Sunday, July 18, 2010

Cincinnati Daguerreotype Time Machine, 1848

Randall Stephens

What if we could see, in vivid detail, the world of a mid-19th century American city? We can. Sort of.

On a sunny Sunday in September 1848, two clever daguerreotypists, Charles Fontayne and William S. Porter,
placed their camera on a rooftop next to the Ohio River. From Newport, Kentucky, they captured a sweeping panoramic view of Cincinnati. The massive, detailed image that resulted reveals a bustling western city. The original ranks as one of the Cincinnati Public Library's greatest treasures.

The huge picture contains amazing detail. (See the zoom-in from the YouTube clip embedded here.) Visible in the picture are open windows, a distant clock tower, merchants, free blacks, a railroad station, steamboats, factories, shops, and more. Combine all that visual evidence with the 1850-51 Cincinnati Directory, detail from local papers, booster works of the day, statistical reports, and a full picture emerges.

Wired magazine features the 1848 waterfront daguerreotype in its August 2010 issue. "The panorama could be blown up to 170 by 20 feet without losing clarity," writes Julie Rehmeyer. To reach that level of precision a digital camera version would have to record a staggering 140,000 megapixels per shot. The total stitched-together panorama contains nearly 9-billion pixels. Rehmeyer describes the restoration and stabilization of the plates through the latest technology. Her explanation of the daguerreotype (the latest technology of that day) gives a good sense of how this all worked.

The Cincinnati Library intends to make a zoomable version available on-line next year. Until then, see The University of Rochester and George Eastman House, which has a 180mb version of one part of the Cincinnati Waterfront image on-line. (Warning: That's a massive file.)

I wonder if the zoomable version will be available by the next time I teach my course on American history from 1783-1865. I can see pairing this image up with primary and secondary source materials. Students might answer questions about how the panorama confirms or challenges the reading. What can we learn from the visual record that we can't learn from print? What does the look, design, layout of an America city tell us about this age?

As far as a selection from a primary source . . . any of these would work: James Handasyd Perkins, Annals of the West: Embracing a Concise Account of Principal Events . . . (1852), Charles Cist, The Cincinnati Miscellany (1846), or Eliza R. Steele, A Summer Journey in the West (1841). On the secondary source side: Daniel Walker Howe, What Hath God Wrought: The Transformation of America, 1815-1848 (Oxford, 2007), Leo Damrosch, Tocqueville's Discovery of America (Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2010), or David S. Reynolds, Waking Giant: America in the Age of Jackson (Harper Perennial, 2009).


Katrina said...

This is amazing! Thanks for sharing. I look forward to the whole picture being online.

Bland Whitley said...

This is similar to a panoramic shot of 1870s-era San Francisco executed by stop-action photography innovator Edward Muybridge. It involved more advanced technology (silver colloidal perhaps?) but Muybridge seems to have followed a similar strategy. As of early June, it was on display at the Corcoran Gallery in D.C. I wonder how many other 19th century cityscapes are out there and how many could be run through the Google process.

Randall said...

Some very cool ones from later eras at the Library of Congress:

Victorians loved panoramas! One more category for a Things Victorian People Liked book.

Unknown said...

In terms of sheer resolution, nothing was ever "more advanced" than the Daguerrotype process. It's got basically unlimited resolution, down to the molecular level.

Patricia Van Skaik said...

Images of the entire Cincinnati Waterfront Panorama are available on the Ohio Memory Project,, and from the Public Library of Cincinnati and Hamilton County,

Christopher said...

I have all 8 of the images on my website, if interested: