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  The research archive of Gary W. Ewer regarding the history of the daguerreotype

On this day (April 17) in the year 1891, the following article appeared as the third in a series in "The Photographic Times" (New York; pp. 183- 5): ------------------------------- THE RISE AND FALL OF THE DAGUERREOTYPE. AS SEEN BY A COUNTRY "OPERATOR." III. The photographer of to-day has his plates furnished to his hand ready made, and all he has to do to obtain the best result in the world is to put one of them in his plate-holder, expose and develop it properly, fix, wash and dry--and there he is. But what would the old time daguerreotypist have thought if he had been told of a camera loaded with a hundred plates all ready to be exposed whenever and wherever he might chose--to-day, or next year, or ten years hence; at home, or anywhere else on earth; and furthermore, that after being carried to the ends of the earth in quest of subjects, they might be brought back and developed in the same room where they were put up? This I fancy would have been considered a possibility more remote than taking the colors of nature. In striking contrast with the present art of picture-making was the laborious process which the daguerreotypist of those early days was obliged to go through to obtain his single result. His plates, if they came from France, bore the marks of the planishing hammer; if they were of American manufacture they were covered with fine lines running in one direction, which were probably produced by the machine used for scouring them. In either case a new surface had to be given the plates, and to do this in the best manner required a degree of mechanical skill which was not in all cases readily acquired. A perfect mirror surface was the end aimed at. First the plate (the edges being bent down) was scoured with the finest levigated rotten-stone and alcohol, applied with a pledget of cotton or a small patch of cotton flannel. This was done to make the surface clean of any impurities which might adhere to it, and to efface the hammer marks or lines referred to. The rotten-stone was cleaned off with fresh cotton or flannel, and it was shown by breathing on the plate whether this part of the work was properly done. If so, the plate was ready for buffing. The primitive buff consisted of a strip of board about 20 to 24 inches long by 3 wide, a little convex lengthwise, one end of which was formed into a handle, and the rest of the length covered with two or three thicknesses of cloth, and finally with prepared buckskin. Then pure jeweler's rouge of the finest quality, which was tied in a close-woven muslin bag, was sifted over the face of the leather, rubbed into the pores, and the excess brushed off with a clean bristle brush. The plate, resting on a level bed and held firmly at one end by a vise, was then rubbed by the forward and backward motion of the buff, the work being similar to the physical exercise of wood sawing or that of using a jack plane. What was saved in the less muscular strength required to wield the buff was made up for in the greater velocity of motion with which it was usually swung, especially when several customers were waiting. After buffing the plate in one position it was turned and the other end fastened in the vise and the polishing repeated; again it was turned and polished lengthwise also in both directions as it had before been polished crosswise. After the plate had received in this manner as high a polish as possible, it was attached to the cathode or negative pole of a single- cell Daniels battery, and immersed in the silver solution in which was suspended a plate of pure silver connected with the other pole. In a short time a thin coating of silver was deposited on the plate, changing the polished surface to one of sky-blue color. Then it was washed, dried over a spirit lamp and again buffed. Finally the finishing touch was given the plate with a buff covered with silk velvet and powdered with calcined lamp-black. This lamp-black was prepared as follows: Two crucibles, one of a size smaller than the other, were packed full of common lamp-black; the smaller one inverted and pressed into the top of the larger, the two then luted together with clay, and fired for an hour at red heat. This burned up all the resinous matter, leaving only an almost impalpable powder of nearly pure carbon, which gave to the velvet a most delicate tooth, with which was produced a deeper and more perfect polish than was otherwise obtained, although it was not always used. I remember being told by a silversmith that he thought he could give me some hints about polishing silver that might be serviceable, and would be glad to do so. I thanked him for his offer, but before accepting it polished one of my plates as well as I knew how, and took it to him in a plate-holder, which I held before his face and drew the slide. Seeing only the reflection of his own face, he asked: "What have you there?" "One of my polished plates." "Well, I have nothing more to say. I never saw anything like it." A plate so prepared was ready for the coating boxes, that is, if the work had been properly executed. It was quite possible to do it in such a bungling manner that the plate would be entirely unfit for use. When this happened an expert could see that the polishing powder had been rubbed into the plate, and it was then necessary to heat it over a spirit lamp until a scum was thrown out upon the surface, which must be scoured off and the buffing repeated more skillfully and with a lighter hand. A pure surface of silver and the highest polish were indispensable prerequisites of a fine daguerreotype. The iodine and bromine were contained in heavy, oblong glass jars, as large inside at the top as the largest plate to be used. The top of the jar being ground to a level, was fitted with a cover of plate glass, also ground, and this last again was inserted flush in a sliding frame twice the length of the box in which the jar was placed. When the coating box was not in use the plate glass was over the jar and held firmly down by a wooden screw passing through a bridge across and above it. When in this position the other half of the sliding frame (which was open) projected beyond the box, and held the kits for the different sizes of plates. A second cover of the same length as the box and the same width as the sliding cover was held down upon the latter by a brass spring, exactly like those now used on printing frames, which spring was screwed to the non-sliding cover, the ends of the spring being pressed down and into gains cut in the under side of the bridge before mentioned. This last was held by dove-tail joints in the sides of the box (which were wider than the ends), and could be readily removed and the covers lifted off when occasion required. In the first coating box was placed a sufficient quantity of pure iodine in crystals, and with it a small iron cup containing chloride of calcium to prevent the vapors of iodine from being mixed with moisture before uniting with the plate. This desiccator was dried every morning over the spirit lamp. The second box contained the famous "Mayall Quick Stuff" as it was called, consisting of bromine, hydrofluoric acid, sulphuric acid and water. To coat a plate it was placed face down in its proper kit in the open and projecting end of the sliding cover, the binding screw relieved by a turn, the projecting end shoved under the top cover and over the iodine. The utility of this extra cover is now shown. The elasticity of the spring holding it in contact with the slide and the latter in contact with the jar, permits the backward and forward motion of the same, while it prevents the escape into the room of the vapors of iodine when the plate is over the jar. The temperature of the room must be such as to permit the moderate vaporization of this halogen, and the plate, after a short interval, is slid back and inspected. This is the most interesting part of the manipulation. The progress of the coating is shown by the colors assumed by the sensitive surface, the changes of which are carefully watched in a weak light with the aid of a sheet of white paper fastened to the wall within easy reach, for comparison. First, the plate assumes a lemon yellow, then a deeper yellow, then passes into a faint rose, then a deep rose; from this a light gray tint begins to touch over the surface, from which it soon changes to a cold steel gray, and then the series begins over again. Perhaps no two photographers ever coated their plates exactly alike. Some stopped their first coating at the yellow color, some at the light rose. I generally preferred the point where the rose just began to merge into gray. The time during which the plate was over the iodine in assuming the desired color was kept by counting, because after being coated with the accelerator it must be returned to the iodine and recoated one-third as long as the first time. When the proper tint was reached, the plate was transferred to the second coating box until the color changed to the next stage of the series, after which it was recoated with iodine in the manner mentioned. Different proportions of iodine and bromine produced different effects in the resulting picture. These modifications were curiously similar to those now capable of being produced in the development of a dry plate. But in the daguerreotype a larger proportion of bromine tended to softness and less contrast, a smaller proportion to greater brilliancy, and it was always a study to adapt the coating of the plate to the peculiarities of the subject. The exposure in the camera must be very nearly correct. If a few seconds too long or too short there was no means that I ever heard of by which the mistake could be rectified. As a consequence we became very sensitive to changes in the light and learned by long practice to guess pretty closely to the correct time of exposure. W. H Sherman. (To be continued.) (Previous installments appeared on Jan 20 and March 13; both were posted to DagNews in 1997 on the date of their original publication. The fourth installment will appear on May 15.) -------------------------------------------------------------- 04-17-97

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