By Hillary Delaney
The Ohio River served as the highway for commerce of all sorts. The steamboat traffic up and down the Ohio and Mississippi rivers brought goods, services and all types of entertaining diversions to the otherwise sleepy river towns. One of the most popular, though lesser-known, form of river trader regularly seen along the Ohio was the “Daguerreotype Artist.”
Photography for regular folks was a novelty throughout the second half of the nineteenth century, and enterprising artists took to the rivers to peddle their craft. During this time, three types of processes became well known to the public: daguerreotypes, ambrotypes, and tintypes. Daguerreotypes were developed in the late 1830s, and were widely used by the 1850s.
Daguerreotypes, certainly a one-of-a-kind experience for the subject, were fairly expensive (a few days to a week’s pay, in many cases) but very popular, at first. Ambrotypes and tintypes were in existence by the early 1850s, overtaking their predecessor. Both were more quickly developed, and a fraction of the cost, so they may have overtaken their contemporaries, but the ‘Daguerreotype” name was regularly used. The mentions in our area were probably more likely to be tintypes, despite the name used to market them.
Boone County was a regular stop for the “Daguerre-ing” boats and cars. In 1858 and 1859, there were multiple entries in Lewis Loder’sLewis diary with mention of the photographers’ visits. In one case, a photo-boat stopped for several days to document the colorful patrons of Schramm’s Tavern, working only for tips. Another visitor on the photographer’s boat was referred to as the “Uncle Sam Artist” and stopped in Petersburg twice in two months, but it is unclear if he was the photographer, or accompanying him as an iconic human prop.
Two different visits by photographers in steam-powered cars “on wheels” also came to town to capture the images of the locals. Considering the timing of the visits, 1858-1859, these marketing geniuses probably got as many customers with their vehicles as they did with their pictures. Not all of the photographers in it for the money, though. In September, 1858, two men came to Petersburg School to give a free public exhibition of their “panorama show.” Though they were not named by Loder, the two men may have been photographers William S. Porter and Charles Fontayne, who captured the entire Cincinnati riverfront in a series of panorama shots taken in 1848.
As professional photography evolved and became more available, more and more people were having their images captured for the ages. The mentions in Loder’s diary began to change from the artist visiting the subject to the subject visiting the artist at his studio. Many examples of these early images can be found in family photo albums and have held up to time, giving a glimpse of times long past.
Fontayne & Porter's remarkable panorama of 1848 Cincinnati