The first commercially viable photographic process, the Daguerreotype, allowed the middle class to obtain “likenesses” of themselves and their close family members for the first time on a mass scale. By 1843, Norwalkers could obtain daguerreotype portraits at local studios. Daguerreotypes typically cost about a week’s wages.

Reverend Moses Hill | Daguerreotype | C.P. PH-4937 Norwalk Public Library History Room
Daguerreotype Camera

Today we might think of photographs as paper prints or digital images on our computers or smart phones. The earliest photographs, daguerreotypes, were made directly on a sheet of a metal and encased in glass.


They needed protection because the image was formed by a powder that rests on top of the metal sheet. Without a glass cover to protect it, the powder would wipe right off. Light can also degrade the image, and so the metal and its glass cover were sealed in a case that was kept closed when no one was looking at the portrait inside.

Daguerreotype Case

Daguerreotypes were weighty objects, held in the hand, and opened and closed.


Reverend Moses Hill | Daguerreotype | Norwalk Public Library History Room C.P. PH-4916 | Rev. Moses Hill was a Methodist minister first in Maine and then in Hartford. After failing health forced him to retire from the ministry in 1854, he and his family moved to Norwalk. The 1860 U.S. Census lists his occupation as “lumber merchant.” He lived in Norwalk for another 28 years until his death in 1882. The daguerreotypes on view are of him or his children.

Diseases, infections, complications during childbirth, and the Civil War cut short many young lives in the 19th century. Photography provided a way to preserve the memory of a departed loved one. Postmortem photographs like the one of Harriet Hill, who died in 1852 at the age of 3, were common. “Likenesses taken of deceased persons” advertised daguerreotypist H. Treat in the Norwalk Gazette of September 28, 1848.

Harriet’s portrait most directly depicts loss, but Reverend Moses Hill (left) had and would experience many more losses. Mary Augusta would die the same year at the age of 14. Sarah would die 8 years later at the age of 19. Reverend Hill had also lost his first wife and son in childbirth in 1832, a one-year old daughter in 1848 and his second wife in 1854.


Augustus Washington, Daguerreotypist

As you can see from the stamp in the corners of Mary and Charlotte Hill’s daguerreotypes, they were taken at the studio of Augustus Washington. Washington was an African-American daguerreotypist whose successful Hartford studio was open from 1846 to 1853.

Urias A. McGill | Daguerrotype, hand colored | Library of Congress DAG no. 1028

The son of a former slave, Washington learned how to make daguerreotypes to support his studies at Dartmouth. His debt proved too great, however, and he left college to direct a Hartford school for black children, Talcott Street Congregational Church’s North African School. Eventually he returned to photography full time and opened a studio there in 1846.

Unidentified woman, probably a member of the Urias McGill family | Library of Congress DAG no. 1029

Despite his success, by 1853 Washington had decided to emigrate with his family to Liberia because of the barriers he found in the United States. It would be another decade before slavery was abolished, for instance, and the 1850 Fugitive Slave Act had eliminated the risks for profiteers who illegally kidnapped free Northern blacks and sold them into slavery.

In Liberia, Washington ran a daguerreotype studio from 1853 until his death in 1875.

Chancy Brown | Daguerreotype
| Augustus Washington (1820/1821-1875) Liberia, Africa, 1856-60 | DAG no. 1004 Library of Congress