Friday, October 14, 2011

My earliest memories can be summed up thusly; I remember feeling as though a great emptiness was both around me and inside me, and always having the need for something more.

The strangest part of it was, I never felt unloved nor was I ever alone!

I was born about 1812, near by Coeymans, New York when this country was still very young and unsettled.  My father was a farmer as his father was before him.  Our family is and will always be members of a society of friends.  Many call us Quakers.  Father came from a large family and so I did as well.  The house was full of brothers and sisters in addition to many uncles and aunts and cousins and friends!  Dogs and cats and roosters, too.  My youngest sister Anna kept a menagerie in her and our sister Mary's room, which irritated the rest of us but both father and mother doted on her and allowed for this as she was the youngest.

It was, as I imply, a busy home and a loving one too.  But it was a hard life and a dreary one.  Structure in all aspects abounded.  One was either off to school, religious study, working in the field or tending to the cows and chickens in the barn and shed.  I was a good son, I believe.  I never gave father a reason to be cross with me not out of fear of reprisal but out of love for him and mother.  I was not a lazy child but rather, easily bored.  Longing for something other than what I knew the coming day would bring.  I never disrespected him and shirked my responsibilities but father could sense that the life that he had so pleasantly settled into, that had been passed down to him by his father, might not be one that would provide for me a lifetime of gratitude in the kingdom of our Lord.

And so, when I reached the age of 16 or thereabout, father apprenticed me to work in his brother Jacob's jeweler and watch repair business in the town of New Baltimore.  Uncle Jacob happend to be my favorite uncle and the news of my being sent to work in his shoppe each day could not have been better news.  I took to my new position with some apprehension but a great deal of curiousity and excitement too!  My uncle offered patient guidance and I quickly took to learning the skills involved in the intricacies of jewelry manufacture, miniature portraiture, music boxes and time piece repair.

For over two years, I would travel by horse from the family farm in Coeymans to New Baltimore to work and learn the trade at my uncle's jewelry business.  Each day I would return home, assist in the remaining household chores, attend meetings of religious instruction and retire to the bedroom I shared with my brothers Jacob and Henry.  The moments during the day when I was happiest was spent wearing a watch repair loupe, carefully investigating the wonders of a customer's L'Epine Repeating.

In time I became quite adept at the work involved.  I even came to building spectacles and even silverware for sale to uncle Jacob's loyal customers!  In time I began to consider the thought of venturing my own establishment in another community and the opportunity presented itself in or around my 25th birthday.  My uncle Jacob had learned that a fellow jeweler in Little Falls, who he knew to be an honest and fair servant to his clientele in that hamlet, had died suddenly and his widow was forced to sell her husband's shoppe.

As He would, so often in my blessed life, God was there to guide me when, in meeting with the widow, I not only managed to secure amicable terms on the purchase and transition of her husband's business but little was I to realize that on the very day I began to ply my trade under the name of J. Gurney, I would also come to meet the most devout and wonderful woman who would become my wife.

Monday, October 10, 2011

J.Gurney Advertisement from 10.11.1839 NY Evening Post

University of City of New York Advertisement
also from 10.11.1839 NY Evening Post
Main Building, University of the City of New York where
Morse's offices were established.

Professor John William Draper, ca. 1879

"Ah!  Gurney!  I was beginning to think you had changed your mind." Morse declares as he ushers me into the laboratory that also serves as his home, it seems.  Dinnerware and drinking glasses, half eatten meals and piles of clothing, mainly waistcoats were strewn all about the place in a quiet state of disarray.

Ahead of me, off in a corner, a rather earnest looking man in a black leather apron tied over his white shirt, cravat and trousers, was busy polishing and buffing  a metal plate. He looked up for a moment to acknowledge me with a polite nod before turning his attention back to his task.  Near to him, perched on a high chair with her arms folded drowsily in her lap, a woman my age.  She would have been quite lovely had it not been for what appeared to be a vast amount of cooking flour on her face.

She smiled at me through the flour and bowed her head slightly.  Several feet in front of her a gigantic square wooden box on wooden stilts, with a brass cylinder protruding from one end, took aim at her countenance.  Laced under her chin, a blue bonnet silouhetted by a ring of tiny flowers.  She held a confident gaze.

Morse acknowledges my attention and with a wave informs me "That would the Drapers!  The fellow I mentioned yesterday, professor Draper.  John is from England although we don't hold that against him."  Morse confers with a wink and a smile.  "John's been working on capturing a view of the moon of all things!  There's some debate as to whether or not such a nocturnal object can indeed be put to plate, as it were, but it's difficult to tell a man with so much intellectual curiousity that somethings simply can't be done once he has a mind to doing it."

"His assitant and sister, Miss Dorothy Draper.  She's as intelligent as she is comely, eh!  Ah, but you'll find that to be entirely true in time, Gurney."

I really can't say it was while Morse was initiating me into his world of science and beauty, knowledge and art, or whether it was days or weeks after when I took the recipe he provided and began to apply it myself.  However, it happend.  It did happen.  The indescribable apartness that comes over me whenever I began to concentrate on all of the components necessary to create those early images we call daguerreotypes.

I had of course, had similar experiences in the intricacies of watch repair and the building of jewelry boxes and spectacles.  This was something different, though.  Something more devine.  There were tools yes, but those tools were not merely made of metal and wood and glass.  There were chemicals and heat to be considered.  The proper temperatures and mixtures needed to be formulated and sustained elsewise all would be ruined.  The image would disappear or bubble and burn in disaster.

Music was taking place in my mind while I tinkered with the recipe Morse had provided me.  Notes were being played in addition to those written down in ledger after ledger.  Columns strewn with calculations, more often than not, crossed out and rewritten with each small success or failure.  There were sketches, too.  Tiny, primitive drawings of rectangular boxes with a round tube extending out from the side.  A glass lens at the very end of the tube where light and seemingly, the very memory of what stood in front of that lens was drawn into the box and in turn, settled upon those plates I saw professor Draper polishing so diligently.

And then there was time and light.  The time of day and it's corresponding source and level of light.  Then too, the length of time for various purposes involved.  So much to consider.  So much could go wrong.

I do know this.  By the close of the first day's tutorial given to me by Professors Morse and Draper, I at once felt that I had come upon something that my mind had been yearning for.  A fullness that surpassed what I had been doing up to that point and a desire to build upon their teachings.  These were entirely new and endless avenues to explore!

The first image of the moon, 1840, John W. Draper.
Miss Dorothy Catherine Draper.
The first daguerreotype of a human face.
Taken in 1840 by John W. Draper.

Samuel Morse notebook, Library of Congress

A brief list of equipment needed for the making of daguerreotypes:

- Silver electroplated plates or cad plates
- Iodine and Bromine coating boxes
- Mercury fume/developing box with heater
- Fume hood - this is essential!
- Sanding materials - Polishing compounds and pads
- Buffing sticks
- Gilding stand
- Spirit lamp
- Camera fitted to hold your plates
- Fixing trays, gloves, iodine, bromine, sodium thiosulfate, gold chloride, mercury, etc.

Walking home the following evening from my first visit to Professor Morse's shop, my mind was overwhelmed.  So much had happend over the past 36 hours, I could not determine what to concentrate on first!

The evening before, once dinner had concluded and our child had been put into the care of her aunt, my beautiful wife Phebe and I were finally disposed to sit quietly in front of our tiny coal driven fireplace and discuss the morning's visitor to my jewelry shop on Maiden Lane.  She listened carefully and pleasantly while I explained to her Morse's offer, the benefit of adding to our establishment's services to our loyal customers and the potential to bring even more individuals to the door.  Being something of a sound businessman, I found it incumbent of me to weigh in on the potential for this proposition to adversely affect my ledger.

There was material costs involved.  Chemicals to acquire, tools and trays and gloves.  Perhaps Morse would make good on his discrete offer to supply these things but for how long and at what terms?  What of this camera obscura???  A glass lens protruding from a wooden box, indeed!  What do I know of such things!  This process of sun painting will take me away from the business of manufacturing jewelry boxes and watch repair, I concluded.  This is not the time to divert my attention from the business that has gotten me to this point thus far.  When I looked up from the amber flames of coal, my Phebe was smiling at me in her kind manner which often gave me pause to thank my creator for all that He has given me.

"My dear Jeremiah," she sighed, "you have been a success at all you have put your mind to ever since leaving your father's farm nearly ten years on.  Why must you torment yourself with self doubt when the next logical step that God places in front of you appears?  This man coming into your life is a sign, my dear husband."  The soft golden light from the lamp near where she sat, close to me, silhouetted her.  I reached across and placed my hand over hers.  With her other hand, she placed on her dress, gently patting her belly.  "Our Father is blessing us with another life in two meanings of the word, Jeremiah."

The following day, being a Tuesday as I recall, offered me the opportunity to call on Professor Morse for my own establishment was closed on Tuesdays.  On the long walk north to his rooms within the University's newly constructed gothically inspired building on Washington Square East, I continued the debate within myself as to whether this was indeed the time to take on something so new and unproven as this was at the time.  I must confess, there were several instances on that days journey where I found myself stopped, dead in my tracks, resigned to turning around.  

Upon recollection, it was only the echos of my dear, sweet wife's encouraging voice that furthered me along.