A daguerreotype is a single reversed image, made as a direct positive onto a silvered copper plate. Its reflective surface is an easy way to tell the difference between a daguerreotype and an early photograph taken using a different technique. The image is made of a combination of silver and mercury, resting on that plate. It is extremely vulnerable to damage, and can easily be brushed off, even after being ‘fixed’. Because they were so fragile, they were usually protected with a cover-glass and held in small leather-bound cases as treasured objects, in many ways similar to miniature painted portraits.
Nowadays we often refer to any old-looking, sepia-tinted photograph as a ‘daguerreotype’. But the word daguerreotype in fact refers to a specific photographic process, invented by the flamboyant Parisian inventor and entrepreneur Louis Jacques Mandé Daguerre (1787-1851).
Daguerre was the first person to publicly announce a successful method of capturing images. His invention was an immediate hit, and France was soon gripped by ‘daguerreotypomania’. Daguerre released his formula and anyone was free to use it without paying a license fee – except in Britain, where he had secured a patent.
Here below is a set of early daguerreotypes that shows portraits of mothers with their little children from between the 1840s and 1860s.