Thursday, November 20, 2014

Early Daguerreotypes, Tintypes and Ambrotypes in the Cooksville Archives, by Larry Reed.

 The Cooksville Archives contains examples of the first photographic techniques of the mid-19th century—daguerreotypes and tintypes. Most are formal portraits of early settlers and their family members from the 1850s and 1860s; some are of friends; some are of Civil War soldiers from Wisconsin.

Daguerreotypes (images captured on light-sensitive chemicals applied to silvered copper plates), tintypes (on iron plates) and ambrotypes (on glass plates) were an exciting new invention and became popular in the mid-1800s, followed in the later 19th century by photographic images exposed on chemically-treated paper cards. The latter were more portable, less expensive and very popular.

The earliest and most practical method of chemically capturing images was invented by the Frenchman, J. M. Daguerre about 1839 using copper plates coated with silver and treated with iodine vapor, then exposed, then treated with mercury vapors and finally with sulfuric acid, and washed clean in distilled water. This lengthy “daguerreotype” process permanently fixed the “light pictures” or photographs on the metal plates, which were then varnished or lacquered to protect the surface.

In the 1850s glass plates (ambrotypes) were used, but much more popular was the use of less bulky and less fragile plates of a cheap metal (“tintypes” of iron, never tin). Tintypes, invented about 1856, were very popular in America— inexpensive “black mirrors of the self.” Professional portrait photographers quickly set up their popular businesses in every city

Eventually coated paper cards and, in the late-19th century, negative celluloid film of Eastman and Kodak replaced the more expensive, complicated wet-processed daguerreotypes and tintypes.

William Porter, c.1860

Unidentified boys (possibly Porters)

Three unidentified ladies posing

Capt. Chas. Taylor, Company H, 1st Wis. Heavy Artillery Regiment
The various early Cooksville photographs include portraits of members of the Porter family and a few other identified persons. But most are of unidentified men, women, children and a few babies, with many Civil War portraits, both tintypes and card-based, of military men identified as part of the 1st Wisconsin Heavy Artillery Regiment.

These early “tintype” or ferrotype photographs in the collection vary in size from small one-square inch to 2x4 inches and about 3x5 inches. Some of the photos have hand-applied color: touched-up pink cheeks and flesh-tones and a few gold-colored ear-rings.

The Cooksville Archives also contain a large number of glass-plate negatives from the late 19th and early 20th centuries. The use of chemically-treated glass plates to capture negative images was another popular photographic technique, one considered especially effective and artistic.

Ralph L. Warner of Cooksville was responsible for a number of early photographs in the village, either taken by him or others, in the early 1900s. Some are artistic images captured on glass negatives and some are on celluloid negatives documenting his “House Next Door,” his antique collections, his gardens, and scenes of village life including friends and neighbors.

A Madison-based photographer, Eric Baillies, employs these old “tintype” processes to painstakingly create and capture images just as early photographers did 165 years ago. Eric came to Cooksville recently with his camera, chemicals and “developing tent” to make tintype portraits of a resident using the old technique.

The Cooksville Archives has a large collection of photographs from the 19th and 20th centuries donated for safe-keeping and for research, documenting the historic village and its people. More are always welcome. Contact Larry Reed to visit the Archives or to donate photographs —old or new, because the present soon becomes past history.

Tuesday, November 11, 2014

The "Pearl Craze": Pearling in the Badfish Creek, by Larry Reed

In the late 19th century, everybody was wading in the local creeks and rivers in southern Wisconsin searching for pearls, even in the little Badfish Creek flowing past Cooksville.

The “Pearl Craze” had begun in August of 1889, when a pearl was discovered in a clam in the Sugar River, which flows through Brodhead, Wisconsin, and the result was a “pearl rush,” not unlike a gold rush. The headline in the local Brodhead weekly of August 8, 1889, declared in large type-face: “PEARLS” EVERYBODY HUNTING THEM! One is Found That is Worth $100 BETTER THAN A GOLD MINE!

Searching shallow waters, scrapping through the muck of the area’s rivers and creeks was widespread as people dug up and eagerly cracked open what had once been useless clams. All were hoping to strike it rich by discovering a perfectly spherical or drop-shaped globe of shell material surrounding an irritant inside the mollusk.

The “pearl craze” spread throughout southern and western Wisconsin, from Cooksville’s little Badfish Creek to the mighty Mississippi River. The size and quality of the fresh-water pearls found inside the clams varied greatly, and colors ranged from lavender to pink to white and blue. Usually, small round pearls sold for a few dollars or so, but even a $10-pearl was worth about a week’s wages in the late-19th century. Larger flawless spheres were much rarer than the more usual, small, irregular pearls and much more highly valued.

Some pearlers struck it rich with large, colorful spheres. A few people in the Brodhead area were able to build new homes with their findings; one even bought a new farm. A total of about $300,000 worth of pearls were collected in southern Wisconsin by the end of 1891, making pearl revenue one of the highest of all natural product revenues in the state.

Pearls of small, irregular sizes were found almost everywhere as the “pearl rush” continued for a few years. People searched the Badfish Creek, but unfortunately there are no records of successful “pearling” in the little creek. However, a few odd-shaped, iridescent, little “gems” may well have been found. 

But the “Pearl Craze” didn’t last very long.