View of the south side of Chestnut Street between 6th and 7th Streets
showing the daguerreotype studio of McClees & Germon in 1855.
Philadelphia in the 1850s was much about giving and getting face time. You couldn’t take more than a few steps on Chestnut Street without bumping into a choice of daguerreotype studios. The photographic process arrived from Paris late summer in 1839; Philadelphians had grown up with the silvery science from the first. Robert Cornelius experimented, perfected, and then sold his first commercial portrait to his lens supplier, John McAllister, Jr., who was savvy enough to insist on being the first in line. Today, McAllister’s face lives on at the Library of Congress.
What made daguerreotypes so appealing? They literally reflected reality using a blend of skill and science that looked like magic but was really an art. From the first, they stunned those who saw them and left in their wake believers convinced these affordable, luminous images would change the world.
By the 1850s, on a walk down Chestnut Street you’d encounter a dozen Daguerreans, whose bold signs, brimming sample cases, and wide-open glass windows invited in both sunlight and paying visitors. From 1846 to 1856, as Prints and Photographs curator at the Library of Company of Philadelphia Sarah Weatherwax points out in a map made for the online exhibition Catching A Shadow: Daguerreotypes in Philadelphia, 1839-1860 the number of Philadelphia studios grew from a mere 20 to an amazing 150.
You’d find the studios of McClees & Germon (illustrated here before the fire of 1855 and above after reconstruction). You’d see a stunning daguerreotype panorama of the Fairmount Waterworks at T.P. and D.C Collins’ (it’s found at the Franklin Institute today). You’d take in the images of Montgomery P. Simons, Samuel Van Loan, Frederick DeBourg Richards and Marcus Aurelius Root, whose daguerreotype of Anthony Pritchard recently broke records when it sold at auction for more than $350,000.
Root liked to brag he captured “the shadow of the soul” on silvered plates, skillfully coaxing the sun to do to its work for him. Popularity led Root to double his annual production in the late 1840s; he produced his share of the 3,000,000 daguerreotypes made in America in the middle of the 19th century. When cheap paper prints from negatives rendered the daguerreotype process obsolete on the eve of the Civil War, Root chose obsolescence, too. He couldn’t stomach the “new and improved” photography and missed the day when you’d walk along Chestnut Street, Market Street or Second Street, smell the iodine wafting from the studios and pass customers proudly holding their palm-sized, glassed-fronted, image-bearing cases.
But as many daguerreotype studios as there once were, there’s not a single one left today. Or is there? With all of the one-time activity, you’d think there’d be some surviving evidence on the streets of the city that made the daguerreotype an American institution. So much of Philadelphia is a collection of proud and mundane remnants from the past. Is it too much to ask that one of these remnants be a holdout from the day of the Daguerreotype?
Maybe we need to search just a little bit harder.