The mighty Ohio River flows alongside the city of Cincinnati. This city that looks south into Kentucky was first settled in 1788 and formally became a city in 1819. With the advent of steam navigation on the Ohio River in 1811 and the building of the Miami and Erie Canal, the city witnessed tremendous growth. It developed quickly, with a population of 115,000 people, over the next few decades to become one of the first major inland cities in the United States.
It was William S. Porter and Charles Fontayne, who on a Sunday afternoon, Sept. 24, 1848, set up the new daguerreotype camera to make a series of daguerreotype plates in a panorama format of the city of Cincinnati. They were across the Ohio River on the Kentucky side so a nice clear series of images could be produced. Those images have survived over the years to now provide a wonderful window into what Cincinnati looked like in 1848.
For any family history researcher with ancestral ties to Cincinnati in the 19th century will find this series of images captivating. Here is the rich detail of the businesses, the hotels, the steamboats and the people in this thriving city. Through the efforts of the George Eastman House in Rochester, New York, they have restored the daguerreotype plates. The process managed to bring out the clarity and crisp details of signs, people, factories, clock tower, merchants, buildings and even curtains at the windows. The series represents approximately two miles of the Cincinnati waterfront.
The Cincinnati Public Library has now placed these wonderful images which were made digital on their web site for everyone to enjoy. You can view them at their regular size or zoom in to any point on each image. Viewing can be done starting from the left side and moving to each of the eight daguerreotype plates to the right side of the river shore.
Added to this site by the Cincinnati Public Library are tags with special points of interest, each with additional information about the hotels, the businesses and people of Cincinnati at that time. There are scanned documents, maps and newspaper articles as well as advertisements for a better understanding of what was there in the city at that time.
The site has topics of African-Americans, art, architecture, culture, education, religion, reform, everyday life, immigrants, science, inventions, transportation, industry and commerce expounded on throughout the panorama. There are zoom controls to really go in close on any image and literally read the signs on buildings.
The site is very easy to navigate, to work the various arrows and buttons to see what you can discover. Go over the additional documentation provided on the people, merchants, steamboats and life of Cincinnati.
One interesting item is the office of a steamboat company which had as their bookkeeper, a young Stephen Foster, the songwriter of American music including “Oh! Susanna,” “Old Folks at Home – Suwannee River,” “My Old Kentucky Home” and “Camptown Races.” Stephen Foster lived in Cincinnati from 1846 to 1850 and worked at his brother’s steamboat company and was where he wrote his first successful song, “Oh! Susanna.“
As for William Porter and Charles Fontayne, they were recognized in their lifetime for they expert use of the daguerreotype camera in capturing landscapes, where previous it was generally used for portraits. Porter died, in 1889 and Fontayne died in 1901. It was in 1912, the Cincinnati 1848 series was loaned to the old Main Library on Vine Street in Cincinnati and hung on the walls. It was the library’s librarian, Carl Vitz, who in 1946, realized the potential of the old Cincinnati Panorama to become the symbol for the building of a new library for the city. However, the library needed to own rather than have the plates on loan. So Vitz bought the panorama plates from William Porter’s son. The plates were then copied onto film and the original plates placed in a vault for safekeeping.
A new Library for Cincinnati opened in 1955 and a photo mural of the plates hung in the reference section. The copies were enlarged for another new Library built in 1983. It would be in 2006 when those original daguerreotype plates were transported to the Eastman House in Rochester for conservation. After much work, the plates were returned in excellent restored condition to the Cincinnati Public Library and placed as an permanent exhibit in the Joseph S. Stern, Jr. – Rare Books Room. A true treasure of life in middle America some 163 years ago is now conserved and available for everyone to view in person and online.
Cincinnati Public Library
Daguerreotype Plates Restored
Images of Cincinnati Waterfront