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Snapshot in Time

June 2024
3min read

Restoration experts make a startling discovery that an 1848 daguerreotype hides a wealth of insight into life in a pre-war riverside town

In 2006, conservator Ralph Wiegandt flipped on his Zeiss Axio stereomicroscope and peered at the surface of an 1848 daguerreotype. The Cincinnati Public Library had entrusted him to clean its prize possession, a rare five-and-a-half-foot-long, eight-plate panorama photograph of the city’s waterfront. Working out of the George Eastman House in Rochester, New York, he found the image’s surface strewn with corrosive particles, as he had expected. But at the same time extraordinary details from the image jumped out at him: letters on a billboard, a face in a window. Black spots indeterminate to the naked eye magically resolved into wagons, groups of men, and laundry drying on a clothes line.

Eagerly Wiegandt moved his microscope over to the Second Presbyterian Church’s clock tower in the panorama’s second plate. Librarians in 1947 had pinpointed the photograph’s date withmagnifying glasses and steamboat manifests to Sunday, September 24, 1848, but they couldn’t determine the time of day on the blurry clock face. Wiegandt adjusted the microscope, and the clock’s hands popped into focus: 1:55 p.m. No one had ever seen these details before.

An excited e-mail to the curators in Cincinnati set up further work, which involved snapping more than 11,000 high-resolution digital photographs of every inch of the daguerreotype. Each was blown up, uncovering even more detail as the examples on the following pages reveal. Some images were both idyllic and haunting: two boys with buckets walk along the river banks near an open sewer, hinting at the calamity to come when a devastating cholera outbreak killed nearly 6,000 Cincinnatians between 1849 and 1851 and sent many residents fleeing for their lives. Would the boys become victims?

“We can read about living in a tenement or working on a riverboat, but it’s different if you can see it,” said Patricia Van Skaik, manager of the library’s Genealogy and Local History Department. Over the past five years, the curators and conservators have mined the image for visual details about the boomtown of Cincinnati, which was founded in 1788 and was exploding with commerce and innovation in the 1840s and 1850s, providing a snapshot of America coming into its own on the eve of the Civil War.

The Ohio River connected Pittsburgh to Cincinnati and—via the Mississippi—the international port of New Orleans. The steamships seen tied up in the photograph carried not only passengers but manufactured goods tomarket. In addition, the 300-mile Miami and Erie Canal, completed in 1845 at a cost of $8 million, connected the city to Toledo on Lake Erie (plate 6 shows a bridge over the canal). Unlimited quantities of anthracite coal brought by barge spawned many manufactories in the late 1840s: iron foundries, breweries, sawmills, rollingmills, finishing shops, bell and brass foundries, boiler yards, and boatbuilding and machine shops. As a result, Cincinnati’s population jumped 150 percent to 115,000 between 1840 and 1850. By 1850, a little more than 16,000 mostly brick buildings (up from 6,781 in 1840) housed 91 churches, numerous factories and homes, and workplaces of 1,676 tailors, 7,864 laborers, 627 butchers, and 16 steamship captains. A large influx of Germans populated the “Over the Rhine” section of town just beyond the canal, while Irish immigrants generally settled near the river. Twenty slaughterhouses packed almost half a million hogs, while laborers on Cincinnati’s outskirts picked 7,000 bushels of strawberries. More than 300 vineyards produced the pink Catawba grape and some 120,000 gallons of a sweet, medium-bodied wine that so impressed poet Henry Wadsworth Longfellow that he wrote an ode to it:

And this Song of the Vine,

This greeting of mine,

The winds and the birds

shall deliver To the Queen of the West,

In her garlands dressed,

On the banks of the Beautiful River.

In doing so he baptized Cincinnati as the Queen City.

It seems surprising that the daguerreotype, the oldest form of practical photography, could deliver such resolution. Yet even to this day, the process is exceptional at capturing fine detail. The Cincinnati panorama contains enough detail so that curators could enlarge it to 3,400 square feet without losing clarity. Photographers using the daguerreotype method, which had been invented in France in 1839, first buffed a silver-coated copper plate to a highly reflective polish and then sensitized it with iodine or bromine. In the camera box, the plate was exposed to light through a focused lens and processed with heated mercury. As a direct-positive image, a daguerreotype has a higher resolution than a paperbacked photograph.

The Cincinnati panorama is especially valuable because early daguerreotypists generally avoided landscapes, instead concentrating on far more lucrative portraiture. Photographers Charles Fontayne and William Porter, who took the panorama across the river from atop a building in Covington, Kentucky, probably intended it to be a showpiece for their studio. It accomplished far more than they dreamed, winning awards and drawing international attention at the first world’s fair in London’s Crystal Palace in 1851, where it thrilled Euro-peans with the power and promise of the American West.

Other tantalizing details from this photograph include what may be the first image of free African Americans at leisure, located in plate 2. The Ohio River divided the free state of Ohio from the slave state of Kentucky; Cincinnati served as a hotbed of abolition and harbored the nation’s third-largest population of free blacks. In a little more than a decade, the city would play a prominent role in the nation’s bloodiest conflict. The panorama will no doubt reveal more information in time. “It really is a Mona Lisa of daguerreotypes,” said Van Skaik.

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