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American Women: Resources from the Prints & Photographs Collections


Occupational portrait of a woman working at a sewing machine. ca. 1853. Daguerreotype Collection. Library of Congress Prints & Photographs Division.

Daguerreotypes, which represent the division's earliest photographic holdings, demonstrate the blending of commerce and aesthetics. The process invented by Louis-Jacques-Mandé Daguerre in France in 1839 created a highly detailed image on a sheet of copper plated with a thin coat of silver. American photographers quickly capitalized on this new invention. Daguerreotypists in major cities invited celebrities and political figures to their studios in the hopes of obtaining a likeness for display in their windows and reception areas. They encouraged the public to visit their galleries, which were like museums, in the hope that these visitors would pay to be photographed as well. In this way, daguerreotypes brought portraiture to the middle classes.

Scope of the Collection

The majority of the division's daguerreotypes (more than 800 items, 1839-64) are portraits, including 384 items credited to Mathew Brady's studio, the largest collection of Brady studio daguerreotypes in existence. Overall, the corpus of daguerreotypes may suggest the greater visibility of males in the public sphere in the nineteenth century, but the collection includes some notable images of women, including:

  • the earliest known photograph of Mary Todd Lincoln (DAG no. 1223)
  • a portrait of women's rights advocate Lucy Stone (DAG no. 1201)
  • among its rare occupational portraits, an evocative portrait of an unidentified woman sitting beside a sewing machine, ca. 1853 (DAG no. 1204)

Many other daguerreotypes came to the Library with the manuscript collections of prominent Americans and document women from elite circumstances, including:

  • members of the Alexander Graham Bell family from the Grosvenor Family Papers
  • Walt Whitman's mother from the Charles E. Feinberg collection
  • members of Frances Benjamin Johnston's family

Images such as these invite reflection on what women's dress and their poses suggest about the ways in which they, their families, and the photographer wished to present them for posterity.

Daguerreotypes from the American Colonization Society Records document African American emigration to Liberia. The thirty portraits of Liberian government officials and other colonists include two women, one of whom, Jane Roberts, was the wife of the first president of Liberia (DAG no. 1001).

Searching the Collection

All of the Daguerreotypes can be searched in the online catalog where the collection has its own listing.

Sample Images