Short Teaching Module: Children and Daguerreotypes (19th c.)

Paula Petrik, George Mason University


For historians, there are several ongoing debates about the periodization of childhood and its transformation over time. When did children become important and in what capacity? As economic contributors? As the focus of emotional attachment or as subjects prone sentimental idealization? As political symbols or pawns? The goals for this exercise are, therefore, two: to demonstrate how images are socially constructed and to begin to get a handle on the changing role of children in American society. The primary sources referenced in this module can be viewed in the Primary Sources folder below. Click on the images or text for more information about the source.

This short teaching module includes broad guidance on activities and discussion, as well as connections to the one primary source.

Primary Sources

Children and Daguerreotypes

Daguerreotypes were the first commercially viable photographic process. Developed by French chemist Louis Daguerre in 1839, the technique quickly made its way to the US in the 1840s, the beginning of what some historians characterize as the "golden age" of childhood. Although the daguerreotype method was tedious—dependent on complicated chemical preparation, long exposure times, and an involved development procedure—the daguerreotype proved immediately popular because of its ability to capture detail and provide a "true" likeness. One of daguerreotypists' most popular sitters proved to be children. This series of daguerreotypes represents a range of childhood images: a postmortem representation, a hand-colored portrait, a brother and sister study, and photograph of a boy with a donkey. These offer several insights into the 19th-century's conceptualizations of childhood. As such, the photographs invite students to think about the different depictions of boys and girls, children's work, children's relationship to pets, sibling affiliation, and the cultural importance of children, generally. Download PDF of images here. This source is a part of the Children and Daguerreotypes (19th c.) teaching module.

Teaching Strategies

Why I Taught the Source

Most state-level world history standards include study of primary sources and encourage the use of visual documents. Although students are surrounded by visual stimuli, they "look" but seldom "see." As a result, students often view photographs as snapshots of reality; they are more "true" because they capture "what really, really happened."

For historians, there are several ongoing debates about the periodization of childhood and its transformation over time. When did children become important and in what capacity? As economic contributors? As the focus of emotional attachment or as subjects prone sentimental idealization? As political symbols or pawns? The goals for this exercise are, therefore, two: to demonstrate how images are socially constructed and to begin to get a handle on the changing role of children in American society.

I use a print handout for this exercise. Detail is important in daguerreotype, and print's greater resolution preserves the image's subtleties and color. In contrast, computer monitors or LCD projectors blur details and shift color. So, a color handout is provided in PDF format.

How I Introduce the Source

My introduction to the source consists of two parts: the technical and the personal. Daguerreotypes were influenced by their technical requirements, so I take a little time to explain the history of daguerreotypes and how they were made. Experience has demonstrated that one of the easiest and most accessible methods is via a clip from the J. Paul Getty Museum (approx. 6 min.). Whatever the approach, it is important to emphasize several elements dictated by a daguerreotype's technical requirements.

First, the daguerreotype necessitated a relatively long exposure time; in other words, the photographer's subject had to sit still for an extended period of time. (You may want to have students attempt to maintain a smile for 20 seconds to demonstrate the difficulty of holding a pose for even a relatively short time; long exposure times also explain the absence of smiling sitters in early daguerreotypes.)

Second, even though daguerreotypes put personal images within the reach of many more people, they remained relatively expensive and reserved for those who could afford them.

Third, daguerreotypes were one-off images in that they could not be reproduced; a daguerreotype was not a negative that could be reprinted multiple times.
Fourth, daguerreotypes were fragile; the image could be easily scratched. Because a daguerreotype was essentially a mirror, it could tarnish from exposure like a silver spoon. (See Fig. 2.)

Last but not least, a color daguerreotype was possible. For an additional cost, daguerreotype images could be hand-colored with special paints.

The personal part of the introduction draws on students' own experience and centers on the question: What do we, as human beings choose to remember with photographs? I ask students individually or in groups to think for several minutes and make a list of images they or their families keep. What photographs appear on the walls at home? In family photo albums? On social networking sites? The discussion generally turns up baby pictures, birthday parties, first communions, bar (bat) mitzvah parties, vacation snapshots, high school and college graduations, weddings, basic training or officer training completions or promotions, 50th wedding anniversaries, the unfortunate party photo, and so on. (For some ethnic groups, the memorial or postmortem photograph is still common, and it is worth noting this phenomenon.)

As the students or groups make their contributions, the list goes up on the board or on-screen. Once the lists are complete, I want the students to differentiate between professional and amateur images in order to maintain the parallel between daguerreotypes and contemporary studio photographs, so I ask students to determine which of their photographic choices were taken in a studio or by a professional photographer. Their selections go in second, smaller list. Once the latter list is complete, we discuss the elements common to the people or events captured in the images (milestones, achievements, celebrations) and what events are missing from the list (people at work).

We finish the discussion with two final questions: What does analysis of the lists tell us about what people in the late 20th and early 21st century choose to remember? And, more specifically, what do we choose to remember about children and youth? With that, we shift centuries and turn to the daguerreotypes.

Reading the Source

I've approached reading the sources by asking the students to work both individually and in groups, and either strategy works well. Usually the size of the class dictates whether group or individual work will be most effective. In either case, I begin by asking students to note who and what is in each of the images. What are the sitters wearing? How would you characterize the clothing? If there two people, do they lean toward one another or away? How are their arms or hands posed? Where are the subjects looking? Are there any objects in the portraits?

Once we have established what is in the photographs, we move onto more abstract considerations.

  • What can we make of the hat in Fig. 3?
  • What does the clothing suggest about the social class of the sitters? (Note the gloves in Fig. 3.)
  • Why, for example in Fig. 3, might flowers be associated with girls?
  • What do the flowers contribute to ideas about girls, in Fig. 1? Or, do they appear in the image for a different reason?
  • What does the boy's association with animals in Fig. 4 suggest?
  • How do the colorized images add to our understanding of the sitters' social class?
  • There are also elements in the images that are ambiguous and underscore the limits to historical inquiry. Is the donkey in Fig. 4 a pet or a working animal? We don't know without corroborating evidence. Is there evidence solely from the image to support either claim? If not, how would you go about finding evidence for your claim?


    To reflect, I ask the class to return to our discussion about contemporary photographs and articulate what has changed (or not) with regard to the depiction of childhood and youth in photographs from roughly 1840 to the present. What usually emerges from the discussion are observations and arguments supporting the importance of children and their central place in family history and photographic memory in both centuries. Students are also apt to view both contemporary and 19th-century children's photographs no longer as simple images but as constructs, encapsulating gender definitions and class distinctions. Students also note the transformations; namely, an increased emphasis on adolescence (proms, school graduations, athletics), an absence of postmortem or mortuary photographs, a greater informality in dress and pose, and few if any images of children or youth at work.

    Last but not least, I pass out 4x6 note cards and ask students to write a paragraph in which they make a brief argument—including a thesis and two pieces of evidence in support of their proposition—about childhood in the 19th century based on the daguerreotypes. Alternately, I ask them to post an argument paragraph to their blogs.


Paula Petrik received her PhD from SUNY-Binghamton in 1982 and MFA from the University of Montana. She is the author of No Step Backward: Women and Family on the Rocky Mountain Mining Frontier and co-editor (with Elliott West) of Small Worlds: Children and Adolescents in America, 1850-1950. Recipient of a Fulbright Fellowship to the United Kingdom, an NEH Fellowship, an Apple Computer Faculty Internship, and a Smithsonian Fellowship, among others, she has published articles on women in the American West, the U.S. toy industry, and new media.

This teaching module was originally developed for the Children & Youth in History project.

How to Cite This Source

"Short Teaching Module: Children and Daguerreotypes (19th c.)," in World History Commons, https://worldhistorycommons.org/short-teaching-module-children-and-daguerreotypes-19th-c [accessed July 23, 2024]