go to HOME


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

On this day (July 2) in the year 1846, the following account appeared in the "Brooklyn Daily Eagle" (Brooklyn, New York.) This account is by the then-editor of the paper, Walt Whitman. Of all the first-hand accounts I have read, this is certainly one of the most insightful. To my knowledge, this article has never been reprinted (with the exception of the source noted below,) nor has it received much attention in the context of photo- history. I am pleased to present it to you today, dear readers. - - - - - - - - - - - - VISIT TO PLUMBE'S GALLERY AMONG the "lions" of the great American metropolis, New York City, is the Picture Gallery at the upper corner of Murray street and Broadway, commonly known as Plumbe's Daguerreotype establishment. Puffs, etc., out of the question, this is certainly a great establishment! You will see more life there--more variety, more human nature, more artistic beauty, (for what created thing can surpass that masterpiece of physical perfection, the human face?) than in any spot we know of. The crowds continually coming and going--the fashionable belle, the many distinguished men, the idler, the children--these alone are enough to occupy a curious train of attention. But they are not the first thing. To us, the pictures address themselves before all else. What a spectacle! In whatever direction you turn your peering gaze, you see naught but human faces! There they stretch, from floor to ceiling--hundreds of them. Ah! what tales might those pictures tell if their mute lips had the power of speech! How romance then, would be infinitely outdone by fact. Here is one now--a handsome female, apparently in a bridal dress. She was then, perhaps, just married. Her husband has brought her to get her likeness; and a fine one he must have had, if this is a correct duplicate of it. Is he yet the same tender husband? Another, near by, is the miniature of an aged matron, on whose head many winters have deposited their snowy semblance. But what a calm serene bearing! How graceful she looks in her old age! Even as you go in by the door, you see the withered features of a man who has occupied the proudest place on earth: you see the bald head of John Quincy Adams, and those eyes of dimmed but still quenchless fire. There too, is the youngest of the Presidents, Mr. Polk. From the same case looks out the massive face of Senator Benton. Who is one of his nearest neighbors? No one less than the Storm-King of the piano, De Meyer. Likewise Chancellor Kent and Alexander H. Everett. Persico's statuary of the drooping Indian girl, and the male figure up- bearing a globe, is in an adjoining frame, true as the marble itself. Thence, too, beams down the Napoleon-looking oval face of Ole Bull, with his great dreamy eyes. Among the others in the same connection, (and an odd connection, enough!) are Mrs. Polk, her niece Miss Walker, Marble the comedian, Mayor Mickle, George Vandenhoff, Mrs. Tyler, and Mr. Buen, a most venerable white-haired ancient, (we understand, just dead!) On another part of the wall, you may see Mrs. J. C. Calhoun, the venerable Mesdames Hamilton and Madison, and Miss Alice Tyler. There, also, are Mike Walsh--Robert Owen, with his shrewd Scotch face, but benevolent look--Horace Greeley--the "pirate" Babe--Grant Thorborn--Audubon, the ornithologist, a fiery-eyed old man and Mr. Plumbe himself. Besides these, of course, are hundreds of others. Indeed, it is little else on all sides of you, than a great legion of human faces--human eyes gazing silently but fixedly upon you, and creating the impression of an immense Phantom concourse--speechless and motionless, but yet realities. You are indeed in a new world--a peopled world, though mute as the grave. We don't know how it is with others, but we could spend days in that collection, and find enough enjoyment in the thousand human histories, involved in those daguerreotypes. There is always, to us, a strange fascination, in portraits. We love to dwell long upon them--to infer many things, from the text they preach- -to pursue the current of thoughts running riot about them. It is singular what a peculiar influence is possessed by the eye of a well- painted miniature or portrait.--It has a sort of magnetism. We have miniatures in our possession, which we have often held, and gazed upon the eyes in them for the half-hour! An electric chain seems to vibrate, as it were, between our brain and him or her preserved there so well by the limner's cunning. Time, space, both are annihilated, and we identify the semblance with the reality.--And even more than that. For the strange fascination of looking at the eyes of a portrait, sometimes goes beyond what comes from the real orbs themselves. Plumbe's beautiful and multifarious pictures all strike you, (whatever their various peculiarities) with their naturalness, and the life-look of the eye--that soul of the face! In all his vast collection, many of them thrown hap-hazard, we notice not one that has a dead eye. Of course this is a surpassing merit. Nor is it unworthy of notice, that the building is fitted up by him in many ranges of rooms, each with a daguerrian operator; and not merely as one single room, with one operator, like other places have. The greatest emulation is excited; and persons or parties having portraits taken, retain exclusive possession of one room, during the time. Cited from "The Gathering of The Forces by Walt Whitman" Edited by Cleveland Rodgers and John Black. (New York: G. P. Putnam's Sons, 1920) Vol. 2, pp. 113-7. -------------------------------------------------------------- 07-02-97

Return to: DagNews