Digging Up Daguerreotypes

Likely to commemorate their graduation from Hampden-Sydney College, seven seniors from the Class of 1851 had their images transposed onto silver- coated, copper plates by one of the few daguerreotypists in the antebellum South, George W. Minnis of Petersburg. Discovered by relic collectors and placed on the auction block, the “quarter plates” and a calligraphic card listing their partial names was acquired by the College this year through the auspices of alumni donors. The images themselves may appear unremarkable, but they have at least one, notable distinction: They are the earliest known photographs of any persons associated with Hampden-Sydney.

Archived records provided by Dr. Cyrus I. Dillon, III, director of the Bortz Library, confirm these men were classmates, and their ribbons and sashes indicate membership to the Union Society or Philanthropic Society, precursors to the present-day Union-Philanthropic Society. Alumni records revealed their full names: William Caruthers of Prince Edward; Robert A. Dabney of Powhatan, state legislator and professor at University of the South; Thomas J. Garden of Charlotte, Confederate soldier; John D. Meredith of Buckingham; Isaac A. Paul of Nelson, lawyer and captain in the Confederate army; Samuel A. Selden of Norfolk, doctor; and John B. Shearer of Appomattox, preacher and cofounder of Southwestern Presbyterian University.

Despite enduring the tedious and delicate chemical procedure more than 163 years ago, the plates still portray clear and defined images of the alumni. Today we have a glimpse into their styles and dress, adding to the photographic history of the College and gaining “a personal connection” with our fellow graduates, as Dillon described.

Because the plates lack individual labels, the College is unable to match the names with the plates. If any alumni, descendants, or amateur sleuths can provide more information on these gentlemen, please contact Dillon at cdillon@hsc.edu or (434) 223-6197.

Daguerreotype Hampden Sydney

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