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John and Jane Adams Photograph Collection

Identifier: MS-0455

Scope and Contents

The John and Jane Adams Photograph Collection documents the history of photography, including various photographic processes and formats, such as albumen prints, cyanotypes, platinotypes, ambrotypes, gelatin silver prints, glass negatives, carte de visites, tin types, cabinet cards, and more.  In addition, the collection also illustrates the evolution of photographic subject matter and studio advertising.  Highlights include early daguerreotypes, an assortment of unique photo albums, and a wealth of studio advertisements from all over the world dating from the mid nineteenth to early twentieth centuries.  In some cases, this finding aid uses technical terminology to describe the photographic processes and formats, but every effort was made to include laymen's terms as well.  The collection consists of portraits, landscapes, and travel photography, and is divided into four series based on format: Paper Prints (1850s-1946), Metal and Glass Plate Processes (c. 1840s-1890s), Glass Plate Negatives (1898), and Albums (1886-1946).

The Paper Prints (1850s-1945) series documents the various formats and photographic processes requiring paper supports, or bases. The majority of photographs in this series are black and white, unless they are cyanotypes or are hand painted.  This series is divided into two sub-series:  Mounted Prints (c. 1854-1920s) and Unmounted Prints (c. 1880s-1946). The Mounted Prints (1870s-1946) consist of paper prints mounted onto board and primarily document popular studio portraiture from the mid-nineteenth to the early twentieth century.  This series is divided into five sub-series: Carte de Visites (1854-1870s), Cabinet Cards (1860s-1910s), Non-standard Size Studio Portraits (c. 1880s-1910s), Non-Studio Prints (1880s-1920s), and Stereo Cards (c. 1876-1880s). Filed alphabetically by geographic location and arranged alphabetically at the item level by studio name, the Carte de Visites (1854-1870s) primarily consist of portraits from the mid nineteenth century.  Of particular interest are the portraits taken at Matthew Brady's New York studio, a postmortem death portrait of a child (box 3, folder 3), portraits of several little people, and several minoritized groups and individuals. The Cabinet Cards (1860s-1910s) are also arranged alphabetically by geographic location and studio. This sub-series includes full-length and head portraits of men, women, children, and small groups. The advertisements document changes in photographic technology, such as the introduction of enlarged prints, electric light, multiple prints, and coloring techniques. This is the largest of the sub-series.  Also filed alphabetically by geographic location and maker, the Non-Standard Size Studio Prints (c. 1880s-1910s) document studio portraiture as well, though these portraits are not in standardized sizes.  These prints date from around the 1880s to the 1910s. In addition, the Non-Studio Prints (1880s-1920s) contain mounted landscapes, and outdoor portraits of large groups and individuals. Of particular interest is a striking photograph of a girl standing next to her bicycle, exotic Egyptian landscapes taken by Henri Arnoux, and a photograph of a group of African-American workers outside of the Green River House in Louisville, Kentucky.  The Stereo Cards (c. 1876-1880s) make up the smallest sub-series and include several memorial images, including one for Presidents Lincoln and Garfield. The Unmounted Prints (1870s-1946) series contains a variety of paper prints in various sizes including albumen prints, cyanotypes, gelatin silver prints, and platinotypes.  This sub-series documents various photographic processes and subject matter such as early twentieth century photographs of California, the old West, National Parks, California missions, and more.  Highlights include set of photographs of the Marine Corps Women’s Reserve during the Second World War. This sub-series includes various sizes of prints.

The Metal and Glass Plate Processes (1840s-1890s) document photographic processes which use metal or glass materials, such as iron, copper, or glass plates for the photographic support or base of a photograph. The series includes mid-nineteenth century portraits, and is divided into three sub-series: Daguerreotypes (1840s-1860s), Ambrotypes (1850s-1860s), and Tintypes (1860s-1890s). The majority of daguerreotypes and ambrotypes are encapsulated in small cases, but these cases are often in poor condition, and many of the images contain oxidation. The Daguerreotypes date from the 1840s to 1860s, and document early studio portraiture using a copper base. This sub-series consists primarily of head portraits of men, women, and children. Of particular interest is a rare large size portrait of a family of eight people. The Ambrotypes (1850s-1860s) document the next phase in studio portraiture, using glass as the photographic support. Highlights include a portrait of a Confederate soldier during the Civil War. The Tintypes (1860s-1890s) also document the evolution of studio portraiture from copper and glass to iron supports in the mid to late nineteenth century, and include portraits of men, women, children, and small groups, including several rare larger tintypes and two albums of early tintype head portraits dating from around the 1860s. Many of the tintypes still have their original paper mat.

The Glass Plate Negatives (1898) document the glass plate negative process, and the International Mississippi Exposition in Omaha, Nebraska. The series includes photographs of various scenes and buildings from the 1898 Exposition.

The Albums (1886-1946) series document various people, places, and events, and includes paper-support prints, such as cyanotypes and gelatin silver prints bound in albums. Several albums, including the albums in boxes 20-22, and box 32 were disassembled and no longer have their original binding. The majority of photographs in this series are black and white, with the exception of a small number of hand-colored images and several albums that include cyanotypes. This series dates from the late nineteenth to the mid-twentieth centuries. Highlights include an album documenting the mining town of Flint, Idaho during 1886 and 1887, and an album which features places in San Diego in 1900, such as the Hotel del Coronado, Mission Valley, and downtown San Diego, as well as a parade in Los Angeles with several photographs President William McKinley in a parade carriage. Also included are two remarkable albums documenting the evolution of photography, including an album belonging to a photographer in the Bay Area of California. In his album he writes what type of lens he used, the hour of day, and the exposure time. In addition, this series also consists of a product album from the Gavaert Company of America, which includes photographs taken and printed on different types of plates and paper. The customer could then look through the album and decide which papers and plates to order based on the final product displayed in the album.


  • Creation: 1840-1946
  • Creation: Majority of material found in 1890-1920


Conditions Governing Access

This collection is open for research.

Conditions Governing Use

The copyright interests in some or all of these materials have not been transferred to San Diego State University. Copyright resides with the creator(s) of materials contained in the collection or their heirs. The nature of archival collections is such that multiple creators are often applicable and copyright status may be difficult or even impossible to determine. In any case, the user must assume full responsibility for any use of the materials, including but not limited to, obtaining publication rights and copyright infringement. When requesting images from Special Collections & University Archives for publication, we require a signed agreement waiving San Diego State University of any liability in the event of a copyright violation.

Historical Note

The first "photograph" was a paper-based photogenic drawing process invented by William Henry Fox Talbot in 1839. In 1841, Talbot introduced the calotype, or salted paper print, which became the first two-step photographic process involving the use of a negative. Albumen prints and cyanotypes were also popular mid-nineteenth century paper support processes. Other paper prints include platinotypes, carbon prints, gum bichromate prints, collodion prints, gelatin silver prints, and more. 

Paper prints, which consist of a paper support or base, could either be mounted or unmounted. In general, most mounted prints were studio portraits that the photographer mounted on embossed board. These portraits often came in standard sizes, such as the carte de visite and cabinet card. These cards were traded among family and friends, and collected as a Victorian hobby. Some photographers even produced cards of well-known politicians and other figures for popular consumption. Carte de visites were invented in the 1850s and remained popular until the 1870s when they were superseded by cabinet cards.  Most carte de visites are albumen prints and measured 2½ × 4 inches. Cabinet cards, on the other hand, are slightly larger, measuring 4¼ by 6½ inches. In addition, the advertisements on carte de visites and cabinet cards provide information about nineteenth century advertising and the growth of photography. Many advertisements often juxtapose artist tools with photographic equipment in order to promote photography as a form of art. 

Gradually, the popularity of mounted studio prints waned as the desire for more candid photographs increased. With the invention and commercialization of more affordable film and photograph equipment, the general public no longer had to rely on professional photographers and studios for photographs. Thus, unmounted candid photographs became popular. 

Besides paper prints, metal and glass plate support processes were extremely popular for portraiture during the mid-nineteenth century. These processes include daguerreotypes, ambrotypes, and tin types, and primarily consist of positive images transferred onto these supports using collodion, silver, or mercury. These metal and glass plates were almost exclusively used for small portraiture. Daguerreotypes, which first became popular in the 1840s, have a mirror effect from highly polished silver on a copper base. When looking at a daguerreotype in different light, the image can appear as a positive or negative image. Ambrotypes, on the other hand, were invented in the early 1850s, and consist of a negative image on a glass base with either black varnish or black fabric placed behind the plate to create a positive image. Daguerreotypes and ambrotypes came in decorative, velvet-lined cases. For daguerreotypes, the case protects the copper plate from tarnish, while the case for ambrotypes protects the varnish or fabric backing on the glass plate from deterioration. The tintype, in contrast, often came in paper mats. This process used a laquered iron plate as a support for the image material, which consisted of silver and collodion.  The tintype was invented in the mid-1850s, and remained in use until the early twentieth century. 

In contrast, glass plate negatives were a popular negative process throughout the nineteenth century. These plates preceded the invention of modern flexible film, and were in many ways more stable than their successors. The glass negative process used silver salts on a glass plate to create a negative image. The negative image was then transferred to a paper support, where it became a positive image photograph. Although flexible film eventually superseded glass plate negatives in the early twentieth century, the process remained in use until the 1980s.

Over the years, the John and Jane Adams, former San Diego State professors, collected many photographic prints, tintypes, ambrotypes, daguerreotypes, glass plate negatives, and photo albums. The Adams assembled the photograph collection from photographs purchased from dealers, auctions, estate sales, and antique stores.


18.73 Linear Feet

Language of Materials


Arrangement Note

I. Paper Prints, 1850-1946

   A. Mounted Prints, 1850s-1890s

        1. Cartes de Visite, 1854-1870s

        2. Cabinet Cards, 1860s-1910s

        3. Non-standard Studio Portraits, 1880s-1910s

        4. Non-studio Prints, 1880s-1920s

        5. Stereo Cards, 1876-1880s

    B. Unmounted Prints, 1946

II. Metal and Glass Plate Processes

    A. Daguerreotypes, 1840s-1860s

    B. Ambrotypes, 1850s-1860s

    C. Tintypes, 1860s-1890s

III. Glass Plate Negatives, 1898

IV. Albums, 1886-1946

Source of Acquisition

John R. and Jane Adams



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Description rules
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Language of description
Script of description
Language of description note

Revision Statements

  • 2010: Processed in 1990.  Revised in 2005.  Reprocessed in 2010.

Repository Details

Part of the Special Collections & University Archives Repository

5500 Campanile Dr. MC 8050
San Diego CA 92182-8050 US