Record Number: 6257
Call number: 1839.1
Reproduction restrictions: None
Depicts: Central High School (Philadelphia, Pa.)
Photographer: Saxton, Joseph
Image description: Image: Although Beaumont Newhall described the Saxton image as "hardly more than a silhouette", architectural details of both buildings are evident, including shutters, window frames, and window panes.
Plate: No plate marks, inscriptions or imprints. Silver-copper alloy with a thin copal varnish (varnish content identified by the spectrum produced in infrared spectrometry by Diana Omecindky and Dr. Gary Carriveau of the Conservation Services Laboratory, Analytical Section, Detroit Institute of Art).
Enclosed item: Accompanied by an 8x10" resin coated gelatin silver print enlargement of the plate, and an 8x10" color inkjet print (digitized and printed in 2011) for ease of viewing.
Exhibition History: "The Philadelphia Photographer," mounted at the Library Company of Philadelphia and open to the public September 25, 1989 through February 23, 1990; and "Robert Cornelius: Portraits from the Dawn of Photography," mounted at the National Portrait Gallery and open to the public October 20, 1983 through January 22, 1984.
Historical significance: In his biography of L.J.M. Daguerre, Helmut Gernsheim says - "Following a detailed description of the process published by Professor J.F. Frazer in the Journal of the Franklin Institute, Philadelphia, for October 1839, or possibly one that had already appeared in the United States Gazette published in Philadelphia on 25 September, Joseph Saxton an employee of the United States Mint, took the first daguerreotype in Philadelphia on 16 October. The picture measures 1 1/8 inches x 1 1/2 inches and showing the old arsenal and the cupola of the Philadelphia Central High School, was taken from a window of the Mint. It is the earliest surviving American daguerreotype and is preserved at the Historical Society of Pennsylvania. Though by no means perfect, even allowing for blemishes and dust which may have accumulated on it later, this first attempt was nevertheless 'sufficiently successful to demonstrate the beauty of the art when perfected; and we add that the success also shows the art to be quite susceptible of great and important improvements.'"
(Gernsheim, Helmut and Alison. "L.J.M. Daguerre: The History of the Diorama and the Daguerreotype." Dover Publications, Inc.: New York. 1968. Second revised edition. Page 132.)
[Note: Gernsheim incorrectly states the dimensions of the Saxton daguerreotype.]
Beaumont Newhall describes the Saxton image as "the only existing American daguerreotype that can be surely documented as having been taken in 1839."
(Newhall, Beaumont. "The Daguerreotype in America." New York Graphic Society: New York. 1968. Revised edition. Page 24.)
Regarding published discrepancies of dates: "Arguing that Alexander Dallas Bache's abstract provided insufficient information to make a daguerreotype, Julius Sachse dated this plate to October 16, when an account of Daguerre's first public demonstration of his process was published in 'Poulson's American Daily Advertiser' (see Julius F. Sachse, "Early Daguerreotype Days [II], 'American Journal of Photography' 13, no. 151 [July 1892]: 306-8). Most subsequent writers have accepted this date without question (see Robert Taft, 'Photography and the American Scene' [New York, 1938], p. 20). As early as 1860, however, Marcus Root claimed that Saxton made this plate the day Daguerre's process was first published in Philadelphia, i.e. September 25, 1839 (see Marcus Aurelius Root, "American Photographical Society" 'Photographic and Fine Art Journal' 12, no. 4 [April 1860]: 94; and idem., 'The Camera and the Pencil' [Philadelphia: 1864], pp. 350-51). The earliest published reference to this daguerreotype is a description that appeared in the 'United States Gazette', October 24, 1839, p. 2, col. 1."
(Stapp, William F. "Robert Cornelius: Portraits from the Dawn of Photography." Smithsonian Institution Press: City of Washington. 1983. Page 47.)