From the Exhibition:

Visualizing 19th-Century New York

The Chatham Square daguerreotype provides a glimpse into the commercial and industrial world of lower New York in the 1850s. At first glance, one notices the white awnings, flags, and signage that represent the neighborhood establishments and frame the view. But on closer inspection, pedestrians and omnibuses, although blurry, can be seen moving along the sidewalks and streets carrying out everyday business. A painting would have portrayed a more idealized view of the neighborhood, but the daguerreotype’s candid character captures an unembellished scene. A close study of the individual elements in this daguerreotype, as they actually appear, reveals details of the surrounding businesses that may provide insight as to why visualizations of downtown commerce were widely circulated during this period.

Street scenes of New York are rare—in subject, size, and quantity. Daguerreotypes were mainly used for portraiture in the mid-nineteenth century and far less often for outdoor views, including, street scenes, natural wonders, and homesteads.1 As a whole-plate daguerreotype (6 1/2 x 8 1/2 in.), this piece would have been more expensive than the variety of smaller portraits, which could have been as small as sixteenth-plates (1 3/8 x 1 5/8 in.)2 Few extant New York daguerreotypes remain compared to the number of surviving daguerreotypes of other American cities, such as Philadelphia, New Orleans, and St. Louis.3 Yet New York was a flourishing center of the American daguerreotype industry where they were sold in many sizes and at many prices to all classes. Street views, therefore, would also have been attractive to the buying public, given the period interest in capturing the natural forms of people and sights.

The subject and location of the Chatham Square daguerreotype—a busy scene of the downtown area—reveals the competitive nature of New York industry. The city featured both elite and less expensive establishments, which increased as the popularity and competition of daguerreotypy caused prices to fall over time. At the upper end, many prominent daguerreotypists opened their studios with fashionable Broadway addresses, none of them more prominent than the celebrity daguerreotypist Mathew B. Brady, who combatted the growing number of establishments by presenting his work as a form of high art. Wealthy patrons were lured into daguerreotype studios by viewing galleries that were lavishly decorated with frescoed ceilings and velvet curtains that provided an exclusive experience.4 Meanwhile, at the cheap factory-like daguerreotype studios clustered in the downtown area, large numbers of patrons were rushed through scripted, efficient paths that sometimes had separate doors for entering and exiting. The heightened competition over this art form apparently caused alarm even for New York’s most prominent daguerreotypist, as Brady’s advertisements deplored the cheaper productions: “Address to the Public—New York abounds with announcements of 25 cent and 50 cent Daguerreotypes. But little science, experience, or taste is required to produce these, so called, cheap pictures.”5 Because all classes were interested in memorializing their lives with these genuine tokens, however, the cheaper establishments thrived in spite of Brady’s opposition.

The creation of this daguerreotype also corresponds with Chatham Square as a geographic center for the medium. Although the author and date of this image are unknown, we do know its exact location, which was at the intersection of Chatham and Pearl (now Park Row) Streets. The commercial signage seen in the daguerreotype has been cross-referenced with period inventories and reveals that many daguerreian studios were located in this area. Over the course of the 1850s, John Woodbridge, John Matear, Jackson & Wilkes, and Isaac Holmes all opened daguerreotype studios within the radius of a few blocks. Some of these studios were located on the second story of the mid-nineteenth-century buildings, and the height and view of the Chatham daguerreotype suggests that it was taken from a second-story balcony. The scene captures the area’s many popular destinations, including the four-story Chatham Square post office and Purdy’s National Theatre, decorated with flagpoles and pillars. The street tracks enable us to pinpoint the location and approximate date of this object. These tracks are likely the earliest city railroad on which “City Cars” traveled, which tells us that the Chatham daguerreotype is one of the earliest documentations of these urban streetcars.6

Looking carefully and contextualizing further, we can see that this seemingly ordinary image is a rather special one. A rare street scene, especially of the less familiar downtown area, attests to New York’s commercial vitality with its numerous business establishments and glimpses of urban transport for the working class. Despite associations with the working class, the showcasing of downtown establishments and urban transportation demonstrates the broad-based commercial attractions of New York and would have served to boost the city’s image with a highly desirable depiction of the downtown area. However, even without the historical and contextual details that form this compelling narrative, the palpable shine of the daguerreotype’s precious-metal components, is most certainly alluring.

1.Keith Davis, Jane Lee Aspinwall, and Marc F. Wilson, The Origins of American Photography: From Daguerreotype to Dry-Plate, 18391885 (Kansas City, MO, and New Haven, CT: Nelson Atkins Museum of Art, in association with Yale University Press, 2007), 129.

2.Ibid., 64.

3.Arthur Krim, “A Window on the Manhattan Metropolis: The Chatham Square Daguerreotype,” The Daguerreian Annual 1996 (Eureka, CA: The Daguerreian Society, 1997): 24–29.

4.The Metropolitan Museum of Art, “The Daguerreian Era and Early American Photography on Paper, 1839–1860,”; accessed February 4, 2014.

5.Robert Taft, Photography and the American Scene (New York: Dover Publications, 1964, 1938), 82.

6.Krim, “A Window on the Manhattan Metropolis,” 24–29.