A website from the Massachusetts Historical Society; founded 1791.

Early photographs from the Collections of the Massachusetts Historical Society


Browse online presentations of early photographs from the collections of the Massachusetts Historical Society (MHS). These images include portraits taken by some of Boston's most notable photographers as well as depictions of locations in and around Boston. One of the first demonstrations of Louis Daguerre’s new and revolutionary photographic process, the daguerreotype, took place during the spring of 1840, in the rooms of the Society (at that time located on Tremont Street in Boston), and the MHS immediately started collecting photographic images.

Many of the photographs featured here are on display from 11 March until 3 June 2011 at 1154 Boylston Street, Boston, in the exhibition, History Drawn with Light: Early Photographs from the Collections of the Massachusetts Historical Society.

Early photographic portraits

Daguerreotypes are reversed photographic images captured on a light-sensitized silver-plated sheets of copper. Daguerreotype portraits were physically uncomfortable, time consuming and expensive to make, but quickly became extraordinarily popular. By 1850 Boston was home to dozens of  daguerreotype studios including the partnership of (Albert S.) Southworth and (Josiah J.) Hawes; and John A. Whipple--who would soon be joined in partnership by James W. Black.

Early photographic views of and near Boston

Although the majority of the extant daguerreotypes from the Daguerrian Age, 1839-1860, are studio portraits, many of the earliest daguerreotypes were of architecture, as the exposure times of these images were so lengthy that people could not be recorded.  The collections of the Massachusetts Historical Society include a daguerreotype of Faneuil Hall in Boston--one of the earliest photographic images of that building; a daguerreotype of Dighton Rock, a notable landmark near Berkley (Mass.); and an ambrotype (photographic image on glass) of the Dowse residence in Cambridgeport.

Boston Fire of 1872

The popularity of stereoscopic city views meant that in the aftermath of the Great Boston Fire of 9-10 November 1872, photographers were able to create before and after photographs of the destruction caused by the fire.