Camera and Locomotive: Two Tracks across the Continent – John Plumbe’s Dream

The following is the first in a series of guest posts by Micah Messenheimer, Assistant Curator of Photography, Prints and Photographs Division.

Advertisement for Plumbe's National Plumbeotype Gallery (verso of sheet music), 1846. //hdl.loc.gov/loc.pnp/cph.3b47026

Advertisement for Plumbe’s National Plumbeotype Gallery (verso of sheet music), 1846. //hdl.loc.gov/loc.pnp/cph.3b47026

Two defining technologies of nineteenth-century America—railroads and photography—largely developed in parallel and brought about drastic changes to how people understood time and space. Trains bridged considerable distances with great speed; photographs brought past instances and far-off places to life for a viewer. Recently, I embarked on a journey of discovery through the Prints and Photographs Division holdings, noting the ways in which photographs in the collections–and sometimes photographs that never came into the collections–tell the story of the fascinating interconnections between the two technologies.

Interestingly, one of the earliest and most passionate advocates for the construction of a transcontinental railroad was the self-described “Professor of Photography,” John Plumbe, Jr. (1809-57). He argued forcefully in the national press, lectures, and pamphlets on the importance of a railroad to the Pacific. In 1838, he petitioned Congress and received a $2,000 appropriation to survey an initial route across Wisconsin. However, his requests for funding in 1839 and 1840 were refused. Plumbe would later make an overland trek from Iowa to California in 1849 that reinforced his belief in the need for rail spanning the continent.

Plumbe was first introduced to daguerreotypy in the spring of 1840, perhaps by Daguerre’s American agent, and initially took up the practice professionally to fund his railroad advocacy. As he had for railroading, he became an early booster for the new medium of photography. Plumbe was well-regarded for the quality of his work and for his experimentation, which included patents for a method to selectively color daguerreotypes. Additionally, he became the first American photographer to franchise studios. At his peak, he established over twenty galleries in the U.S. and overseas that specialized in photographing sitters the Washington Daily Times described in 1846 as, “almost every person of distinction or notoriety that has been before the public in many years.”

Daniel Dickinson. Daguerreotype by John Plumbe, between 1844 and 1860. //hdl.loc.gov/loc.pnp/cph.3c09856

Daniel Dickinson. Daguerreotype by John Plumbe, between 1844 and 1860. //hdl.loc.gov/loc.pnp/cph.3c09856

Washington Irving. Daguerreotype by John Plumbe, between 1855 and 1860. //hdl.loc.gov/loc.pnp/cph.3c10044

Washington Irving. Daguerreotype by John Plumbe, between 1855 and 1860. //hdl.loc.gov/loc.pnp/cph.3c10044

From 1844-46, Plumbe resided in Washington, D.C., where he took what is perhaps his most notable series of daguerreotypes—of federal buildings in the nation’s capital, including the earliest known photographs of the U.S. Capitol and the White House.

United States Capitol, Washington, D.C., east front elevation. Daguerreotype by John Plumbe, ca. 1846. //hdl.loc.gov/loc.pnp/ppmsca.51816

United States Capitol, Washington, D.C., east front elevation. Daguerreotype by John Plumbe, ca. 1846. //hdl.loc.gov/loc.pnp/ppmsca.51816

Advertisements for sets of these architectural photographs reproduced via a lithographic process he termed the “Plumbeotype” exemplify the desire for a way to make multiples of one-of-a-kind daguerreotypes. The relative rarity of the prints, and the fact that Plumbe sold most of his galleries in 1847 to pay creditors, suggest that the process itself was not lucrative.

Capitol Washington. Print (Plumbeotype) by John Plumbe, , after an 1846 daguerreotype. //hdl.loc.gov/loc.pnp/pga.11909

Capitol Washington. Print (Plumbeotype) by John Plumbe, after an 1846 daguerreotype. //hdl.loc.gov/loc.pnp/pga.11909

Despite Plumbe’s successes in the rapidly developing field of photography, he felt slighted by the lack of credit for his rail proposals. In 1851, he would again petition Congress—this time against the plan of a rival transcontinental railroad promoter, Asa Whitney, with whom Plumbe disagreed over routing and believed an opportunist. Embittered by the seeming elusiveness of his cause, which by 1857 had been taken up by others, Plumbe took his own life in “melancholy suicide” before the first tracks were laid.

Stay tuned for upcoming posts about how photography brought to life the epic feat of constructing railroads that traversed the continent.

First page of John Plumbe's Memorial against Mr. Asa Whitney's railroad scheme, 1851

First page of John Plumbe’s Memorial against Mr. Asa Whitney’s Railroad Scheme, 1851. [view catalog record]

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