerreotype Lovely Young Woman By C.v. Allen1/6 Plate Daguerreotype Photograph Morbid Looking Man Dressed Like Undertaker Empty Mid 1840's Leather Daguerreotype CaseGutta Percha Case With Daguerreotype Picture On CopperDaguerrotype Of Young Man - Some Cheek Tint - Leather Covered Case -9th Plate1/2 Plate Daguerreotype Older Identified Husband & Wife - Very Nice CompositionNicely Composed Daguerreotype Of A Full Standing Young Lad W/ Straw Hat In Hand!1/16 Plate Daguerreotype Of A Handsome Gentleman 1800s Antique Photo In Case ¼ Plate Daguerreotype Of A Handsome Bearded Fellow W/ Fancy Hairdo & Steely EyesAntique Daguerreotype Puritan-type Man And Woman Great Image L.c.dillon16th Plate Daguerreotype Rakish Young ManAntique Daguerreotype Tintype Ambrotype Civil War Picture Wearing Gold JewelryFamily Of Four DaguerreotypeSmall Antique Daguerreotype Gutta Percha Union Case With Well Dressed Man1840's Husband And Wife 1/4 Plate DaguerreotypeDaguerrotype/ambrotype Of A Young American Male In Brown Embossed Leather CaseAntique Daguerreotype Case And Portrait Of A.t. YarwoodAntique Ornate Decorative Gold Tone Daguerreotype Picture Frame!!! B103Gutta Percha Case With Daguerreotype Picture Daguerreotype Of A Teenager Or Young Man1840’s Daguerreotype Of A WomanDaguerreotype Young WomanDaguerreotype Young Man