Features appear in each issue of Pennsylvania Heritage showcasing a variety of subjects from various periods and geographic locations in Pennsylvania.

Two brothers – German immigrants who left their native Brunswick and chanced upon one another in Philadelphia several years later – have been praised by scores of scholars and histo­rians as the “Fathers of Mod­ern Photography” for their technical contributions to the first twenty years of American photographic history. William and Frederick Langenheim achieved international fame as daguerreotypists and their works today are prized by the Library of Congress (which accepted transfers from the Smithsonian Institution as early as 1866), the Franklin Institute, the Eastman Kodak Museum, the Missouri Histori­cal Society, as well as numer­ous European museums and collections. In this century, six of their daguerreotypes were showcased in the first photo­graphic exhibit mounted by the Museum of Modern Art, New York, in 1938. Between 1840 and 1874, when William died and Frederick retired, the brothers received more honors and awards from Philadel­phia’s Franklin Institute for exhibits than any other photographers.

William Langenheim was born in 1807 and Frederick two years later. At the age of twenty-seven, William left Germany for the United States in 1834. He fought in the Texan War for Independence and was imprisoned by the Mexicans for more than a year. He later acted as a commissary ser­geant in the Second Seminole War. In 1840, he traveled to Philadelphia where, only by accident, he encountered Fre­derick, who was employed by the city’s German language newspaper, Die Alte und Neue Welt.

Their two sisters in Europe, Louisa and Anna (also known as Nancy), proved instrumen­tal in stimulating their fascina­tion with the daguerreotype process shortly after its inven­tion in 1839 by French inventor Louis Daguerre. Frederick probably brought from Europe a camera given to him by Jo­hann Bernhard Schneider, Louisa’s husband. Earlier, Schneider had been a student in Vienna with Peter Friedrich Voigtlander, married to Anna Langenheim.

The camera developed by Louis Daguerre had a simple lens which required a great deal of light for exposure of the plate. Josef Petzval of Vi­enna designed a double lens, permitting sixteen times more light than Daguerre’s original 1839 camera. Voigtlander built cameras for Petzval with the lens, the first two of which he sent to Louis Daguerre; he shipped the third camera to Schneider who, in turn, passed it on to the Langen­heim brothers in the United States. This camera was first introduced in Europe in May 1840, and Frederick and Wil­liam Langenheim presumably had it in Philadelphia the following month.

By 1842, the Langenheims opened a business in the Phil­adelphia Exchange, and three years later established a studio conducted by Alexander Beck­ers in New York City. While Frederick managed the labora­tory and technical aspects, his brother undertook the busi­ness details. In fact, patents were issued in Frederick’s name and most surviving business correspondence was written by William.

Realizing the importance of advertising, the Langenheim venture was among the first commercial photography stu­dios to place notices in con­temporary newspapers and periodicals; an 1844 advertise­ment, for example, enthusias­tically touted – with some exaggeration – their venture as “an old and far-famed estab­lishment!” They encouraged portraits not only of families and friends but of the sick and deceased, offering to visit one’s house to make the rather macabre portraits. They cred­ited light, or the “Pencil of Nature,” with drawing the picture.

In July 1845, Frederick Langenheim journeyed to Niagara Falls, New York, mak­ing several daguerreotypes of what later became one of the most photographed, if not familiar, landscapes in the nineteenth century American consciousness. He was the first photographer to recognize its appeal, perhaps because his interests in Germany included agricultural pursuits and a keen love of the land. While most early daguerreotypists remained in their studios mak­ing portraits, Frederick carved a niche in American photo­graphic history by hauling his cumbersome gear to the out­doors to record natural wonders.

The Langenheims produced eight sets of daguerreotypes of Niagara Falls from five differ­ent perspectives. These pano­ramas were made with such short exposures – especially for the era – that the people and horses near the waterfall were captured in perfect detail. Surely the brothers sensed the significance of these views; they sent copies to Pres. James K. Polk, England’s Queen Victoria, Louis Daguerre, the Duke of Brunswick and the kings of Prussia, Saxony and Wurttemberg. One set was retained by the Langenheims and later featured in the presti­gious Museum of Modern Art’s landmark exhibit of 1938.

Louis Daguerre thanked the brothers for “sending me the charming view of Niagara, which is due to the amiable attention of Messrs. Langen­heim. Besides the merit of these proofs of execution they have also the merit to repre­sent one of the wonders of the known world.” Other acco­lades followed. On behalf of Queen Victoria, Lord Aber­deen wrote: “I have now the pleasure to acquaint you, that although it is general rule with her Majesty not to receive presents from any quarter, her Majesty has been graciously pleased to accept this view of the falls of Niagara and ex­press her admiration at the great skill with which it has been taken.” The kings sent letters of appreciation – as well as medals honoring the Langenheims’ work. The May 7 and June 4, 1846, editions of The Philadelphia Public Ledger took notice of these depictions of Niagara Falls and urged individuals to visit the broth­ers’ studio in the Philadelphia Exchange and examine the remarkable views. Less than two decades later, an astute Marcus Root, in his 1864 Cam­era and Pencil, the first pub­lished history of photography, credited Frederick and William Langenheim with popularizing daguerreotypes by sending complimentary copies of their work to important social and political personages and by inviting the curious public to visit their studio and showrooms.

In 1846. William married Sophia Palmer of Philadelphia and Frederick, who remained a bachelor the rest of his life, made a daguerreotype of the couple, probably on their wedding day. The image may, indeed, be one of the first wedding photographs in American history!

Within a few years, and after the births of three chil­dren, Sophia Langenheim, twenty years younger than her husband, died at the age of twenty-six. The daguerreo­types taken by her husband and brother-in-law constitute one of the oldest and earliest family portrait collections in the country. The eldest child, Frederick David, was the sub­ject of daguerreotypes from infancy and the images chroni­cle his childhood and youth. A surviving daguerreotype, albeit faded, was taken of the three Langenheim children before the death of the young­est, Sophia, in 1854.

Always eagerly following the technological strides in the emerging photographic indus­try, William and Frederick Langenheim tried to introduce a new process, a precursor of modern photography, to America in 1849. This new development, the talbotype, relied on alternate coatings of salt and silver nitrate on good writing paper, instead of Louis Daguerre’s original process of a silvered copper plate. Wil­liam journeyed to England to negotiate the purchase of the American patent from William Henry Fox Talbot and paid one thousand pounds sterling, a considerable sum, for the rights. Shortly afterward, Talbot wrote his wife, “You know I had a patent in the U.S.A. for my invention of photographic pictures. I sold it yesterday for a large sum to an American gentleman who expects to make his fortune by this purchase. I hope he may as he seems a very amiable and intelligent person.”

During that summer, the Langenheims produced sev­eral successful talbotypes, including views of the Phila­delphia Exchange and a “Lighthouse under Construc­tion.” They speedily distrib­uted handbills to fellow daguerreotypists, urging them to try the new process, and made sure an article explaining its usefulness appeared in the Daily National Intelligencer, published in Washington, D.C. Despite their excitement and enthusiastic marketing attempts, Frederick and Wil­liam Langenheim failed with their promotion of the talbo­type process, which resulted in their bankruptcy by the end of the year. Although several historians suggest that the early talbotypes were inferior to skilled daguerreotypes, it was possible that Americans simply preferred the solidity of the sturdy daguerreotype plate more than the talbotype paper as it may have reminded them of the durability of old mina­itures. Other scholars suggest, however, that the brothers failed because they did not have adequate time to devote to the perfection and promo­tion of the talbotype process; zealots that they were, William and Frederick began working on another new development, the Niepce process.

The Niepce process, brain­child of Frenchman Niepce de Saint Victor, employed an albumen (egg white) solution to produce a photographic negative on glass. The Langenheims were the first in the United States to produce similar negatives, but fur­thered the development so that positives could be printed on glass plates, products they called hyalotypes. They also discovered that photographic transparencies could be transferred to ground or frosted glass, leading to the creation of magic lantern slides, a process for which they received a pat­ent in 1850.

To popularize both talbo­types and hyalotypes, the Langenheims submitted sam­ples of each for the Crystal Palace Exhibition in London in 1851. They were the only Americans to enter talbotypes and the only contestants to submit photographic positives on glass. They were awarded a medal and certificate for their hyalotypes, which the April 1851 edition of the London Art Journal described as “near an approach to perfection as we can imagine;’ noting that the process was lengthy and com­plicated. Among the one hun­dred and twenty-six magic lantern slides exhibited by the brothers were landscapes and portraits printed in a warm sepia. They sought to recoup some of their debt to Talbot by selling him the rights to the hyalotype process.

Following their acclaimed exhibit in London, Frederick Langenheim gave the first recorded slide-lecture tour when he journeyed through South America with images submitted to the Crystal Palace extravaganza, including views of Niagara Falls, assorted American landscapes, “magi­cal and comical pictures” and microscopic studies. It was the microprints that prompted Marcus Root in 1864 to write that the Langenheims’ “micro­photographs are far superior to any we have seen made by others on either side of the Atlantic.”

At about the same time as the Crystal Palace Exhibit, Frederick and William Langenheim established the American Stereoscopic Com­pany in Philadelphia, which offered a novel, three­-dimensional perspective of diverse subjects. The brothers used daguerreotypes, talbo­types and hyalotypes to make these new stereopticon im­ages. Their Langenheim Stereoscope Peep-Show per­mitted rapid rotation of the images and was a forerunner of the latter-day penny arcade machines popular through this century. The stereopticon industry was but another example of the brothers’ sagacity in introducing products and processes popular in Eu­rope, but not yet familiar in the United States. As early as 1854, Frederick explained, “Until now, all the stereoscopic glass pictures have been im­ported from France. As far as I am able to judge, the fault lies principally with our operating artists. They have not paid attention to the subject it richly deserves …. ” The following year he recruited Philadelphia businessmen and investors to sponsor him in a railroad ex­cursion from Philadelphia to Niagara Falls, during which he would make stereoscopic views of the landscape. Twenty businessmen adver­tised this innovative endeavor in the Philadelphia Public Ledger in December 1855. He has been duly credited with popu­larizing railroad scenery with this series, which included a view of the recently completed suspension bridge at Niagara Falls.

Between his tour of South America and the railroad expe­dition, Frederick found time to capture, on May 26, 1854, an eclipse of the sun. The first attempt in Italy in 1842 to record a solar eclipse was not very successful, although John Whipple of Harvard College photographed a partial eclipse in 1851. Frederick Langen­heim, in addition to six Ameri­can photographers, succeeded in using the daguerreotype process in recording the scientific event in 1854.

In 1856, the year they pub­lished their stereopticon rail­road series, the Langenheim brothers also issued a set of twenty-four stereographic proofs on salted paper entitled Views at Home and Abroad (which the Smithsonian Insti­tution transferred to the Li­brary of Congress for safekeeping ten years later). By 1858, however, daguerreotypes had lost their popularity, re­placed by the ambrotype, followed by the ferrotype (“tintype”) and, finally, by the familiar and commercially successful paper photographs. Unlike previous years, not one daguerreotype was entered in the Franklin Institution’s annual exhibition for 1859. It appears that the brothers be­gan concentrating on their stereopticon business, produc­ing magic lantern slides for the next decade. They employed artists to draw comical and magical slides, and released a catalogue marketing their available slides. Over the years, the Langenheims en­couraged others, even compet­itors, to make improvements in the field; Frederick is listed as a witness, in 1856, to a new stereoscope case made by William Lloyd. And Alexander Beckers, once an employee, in 1859 produced a special case capable of housing three hun­dred stereographs mounted on rotating blades.

The Langenheim brothers continued exerting considera­ble influence on the American photography market until William’s death at the age of sixty-seven in 1874. Upon William’s demise, Frederick retired and sold the stereopti­con and magic lantern slide enterprises to Casper W. Briggs. Perhaps it was fitting that the business as conducted by Frederick and William Langenheim did not continue beyond the exciting – if not explosive – early years of pho­tography. Not only did these German immigrants witness the formative years of Ameri­can photography, but they actively participated in its growth and development, enabling the products of their labors to be shared with their contemporaries, as well as subsequent generations of scholars, historians and admir­ers. They were, in essence, pioneers and photographers.

That the brothers’ first cooperative effort in the United States was working for the Philadelphia newspaper, Die Alte und Neue Welt, or The Old and New World, seems prophetic today. Their role in photographic history served to introduce Old World scientific advances – such as talbotypes and the Niepce process – to the New World, thus preserving for posterity the unique nine­teenth century perspective of the grand and, at times, bewil­dering landscape of their adopted country. As intellectu­ally curious German natives and as astute Philadelphia businessmen, they bridged the two worlds to provide a unique graphic document of the art and science they helped to shape.


For Further Reading

Buckland, Gail and Cecil Beaton. The Magic Image: The Genius of Photography from 1839 to the Present Day. Boston: Little, Brown, 1975.

Darrah, William Culp. The World of Stereographs. Gettys­burg: Darrah, 1977.

Finkel, Kenneth. Nineteenth­-century Photography in Phila­delphia: 250 Historic Prints from the Library Company of Philadelphia. New York: Dover Publications, 1980.

Gernsheim, Helmut and Alison Gernsheim. L.J.M. Daguerre: The History of the Diorama and the Daguerreotype. New York: Dover Publications, 1968.

Gilbert, George. Collecting Photographica: The Images and Equipment of the First Hundred Years of Photography. New York: Hawthorne Books, 1976.

Heyert, Elizabeth. The Glass­house Years: Victorian Portrait Photography, 1839-1870. Mont­clair, N.J.: Allanheld E. Schram, 1979.

Macdonald, Gus. Camera: A Victorian Eyewitness; A His­tory of Photography: 1826-1913. New York: Viking Press, 1980.

Newhall, Beaumont. The Da­guerreotype in America. New York: New York Graphic Society, 1968.

Rinhart, Floyd and Marion Rinhart. American Daguer­reian. New York: C. N. Potter, 1967.

Taft, Robert. Photography and the American Scene: A Social History, 1839-1889. New York: Dover Publications, 1964.


Ellen NicKenzie Lawson, a direct descendant of William Langenheim, earned her doctorate in American History from Case Western Reserve University, Ohio, in 1977, and received her master of arts in teaching from Wesleyan University, Connecti­cut. She was awarded her bache­lor of arts degree in 1966 from Swarthmore College, Pennsylva­nia. Her articles have appeared in scholarly journals, including Journal of Civil War History, Journal of Negro Education and Dictionary of American Mili­tary Biography. She has written three books, The Three Sarahs: Documents of Antebellum Black College Women, Across the Stage – An Extra Clap and Cookies, Whales and Turtle Tales. The author, residing in Cleveland Heights, Ohio, is currently a freelance writer.