A look back at the faces of 170 years ago and more – Key West Florida Weekly

Posted: August 20, 2020 at 6:06 pm

These daguerreotypes date from the 1840s or 1850s. The closed cover of each measures about 2 by 3 inches.

For a moment, lets forget craftsmanship and design, form and function.

As I travel the world of antiques, there is one thing for which I look history.

Its one of the key components that make an object interesting often, its the only component of interest in something that otherwise would be sadly lacking.

The people involved in an objects creation, the folks who used it, the events that have taken place around it all leave their marks.

Those are part of history.

And, for the most part, the faces that were behind that history long ago were consigned to dust, their names forgotten.

But in one form of collectible, the faces remain, even if the names are lost.

Im referring to the first photographs, Louis Daguerres daguerreotypes, created in the 1830s.

Those 2-inch bits of silver were coated with light-sensitive mercury vapor then exposed, offering ordinary folks a shot at earthly immortality.

That was a first. A portrait drawn or painted by an artist was expensive, available only to the affluent. In comparison, daguerreotypes were inexpensive and provided near-instant results.


So, 180 years later, the anonymous faces stare back, peering from behind the protective glass that shields the precious images.

I was reminded of those faces as I dug through my desk, filled with pencils, stamps, envelopes and thumbtacks, and stumbled across the embossed covers of daguerreotypes I bought some years ago for a few dollars at the West Palm Beach Antiques Festival.

The people tell a story of wearing their Sunday best for a portrait.

A double set of images shows two women wearing matching dresses and white lace collars at their necks. Both wear dark lace mitts on their crossed hands.

In another, a boy looks expectantly into the camera while seated on a straight chair, his arm resting on a table.

And in yet another, a sour-faced woman, her hair parted at the middle, peers at the camera. The early thermoplastic Union Case in which her photograph is mounted, was made between 1855 and 1865, according to The Daguerreian Societys website. That case measuring just over 3 inches by 3 inches is the largest of our trio. Its also the newest and may well be an Ambrotype exposed on glass or a tintype a photograph exposed on a sheet of tin.

This image is an Ambrotype, made between 1855 and 1865. It measures 3 inches by 3 inches.

Was she having a bad day, one wonders, or was she simply dealing with the cumbersome photography process of the day? The subjects of those early photographs often had a brace holding their heads so they didnt move during the long exposure time the image required sometimes as much as a minute.

Regardless, you can look into their eyes and see another world one of horses and buggies and struggles and one of taking great effort to look ones best for a tiny shot at immortality even if immortality means lying at the bottom of my desk drawer, only to be awakened for this brief interlude. Rest well, whoever you were.


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A look back at the faces of 170 years ago and more - Key West Florida Weekly

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