In the 1840s and 1850s, men and women who just a short time earlier could not have dreamed of holding a lifelike image of a loved one or of leaving a true record of their own features for posterity were offered just such a possibility. Daguerreotypes—invented by the French painter, showman, and entrepreneur Louis Daguerre—were magically precise images made directly in the camera on silver-plated sheets of copper sensitized with iodine and developed in mercury fumes. First shown publicly in Paris in 1839, the process spread around the world like wildfire. In America, major cities quickly boasted lavishly appointed portrait studios, and itinerant daguerreotypists moved from one small town to another, setting up a temporary studio for a day or two before moving on to the next locale. Those who could not afford a “whole-plate” daguerreotype (6 ½ x 8 ½ inches, the largest standard size) opted for a “half-plate” likeness, and those who could not afford that chose a quarter-plate, a sixth-plate, a ninth-plate, or even a sixteenth-plate. Millions of such portraits were produced in America, quickly replacing the traditions of painted miniatures and cut silhouettes.
This sixth-plate daguerreotype was a modest work of art most likely made by a journeymen photographer. The identity of the sitter, too, is now lost to history. Nonetheless, such daguerreotypes must have seemed miraculous in an age unaccustomed to photography and been treasured as precious keepsakes of beloved sons and daughters, husbands and wives, mothers and fathers. Even today, close examination seems to offer a window into a long-ago life.