19th Century, Businesses, Culture

Photography’s Early Days

An 1856 daguerreotype of Mr. John Shiels of Kingston, taken by Henry K. Sheldon. Art Gallery of Ontario. (click image to go to source)

I’ve posted this daguerreotype on the blog before; you can read a short post I wrote about it here. I’m using it again because I think it may be the earliest photograph I’ve seen that was taken in Kingston (but I’m not sure). The photographers I’ll be talking about in this post are 10-15 years earlier than this, however, and I assume no one has any idea what’s happened to the pictures they took. It would be really interesting to find out what the earliest known photograph of Kingston is!

The following paragraphs have been copy-and-pasted from a short assignment I did recently for class, where we had to go through old Kingston newspapers online and find any and all references to photography between 1839-1845. The tone is a bit drier than usual because of this, and I don’t go into the usual amount of detail, but I’ve found that after I complete an assignment it gets marked “DONE” in my head and I find it hard to go back and delve into it again. Anyway, with that in mind, read on to learn (a very tiny bit) about photography’s early days in Kingston!

The earliest reference I can find to photography in Kingston newspapers is an article in the Kingston Chronicle and Gazette of March 9, 1839. This article, a reprint from the Journal des Debats, describes the account given on January 8 by M. Arago of “a curious invention lately made by M. Daguerre, for making drawings.” The piece simply describes the method of making daguerreotypes and a few brief scientific details. [In class we learned this is likely the earliest reference to photography in Canada!] The next article that appears on the subject is in the May 1, 1839 Kingston Chronicle and Gazette and is more enthusiastic than the former, beginning, “We shall do without types, ink, and the burin of the graver!” It also finds the action of light recording images romantic:

This instrument has decided . . . that the moon’s rays have action on the surface of the earth by their light and heat. They produce, when concentrated, a large white spot on the black surface. All love letters must be written by this moonlight power.

The first piece that goes into the science behind daguerreotypes appears in the Kingston Chronicle and Gazette of May 29, 1841, in a reprinted article called “Sun-Drawn Portraits.” Although this article, originally in the Polytechnic Journal, is lengthy, the writer (Mr. Goddard) is still not completely sure of how daguerreotypes work.

The first advertisement for daguerreotypes in Kingston that I could find appears in the May 22, 1841 edition of the Kingston Chronicle and Gazette. The notice was placed by Messrs. Ramsay and Ford, who advertised that they would be taking miniature portraits in the courthouse yard (then located near the corner of King and Clarence Streets). They also explained the process of taking a daguerreotype and championed its accuracy over that of drawing and engraving. This same advertisement ran until July.

ramsay and ford

Kingston Chronicle and Gazette, 22 May 1841.

A different one does not appear until over a year later, in the Kingston Chronicle and Gazette of August 10, 1842. This was placed by Mr. D. Minthorn, who “flatters himself that he can produce as good impressions as are taken in America.” This notice is different from the last in that it considers a description of the process and apparatus “unnecessary.”


Kingston Chronicle and Gazette, 10 August 1842.

The next advertisement, once again, does not appear until about a year later, showing that these travelling daguerreotypists were likely restricted to months of good weather and good roads. It was placed by Mr. R. McMillan from London, who made coloured portraits.


Kingston Chronicle and Gazette, 22 July 1843.

The last advertisement I can find during 1839-1845 was placed in the October 14, 1845 British Whig by Messrs. Spencer and Shaw. This notice shows the first reference to the custom of photographing the dead.

spencer and shaw

British Whig, 14 October 1845.

[In the original assignment I went through some examples from the Montreal Transcript, then finished with this conclusion.] These early references to photography show that it was received with curiosity and enthusiasm in Canada, both for its novelty and sense of scientific advancement. However, it was also seen as charming and romantic that light alone could create permanent images of people and objects. Ramsay and Ford, the earliest local photographers, advertised for months in Kingston, and we can guess that they did a good business here as they likely did in many other towns.


All except the last newspaper clipping were found through the database Paper of Record, which requires a subscription. The last you can see in the database Our Ontario Newspapers by clicking here.

june 2 ad


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