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:

    Hello,
    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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