In October 1839, Joseph Saxton looked out from an upper window of the United States Mint, at that time located at the corner of Chestnut and Juniper streets in Philadelphia. Then he did something extraordinary; using a cigar box and a glass lens, Saxton took a photograph known as a daguerreotype, capturing an image on a light-sensitive silver-coated metallic plate.
This image, which is in the collection at the Historical Society of Pennsylvania, is thought to be the oldest extant daguerreotype in the United States. It is small—barely 2-inches square. The subject of the photograph was the Philadelphia Central High School, the nation’s second public high school, located at Walnut and Juniper streets. The daguerreotype process was fairly new at the time, having been created and perfected by Louis Daguerre during the 1830s. Saxton had learned about Daguerre’s method and crafted his own apparatus for taking photographs.
Saxton, born in Huntington, Pennsylvania, is credited with revolutionary advancements in locomotive engineering and weights and measures. He invented the hydrometer to measure the specific gravity of fluids and a self-registering tide gauge to record earthquakes. He was worked for the U.S. Mint as a curator, designing balances to verify standard weights in government offices.
Saxton's daguerreotype is available to view by appointment at HSP. Recently, our collection of case photos (#3139), along with cased photos from many other collections, were cataloged and digitized. Images of them can be viewed online in HSP's Digital Library.
Image: “Central High School, Philadelphia,” facsimile of daguerreotype attributed to Joseph Saxton (1839)