Young America. The Daguerreotypes of Southworth & Hawes. George Eastman House International Center of Photography
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YOUNG AMERICA
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STUDIO
PUBLIC PORTRAITURE
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POSTMORTEM PORTRAITURE
THE DEATH OF PAIN
THE PARLOR STEREOSCOPE
DAGUERREOTYPE PROCESS
PERMANENCE
PRESENTATION NOTE
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PERMANENCE

photo of Albert S. Southworth
[Unidentified Woman],
ca. 1850. George
Eastman House.

Most of the daguerreotypes of Southworth & Hawes survive in remarkably fine condition considering their age, history, and potential vulnerability. Southworth & Hawes were concerned with the permanency of their work, which they addressed in their studio advertisement: “We coat all of our pictures with a perfect leaf of pure California Gold and so seldom is it that our Miniatures have ever shown any defect, that we warrant them all. We never know any daguerreotype properly freed from the chemicals and kept so, to change or fade.”

Their attention to permanency and knowledge of the factors of deterioration are manifestations of their unusual devotion to understanding and perfecting the daguerreotype process in all its aspects. Southworth addressed the public concern:

It is important for everyone to understand whether daguerreotypes are permanent and what is necessary for their preservation against accidents. “Will daguerreotypes fade?” is a question asked constantly by visitors to the exhibition gallery, and our answer is, “they will not.” Our reason for such an answer is, first, that the material of the picture when finished is purely metallic, and not liable or subject to evaporation. It is not affected by heat, unless artificial and sufficient to destroy any painting….Every person should remember that so highly a polished surface of silver or gold as a daguerreotype plate cannot be touched in any manner, with anything whatever, without soiling or scratching it.… the earlier daguerreotypes were not gilded, and many of great value have been entirely effaced by being “very carefully cleaned” with a silk handkerchief….It may occasionally happen that spots will appear through some cavity or perforation in the silver….These, though blemishes, will not often injure the likeness, and will appear but seldom if the artist uses electrotype plates.

Southworth & Hawes did electroplate additional silver onto their plates before use and gave the plate a very high polish. They appear to have given extra attention to washing the plate free of residual chemicals as best they could. Also they packaged and stored their daguerreotypes to isolate them from dust and atmospheric pollutants. Through these precautions, their work survives, for the most part, in remarkably fine condition. Southworth understood the chemical and physical nature of the daguerreotype very well within the limits of the scientific knowledge of the time. If properly made and protected, the daguerreotype is relatively stable when compared to many other forms of early photography.

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