Tuesday, August 9, 2016

Tuesday's Tip ~ Analyzing a Daguerreotype

I recently received this daguerreotype from my mother's sister. I believe it's the oldest photographic image that I own. (I have a few ambrotypes - see My Third Great Grandfather and Pair of Ambrotypes as well as Alston Twins Circa 1860.)

From Maureen Taylor's wonderful Uncovering Your Ancestry Through Family Photographs, as well as the PhotoTree website page on daguerreotypes, I learned a great deal about how to analyze this photograph.

The daguerreotype was introduced in 1839 and used for about twenty years until other photographic formats were introduced. Because the image is on a mirror-like surface, it appears positive or negative depending on the angle you're looking at. (It's hard to take a photo of it.)

The case, a quarter case (about 4" by 5"), appears to be what is known as a union case, patented in 1854, a more durable case than what had been available previously. According to Taylor's book, there are a variety of things to look at to help date the case: the design, the hinges, and the mat shape and design. (There are books devoted to this.)

There is no indication of who is in this photograph, so I will lay out what I do know about it:

In the 1850s, women wore their hair with these kinds of "puffs" on the side of the head. Also in this time period, women often wore a lace collar like the one in this photo. I think this looks like a relatively young woman in her late teens or early twenties, so born between 1830-1840?
There is a photographer's imprint in the lower left-hand side of the case:
A. H. Knapp
123 Wash. St.

A Google search of daguerreotype A H Knapp indicates that A. H. Knapp, a daguerreotype photographer, worked from 123 Washington Street in Boston for a very brief time in the 1850s. This suggests that she is not a maternal ancestor of my mother's (they all were in Allegheny County, Pennsylvania in the 1850s), but a paternal ancestor of my grandfather, Lowell Townsend Copeland.

I will share more analysis tomorrow with my theory of who this may be.


  1. Dear Cousin Elizabeth,

    I am almost certain that this is a young Anna Bronson Pratt (born Alcott), the model for "Meg" in Little Women. Her dates are 1831-1893, so she would have been a young woman in your image. Check out an older picture here: http://www.louisamayalcott.org/annatext.html.

    I thought of her because the Alcott cousins mostly have dark hair. But we also have a bunch of Pratt objects in the family. Our great grandmother Ethel May Copeland knew the Pratts of her generation, and was given a tour of Orchard House by this woman's son's wife in 1916 (as I know from a little Book of Common Prayer that was given her on the occasion).

    I think the nose, the hairstyle, and the mouth shape and expression clinch it.

    What do you think?

    Cousin Suzanne

    1. Wow, thank you cousin Suzanne! I think you've got it - I looked at the picture of Anna and zoomed in and it does look like the woman in this image. I wonder why it ended up with our Copeland-Greeley ancestors?

    2. Other Alcott family items made their way down the line, mostly things with a putative association with Louisa May Alcott. Your pictured young woman was the survivor (though the eldest) who returned to Concord and kept the flame alive after Louisa died. The link, appropriately to your first stab at her identity, is our great great grandmother Eliza May Wells. She and Anna Bronson Alcott Pratt had the same relationship that you and I have, right? Daughters of two cousins? It seems entirely plausible that these women and/or their descendants would have shared images of one another. Plus Anna was a minor celebrity, as "Meg" of Little Women.

    3. This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.

    4. Louisa May Alcott and Anna Bronson Alcott were first cousins of our second great grandfather, Samuel Sewall Greeley. They were first cousins once removed of Eliza May Wells, SSG's wife. Samuel Sewall Greeley and his wife, Eliza May Wells, were first cousins once removed.

      I blogged about this relationship at Cousin Louisa May Alcott.

  2. They moved from Concord to Boston in 1848, when Anna Bronson Alcott would have been 17. Anna opened a small school with about twenty pupils in Boston in 1850. This is according to _Alcott in Her Own Time_ by Daniel Shealy.