2014 marks the 162nd anniversary of the graduation of the Class of 1852. I wish there were a nice name for a 162nd anniversary — perhaps somebody can concoct one. In the meantime, the consolation I offer is that their septaquintaquinquecentennial is only 13 years away. Mark your calendars.
This blog has featured the Class of 1852 before – they are the Philopogonians. In addition to that entertaining bit of history, the class also left us a nice photographic record of their presence in the form of a composite daguerreotype showing 42 daguerreotypes as well as the 42 individual, well-identified daguerreotypes shown in the composite.
The composite daguerreotype was the gift of Winifred Dudley Shaw. Sadly, the donor misidentified her father, George E. Dudley, in the daguerreotype, mistaking James A. Littlefield for him. George Dudley had died of typhoid fever in 1860 while his daughter was a young child, so she probably didn’t remember him at all and may have been relying on the memory of Dudley’s classmate Henry Sabin (who apparently identified at least himself) or even Mrs. Shaw’s uncle Lafayette Dudley, who was Class of 1851 and no doubt knew many of his brother’s classmates. I matched the individual daguerreotypes to the group daguerreotype (see list at end of post) and realized that George Dudley was not in the latter at all. The student who took his place and evened out the number was Austin Cary Blair (bottom row, second from left), who is the only “non-graduate” to appear in the daguerreotype. Perhaps Dudley left campus early and didn’t have the opportunity to sit for a photograph — he is listed as the principal of the Union School in Jonesville, Michigan, in 1852, so one could research his starting date and estimate when he left Amherst. We don’t know whether Dudley was the only one to have purchased a group daguerreotype or whether there are other copies floating around in those unexplored attics I hint about in every post.
I’ve wondered about the way the class managed this project: surely a local photographer was chosen while the school year was still in session (as opposed to each student selecting his own photographer), and each student either traipsed to the chosen photographer’s studio or (more efficiently) the photographer came to campus. Thanks to Elijah Fish, we at least know the approximate cost of a daguerreotype: $1.62.
Most of the daguerreotypes have the same flower-patterned brass mat, but only one has a daguerreotypist’s stamp on the mat: the bottom left corner of John Almy’s daguerreotype (third row down, third from right, and pictured separately below) shows that it was made by Jeremiah D. Wells of Northampton. It seems likely that Wells made most of the others that have the same mat, even though they don’t bear his stamp. There are a few with an entirely different look, and perhaps they were sent in for the group photo after the student had left campus. The individual daguerreotypes, each with a brass name tag, were then placed in a large wooden frame and photographed as the group image shown above. A few decades ago, the aging framed group was taken apart, and each daguerreotype was placed in an envelope to prevent further deterioration. Nevertheless, time does its work on daguerreotypes as glass begins to break down and leach chemicals onto the photographic plate and oxygen works its way past disintegrating paper seals to tarnish the silver.
One of my projects over the past several months has been to give the daguerreotypes new glass and new seals. This group is easy to work with because the daguerreotypes have no cases, thus removing the challenge of taking apart a daguerreotype package and then trying to fit it back into the case. It’s a lot harder to get a package back in the case than it was to get it out. In this project, I cut new glass, provided new seals, photographed and scanned them before and after, and — case closed (so to speak).
As you can see from the before and after images below, simply providing new glass and new seals can make a big difference. It’s always an exciting moment when I’ve removed the preserver and the old seals and am about to separate the glass from the silver-coated plate. Will the plate shine, or will there be massive loss? I can usually guess beforehand whether an image will radically improve when the old glass is removed, but it’s still like magic to see it happen. However, sometimes the daguerreotype has tarnish well into the image, or there’s damage from chemical corrosion or scratches. In these situations, the new glass will stabilize the situation but not radically improve the way the daguerreotype looks.
I would caution anyone with family daguerreotypes not to attempt what I have described – it’s too easy to do more harm than good, especially when the fragile, easily scratched plate is exposed to air and fingers and anything else that might come in contact with it.
Here, then, is a sample of before-and-after scans of daguerreotypes treated in this project. Please click on each pair for a larger view.
Daguerreotypes are without a doubt my favorite form of photography. They seem to catch the very soul of the sitter. As proof, I give you a closer view of the sweet face of Benjamin Easton Thurston. See what I mean about soul?
Students in the class daguerreotype, left to right, top to bottom:
Row 1: Joseph Manly Clark; Mason Moore; Daniel Jay Sprague; Henry Moore; Charles Henry Payson; Fayette Maynard.
Row 2: Henry Kies; Henry Root; Edward Spalding Larned; William Bradshaw Rankin; Daniel Bliss; Ambrose Dunn.
Row 3: Elijah Shumway Fish; William Winton Goodrich; Brainerd Timothy Harrington; John Humphrey Almy; Henry Martyn Cheavens; Henry Sabin.
Row 4: George Nelson Webber; Charles Leland Porter; Orson Parda Allen; Gorham Train; Theodore Hiram Benjamin; William Grassie.
Row 5: Don Carlos Taft; James Austin Littlefield; Franklin Perry Chapin; Benjamin Easton Thurston; William Ewing Glenn; Sidney Kelsey Smith.
Row 6: Edward Phillips Burgess; George Henry Coit; William Horatio Adams; Charles Wood Kingsbury; John Fuss Buffington.
Row 7: Sylvanus Baker Roel; Austin Cary Blair; Ebenezer George Burgess; Augustus Greene Kimberly; Lewis Warfield Holmes; George Lewis Becker.