Collodion what?


Yesterday I was puzzling over the rise in the use of the word collodion as a term for early photographs. The term derives from the collodion process (or wet plate process) which allowed photographs to be made using glass plates rather than the metal plates used in daguerreotypes.

The collodion process meant that multiple images could be made from a single negative, rather than daguerreotypes which only allowed you to make a single image at a time.

Not surprisingly, the invention of the collodion process in 1851 took the world by storm and rapidly displaced the daguerreotype as the preferred photographic process. As can be seen from the advert above (from the Cardiff and Merthyr Guardian on 10 November 1854), people who continued to style themselves as daguerreotypists (because people knew what than meant) advertised that they in fact used the newer collodion process in their work.

The collodion process was what Lewis Carroll, an enthusiastic amateur photographer used to take his pictures of Alice Liddell.

So, in what contexts was the word collodion used?

I looked at Welsh Newspapers Online between 1850 and 1860 to look and see what word followed collodion. I only looked at the English language newspapers – the Welsh language newspapers are a confusing mixture of Welsh editorial and mixed English and Welsh language adverts.

And this is what I found

Collodion 7
Collodion Photographic 3
Collodion Plate 2
Collodion Picture 2
Collodion Process 10
Collodion Portraits 8

Most of the uses of collodion referred the mechanics of the process, plate, process, and so on, but quite a number referred to the use it was being put to, eg Collodion Portraits, to emphasise that the images were being taken with this new technique …

So I then used the Google Ngram viewer with the British English Corpus for the period 1850-60 to compare the use of the terms collodion, collodion portrait and collodion plate with the terms daguerreotype and photograph


Which basically shows that the change was from daguerreotype to photograph. While collodion in combination with various words was used, this was in contexts to emphasise that the new process was used, rather then for the images themselves …

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And the winner is …

Following on from my trying to work out when we started calling photographs photographs, I though I’d use the Google Ngram viewer one more type to look at the relative usage of the following terms for photographs over the period 1840 to 1880:

The terms I checked were:

  • daguerreotype
  • calotype
  • ambrotype
  • tintype
  • collodion (the name of the wet plate process)
  • photograph

The results were a little surprising

Annotation 2020-09-05 161319

while daguerreotype was indeed the most common term before 1855, the term collodion, as in collodion process was a pretty common term.

I then checked to see if the term collodion process was the term actually in use

Annotation 2020-09-05 163344

which it clearly wasn’t.

What this means I’m not sure, I’ll have to go and look at usages of collodion in context …

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When did we start calling photographs photographs?

The first photographic images widely used were known as daguerreotypes after the technique used.  (There were other techniques and names in the 1840s and 50s, eg calotype, ambrotype, but daguerreotype was the first.)

Later on we started calling them the more generic term photograph, but exactly when did we start doing that?

For example Beard, the first commercial daguerreotypist in Britain, was still calling them daguerreotypes as late as 1855, but the diarist Francis Kilvert, writing in 1870, refers only to photographs.

Well to find out I did some very simple investigations – first of all I used the Google Ngram viewer to look at the yearly occurrence of the term daguerreotype in the English corpus:

ngram of daguerreotype

which gives us a peak usage of the term around 1853 or 1854.

Again using the Google Ngram viewer I compared the occurrence of the term daguerreotype versus photograph over the period 1840 to 1860:

photo vs daguerre ngram

and we can see that the crossover occurred around 1855.

To sanity check this I then checked the relative occurrence of the two terms in both Welsh Newspapers online and the NLA’ s Trove. As the Trove dataset is richer I graphed the two of them separately to stop the Welsh data being drowned out the Trove data.



So, in the Welsh data we see that the data more or less matches the Google Ngram data with the crossover occurring about 1855. Interestingly, the Trove data shows something else, with both terms being used equally in the first few years of the 1850’s, with use of the term photograph taking off in 1856.

1855 of course was the date of Roger Fenton’s seminal Crimean War images, and in reports of the exhibition of his photographs, reporters use the term photograph, rather than referring to the particular technique used, suggesting perhaps that this helped drive the initial adoption of the term in preference to daguerreotype …

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The earliest Australian Daguerreotype advert ?

I’d fed the cat, and it wasn’t quite time to start cooking dinner, so I thought I’d trawl Trove for the earliest advert I could find for someone offering to take your daguerreotype

Annotation 2020-08-27 175619

from the Australian of 18 January 1843. The text of the advert suggests that he was in business before then, perhaps in 1842, but I was not been able to find earlier mention of him in Trove. 

A bit of creative Googling found him to be George Barron Goodman who arrived on the Eden on the 4th of November 1842, and rapidly started promoting himself as a photographer

In contrast, the earliest advert I can find in Welsh Newspapers online dates from the Monmouthshire Merlin of 10 November 1841

monmouthshire merlin november 1841

and in New Zealand from a comparatively late 1848

daguerreotype new zealnder 13nmay 1848

To give this some context, the daguerrotype process was only invented in 1839, and the earliest mention in Welsh Newspapers online  is from 1840.

Being a daguerreotypist was a highly skilled profession, requiring a knowledge of optics and chemistry. For example the Dundee Directory for 1850 lists two daguerreotypists in a town whose population was roughly 65,000, and suppprted a reasonably sized middle class.

Prince Albert, a known geek, didn’t have his picture taken until 1842, and Queen Victoria was not photographed until 1844 …

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A daguerreotype advert from 1855

From the February 1855 edition of Bradshaw’s guide:

early daguerreotype advert

interesting to see that daguerreotypes and stereoscopic images were being advertised as early as 1855 or perhaps not as J A Rochlitz was working as a daguerrotypist in Beechworth in 1857, and had previously been working, again as a daguerreotypist, in Ballarat and as we know, Madeleine Smith exchanged photographs with her lover.

None of this should surprise us – Prince Albert had his photograph taken in the early 1840’s and Queen Victoria was an enthusiastic adopter of photography, and of course this was the time of the Crimean War and Roger Fenton’s celebrated photographs.

What is also interesting about the advert is that the daguerreoptypist also advertises the use of watercolourists to add colour to the image, something that is also seen in the pornography of the time.

What it does show is how widespread the adoption of photography was by the middle classes by the 1850s …

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Why did Mary Shelley go by sea to Dundee ?

Years of BBC adaptions of Jane Austen novels and Christmas cards showing mail coaches in the snow might have led us to expect that Mary might have travelled all the way from London to Dundee by mail coach or by a private stage coach.

In fact travelling by coach was expensive, and excruciatingly uncomfortable, especially if you could only afford an outside seat which left you exposed to the weather. It didn’t help that many of the roads in Scotland were in poor condition before Thomas Telford’s improvements in the 1810’s.

All in all this meant that the journey overland would take a week or 10 days of bonejarring discomfort.

Going by ship could be as quick, and unless the ship was caught in a storm, rather more comfortable. After all both George IV when he visited Edinburgh in 1821, and Queen Victoria, on her first trip to Scotland in 1842, went by boat.

In fact there was passenger shipping to most Scottish ports in the nineteenth century. If you look at a map showing the old Scottish burghs you will notice that most of them are on navigable waterways – even cities such as Stirling which we might now consider landlocked, had a shipping service.

As early as 1814 there was a steam powered paddle steamer service on the Forth as far upriver as Stirling. (Sixty years ago, when I was little, you could still see remains of the staithes at Riverside where the paddle steamers had tied up.)

Basically, people and goods moved by water well into the nineteenth century. In the 1840’s before the railway network was complete, Bradshaw’s guide carried adverts for coastal packet companies:

aberdeen to london

In fact, even well into the railway era, many people preferred a sea voyage between London and Scotland – in the 1870’s the Freemans went to Scotland by sea for their walking holiday. In an era before corridor trains, sleeping cars and onboard toilets, it was probably simply more comfortable to go by sea

railway urinals

than spend 12 hours or so crossing your legs.

Dundee, of course, sprawls across a hilly ridge on the north bank of the Tay. Before the rail bridge was built, people had no alternative but to get a ferry across the Tay.

Prior to 1815, these were open sail driven pinnaces and at the mercy of the weather. But in 1815 disaster struck and one of these ships sank with the loss of 17 people including one boatman known as Cossack Jock (Incidentally, if you like stories it’s worth spending 10 minutes watching Erin Farley of Dundee Libraries tell the story of his wake).

One consequence of this was the setting up of an orphanage in Dundee, the other was to put the ferry service on the Tay on a more formal footing with steam powered ferries running to a timetable – which they continued to do until the opening of the Tay Road bridge in 1967. (Again I can just about remember a journey on the ferry when I was little).

bradshaw dundee ferry

What is interesting is, that as with the Stirling Steamboat company, the adoption of steam powered vessels relatively early in the nineteenth century.

Before the arrival of the railway in the late 1840’s, Dundee was fundamentally a city connected by water to the rest of Scotland, and remained so even after the Tay rail bridge was built.

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Mary Shelley and the Dundee Radicals

Last night we watched Mary Shelley on SBS On Demand.

Other than knowing her as the author of Frankenstein, and some vague gossip about her and both Shelley and Byron, I knew nothing – I even had her father, William Godwin, mixed up with William Blake.

I have also never read Frankenstein and only have a cartoonish idea of the story.

The movie chronicles the formative period of the teenage Mary Shelley, and included a trip to Scotland when she was about fourteen. From the movie, you would think that she stayed in some country house out in the wilds of Perthshire, but no, she stayed with William Baxter and his family in Dundee, becoming firm friends with his daughter Isabella.

Something about this caused the hairs on the back of my neck to go up I’d come across these names before while researching my own family history – not that I was assuming any more of a connection than they’d employed some of my predecessors.

And I was mistaken. Given the tendency of Scottish families to reuse names, and the fact that the same names tend to repeat again and again, it was of course a completely different Isabella Baxter.

But my curiosity was whetted. Why did William Godwin send his daughter on a hazardous sea voyage to Dundee?

The answer seems to be that Mary was unwell and her father thought she should have time away from London to recuperate. So why Dundee?

William Godwin was friends with William Baxter, both men being of a radical outlook and both being members of the Glasite sect. While Baxter went on to become successful as the owner of a major jute and linen business, at this time he was only a moderately successful businessman who owned a linen weaving business.

At that time Dundee was a radical town, a town where during the 1790’s the Society of United Scotsmen had planted a tree of liberty beside the town cross. And in 1819, a reported 10.000 people demonstrated on Magdalen Green against the Peterloo killings.

And like many Scottish towns during the enlightenment, Dundee had its literary and philosophical societies where men would meet to discuss the latest developments in science as well as new and stimulating books.

(It’s worth mentioning that such societies would often put on demonstrations and  experiments for public education – if like me you watched the Royal Institution Christmas Lectures on TV as a child you’ll have an idea of what an experimental night at the philosophical society might have entailed – science as theatre – that’s an idea!)

So, given William Godwin’s aim to educate his daughter and expose her to new and stimulating ideas, Dundee would have been a surprisingly good fit.

At the time the Baxters lived in a house, now long gone, which had originally been built as a dower house for the Countess of Strathmore, where South Baffin street is now


Annotation 2020-08-16 153947

South Baffin Street © Google Maps

Now, it looks as if the house would have looked out over the docks, but before 1820, when the docks were built, what is now E Dock Street roughly follows the original shore line of the Tay and the Baxters would have had a wonderful view of the Tay from their house. What is now Broughty Ferry Road runs along a ridge, and with their house being on the high side of the ridge there would have been unimpeded views across the Tay.

Prior to 1820 the docks were down towards what is now Discovery Quay where Robert Falcon Scott’s ship is now moored.

Dundee 1821

Dundee in 1821 (from John Wood’s plan –

The docks however where probably important to the development of Mary’s admittedly gothic imagination – Dundee was already an important whaling port, and probably awash with tales of frozen ghost ships strange creatures from the Arctic, not to mention actual narwhals and walruses dragged off the boats to be cut up for their blubber and their ivory.

Apparently, while living with the Baxters, Mary learned to swim and row – this also fits well with the geography of Dundee in the 1810’s – as can also be seen from John Wood’s map – the open and sandy foreshore around Broughty Ferry, which was developing as a fashionable resort, would have been easily accessible and a few minutes walk from the house …


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The afterlife of Madeleine Smith

books fale the age 11 mar 1858

As I have said, I’ve been trying to find references to cases of hysteria and distress occasioned by the Madeleine Smith trial.

In the course of doing this I’ve come across a number of reports which show just how fascinated people were with the case and what happened to Madeleine Smith after the trial – she had the good taste to drop out of sight, which had the unfortunate effect of causing all sorts of rumours that she had gone to Australia or to America.

There’s a wonderful story in the Illawarra Mercury of 30 November 1857 that’s worth reproducing in full:

madeleine smith in america not

On the same page is an article about the doings of Lola Montez in the USA and Canada. How true the story was is not important, it anchors Lola Montez on the east coast of America at the time, something that seems to have given rise to the following rumour in the Ballarat Star

lola Montez and madeleine smith

Obviously completely without foundation.

As far as we can tell Madeleine Smith was living quietly with relatives in London and trying to reinvent herself.

While she’s been portrayed as some sort of conniving woman, she was an ordinary girl who enjoyed dancing, champagne, and as we know from her letters, sex.

And if it wasn’t for her quite explicit letters, which caused a major sensation at the time of her trial, the whole Madeleine Smith saga would be forgotten as just another Victorian murder …

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Beads and Trading Links (again)

Six or seven years ago I blogged about an interesting report on the use of beads by Maccassar fishermen to buy access to trepang beds of the coast of Arnhem land from the local population.

The interesting thing about these beads is that they were not South East Asian in origin and were either of Dutch, Czech or Venetian manufacture and have been found in eighteenth century sediment deposits.

At the time I supposed that the Macassar trepang traders had acquired them from Dutch or Portuguese merchants as part of the spice trade.

I’ve recently been reading My Life in Sarawak by Margaret Brooke.

Margaret Brooke, was the wife of the second Brooke Rajah – the white Rajahs – in Sarawak describes how, on a visit to Sibu in the 1870’s, seeing poly coloured  glass beads from Venice for sale in the bazaar.

Sarawak was, of course a wild and untamed place still, and despite (or perhaps because of) the Brooke Rajahs in Kuching, was not seriously exposed to European traders, although Chinese merchants had been present well before the Brookes arrived on the scene.

The local Dayak population apparently were very fond of them and would trade forest products with the local Chinese merchants to acquire them.

This suggests that there must have been quite complex trading networks in place by which the Chinese merchants acquired the glass beads to trade on …

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Madeleine Smith in Australia (Not)

I was trawling various Scottish newspaper archives to try and find further reports of the stress occasioned by the Madeleine Smith trial – I was looking for reports of lunacy or hysteria occasioned by the event when I came across this little snippet from the Glasgow Herald of 1 March 1858:

glasgow heral 1 march 1858

to be closely followed by a refutation from the Edinburgh Witness:

glasgow heral 1 march 1858 refutation

Interesting how even before Australia was connected to the rest of the world by telegraph, false news and rumours spread and were picked up on the other side of the world …

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