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Two 1850s American Daguerreotype Cameras: An Important Design Transition

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    Posted 2 years ago

    (324 items)

    These are the two earliest cameras in my collection and I wanted to highlight one of the most significant design changes in the history of photography; the addition of a bellows. From this point forward, nearly all makers updated their designs to include a bellows which helped decrease the bulk, size and weight of cameras.

    The earliest cameras were primarily solid body boxes or sliding box-in-box designs. They were extremely large and heavy. One of the earliest and best-known American designs is the “American Chamfered Box.” Although the maker is unknown, this c.1850 ½-plate camera is basically a rosewood veneered box with a lens at one end and ground glass and holder for plates at the other. Both the front and rear have chamfered corners.

    The smaller 1853-54 ¼-plate camera (at the front), also covered in rosewood veneer and having chamfered corners, was made by Palmer & Longking. This design, also known by collectors as the “Lewis style,” is historically important because it includes the first commercially successful use of a bellows. Adding a bellows increases the focusing range for a wider variety of lens types.

    At first glance the cameras look different, but they are very closely related. The Lewis styled Palmer & Longking is simply a variation of the solid body camera in which the box is separated into two parts (front and rear), mounted on a base, and connected by a bellows.

    By the 1890s, an incredible variety of small, bellows folding cameras helped usher in a new generation of amateur photographers. George Eastman also used bellows in hundreds of his Kodak roll film cameras which became a huge part of his inventory through the mid-twentieth century.

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    1. Ben Ben, 2 years ago
      Beautiful, Rob!
      Apologies if this is a dumb question, but what's the bellows made out of, and what do you have to do to keep it from cracking and letting in unwanted light?
    2. rniederman rniederman, 2 years ago
      Ben … good questions. It’s a worthwhile discussion topic …

      Most of these really early dag cameras have thick leather bellows. The outer leather protects heavy cardboard slats that reinforce the pleats. Blackened cloth liners are glued inside to further protect against light leaks when the outer leather cracks and tears.

      In regards to bellows deterioration, once started it's an ongoing problem that is nearly impossible to stop. Common pre-existing issues found today typically started in the past but can be cared for. As with any product, material quality and construction techniques made a huge difference in terms of wear from daily usage. Nearly all 160+ year old daguerreotype cameras have bellows cracking. Most are minor problems at the pleat corners (normal wear) while numerous others are completely rotted and torn through. The Palmer & Longking dag shown here has minor corner wear and cracking. I haven’t checked but assume there are light leaks.

      Occasionally a completely original camera in pristine condition is found and we collectors get to see what a new bellows looked like; they are impressive and amazingly rare. While early bellows are very thick and appear robust, these cameras were not made to be around after several years of hard use let alone becoming 100+ year survivors! And nearly all cameras were exposed to toxic chemistry which also caused or accelerated leather deterioration.

      Working photographers heavily using their equipment probably saw minor bellows problems occur after a couple years. A simple solution was (and is for modern practitioners) to drape dark cloths over the bellows when taking pictures. Though repairing small light leaks is an option, this type of restoration is an art and often done poorly which can cause more problems. IMO, minor bellows repairs on these rare and valuable cameras are not worth the effort especially when a draped dark cloth will resolve most problems if shooting pictures.

      In summary, pre-existing leather issues cannot be stopped but definitely slowed down. Poor condition bellows are nearly impossible to repair and restoration / replacement can be extremely expensive. While I look for the best examples, a few cameras have very worn bellows with slight tearing. These are exceptions because of rarity. Depending on the bellows condition (especially for 1880s to 1890s equipment), I might do preservation (not repair) using special conditioners made by leather conservationists for book antiquarians. It’s slow and tedious. Given that some cameras still have excellent bellows after 100+ years without the benefit of restoration, their overall condition can worsen when treated incorrectly; and most often, a “do nothing” approach is best.
    3. Ben Ben, 2 years ago
      Somehow I thought I might get an answer to this innocent question. ;-) Thanks!
    4. rniederman rniederman, 2 years ago
    5. Trey Trey, 2 years ago
      These cameras are in great condition:)
    6. rniederman rniederman, 2 years ago
    7. rniederman rniederman, 2 years ago
    8. rniederman rniederman, 2 years ago
    9. rniederman rniederman, 2 years ago
    10. rniederman rniederman, 2 years ago
    11. rniederman rniederman, 2 years ago
    12. rniederman rniederman, 2 years ago
    13. rniederman rniederman, 2 years ago
      Thanks, snowman3!
    14. rniederman rniederman, 2 years ago
    15. rniederman rniederman, 1 year ago
      Thanks, dlpetersen!

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