Of the earliest pioneers in the invention of practical photograpic arts, the Meade Brothers hold a prominent role with its introduction in the United States. In the early days of photography, the process was known as daguerreotyping. Invented and perfected by Louis Daguerre in 1836 Paris, the process made its way over the Atlantic and into the United States shortly thereafer.
The two brothers, Henry William Matthew and Charles Richard, were born in England and emigrated to the United States around 1833.
Still teenagers, in 1842 the two brothers founded a daguerreotype studio in Albany, where they studied and practiced the newly discovered process, and offered portrait services to New York’s public.
Over the next two years the two brothers perfected their processes, and their firm quickly blossomed into a booming business.
Having tasted success, they expanded their business and opened additional studios in Saratoga Springs, Williamsburgh, and Buffalo.
There they invented and improved several daguerreotype processes, and won multiple prestigious awards.
And as their processes and techniques improved, they spent significant time travelling — shooting photographs of cities, people, and landmarks throughout the United States and Western Europe.
In the middle part of 1850 launched an enormous daguerreotype operation in New York City, and sold their other studios shortly thereafter. Located at 233 Broadway, they built a facility that specialized in multiple aspects of the photographic arts.
Within the building the brothers constructed an exhibition area, where the public could view free of charge their daguerreotype pieces. Ornately decorated and tastfully baroque, by June of 1852 the gallery boasted nearly one thousand daguerreotypes made by the two brothers.
Many of their photographic subjects were of prominent people of the day. Portraits of Emperor Luis Napoleon, Samuel Morse, Daniel Webster, President James Buchanan, John Frement, and Henry Clay were just a few of the luminaries. Eerily, the brothers also photographed President Lincoln’s assassin — the actor John Wilkes Booth.
In addition to human subjects, the two brothers showcased their photographs of landscapes, nature, and iconic places they had visited throughout the U.S. and Europe. Daguerreotypes of Niagra Falls, Shakespeare’s home, the Arc de Triomph, and Notre Dame were but just some of the landmarks displayed in their collection.
Visitors to their gallery were enthralled with their works; Until that time the majority of Americans had never seen the likenesses of such people and places, except by way of sketches, engravings, and line drawings in books.
With the advent of daguerreotyping, average Americans were able for the first time partake and behold the beauty of far away places and subjects, seeing their true images captured in life-like photographs.
The brothers’ operation not only served as a means to showcase their works. Within the building, they had also constructed sophisticated photographic facililties.
Replete with waiting areas, dressing rooms, and developer labs, they built two separate studios for taking portraits. To accomodate group photos, they outfitted their facilities with the capacity to photograph large numbers of people at the same time. Not only was their operation ideal for individuals to have their photographs taken, but it also served as an ideal place for schools and colleges to take class photos.
From all over America their firm was a magnet for artisans and craftsmen. Engravers, sculptors, painters, lithographers, and die-cutters all came to see the brothers’ works, and to learn how to adapt their crafts to take advantage of the newly emerged photographic arts.
For the next eight years the brothers’ firm enjoyed much success. Having begun as a small studio in Albany, their photographic business evolved and exploded, and grew to become a world-renowned dageurreotype firm that employed ten assistants.
Their partnership also broadened as a family affair. In the early 1850s their sister Mary A. Meade joined the business. Working under the supervision of her brothers, she was taught the intricacies of daguerreotyping, and is regarded as being history’s first woman daguerreotypist.
Sadly the brothers’ partnership was not to endure. In March of 1858 Charles Richard died.
Enduring several years of ill health, the younger brother passed-away at the early age of 31. Despite the tragedy, Henry Meade sojourned onward, and continued the business along with his sister.
There the firm continued to operate through the Civil War until January 1865, when Henry William Matthew died himself.
Suffering from a long bout of melancholy and depression, he committed suicide by consuming four ounces of laudanum poison.
Below are the two tokens issues by the Meade Brothers.
The first specimen is cataloged as Miller NY-530A. Struck in brass, it measures 28mm in diameter, and dates to the time before the brothers sold their Albany studio.
The second specimen is listed as Miller-530. Also struck in brass and measuring 28mm in diameter, the token dates to around the time that the brothers opened their New York studio.
Notes and Sources
Gleason’s Pictorial Drawing-Room Companion Vol. 4, No. 6, Boston, February 5 1853, pg.96
Gleason’s Pictorial Vol 2, No. 24, June 12 1852, pg.377
The New-York Illustrated News, Vol. 3, No. 67, February 16 1861, pg.236
Frank Leslie’s Illustrated Newspaper Vol. 5, No. 151, March 27 1858, pgs.268-269
A Sad Mortuary Record, Suicide of an Eminent Photographer, The New York Times, January 28, 1865
The Photo-Miniature Volume 4, Tennant and Ward, 1903, pg.555
The First Photograph, Harry Ransom Center Exhibitions, The University of Texas at Austin
Daguerre and the Invention of Photography, The Metropolitan Museum of Art
The Daguerreian Society
Visible Proofs, Forensic Views of the Body, National Library of Medicine, National Institutes of Health
National Museum of American History, Behring Center, Smithsonian Institution
The Smithsonian Institution Digital Collections
National Portrait Gallery
The Library of Congress Digital Archives
The New York Library Digital Archives
Southern Methodist University Digital Collections
Standard Catalog of United States Tokens 1700-1900 Fourth Edition, Russell Rulau, Krause Publications, ©2004