A Philadelphia Zelig

John McAllister, Jr. posing outside the family business at 48 Chestnut Street. Detail of Daguerreotype by William G. Mason, June 17, 1843. (The Library of Congress)

John McAllister, Jr. May 6, 1840, by Robert Cornelius. The first daguerreotype sold in Philadelphia. (The Library of Congress)

New technology breeds new characters. Space travel, for instance, brought us super pilots who have “the right stuff.” Railroading created the conductor and the hobo. Digital technology gave us garage entrepreneurs and hackers. And when we go back to the origins of the telescope we find discoverers and heretics.

Photography expanded the human repertoire with the ham, the camera hog, or as Woody Allen would later depict it, the Zelig character. In 1839, when news of the daguerreotype’s ability to depict as-is reality arrived from Paris, it wasn’t at all clear what a camera hog should act like, or what this person might look like. In that brief, rare, uncompetitive moment of pre-photographic history, the notion of being the most-photographed held uncertain value. Anyone could step in to seek the uncontested title.

Who would enter this lopsided contest and become Philadelphia’s first camera hog?

The sole-entrant and hands-down winner was John McAlllister, Jr. (1786-1877), a son of Scottish immigrants born in Philadelphia more than half a century before anyone had heard of a daguerreotype. McAllister’s appetite for his own reflection had been whetted when Anna Claypoole Peale painted a miniature in 1817. (You can see it, online, at the Philadelphia Museum of Art.) By then, McAllister had taken over the family establishment on Chestnut Street, a business that specialized in whips and canes but had made a brilliant strategic segue to spectacles. The McAllisters claimed Benjamin Franklin, the inventor of bi-focals, as their company logo. In time, they’d mount a gilded bust of Franklin over the store entrance and built a solid reputation for quality and innovation.

John McAllister, Jr.’s family business, 48 Chestnut Street, after a daguerreotype by William G Mason, 1843. (FLP/PhillyHistory.org)

John McAllister, Jr. on the roof of 48 Chestnut Street. Daguerreotype by William Y. McAllister, 1843. (The Library of Congress)

By the dawn of the photographic age, McAllister also had a deeply cultivated respect for posterity. He had, as John Fanning Watson, wrote, “a strong liking for local antiquities [and] devoted himself to the collections of a library rich in works of all kinds, but particularly… old newspapers, magazines, pamphlets, essays, etc. connected with the history of Philadelphia.” As wonderfully authentic and evocative as these treasures were for McAllister, they paled in comparison with the stark honesty of the daguerreotype. These simply overwhelmed the imagination. History had nothing quite so potent to share.

If the past couldn’t be frozen in time in daguerreotypes, McAllister was bound and determined to make sure the present would be. The present, McAllister knew, would fast become history. And the business was well positioned as suppliers for the growing daguerreotype market. By 1856, Philadelphia would have more than 100 studios; the McAllisters knew them all.

In the Spring of 1840, when McAllister learned Robert Cornelius was getting ready to open the first portrait studio on Eighth Street, he made certain to be Cornelius’ first customer. Before most Philadelphians sat before a lens one time, McAllister had completed dozens of sittings. Any reason would do. The classic Chestnut Street storefront is being replaced with modern plate-glass? McAllister poses in front of his father’s paned window with top hat and cane. A new shipment of daguerreotype lenses and plates arrives? McAllister’s poses on the roof in a test image. No event, family or business, no new technology would be introduced without McAllister making another appearance before the camera. As his hair grew longer and his sideburns grew wilder (this was not a contest of vanity) McAllister would visit studio after studio. And when he ran out of photographers to visit, he had them come visit him at home, both homes, for that matter.

John McAllister, Jr. at home, 14 N. Merrick Street, facing Penn Sq., March 1, 1860. Photograph by Frederick DeBourg Richards. (The Library Company of Philadelphia/PhillyHistory.org)

John McAllister, Jr., ca. 1860, attr. to William and Frederick Langenheim. (The Library Company of Philadelphia.)

Fueled by success, the business moved to larger quarters at 728 Chestnut Street, In the last days of 1854, McAllister took one last opportunity to gather family and loyal employees to pose one last time. After the new shop opened, McAllister arranged himself among a collection of globes, astronomical models, and other scientific knickknacks as the centerpiece, the sole human specimen. This collector of historical stuff knew full well that we—the inhabitants of the deep future—would be looking at him, and looking after him for posterity. McAllister bet on what he knew as basic antiquarian logic: the winning collector is the one who is himself collected.

Photography offered McAllister excellent odds. And a century and a half later, we can see he clearly won his bet. McAllister came out ahead at the Library of Congress, at the Library Company of Philadelphia, at the International Museum of Photography at the George Eastman House, and, of course, here at PhillyHistory.org.

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2 Comments

  1. Posted March 5, 2013 at 3:38 pm | Permalink

    Ken–

    This is fabulous! We’ve just acquired a set of drafting instruments sold at McAllister’s, and your blog entry came in so handy. Thanks!

    One question about the last photo of McAllister in his shop: is it John Jr. or William Y. who’s pictured?

    • Ken Finkel
      Posted March 6, 2013 at 9:54 am | Permalink

      Thanks for reading and the valuable feedback. My mistake. It is John Jr. in that image, which is now correctly identified.