It’s Day 6 / Year 2 of ”365 Things to do in Cincinnati” and today we took a tour of the 1848 Cincinnati Daguerreotype display at the downtown library.
What would you think if I told you the “Mona Lisa of photographs” is on display in our own downtown library? That’s what the 1848 Cincinnati Panorama has been dubbed - “The Mona Lisa of photographs”. And rightfully so. This photo is unique and historic on so many levels. It can be magnified up to 32X, making details in the picture incredibly clear. ”It contains the first photographic images of steamboats, a railroad station, and one of the country’s earliest astronomical observatories. It may also be one of the earliest pictures to show free blacks, who were building a community in Cincinnati, just across the line from Kentucky slave country. A ditch running from the corner of a building down to the river — eroded by effluent from an outhouse — presages the cholera epidemic that hit the city the following year.” (quote from an article at Wired Magazine).
We had an amazing tour of this incredible exhibit (one that you can go see without our tour so be sure to keep reading). Our little group met up with our very knowledgable tour guide Patricia Van Skaik ,manager of the Genealogy and Local History Collection at The Public Library of Cincinnati and Hamilton County (Pat is pictured below, at touchscreen).
The 1848 picture of the Cincinnati riverfront is on display in its own special area at the downtown library (third floor, just off the Local History and Genealogy Department). Our tour started off with Pat explaining what makes up the Daguerreotype process. Invented by Louis Daguerre in 1839, a daguerreotype was an image captured on a silver coated plate within a daguerreian camera. This was the first practical method of photography and was used from 1840 to 1855. The image was “recorded” onto a silver coated plate which meant no negatives and thus there was no method of reproduction. Each plate was used just once. Talk about making every picture count! It was a very expensive method.
Because this was such a costly endeavor (the camera alone cost $15,000 in 1839!), daguerreotype photographers did not take pictures of objects unless the image would generate some form of income (such as a portrait). The library has some examples of daguerreotype portraits in the hall leading to the exhibit room, including this shot of Harriet Beecher Stowe’s young son. And, yes, he had passed and this is a picture of him in his casket (which Pat explained as a common image at that time).
Because of the costs involved in creating a daguerreotype image, it’s surprising to see a landscape picture in our 1848 Cincinnati riverfront picture. The original picture was taken by Charles Fontayne and William Southgate Porter who operated a daguerreotype business. The image was truly an exception to the rule (portraits vs. landscapes). Why they took the picture is a mystery but it’s speculated to have been taken for display at the Franklin Institute’s Exposition of American Manufactures (1848). It was later on display at The Crystal Palace in England, what was the first World’s Fair, and is thought to be the only surviving artifact of that Fair.
As we moved into the exhibition area, we were led through some of the cases of photos. In the cases you’ll see pictures of the process that went into the conservation of the daguerreotype image. And then, of course, you’ll see the actual daguerreotype image from 1848, which is inside a specially designed case to preserve the images. Next to that you’ll see a fabulous (and huge) touchscreen which will allow you to explore the various images. You can click on any of the eight images and information about the image will pop up. All the research that has been done on the buildings, the boats, the people, the streets… it’s all at your disposal. I can see myself pulling up a chair and spending quite some time going through the information. It’s an amazing glimpse back into 1848 era Cincinnati!
The Cincinnati Panorama of 1848 is on display at the Public Library of Cincinnati and Hamilton County (downtown branch, 800 Vine Street)
You can view the 1848 Daguerreotype online here: 1848 Cincinnati Daguerreotype