The Socio-Cultural Influence of the Daguerreotype and its Representation in Hawthorne's The House of the Seven Gables

Term Paper (Advanced seminar), 2006

22 Pages, Grade: 1,0


Table of contents

1 Introduction

2 The daguerreotype and its cultural rise
2.1 The invention
2.2 Daguerreotypy’s popularization in the United States
2.3 Portraiture
2.4 Portability and Celebrity Cult
2.5 The Significance of physiognomy for the daguerreotype

3 Daguerreotypy in The House of the Seven Gables
3.1 Display of physiognomic aspects in the novel
3.2 Hypocrisy, daguerreotypy and deception
3.3 Relevance of Light and Sunshine

4 Conclusion

5 Works Consulted

1 Introduction

Delicate pencillings of imprisoned light!

Tracings imprinted with the finest care,

Revealing to the eye an image bright

Of that which seems to it most pure and fair.

The softened graces of the lines that speak

The gentle beauty of the rounded cheek;

The faithful transcript of the thoughts that rise

From the life's motion of deep-shaded eyes;

A copy taken with a hand as slight

As the smooth coloring of a floweret's light;—

Yet true and real, as when the flowerets look

Down the smooth margin to the crystal brook.

That this should be, and no trained flexile finger

Guide the soft lines where Beauty's grace is placed;

And the fair traits where mind and soul do linger

Shine pencilled not by genius or by taste:—

'Tis strange, indeed, that human art and skill

Can bind the sunbeam to perform their will!

The subject of this anonymous poem, published in the Boston Daily Evening Transcript in 1850, is the daguerreotype, and early form of photography from the middle of the nineteenth century. The very fact that a technology received this form of attention, being the subject of a poem, clearly states that it was of some importance and lingered in people’s minds. The invention itself and its enormous popularity took place around the same decades that Nathaniel Hawthorne wrote and published many of his major works, including The House of the Seven Gables. “Etching his text with strokes of ambiguity and dubiety, Hawthorne draws widely on figural terms from the popular discourse of the daguerreotype circulating in the print culture of the 1840s and early 1850s” (Trachtenberg 33).

In the course of this paper the development of the daguerreotype, its influence on the American culture and its obvious manifestation in The House of the Seven Gables shall be analysed. Hawthorne used the character of Holgrave, the daguerreotypist, not only to solve the old mystery surrounding the Pyncheon family, but also to point at the art’s relevance for his contemporary culture. “Sharing features of both ‘Novel’ and ‘Romance’, of science and magic, of modernity and tradition, the daguerreotype plays a strategic role in the narrative as an emblem of the ambiguity that the tale will affirm as the superior mark of ‘Romance’” (Trachtenberg 31).

In the sixteenth century, the camera obscura was the first invention to project images onto surfaces, yet not fixing it. The only way of creating a lasting image was the art of drawing and painting. Towards the middle of the eighteenth century the invention of Louis-Jacques-Mandé Daguerre (1787-1851) revolutionized the existing world if iconography. The so-called daguerreotype marked out the possibilities and represented an entirely new perspective of portraiture. The new technique appeared first in 1839 and it was “to extend the field of representation and to wrest an important iconographical role from drawing, in particular in the area if documentation and illustration“ (Lemagny 20).[1]

Up till then, fixation and reproduction were the two large challenges. As traditional paintings were very time-consuming and costly, there were numerous attempts to use the technique of the camera obscura in order to produce images in some sort of fixed form. During the first quarter of the nineteenth century several individuals were working on the challenge, “experimenting with papers or plates prepared with light-sensitive chemicals” (Nelson).

2 The daguerreotype and its cultural rise

2.1 The invention

Joseph-Nicéphore Niépce (1765-1833) came upon the idea of fixing the camera obscura image, probably around 1796, but it was not until 1816 that he started a number of experiments on his estate near Chalon-sur-Saône, France. He and his brother Claude used chloride and silver nitrate on paper, but the results turned out to be negatives, the light and dark shades reversed. In addition to that, they were disappointed with the precarious nature of the fixation. After that they decided to look out for other substances, and in 1820 discovered bitumen of Judea for their means. They first used it on a glass plate and then on polished tin. These tin plates were turned into printing plates, due to the fact that they could be etched with acid. The exposure time of these images was up to several hours. In 1827 Niépce, after having reproduced some old engravings, he managed to photograph the landscape outside his window. The process he had invented was referred to as the heliography (Lemagny 269).

Two years after his discovery he entered a partnership with Daguerre, which was signed by a legal agreement in 1829. Unfortunately, Niépce died of a stroke before his invention ever became successful, but he had left all his notes to Daguerre. The latter was a painter and never had the intelligent range of Niépce, he simply lacked the scientific training. He was fortunate to encounter Jean-Baptiste Dumas (1800-1884), a distinguished chemist, who dedicated most of his time to his studies. In 1835 a new development helped reduce the exposure time. It was discovered how to reveal the latent image by exposing the plate to mercury vapor. Only two years later, the question of fixation was answered as well, by immersing the print in a solution of sodium chloride. Two more years passed until the state acquired the ownership of their discovery and left Daguerre and his partners with a lucrative deal, rewarding them for their ambition (Lemagny 20). Within six months of the public announcement of the invention, it “became an inevitable subject of interest in all elite circles. …The Parisian happening was world-famous within the year” (Lemagny 20). Daguerre himself organized public demonstrations to further promote the daguerreotypy.

2.2 Daguerreotypy’s popularization in the United States

The daguerreotype spread rapidly all over Europe, except for England, where Daguerre had secretly patented his invention before selling it to the French government. However, it was in the United States that the daguerreotype enjoyed its most popular and longest success. The painter Samuel Morse, also the inventor of the telegraph, was most likely the first American to become acquainted with Daguerre’s invention. Immediately after the unveiling of the discovery in 1839 he traveled to France and was fascinated with the quality of the images. In November 1839, an agent of Daguerre brought the technique to the US. Morse soon opened a daguerreotype-studio in New York, which became a training institution for future daguerreotypists. Only one year after the announcement, Morse was already exhibiting plates all over the United States. Another year and almost every town was able to present its own studio or was at least frequently visited by daguerreotypists (Lemagny 22).

The recognition and popular success which the technique received throughout the years was mainly due to its being know for its accuracy. The idea of mirroring or imitation became synonymous with the daguerreotype.

Among those fascinated with the medium were many well-known authors, such as Margaret Fuller, Edgar Allan Poe, Ralph Waldo Emerson and Nathaniel Hawthorne. The latter wrote to Sophia Peabody, his wife-to-be:

I whish there was something in the intellectual world analogous to the Daguerreotype in the visible – something which should print off our deepest, and subtlest, and delicatest thoughts and feelings, as minutely as the above-mentioned instruments paints the various aspects of nature. (Woodson 384)

Edgar Allen Poe commented on the daguerreotype in Alexander’s Weekly Magazine of 1840:

Perhaps, if we imagine the distinctness with which an object is reflected in a positively perfect mirror, we come as near the reality as by any other means. For, in truth, the Daguerreotyped plate is infinitely (we use the term advisedly) is infinitely more accurate in its representation than any painting by human hands.

Within a few years the technique spread rapidly and between 13,000 and 17,000 daguerreotypists practiced all over the United States by the year 1853. In contrast to France and other parts of Europe where the still life was the most prominent object, landscapes and especially portraits were far more in demand.

During the Industrial Revolution and its growing middle class, a strong demand for portraiture emerged, which could never have been met in volume nor cost by traditional painting methods (Williams 162).

The rapid expansion of the daguerreotype studios made the medium accessible to the middle class, and thus it “became a common component of domestic space” (Williams 162).

Another advantage of the new technique was the convenience it brought forth. Traditional paintings eventually required the customer to sit still for many hours, repeated over weeks. Daguerreotypy reduced this time span to under one hour but at the same time forced the customer to sit absolutely still. Another inconvenience was the amount of natural sunlight necessary to even begin the process. This resulted in the art’s clear dependence on external conditions. “Successful daguerreotypists quickly discovered a way of outfitting their working spaces that maximized the amount of available sunshine. By far the most popular strategy was the installation of skylights” (Cohen 41). Natural light, sunshine, was the crucial component of the entire process and it couldn’t be done without. With time passing came more innovations which further reduced the time span. At the beginning the photographers used head- and backrests as well as other devices for the costumers in order to maintain their stillness. By the 1850s, the exposure time was reduced to only a few seconds. Even if the portrayed managed to sit still for such a long time, the movement of his or her eyes and eyelids remained restless for most of the time and eventually the customer closed his or her eyes, which usually led to the typical facial expression of daguerreotypes (Pollack 58).

2.3 Portraiture

Nineteenth century culture was characterized by a strong demand in portraiture, yet as already mentioned above, oil paintings usually exceeded the average person’s financial limits and were only available to the upper classes. The main feature common to all oil portraits is the fact that they are always subject to the skills and personal interpretations of the artist. For this reason many people were not quite satisfied with the outcome of the paintings. On the other hand, the artist had the possibility of embellishing the portrait in order to please the costumer.

This was in some cases also true of the daguerreotype. Even though it is an accurate representation of what is in front of the camera, the photographer still had the possibility of altering the impression of the customer with the lighting. Yet, the daguerreotype was not exactly flattering the subjects, a fact that did still not reduce its popularity.


[1] William Fox Talbot, an Englishman, engaged in photographic experiments before Louis Daguerre exhibited his pictures in 1839. Talbot communicated the results of his experiments to the Royal Society after Daguerre's discoveries became known. In 1841 he made known his discovery of the calotype or talbotype process. This shows that the overall technique was not something particularly new, and that Daguerre was certainly not the only one who invented it. Yet, Daguerre is generally awarded credit for the invention and therefore processes as the calotype are omitted in this paper.

Excerpt out of 22 pages


The Socio-Cultural Influence of the Daguerreotype and its Representation in Hawthorne's The House of the Seven Gables
University of Bayreuth  (Fakultät für Sprach- und Literaturwissenschaft)
American History through Literature
Catalog Number
ISBN (eBook)
File size
478 KB
Socio-Cultural, Influence, Daguerreotype, Representation, Hawthorne, House, Seven, Gables, American, History, Literature
Quote paper
Kerstin Müller (Author), 2006, The Socio-Cultural Influence of the Daguerreotype and its Representation in Hawthorne's The House of the Seven Gables, Munich, GRIN Verlag,


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