Daguerreotypes – the first photographs

In the 21st century, most of us have mobile phones, and most of those phones come equipped with a pretty good camera. We can take a photograph, add a filter, crop and edit, then share it with the world within seconds. Photography has not always been so easy and readily available.

After centuries of painstaking carving and painting to capture a likeness, in 1822, French inventor Joseph Nicéphore Niépce was the first person to make a mechanical image. He used a process called photo etching to create a permanent image on a metal plate, and was then able to use the plate to create copies of the image etched onto it.

2. Unknown child

Undated daguerreotype of an unidentified child. WRM ref: 1960.145.2

He worked with Louis-Jacques-Mandé Daguerre to further the process before passing away in 1833, but Daguerre continued with the work. He finalised the process in 1837. In 1838 he took the first photograph of a person, by accident, while he was attempting to make a daguerreotype of a street scene in Paris. Moving pedestrians and carriages are too blurry to see, but one man who was having his boots cleaned on the street corner, stayed still long enough to be captured.

In exchange for a pension from the government he allowed France to present his method as a gift to the world. Daguerreotypes were very time-consuming and intricate to make. A plate of copper was coated with silver and polished to a mirror-shine, then exposed to halogen fumes to create a layer of light-sensitive silver halide which would bear the image. Initially, exposure could take up to 70 minutes, but was refined down to only a few seconds on a bright day.

The latent image was revealed by exposing the plate to mercury fumes.  Although known to be dangerous, very little protection was taken when handling the mercury and there were reports of inattentive daguerreotypists developing mercury poisoning from it.

The plate was toned with gold chloride before being rinsed and dried, and the daguerreotypist could add colour washes to clothing and skin or gold tints to jewellery. The plate was then sealed behind a layer of glass and bound in a brass mat, before being housed in a wooden case covered with leather and padded with velvet or satin.

3. Unknown man

Undated daguerreotype of an unidentified man. WRM ref: 1802.8612

The resulting image could be seen as a positive or a negative, and had a high-shine finish, made easier to view by the padding in the case. It was a single-use image and it was not possible to make copies without creating a whole new daguerreotype. It was also quite expensive. In 1882, an advertisement for the process in the newspaper, The New Zealander, stated the daguerreotypist could take a photo in only five seconds; he charged between 10 shillings and two guineas, equivalent to $60 – $260 today.

1. Mrs J Allison

Daguerreotype of Mrs Allison, relative of Dr James Allison. WRM ref: 1975.43.19

Although it was expensive, the daguerreotype was the first publicly available photographic process. Its peak popularity was from the early 1840s to the mid-1860s. The Whanganui Regional Museum holds six in the collection, only one of which is named. This is Mrs J Allison, a relative of Dr James Allison who arrived in Whanganui from Glasgow in 1840.


Sandi Black is the Archivist at Whanganui Regional Museum.

Seaside Scenes: Postcards of Castlecliff Beach

Summer holidays. These two words evoke many happy memories for young and old alike. During January when the sun shines, hundreds of holiday-makers can been seen at beaches all around New Zealand, playing on the sand, frolicking in the waves or relaxing in the shade with a book, a picnic and a friend or two. Whanganui Regional Museum archives reveal that summer excursions to our local beaches have been a very popular summer pastime since the early 1900s. Photographs in the Museum collection show large crowds, with well-dressed men and women strolling along the sand, enjoying a paddle with long skirts lifted up and using umbrellas or parasols and large-brimmed hats to protect their faces from the sun.

A hundred years ago picture postcards were a popular way of keeping in touch with friends and relatives when telephones were expensive and not widely used. Illustrated postcards of people enjoying the beach were very popular. Thousands of different seaside postcard designs, many of them humorous, were produced in Britain, with millions of copies printed, sold and sent.

1. Castlecliff is a most (em)bracing place

Ref: 1802.7714

Two illustrated seaside postcards in the Whanganui Regional Museum collection provide a gently humorous picture of leisure at the local beach around 100 years ago. One captioned “Castlecliff is a most (em)bracing place” shows a man relaxing in the sand-dunes with his arms around two young ladies. The other, captioned “On the sands at Wanganui. It’s a lot better than being at school”, shows a smiling child wearing a frilly white apron and cloth hat with her dress tucked into her underclothes. These images may have been designed as general seaside souvenirs that could be printed with captions to suit a range of locations, rather than specifically depicting Castlecliff or Whanganui scenes.

2. On the sands

Ref: 1802.4634

Another postcard is made from a black and white photographic reproduction of a crowd of people paddling and sitting on the sand and enjoying a stroll at Castlecliff Beach. This early image of the river mouth is by well-known Whanganui photographer Frank Denton. The beach stretches around a natural curve at the river mouth and the sea-swell washes into the river. Ladies lift the hems of their long dresses over the wet sand while children play and paddle in the shallows at the edge of the river. In the far distance a line of surf marks the edge of the sea.

3. Castlecliff River Mouth

Ref: 1802.1016

This summer at Castlecliff Beach we are unlikely to see many fully suited gentlemen and ladies in high heeled shoes relaxing in the sand-dunes. The children playing on Whanganui beaches will be wearing swimming togs or shorts, rather than dresses with frilly aprons over the top, but their enjoyment of the beach will be just the same as it was 100 years ago.

Many of us will be taking holiday snapshots to remember happy times at the beach and these will most likely be shared with family and friends digitally through Snapchat, Instagram or Facebook, rather than as printed photographs or postcards. In 100 years from now I wonder if there will be any physical record of our fun at beach, or will all those digital memories have disappeared?

Margie Beautrais is the educator at Whanganui Regional Museum.

Settler Stories

In the nineteenth century the carte de visite photograph was very popular; affordable to the public, cheap to make, and of a standard size they were produced in great numbers and traded amongst friends and family members like calling cards.  The Whanganui Regional Museum has a significant number of these little photographs in our collection and has been embarking on some research into the sitters to try and find out a little more about them.  Here are a handful of some of Whanganui’s early residents.

Charles Thoren Aamodt

Charles Thoren Aamodt

Charles Thoren Aamodt was born in 1859 in Wilson Street, Whanganui.  He left Whanganui for Wellington in 1877 to take a position at Messrs Buckley & Co.  Upon leaving was presented with a ring from his comrades in the Wanganui Rifles, of which he was a long-standing member and an excellent shot.  He married Mary Josephine McKeegan on 28th April 1882 in Wellington and they have five children together: Leah Mary 1892, died aged 4 weeks; Elizabeth May 1895; Charles Herman 1896; Mary 1898, died aged 14 months; William 1900.  Charles passed away on 8th July 1917 at his residence on Jessie Street in Wellington.

George Stephen Bridge

George Stephen Bridge

George Stephen Bridge was born on Regent Street in London, England, on 21st December 1840.  He arrived in New Zealand aboard the ‘Hastings’ in 1859 and settled in Waverley where he worked as a farmer and Justice of the Peace.  He was a member of the Education Board for 26 years, Chairman of the First Patea County Council in 1878, Chairman of the First Waitotara Highway Board in 1879, member of the School Committee in 1882, and Church Office Bearer in Waverley from 1887-1905.  In 1897 he settled in Whanganui in Plymouth Street, and served as an Elder in St Pauls Church, Treasurer of the Wanganui Prohibition League, member of the Orphanage Committee, Director of the Library Committee, and member of the Borough Council in 1901.  In February 1865 George married Catherine McWilliam, daughter of Thomas McWilliam of Netherdale Farm in the Matarawa Valley.  They had the following children: Thomas Andrew born 1866; George James born 1867; William Wilkinson born 1869, died 1869 aged one month; William Wilkinson born 1872; Charles Harry born 1873; Francis David born 1888, died 1893 aged five years; Catherine died in 1901 aged 54 years, and George died in 1906 aged 65 years.

Duncan Blair

Duncan Blair

Duncan Blair was born in Scotland in 1833 and arrived in New Zealand in 1870, where he settled in Whanganui and became a farmer at Rapanui in Kai Iwi, Wanganui.  He was a pedigree Lincoln sheep breeder and was at one time president of the Kaierau Football Club.  In 1869 he married Agnes Barries who was born in Massachusettes, USA, and together they had the following children: Agnes (born in America, unknown date) married William Aiken April 1891; Jack Alexander (no birth date), married Ada Cutfield in 1911; Duncan born 1873, married Suzanne Gadra; Isabella Bell born 1876, married Peter Johnstone; Elizabeth born 1878, married Archibald William E. Montgomery; Florence (Flora) Lilian born 1879, married Gilbert Moyle; Edith born 1880, married Matthew Henry William Galpin in 1906; Maggie (Madge) Paterson born 1881, married Jack Callaghan.

George Henry Armstrong

George Henry Armstrong

George Henry Armstrong was born in 1852, the son of John Armstrong, a coach builder.  George owned a drapery business in Victoria Avenue, Whanganui.  On 6th June 1877 he married Mary Ann Sigley, a dressmaker, and they had one son, Norman Graham born in 1878, who went on to become a teacher and solicitor.  George died on 22nd October 1881 after an illness, aged 29 years, at Rose Hill in Waverley.