19th Century, Miscellaneous, People

Daguerreotype Man

Art Gallery of Ontario caption: Mr. John Shiels, Kingston, 1856. Henry K. Sheldon (Canadian). Photographic print, daguerreotype, tinted, 7.1 x 6 cm. Purchased with assistance of the Photography Curatorial Committee, 2008. (click photo to go to source)

March 23, 2015 update: The third edition of Jennifer McKendry’s book Early Photography in Kingston identifies John Shiels’ uniform as that of a volunteer fireman. He was the tinsmith I talk about below; he later moved to Riverside, California. See more information in the book.

I got pretty curious recently when I saw this daguerreotype of a nineteenth-century Kingstonian posted online. The Art Gallery of Ontario published it on their Tumblr in December 2011, but I just came across it the other day. It’s a pretty nice daguerreotype, hand-coloured and nicely, if a bit stiffly, posed. Mr. Shiels’ clothing interests me; I’m not sure what his uniform-like jacket, cap and striped trousers signify. He almost looks like a hotel bellboy or something. Perhaps if we could see what his hand is resting on it would help us out.

Despite the date of the photograph, there’s no one by the name of Shiels in the 1855 or 1857 Kingston city directories (not that they are necessarily complete). However, the 1865 directory, the next one available, has a John Shiels, tinsmith, living at “King near Princess.” I can’t be sure that this is the same person, but there’s a chance. He has an ad – note that street numbering has definitely changed over the past 150 years:

john shiels

John Shiels, tinsmith, appears sporadically throughout the 1870s and 1880s before disappearing from the directory.

The AGO must be pleased with this daguerreotype, as they’ve chosen it as the emblem of their Photography collection page. Daguerreotypes are interesting because their silver surface is mirrored, making the intricate spidery lines of the image somewhat elusive and difficult to see. Daguerreotypes are also one-of-a-kind: they consist of one single negative (that appears positive) which cannot be reproduced. In this case, you can tell the photo is a negative by the backwards number 2 on John Shiels’ cap. This hand-coloured example probably cost a bit of extra money – I wonder who it was originally intended for?

The Sheldon studio, which took the photo, was begun by Henry Sheldon circa 1850. In 1863, his son-in-law Richard Davis joined the studio and took it over after Sheldon’s death in 1877. Davis operated it until about 1904 when it was subsequently taken over by others (who I don’t believe were relatives). I love being able to see a picture of a random Kingston resident from the 1850s, especially when we can step downtown and be among so many of the same buildings and structures that they also would have recognized. Round of applause for the invention of photography!


I’ve linked to the photograph and the AGO Tumblr.

Kingston City Directory 1865 (ad is on page 102)

Learn more about daguerreotypes!


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