By Jim Weaver
The 19th century was one of tremendous invention and change. Thomas Edison invented the electric light bulb and the phonograph; Alexander Graham Bell, the telephone; and in 1839, a commercial artist and theater producer from France named Louis Jacques Mande Daguerre invented photography, improving on the earlier work of inventor Nicéphore Niépce.
The daguerreotype became a great commercial success around the world. By 1850, New York City alone had 70 photo studios producing daguerreotypes. Less than a decade later, a less expensive, easier to produce ambrotypes (image on glass) became popular and, by the mid-1860’s, daguerreotypes were history. The life span of the ambrotype was short although it yielded a large number of beautiful images. The photos on glass were seldom seen after the mid-1860s, according to Klein.
Next came the tintype, the photographic technique most people associate with the 19th century. Klein explains, “the tintype, actually misnamed, is an iron plate that has been coated with a black lacquer on which the image is developed.” The tintype enjoyed the longest success of any 19th century photographic process. Even though its popularity was surpassed by new paper images in the 1860s, tintypes were still produced until late in the century.
In 1856, the cartes de visite (French for visitor card) — the first photograph on paper — was introduced. The name was soon replaced by card picture, card photograph or simply card. It was the first technique to use a photo negative (on glass). According to Klein, “they were easier and cheaper to produce than the tintype since the image was developed on paper.” The high quality paper was coated with albumen, made from egg whites, and then sensitized with a silver solution. Albumen eventually yellows, which gave images a sepia hue. While not as durable as the tintype iron plate, paper cards were able to produce a higher quality image. Plus they looked more elegant and were easier to handle.
“The cabinet card, a larger and more refined version of the carte de visite, was introduced in 1866,” Klein said. “By the early 1880s, the cabinet card had virtually replaced the photo card, and was the dominant format until the end of the century.”
Well over a century after the first daguerreotype was made, Bruce Klein was working in his father’s Pittsburgh photoshop and began collecting old photographs. “A customer noticed an old photo in a display case behind the cash register,” Klein recalls, “and asked what it was.” It was a daguerreotype. “That’s really interesting,” the customer said, “you should show more of your old photos.” Klein began collecting 19th century photos and cameras in about 1985 and, when his collection became too large, he moved it into a vacant apartment above his father’s shop.
Photographers, both amateur and professional, learned about what he owned and asked to see the collection. Soon word got around and more people, including school groups, wanted to schedule a visit. In 1994, Klein opened Photo Antiquities Museum.
Klein’s photo collection is organized in chronological order by year and photographic technique. They are also grouped according to subject matter such as Civil War, Native Americans, portraits, circus and entertainers, police mug shots, postmortem images and others. At the time, many babies and young children died and it was common to photograph them in death to remember them.
The oldest image in Klein’s collection, from 1827, is a reproduction on a 10-hour exposure by French inventor Nicéphore Niépce.
“Photos capture a moment in time,” Klein explained, “and it is often the only record of that moment. It was not until 1890 that a photo negative could be created,” he said. His collection began with tintypes, which he picked up here or there at flea markets. “Sometimes you could buy a whole box of photos for a dollar or two,” he added.
Klein has saved many photos from the trash heap or gradual deterioration. With his museum curator, Frank Watters, he has traveled the country to gather nearly a million photos, tintypes, daguerreotypes, ambrotypes, albumen prints, slides and more than 1,000 old cameras and pieces of photographic equipment. Klein and Watters say it is the largest public display of 19th century photography in the United States. “We have enough photos that I change the exhibits on a regular basis,” Klein said, “so people returning to the museum rarely see the same images.”
Klein’s collection includes a number of cameras and other photographic equipment from the 19th century. Early cameras were handcrafted of finely polished woods, brass, and leather. The golden age of wood cameras lasted from the birth of photography in 1839 to the early part of the 20th century.
“Nineteenth-century cameras worked the same way as modern cameras, in that there is a lens, a dark chamber, a receptor (light sensitive plate), and a means of controlling the light (lens cap or iris diaphragm),” Klein explained. In the 19th century, enlarging was almost impossible, so the plate had to be the same size as the desired print. The photographer put his head under the black cloth to block the light and to lineup and focus the shot, then he replaced the focusing screen with the plate in a lightproof holder. “The image you saw on the focusing screen was upside down,” he added. In 1884, George Eastman of Rochester, New York, developed dry gel on paper, or film, to replace the photographic plate so photographers no longer needed to carry boxes of plates with them.
In July 1888, Eastman’s Kodak camera went on the market with the slogan, “You press the button, we do the rest.” Now anyone could take a photograph and leave the complex parts of the process to others! Photography became available for the mass-market in 1901 with the introduction of the Kodak Brownie.
The Speed Graphic camera (popular with newspaper photographers) used cut film sheets in lightproof holders and was in use through the 1950s.
“Not long after photography was invented, people began to want three-dimensional images
and the first stereographic camera and viewing equipment was invented in 1845,” Klein said.
Examples of these photos, cameras, and viewing equipment are part of the collection. The View-Master stereographic viewer was still popular in the mid-20th century.
The museum’s current home was once a two- story apartment and has a number of small rooms have been converted into display areas. Klein, Watters, and their small staff take great pains to make sure the images are both accessible and well-preserved. Klein acquired oak library shelving from a school in suburban Pittsburgh and has installed special conservation glass that filters out damaging ultraviolet light. Every photo is mounted on archival mat board and framed with conservation glass.
The air is regulated to a constant temperature of 68 to 70 degrees with 45 percent humidity, the correct conditions for archival preservation. An air changer replaces the air every hour, so that dust brought in on people’s feet is filtered out.
The Photo Antiquities Museum collection long ago outgrew its present location. Klein and his non-profit board have been fortunate to acquire a large property nearby that was once the Allegheny Social Club. Abandoned for many years, the building was slated to be demolished, but Klein saw its potential as a spacious photography museum. “At present we can only accommodate a maximum of 50 people at a time, but the new space will allow 500 or more,” he said. Fundraising and renovations continue and Klein envisions a move to the new location in the next several years.
Learn more at
Museum of Photographic History
531 East Ohio St.
Pittsburgh, PA 15212