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The Daguerreian World in Color

Presented by Kelly Wright, Adjunct Professor, Department of History, University of Cincinnati

Winking at us through the metallic haze of a century and a half, early photography can still seduce us with furtive glimpses into our collective past.  Despite the astounding clarity of many surviving daguerreotypes, the silvery ghosts that stare back at us from little metal plates still tell us little about the colors of the society that made them. Surviving objects and paintings, however, give us clues into the intense, saturated, sometimes pyrotechnic colors of the mid nineteenth century. In that era female patrons of the grand daguerreian palaces wore boldly printed, richly colored silk dresses and their male escorts often sported brightly colorful cravats and graphically woven vests and coats. They sat for their portraits on intricately turned and carved chairs upholstered with machine loomed brocades, elaborations made newly available to the middle class through the wonders of steam power. At home middle-class Americans mimicked the splendors of the photographic palace in their furnishings, covering their floors in large-figured, deeply hued carpets and kaleidescopic floorcloths, and their walls and windows with vibrant florals and undulating rainbows .  They dressed their beds in album quilts appliqued in the deepest turkey reds and new synthetic greens, and “figured and fancy” coverlets woven by artisans who often specialized in specific color combinations.  The market revolution of the early nineteenth century had first made color accessible to middling Americans, even those living deep in the interior, and by midcentury industrialization was making it widely

affordable. As they  embraced industrialization, mid-nineteenth-century Americans crafted grammars of ornament that emphasized the new import of color, while reflecting their thoroughly modern sensibilities. Though contemporary photography may belie the fact, scarlet--not silver, not sepia--best describes the world they created for themselves.



Summary of Kelly Wright's Lecture (Audio Only)

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Open Daguerreotype