Through A Glass Darkly

How glass plate technology met high Tech

By Mark R. Moore

A fine lady in a hat out for a drive.

History in Danville is more than smelly, mildewed books full of dates and records of live birth and dead moldering bones. Most people in the United States live in sleek, shiny, modern connected metropolises where the pejorative phrase “What have you done for me lately?” symbolizes both the immediate lack of caring and superficial connections as opposed to what we have here in Danville. It’s what I would call “wearable history” here. Your best friend might be related to the street you live on (was be a Brainerd, it might be Greenbank Hollow, the residence you live in might have been known for a hundred years as Dr. Smith’s House or, possibly, the Pettengill farm. The hill you can see might be Roy Mountain and you find there’s an eighteen year old Roy on Facebook. Strangest of all, that person, by and large, can, if asked, quickly trace their lineage directly back to why that house, hill or road was named for a person in their family, not because the fact was drilled into them at school, but because they have a reticent Northeast Kingdom nobless oblige (broadly defined-deferring to a person because of their family’s past history past)and simply grew up with a story in their past and is left for you, the present, to discover how the past appellation became attached to the house or hollow. Recently, I was presented with a group of different sized, dark, apparently smoky glass photographic negatives that had been in encased a shoebox in a cellar for nearly hundred years before they saw the light of day and asked to discover what relation, if any they have to Danville.

The box of glass negatives was brought to me by Historical Harriet. Harriet is always going through our store of artifacts and likes to surprise me with her latest discovery and see what I will do with it. Before wanting to delve into the box and see how Historical Harriet would adapt available modern technology to solve to solve the problem of getting a picture from an old, dark chemically coated negative I did some research on the history of glass plates. Shortly after Louis Daguerre and William Henry Fox Talbot pioneered the daguerreotype in 1839 which were printed on silver-plated copper or brass. Frederick Scott Archer, an English sculptor, expanded their discoveries the discoveries of Daguerre and Talbot and came out with the wet glass plate know as the wet collodion negative. Because it was coated glass and not paper the wet glass negatives created a sharper, more detailed negative and could produce more than one print from a negative but this had to be done within five minutes.

The problem with wet plates was that the coating, collodion, was made by dissolving cellulose nitrate (gun cotton) in ether, alcohol and potassium iodide which flowed onto the glass plate. The plate was then plunged into a bath of silver nitrate which turned the collodion on the glass plate into a photo-sensitive silver iodide. The picture had to then be quickly made. The danger was that, in combining the chemicals in making the coating for the plates, the cameraman could become the photographic equivalent of Alice in Wonderland’s addled Mad Hatter by breathing in the combination of acrid odors similar to hatters forming hats using mercury to shape the felt. Clearly, it was a job for professionals like Matthew Brady who spent the time preparing the plates and gave us some of the most enduring images of the Civil War.

In 1873 Dr. Richard Maddox opened the door to modern personal amateur photography by inventing the dry plate glass negative. Using a light-sensitive gelatin emulsion to coat the glass plates the messy, dangerous process of wet glass preparation was eliminated and the plates could now be stored for months and used by amateur photographers. The cameras absorbed light very quickly so it was only necessary to expose it to light for a few seconds to make a picture and portable darkrooms no longer had to be hauled around to develop the wet plates before their emulsion dried. The dry glass plates came became user-friendly by 1880, the plates were sold by manufacturers, pre-packaged, and the user just had to expose one to light and develop it, to edges of the glass plate were smooth, size was regular, and the silver nitrate was more evenly distributed. Amateur photography thus exploded across the country and the dry glass plates were used until they were fully replaced by George Eastman and his Kodak camera and cellulose film by 1920.

But the turn of the century in Danville was no “snapshot” era by any means. A camera of wood and brass with the dry plates, though smaller than the wet glass had be hauled around by the photographer and the subjects still had to remain stationary for their pictures to be taken. The blacken glass remained mute in the shoe box but Historical Harriet was now ready to perform her high-tech magic. She lifted the of top of the Hewlett-Packard Officejet Pro L7600 All-In-One, cleaned it off with Glass Clean and a soft cloth and prepared the first negative, emulsion side down.

“Wait a minute,” I nervously said, “Won’t you just get a copy of a negative?”

“Sure, if you do it that way” said Harriet and smiled. “But we’ll reverse the black and white and scan it in the computer.”

“Oh” I said. Deflated.

And that’s what we did. Only once, however, to keep the negative from fading. Harriet waved her sorcerer’s wand and scanned each photo was scanned into the computer and sent them went to the Picasa Program (we don’t have PhotoShop or other sophisticated software at the Historical Society)which gave us a vivid, varied picture of life in Danville at the turn of the century. A man standing in a suit in his tall cornfield, ladies with big, new ribbons on their hats, ladies in carriages with new coats, loads of hay harvested and ready to bale, a young boy grinning with pride over his young cattle and most interesting among the residents is the family who proudly rotated furniture in their parlor so they could take several different pictures. So, how do we know it was the turn of the century? A little more high tech magic. Picasa has a enlargement button that , at your (or, this case, Harriet’s) command moves over a scanned picture and will focus on different parts of it. We noticed a calendar and the wall and zoomed in. It said November 3rd and showed it was a Sunday but no year date. Not to be out-teched I grabbed an old diary and found November 3rd was a Sunday in 1903. Harriet observed that the date could be in a range of approximately seven years. In another photograph of the same room, again using the zoom we found the same calendar with year 1903.

The buildings came to life in stunningly detailed black and white. The old Methodist church with bricks so clear they could have just been laid next to the proud Caledonian National Bank. A elevated picture of the Eagle Hotel, the Congregational Church taken from upper stories of the Elm House. All of the dry plates from which the scans were taken are now stored upright in acid –free, folding boxes of a medium weight buffered board and then placed in another acid-free box or map cabinet. So do not despair if you find or know of an old cardboard box in a cellar, garage, closet or trunk with seemingly discolored glass; plates too dark for you to distinguish anyone or anything. Reach out to it and bring them to life. Touch them. It may be your link to your history in Danville.

A photo of the Green taken from the Elm House, pre-1889. The buildings burned in the big fire.




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3 Responses to Through A Glass Darkly

  1. Jay Miles says:

    I just read your story on the development of glass plates by scanning them into your computer. I also have glass plates which I believe have historical importance (for North Dakota) and wondered if I could connect with Harriet for more “how to” information and directions. I understand that if the light source is too intense it may break the plate and want to make sure that’s avoided. Thanks for your help.

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