// you’re reading...

Architecture

Photo Mystery: A Stumped Sleuth

Baltimore, Md [?] – Houses – Unidentified House, ca 1870s-1880s, SVF, MdHS.

Baltimore, Md [?] – Houses – Unidentified House, ca 1870s-1880s, SVF, MdHS.

One of the best parts about working in the Special Collections Department is trying to identify subjects in old photographs. It requires a certain amount of detective work – a keen eye, dedicated research, and a lot of reasonable deduction. While it is often impossible to determine the identity of an anonymous subject from a hundred years ago or more, at the very least, an approximate date range and sometimes  the location of where the photograph was taken can be determined.

The first place to start is with the format of the photograph. The average daguerreotype, for example, can be dated to the 1840s through the 1850s. By the Civil War, the “mirror with a memory” had largely been replaced in popularity by other formats such as the tintype and carte de visite. The degree of decorative embellishments on a carte de visite or cabinet card, the cut of a sitter’s dress, a man’s hairstyle, or the backdrop used in a studio photograph, are important clues in dating photographs. If we’re lucky, the name of the photographer or studio is stamped or embossed on the photograph. If this information is present, the location of where the photograph was probably taken can be determined, and sometimes enable the image to be dated to a precise year.

When it comes to identifying photographs of Baltimore buildings, parks, monuments, and architectural subjects we turn to one person, Senior Reference Librarian Francis O’Neill. With his encyclopedic knowledge of Baltimore history and architecture, it will often take Francis a mere moment to scan a photograph of some nondescript section of city block and be able to identify it immediately. “This was taken looking east from the 600 block of W. Lombard Street; you can tell from the signage on this building. It was taken prior to 1904 as this building over here was destroyed during the Great Baltimore Fire,” is a typical pronouncement.

On rare occasions, however, even Francis is stumped. Special Collections staff unearthed the photograph featured in today’s post while processing a batch of large format glass photographs found in the depths of our unprocessed collections storage. Most were idenitified by subject and date. Unfortunately, no identifying information was found with the above example of one of the earliest photographic formats, the ambrotype.

[Detail] Baltimore, Md [?] – Houses – Unidentified House, ca 1870s-1880s, SVF, MdHS.

[Detail] Baltimore, Md [?] – Houses – Unidentified House, ca 1870s-1880s, SVF, MdHS.

Introduced in England in 1852 by Frederick Scott Archer, the ambrotype, like the earlier daguerreotype, is a one of a kind image. The ambrotype was created by coating a glass plate with collodion, a clear, syrupy compound and silver nitrate. The plate, still moist, was then put into a large format camera, exposed, and developed. The resulting image appears as a negative until viewed over an opaque background – either dark lacquer applied directly to the back of the glass or a backing of black paper or cardboard. The ambrotype, like the contemporary tintype which was created using a thin piece of iron rather than glass, did not have the mirrored sheen or highly detailed quality of the earlier daguerreotype, but was less expensive and easier to produce. Ambrotypes were produced during the period from 1854 to just after the Civil War, although some photographers continued to use the format until the 1880s.

Most ambrotypes range in size from the ninth plate, 1 ½ x 1 ¾ inches, to the whole or full plate, 6 ½ x 8 ½ inches. Measuring 12 x 14 ¾ inches, the photograph featured here is a rare example of an imperial or mammoth ambrotype. The image was hand colored by an artist, an added expense. The clothing worn by the people in the photograph suggests that it was taken in the 1870s to 1880s. It may have been taken in Baltimore but it could very well have been taken in another city outside of Maryland.

We invite readers to submit thoughts on the identity of the building through the comments section below.

(Damon Talbot)

[Detail] Baltimore, Md [?] – Houses – Unidentified House, ca 1870s-1880s, SVF, MdHS.

[Detail] Baltimore, Md [?] – Houses – Unidentified House, ca 1870s-1880s, SVF, MdHS.

[Detail] Baltimore, Md [?] – Houses – Unidentified House, ca 1870s-1880s, SVF, MdHS.

[Detail] Baltimore, Md [?] – Houses – Unidentified House, ca 1870s-1880s, SVF, MdHS.

 

Discussion

One Response to “Photo Mystery: A Stumped Sleuth”

  1. That looks to be the early Hammond-Harwood House, at the corner of Charles & Monument, before it went through remodeling. I could well be wrong, but maybe at least the architect could be the same, and to know the architect of the Hammond-Harwood could be researched as to what else he built.

    Posted by Mary B | 01. Sep, 2018, 11:17 am

Post a comment

Current day month ye@r *

Facebook

Visit Us On FacebookVisit Us On TwitterVisit Us On YoutubeVisit Us On Pinterest