* The college widow, in the canoe: What a day! Spring in the air!
Professor Wagstaff: Who, me? I should spring in the air and fall in the lake?
— G., H., C., and Z. Marx, Horse Feathers
A daguerreotype dating from about 1855, this is object no. 84.XT.1582.3 in the collection of the J. Paul Getty Museum,
Daguerreotypes can be erased from their metal backings as easily as the marks on a chalkboard, so the ones that have survived the era of their making are framed behind glass, like this one. Not shown here is the other half of the frame: a hinged cover, velvet-lined. It swings into place over the glass, doubling the protection of the image. .
By 1855, American daguerreotypes were marketed in standard sizes — the bigger, the more expensive — and this one is the size called ninth-plate: the second-cheapest, at 2 by 2½ inches (https://cwfp.biz/platesizes.php). With its mercury surface enriched by tinting and set off in velvet with gold, the glittery little thing has been made into a gem. Whatever it was in 1855, it now asks to be understood as precious.
The museum has given the gem a provisional title, in brackets: “[Fireman in Uniform Holding a Brass Musical Instrument].” In the absence of more specific information, the museum adds that the fireman’s name is lost, and so is the history of the act of heroism commemorated here by his medal and, presumably, his photograph. All that now remains of his value is a transmutation of his person. It is now purchasable as a work of lapidary art, as in his lifetime it was purchasable as flesh.
On October 1, 1851, at 5 PM, Henry David Thoreau noted in his journal:
Just put a fugitive slave, who has taken the name of Henry Williams, into the cars for Canada. He escaped from Stafford County, Virginia, to Boston last October; has been in Shadrach’s place at the Cornhill Coffee-House; had been corresponding through an agent with his master, who is his father, about buying himself, his master asking $600, but he having been able to raise only $500. [. . .] Intended to dispatch him at noon through to Burlington, but when I went to buy his ticket, saw one at the depot who looked and behaved so much like a Boston policeman that I did not venture that time. An intelligent and very well-behaved man, a mulatto.
We have to put the name “[Henry Williams]” in brackets too; the text makes that clear with its relative clause beginning “who has taken the name of.” Likewise subordinated to the status of a relative clause are the words “His master, who is his father.” Everywhere else, Thoreau’s paragraph is overflowing with Thoreau’s beloved details: the name of a county in Virginia, the name of the place where [Henry] slept, the insurmountable $100 difference for [Henry] between being free of his father and being his father’s possession. We owe this information exclusively to Henry Thoreau’s record. Aside from that, all we will ever be able to know of intelligent, well behaved [Henry] is what was once assessed in the market by his body’s raw material value as an alloy of white and black.
The fireman in his uniform is a civil servant like the Boston policeman. His service entails that he is to be known of by his externally visible attributes, not his name. If we’re accustomed to thinking of firemen as white, seeing this black fireman may make us stop seeing, for a moment, and start looking. But only for a moment. In his jewelbox, the fireman plays a cameo role.