Young America. The Daguerreotypes of Southworth & Hawes. George Eastman House International Center of Photography
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[Boston view], banner of Gleason’s Pictorial Drawing-Room Companion (Boston) 1,
no. 16, Saturday, October 18, 1851. Courtesy of Grant B. Romer.

The news of the daguerreotype reached America in 1839 at the start of a period perhaps best characterized as the era of Young America. For the next twenty years, the increasingly self-reliant nation was possessed with a philosophical, economic, spiritual, and political conception of itself as “The Great Nation of Futurity,” “An Infant Giant,” “The inventor and owner of the present and only hope of the future.” Americans espoused free-market capitalism, territorial expansion, and support for republican causes abroad with an energy and enthusiasm that characterized the developing identity of the country at a time of divisive sectional strife that was to lead to the Civil War.

One city in particular exemplified the national spirit of the time. “Boston,” Ralph Waldo Emerson said, “commands special attention as the town which was appointed by destiny of nations to lead the civilization of North America.” With a population of 93,000 in 1840, and the second largest city in the country, Boston was considered the “Athens of America.” Many in the society of Boston and New England shared Emerson’s observation of the time: “America is beginning to assert itself to the sense and to the imagination of her children.”

Technology, in the form of the railroad, had already done its part to transform and empower the nation when photography was introduced. Though photography was an invention of the old world, Americans responded to it with vigor. “It is just what people of this country like, namely, something new,” reported one young man in Boston upon seeing one of the first public demonstrations of the process in 1840. Within weeks of the details of the process reaching America, and despite its limitations, the business of making daguerreotype likenesses was established in New York, Philadelphia, and Boston.

Emerson had preached: “Trust Thyself! Every heart vibrates to that iron string. Accept the place that Divine Providence has found for you, the society of your contemporaries, the connection of events…Do not go where path may lead, go instead where there is no path and leave a trail.” As if responding to those words, Albert Sands Southworth and Josiah Johnson Hawes took up practice of the new imaging technology, formed a partnership in 1843, and established a daguerreotype studio in the heart of Boston. True to Emerson’s message, they gained command of the nascent process and evolved an artistic style and beautiful approach to photographic portraiture. For the next twenty years, they catered to the illustrious and elite of Boston society, offering “perfect Daguerreotypes” as an inducement to patronage. Among their sitters were Louisa May Alcott, Lyman Beecher, Benjamin Butler, William Ellery Channing, Rufus Choate, Charlotte Cushman, R.H. Dana, Dorothea Dix, Ralph Waldo Emerson, Edward Everett, William Lloyd Garrison, Grace Greenwood, Oliver Wendell Holmes, Sam Houston, Thomas Starr King, Jenny Lind, Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, Horace Mann, Lola Montez, George Peabody, William H. Prescott, Harriet Beecher Stowe, Charles Sumner, Daniel Webster, John Greenleaf Whittier, Robert C. Winthrop, and many other notables of the time. Their studio attracted icons of the great American political, economic, and cultural movements and events of the 1840s and 1850s: transcendentalism, European revolutions, American nativism, the China Trade, the annexation of Texas, the Mexican War, and the Gold Rush.

Southworth & Hawes evolved a distinctive style of portraiture calculated to exploit the full range of the beauties of the process. Not only did they capture faces and views of Young America, but they also did so with the Young America spirit. Their artistic achievement in portraiture has earned them a place in the history of nineteenth-century American portraiture comparable to Gilbert Stuart and John Singer Sargent. Further, their understanding of the special nature of photography and masterful application of it to appropriate ends will stand as a testimony to the genius and spirit of Young America.

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