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daguerreotypes ambrotypes composite daguerreotypes
Portrait of an unidentified Princeton University faculty member, ca. 1856-1858.
Portrait of an unidentified man, ca. 1856-1858. Quarter plate daguerreotype. Photographer, W. L. Germon, 168 Chest. St., Phila..


The Daguerreotype

The invention of the daguerreotype was announced in France in January 1839 as the work of Louis Jacques Mandé Daguerre (1787-1851). Soon after, news of the invention made its way to the United States, and the American public responded with alacrity. The daguerreotype image, developed on a silver coated copper plate, was commonly referred to as the "Mirror of Nature," for the surface of a daguerreotype image reflects back its spectator as well as the subject pictured.

Generally daguerreotype plates were placed into enclosures both for protection and display. A brass mat was laid on the plate to frame the subject, over this a glass cover was placed, and a paper seal bound these pieces together. After the mid- to late-1840s, the pieces were doubly enclosed by a preserver of malleable brass.

Interior view of Nassau Hall, the Library and Portrait Gallery, ca. 1871.
Interior view of Nassau Hall, the Library and Portrait Gallery, ca. 1871. Carte de visite photograph. Photographer unknown. Historical Photograph Collection - Grounds and Buildings Photographs - Small Photographs.

This package was then placed into a wooden or papier maché case, similar to those used to house miniature painted portraits. To view the image one held the case in one's hand and opened it up to look at the portrait or subject. The use of cases was mainly an American phenomenon. In Europe it was common for daguerreotypes to be placed in frames and hung on a wall. Princeton University's first portrait gallery was located in Nassau Hall in what was then the Library and is now the Faculty Room. In the gallery portraits of presidents, faculty, and students were displayed around the perimeter of the Library, seen in this photograph from circa 1871. The daguerreotype portrait of the unidentified man, pictured above, may have been displayed in Nassau Hall. The image has no case or frame, and it is clear that at one point nails were hammered into each side of the brass preserver to secure the image on a wall (nail holes are still visible on the sides of the image's preserver).

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For a brief history of the daguerreotype visit the site of The Daguerreian Society at

Please also refer to the bibliographic section for a listing of other websites and published resources on the history of the daguerreotype and other photographic processes.