Conservation of the Dolley Madison Cased Image from the Greensboro History Museum
DAGUERREOTYPES - One-of-a-Kind Images
Named after the inventor, Louis Mandé Daguerre, the daguerreotype process was formally introduced in Paris, France in 1839. Samuel Morse brought the daguerreotype process to America, and in September of that year, the first American daguerreotypes were made.
The daguerreotype differs from paper-based forms of photography since each daguerreotype is a one-of-a-kind image distinguished by its metallic composition on a silvered copper plate. However, this material also made the daguerreotype more vulnerable to marring, abrasion, tarnish and corrosion. As a result, protective housing was a necessity. These protective housings also had a decorative function, often elaborately wrought and forming elements of considerable aesthetic and historic value, integral to the entire artifact. The preservation of the daguerreotype package will also depend upon the integrity of the housing.
DOLLEY MADISON - First Lady and Inspiring National Figure
Dolley Payne Todd Madison (May 20, 1768 – July 12, 1849) was born to Quaker parents on a small farm in the New Garden community of Guilford County. Dolley became one of the most beloved first ladies, and the only one from North Carolina. She inspired citizens of her time and forged a legacy that other presidential spouses have sought to emulate.
Dolley was the wife of the fourth president of the United States James Madison, who held the office from 1809 to 1817. She was noted for her social graces, which boosted her husband’s popularity as President and earned acclaim as the most popular and influential woman in the capital city of Washington DC. In this way, she did much to define the role of the President’s spouse, known only much later by the title First Lady.
According to Catherine Allgor, author of The Perfect Union: Dolley Madison and the Creation of the American Nation, “In a culture that had no place for a woman in the political spotlight and in which the only ‘public women’ were prostitutes, Dolley was undeniably a public woman. She became a national figure when the United States was barely a nation and only men such as George Washington occupied a place in the pantheon above party politics. And, most inexplicable of all, Dolley proved herself a powerful political player in an age when women were excluded from politics.” Dolley Madison also helped to furnish the newly constructed White House. When the British set fire to it in 1814, she was credited with saving the Gilbert Stuart painting of George Washington.
James Madison died in 1837 and Dolley returned to Washington City in 1844, where she had a significant presence in the capital. She knew all 12 presidents, having taken tea with George Washington, attended the inauguration of James Polk and met with Zachary Taylor. In her final years, she performed her most symbolic acts and received her highest honors: sending the first private telegraph message and accepting her own seat in the House.
During that time period Mathew Brady made a conscious effort to capture the likenesses of the last of the founding generation and Dolley made that list. There were two daguerreotypes taken by Brady one (as seen above) and the quarter plate depicting Dolley Madison with her favorite Niece – Anna Payne Causten – who cared for Dolley in the last years of her life. Dolley Madison died shortly after these daguerreotypes were taken on July 12, 1849.
PROVENANCE - Tracing the History of the Dolley Madison Daguerreotypes
After Dolley’s death in 1849, the bulk of this collection was inherited by her son, John Payne Todd, and upon his death sold at auction to Dolley’s niece, Anna Payne Causten (the woman who posed with Dolley on the daguerreotype), and her husband, James H. Causten Jr. The collection passed to their daughter, Mary, who married into the Kunkel family, and then to her son, John Baker Kunkel.
After John Baker Kunkel’s widow died in 1956, Charles Hafner was hired by a local lawyer to clean up the Kunkel house. The lawyer advised him to look out for items of historical value as John Baker Kunkel was the grandson of Dolley’s favored niece.
A DISCOVERY - The Hidden Leather Trunk
When he was almost finished cleaning, Hafner brought his mother for a tour, and while showing her the bedroom he noticed an envelope dating to 1832 sticking out from behind a panel. Remembering what the lawyer had told him, he immediately opened the panel and discovered a leather trunk full of Dolley and James Madison’s possessions. He, his mother, and his sister completed an inventory of the items in the trunk, including two Mathew Brady daguerreotypes, and then sent them to the Allentown bank for safekeeping.
As news began to spread about the discovery, Eleanor Fox Pearson of Greensboro expressed interest in seeing the Madison materials. During a trip to Allentown, she viewed the collection and resolved to acquire it. She formed the Dolley Madison Memorial Association and the group raised $10,000 to purchase the collection, which was donated to the Greensboro History Museum in 1963.
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CONSERVATION TREATMENT OF A DOLLEY MADISON CASED IMAGE
Due to the object’s provenance, photographer, historical context, and significance as one of two photographs taken of Dolley Madison, this cased image is an important piece in the museum's collection and was in real need of conservation treatment. The cased image arrived (via courier) at NEDCC in a clam-shell box in the spring of 2016 for examination and conservation treatment.
When it arrived at NEDCC, it was housed in a daguerreotype case that was structurally compromised. The plate was sitting very loosely within the case and it was very difficult to handle.
A BRIEF HISTORY OF CASES
The conservation and preservation of the daguerreotype case is just as important as the plate itself. The preferred cases for daguerreotypes in the United States grew out of the tradition of portrait miniatures. These small encased paintings were usually executed in gouache, watercolor, or enamel and developed out of the techniques used to paint miniatures in illuminated manuscripts. Popular among 16th-century elites in England and France, portrait miniatures spread across the rest of Europe in the middle of the 18th-century. The English style of portrait miniatures was exported to the American Colonies, where it remained highly popular until the development of daguerreotypes and photography in the mid-19th century. Daguerreotypes were often called miniatures as well, and the similar size and delicacy of medium allowed for an easy translation of wooden cases from portrait miniatures to daguerreotypes.
Image courtesy of John Hay Library Collections at Brown University
Cases were made of two shallow wooden trays hinged together and covered with cloth, leather, or paper. Union Cases, introduced in 1853, were made of an early thermoplastic formed from saw dust, pigment and shellac that was pressed in heated dies to form relief designs. In the late 1840s, when the Dolley Madison image was captured, luxury cases resembling books began to be manufactured. These could be made of papier-mâché inlaid with mother of pearl in floral patterns, or wooden cases covered with velvet, silk, morocco leather, or imitation tortoiseshell. The velvet or silk was often blue, red, or green and may be plain, have stamped decoration, or have an object such as a cameo inset in the cover. The edges of these book cases were gilt or painted gold to resemble an edge gilt text block and sometimes had clasps at the fore edge.
THE DOLLEY MADISON DAGUERREOTYPE CASE
FROM CONSERVATION TO EXHIBITION
The cased daguerreotype was requested for loan to be part of an exhibit. Questions from Elise Allison at Greensboro History Museum were whether the case was stable enough after conservation to be exhibited, and how to mount for display. It was determined that the case was stable enough but the mounting of the case posed a different problem.
The idea was to display it as an open book inside a case. A profile sketch was made and the exact dimensions of the case were taken. This information, along with the image of the cased daguerreotype on a book cradle, enabled a mount maker to construct a Plexiglas mount for exhibition. The sketch and photo provided guidelines on the angles of the mount and how far the case could safely be opened during exhibition.
The daguerreotype by Mathew Brady depicting Dolley Madison and Anna Payne Causten was part of “Saving Washington,” the inaugural exhibition of the new Center for Women’s History at the New York Historical Society Museum and Library in March 2017.
Quoting from a New York Times article, the title is “a nod to Dolley Madison’s famous rescue of a portrait of George Washington from the White House during the War of 1812, before the British arrived and burned the place. But it’s also a metaphor for the complex ways that American women – well born and ordinary, free and enslaved – helped, as the show’s curator, Valerie Paley put it, ‘enact the Constitution on the ground.’”
About the Greensboro History Museum
The Museum celebrates Greensboro’s local culture and the city’s prominent place in American history. Collections document the many different nationalities and people who impacted the county’s history: Native Americans, Germans, African Americans, Quakers and Scots-Irish. Archives and artifacts relate to the lives of prominent Guilford County residents, such as David Caldwell, First Lady Dolley Madison, Governor John Motley Morehead, author O. Henry and educator Charles Henry Moore. For students, for families, for researchers, for everyone opportunities to study events in colonial Guilford County, the Civil War, the roots of the Civil Rights Movement, and the rise of textile manufacturing in the South.
The Museum's current exhibit, called Dolley Madison and the Museum, highlights some of the museum's amazing Madison-related collections, connecting the stories behind the objects and showing how they came to the museum. A changing component offers visitors a chance to see fragile objects that can only be exhibited for a short period of time. The daguerreotype of Dolley Madison and Anna Payne Causten will be on display from March through May 2019.
Learn More at: Greensboro History Museum