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19th Century Daguerreotype Portraits of The Blind

“Everything has its wonders, even darkness and silence, and I learn, whatever state I may be in, therein to be content.”

– Helen Keller

The daguerreotype was the first commercially successful photographic process (1839-1860) in the history of photography. Named after its French inventor, Louis Jacques Mandé Daguerre (18 November 1787 – 10 July 1851), each daguerreotype is a unique, detailed image on a silvered copper plate. Owing to their fragility, many daguerreotypes are kept in protective cases, like the folding cases we can see here.

Little is known about the above portrait. The young man holds a copy of the New York Herald. Launched in 1835, the Hearld enjoyed the largest circulation of any daily in the United States. Is the man showing us the paper’s article on Moon Type, Dr. W. Moon’s system of 1847 of raised type that allowed the blind to read with their fingers?

Above is a portrait of Laura Bridgman (December 21, 1829 – May 24, 1889). The young woman wears a patterned dress with lace collar in 1845. Her hair is braided and pinned up with a part down the middle. The daguerreotype photograph is housed in a small leather case with a patterned red velvet lining surrounded by a gold mat board and embossing. The picture was taken at the Perkins School for the Blind, as was the one below, in which Bridgman sits alongside Sarah Wight.

Based in in Watertown, Massachusetts, The Perkins School was founded in 1829 and is the oldest school for the blind in the United States.

Bridgman is notable as the first deaf-blind American child to gain a significant education in the English language, 50 years before the more famous Helen Keller. Left deaf and blind (and with no sense of taste) at the age of two after contracting scarlet fever, Bridgman learned to read and communicate using Braille and the manual alphabet developed by Charles-Michel de l’Épée.

She became a celebrity when the writer Charles Dickens met her during his 1842 American tour and wrote about her accomplishments in his American Notes.

On Saturdays, when the school was open to the public, visitors would gather to watch Laura read and point out locations on a map with raised letters.

Her fame was short-lived, however, and she spent the remainder of her life in relative obscurity, most of it at the Perkins Institute, where she passed her time sewing and reading books in Braille.


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