"Conveyed on the electric wings of light..."

From the Perfect Likeness Archives, an early essay on the daguerreotype's powers and the imperative for high professional standards among photographers, published in The Charleston Mercury on December 2, 1844:

Daguerreotype Photography

We observe with pleasure that Dr. Libolt, the accomplished Daguerreotypist, has again visited us, and taken rooms at no. 188 King St., opposite the Victoria Hotel. His stay in the city will probably be short, and we advise those who may wish a correct representation of themselves, not to lose the present opportunity of obtaining it. The Dr. is certainly a complete master of the art. We had the pleasure of examining several of his specimens, and were more than delighted with the faithful transcript of some of our acquaintance. A great improvement has been made recently in taking these pictures. A skillful operator can now succeed in giving them great brilliancy and richness of tint, and equal strength to a painting. These portraits are invaluable as true likenesses, and while they serve to bring to remembrance the image of friends once dear, now absent or departed -- they also tend to cherish a taste for the fine arts and the adornments of human life. They are also relics of former friends -- not only true delineations of the form and features, but really relics -- subtile and attenuated, but real substance emanating from the subject, and conveyed on the electric wings of light to its resting place, there to assume its original form.

Half of the wonders of Daguerreotyping have never been observed; few, very few of its merits have been regarded or appreciated. Nature so bountiful in all her works -- so impartial in her gifts, has hitherto allowed all sorts of bunglers to become practitioners in this wonderful art. She did so probably in her hurry to gratify speedily the whole world, and give them a peep into her mysteries; but this hurry being over (and the election also), she is now determined that those who represent her handy work shall drink at the fountain of science and be instructed in the school of philosophy. In other words, daguerreotyping is a profession, not to be learned in a day; and requiring for its successful accomplishment an amount of science, skill, judgement, discrimination, taste, etc., etc., which every journeyman tradesman does not possess.

As we ever desire to see merit rewarded, we hope the citizens of Charleston will evince their good taste of the photographic art by liberally patronizing Dr. L.

This article appears on page two, as an unsigned editorial note, but perhaps written by John A. Stuart, whose name appears alone on the masthead. Certainly written with the enthusiasm of a true believer in the new art form. I wonder if "Dr. Libolt," the itinerant daguerreotypist promoted in the text, contributed to the vivid wording. The writer strives (with considerable success in my opinion) to describe the qualities of the daguerreotype in 1844, extolling its unique and precious attributes, at least when not attempted by "bunglers." We see that a new expression has entered the vocabulary: taking a picture. The article reminds us of a time when the word photography was quite new; those exciting, early years when the daguerreotype heralded a revolution in aesthetics and personal identity.

The article was written five years after the first daguerreotypes were made in the United States; and not much longer than a year after daguerreotypy had become widespread in America --- an expansion that coincided with marked technical improvements that allowed for rich tonality and strong contrast in the images, as well as the shorter exposure times so convenient to portraiture.

More information on the daguerretoypist mentioned: We looked up "Libolt" in Craig's Daguerreian Registry and learned (page 231, Volume I, Revised Edition, 2003) his full name and a few confirming particulars: Adam Libolt, first advertised in Columbia, SC, in December 1842; he was intermittently in Charleston, including a stay starting in November, 1844. Last record of his daguerreotype business is in 1845. His wife offered painted miniatures, alongside her husband; perhaps she had a hand in the color tinting of daguerreotypes. If anyone reading this knows of any daguerretoypes identified as made by Libolt of South Carolina, please write and, if possible, send a scan or a web page link to the image.

The article's place on the historical timeline: This issue of the paper came out but a few weeks after the election of James Polk as eleventh President of the United States. Sixty-eight years after the Declaration of Independence. Sixteen months before the first battles in the war with Mexico. Sixteen years before the Civil War commenced at Fort Sumter in Charleston harbor. Twenty-one years before the end of slavery.

Elsewhere in this issue of the Charleston Mercury: Reading the entire paper gives one a feeling for the times and the affairs and concerns then current in a leading coastal city, a center of commerce in the slave-holding Southern part of the United States. The issues of slavery, abolition, and the divided opinions between North and South, show up in several places. These include a long-winded letter that attempts to counter arguments that slavery is a Christian sin (appearing, incongruously, next to the high-minded daguerreotype article). Among the many, many advertisements are a few disturbing offers of the "highest cash price" paid for human beings. On a more civilized level -- and more congruous with the edifying spirit of the daguerreotype article -- many books are offered for sale, including the "second series" of the essays of Emerson. In addition to books of literature and history (some fresh from London), other offerings address practical skills, including a volume that provides "hints" to instruct the reader on minor surgery (eeh gads!). Many, many business notices of all sorts in the four densely printed pages of this newspaper, with a high proportion devoted to commercial shipping and the comings and goings of "Atlantic Steamers." A short article describes the tensions between the United States and Mexico and anticipates a war "upon Texas." An announcement appears for drill exercises by the "Sixteenth Regiment Infantry."

--JKB