Object of the Month

Daguerreotype of Faneuil Hall

Daguerreotype of Faneuil Hall

Faneuil Hall (Boston, Mass.)
Taken by Gilman Joslin
Whole plate daguerreotype in paper frame
Visible image 20 x 14.5 cm., in frame 27 x 22.5 cm.
Photo. 1.359L
Massachusetts Historical Society

In April of 1957, Samuel H. Gurvitz gave this daguerreotype of Faneuil Hall to the Massachusetts Historical Society. It arrived at the Society wrapped in paper with an inscription that reads, "Taken by Gilman Joslin May 1839 The first taken in Boston." The date is probably an error, given the fact that Louis Jacques Mandé Daguerre, the French father of daguerreotypy, had kept his techniques a secret until the publication of his Historique et description du procédé du Daguerreotype et du Diorama in the fall of 1839. Daguerre's booklet, published in thirty languages and intended to spread the practice of daguerreotyping around the world, first appeared in the United States in September of that year. Daguerre also sent a representative, François Fauvel Gouraud, to lecture on the procedures of daguerreotypy in cities across America. Boston was among the cities on Gouraud's tour, where he lectured in March and April of 1840.

In 1839, Gilman Joslin (1804-ca. 1886) was just beginning his career as a successful and prolific globe maker in Boston. Additionally, he was a wood turner and, at one time, a maker of looking glass mirrors. There is also some public record of his early interest in daguerreotyping, so it is therefore possible that Joslin took this daguerreotype of Faneuil Hall sometime during the fall of 1839 or in 1840 (rather than May of 1839), either after reading Daguerre's booklet or attending a Gouraud lecture.

Regardless of the exact date, Joslin's early daguerreotype of Faneuil Hall is remarkable. The majority of the extant daguerreotypes from the Daguerrian Age, 1839-1860, are studio portraits, rather than images set in the outdoors. Many of the earliest daguerreotypes were indeed of architecture, as the exposure times of Daguerre's early techniques required so much time that people could not be recorded. However, few early daguerreotypes of buildings exist today. This is one of the earliest photographs of Faneuil Hall, if not the first.

What is a daguerreotype?

In January of 1839, painter Louis Jacques Mandé Daguerre lectured at the French Academy of Sciences in Paris on his new discovery: a technique for recording a camera image on a silver-plated sheet of copper. Daguerre called his invention the "daguerreotype," and scientists and artists alike were astonished by the sharp, clear photographic images. Daguerre's process involved polishing and chemically cleaning a silver-plate copper sheet, then sensitizing the silver side by laying it down over a box of iodine particles. The fumes from the particles reacted with the silver to form a light-sensitive silver iodide. After exposing the sensitive sheet in a camera and placing it in contact with a heated mercury solution, the image became visible. The copper plate was then bathed with a strong sodium chloride solution that rendered the plate insensitive to further light action.

This daguerreotype is in good condition; the rings visible around the image are caused by oxidation of the copper plate. The writing on the signs on Faneuil Hall in the image is reversed because daguerreotypes are direct positive images, the image laterally reversed like a mirror image.

The Massachusetts Historical Society has a collection of over 450 daguerreotypes, most of which are portraits that have come to the MHS individually or as part of collections of personal and family papers. For information on individual daguerreotypes, please search ABIGAIL, our online catalog for "daguerreotypes."


Top