Daguerreotypes and Early Photographs

by Dr. Lori Verderame

Most people don’t realize that the history of photographs dates back to the 1830s.  The earliest of photographs or snapshots of the time were called Daguerreotypes.

Spotting a valuable Daguerreotype


Louis Jacques Daguerre, a Frenchmen, invented the daguerreotype in 1839. Daguerreotypes were not like photographs exposed from negatives. Daguerreotypes were unique images and could not be reproduced. Subjects were required to sit perfectly still in a studio environment during the process of making a daguerreotype. These images were exposed to a silver-plated copper plate that was polished to a mirror-like sheen. This plate was coated with a light-sensitive silver halide. The subject’s image would be projected onto the plate. Mercury vapor would develop the image on the plate. When developed, the silver halides that were exposed to light were reduced to metallic silver thus forming the image. The plate would be dipped into a fixer solution and that fixer solution would wash away unexposed halides.

Identifying a daguerreotype is rather simple. Since most daguerreotypes are fragile and easy to damage so they are typically sealed in a glass case, so the glass case is a tell tale sign. Most daguerreotypes have a shiny appearance. Making a daguerreotype was labor intensive, time consuming, and expensive. While daguerreotypes were the highlight of the 1851 Crystal Palace Expo in London, they fell out of favor by the 1860s.

Collectible and valuable


The most collectible daguerrotypes are those which provide information about the sitter or about the time period in which he/she lived. Of course, large scale daguerreotypes, daguerreotypes of famous figures in history, and unique sites command the highest values. Certain examples have been sold for $2,500 to $25,000 depending on many factors on the antiques market. Remember, if you have a daguerreotype, do not remove it from its glass case as you may damage it.

Get an online appraisal of your daguerreotype from Dr. Lori.