The pale gentleman stares like an apparition from behind a pane of glass, sealed in a protective hinged case, inside an acid-free envelope, inside an archival box, within the controlled climate of the seventh floor of Doane Library. Even with so many safeguards, this early Denison alumnus identified as Jacob Bartholomew, Class of 1842, is gradually eroding behind a fog of pox and corrosion.
Daguerreotypes like this one came into general use after 1839—about the time Mr. Bartholomew would have been starting his education at the Granville Literary and Theological Institution (later Denison). Across the Atlantic, Louis Daguerre had made it commercially feasible to capture a photographic image for the first time. The French government provided the inventor with a comfortable pension and then made a gift of his process, without patent or license, to the rest of the world.
Anyone wanting to invest in an instruction manual and equipment could set up shop and make money, and many did—portrait studios and itinerant photographers sprouted across Europe and then America. By 1842, the year Bartholomew received his artium baccalaureus degree with the three other young men in the school’s third graduating class, one could have one’s “phiz” immortalized on a small rectangle of silver-coated copper for the equivalent of $2 to $5 in today’s currency. Portraits were no longer a privilege of the wealthy but were affordable to the many who clamored to be “taken.”
The reflective, jewel-like quality of the polished silver behind the daguerreotypes encouraged the idea that they were “mirrors of truth,” thought to reveal the souls of the sitters. Bartholomew’s character is hard to read, but it might include a weakness for get-rich-quick schemes—we know he married an Ohio girl, Emily, who followed him to the 1849 Gold Rush territory in northern California, where he died in 1863.
The piece of glass fitted over his image was meant to protect the sensitive silver from tarnishing air or touch, but glass from that era could be unstable. Bubbles formed and expelled caustic gases, corroding both the glass and the image below it. Jacob Bartholomew gazes through this spattered windowpane, slowly being undone by the thing meant to ensure his immortality.