One hundred seventy-five years ago, in January 1839, members of the Academy of Sciences in Paris were shown a unique photographic process that literally changed the world as we see it. The inventor, Louis-Jacques-Mandé Daguerre, called his discovery the “daguerreotype.” It was the first commercially successful form of photography.
Later that year, a British inventor, William Henry Fox Talbot, announced his calotype process, making 1839 the year photography was popularized. Some controversies regarding who was first ensued. Daguerre did not claim a patent in France but gave the French government the rights to the process as a gift “free to the world,” although an agent later filed a patent in England on Daguerre’s behalf. As can be imagined, the early history of photography was rife with similar designs, claims to fame and compensation, and many other related intrigues that go hand-in-hand with an invention of such universal significance.
Today, most of us recognize daguerreotypes and may be fortunate to own such historic likenesses of our ancestors. As early as the 1840s, there were daguerreotype studios in the United States. Many early photographs using the daguerreotype process can be viewed online at the Library of Congress and in images like these of Maria Weston Chapman and Daniel Webster in the Boston Public Library Collections on Fold3.
According to the Library of Congress, there were over seventy daguerreotype studios in New York City by 1850. One of those studios was owned by Mathew B. Brady, one of the most notable photographers of the 19th century. By the 1860s, daguerreotypes had been replaced by processes that would allow Brady and his team of photographers to go out into the field where they took remarkable and haunting battlefield images during the U.S. Civil War. The results are available in the Civil War Collection on Fold3.