Isaac Rehn’s “Everlasting” Images

Isaac RehnIsaac A. Rehn (1815-1883) was a spiritualist and a highly successful commercial photographer and inventor.  He was raised as a Quaker in rural Pennsylvania, and trained as a painter.  He became a professional daguerreotypist, a photographic innovator, a photolithographer, and a partner in Philadelphia with James Ambrose Cutting from Boston.  In 1854, Cutting received a patent for the ambrotype process, known as the “bromide patent.”  Rehn received a share of the licensing fees, and later became unpopular among his fellow photographers because of his efforts to extend the period of patent protection.  Unlike the daguerreotype, which was exposed on a highly burnished metal plate, the ambrotype was exposed on a sheet of glass which had been coated with a liquid emulsion of silver and, after development, sandwiched with another sheet of glass.
woman with eye treatment
Rehn was also Professor of Chemistry at the eclectic and unorthodox Pennsylvania Medical University in Philadelphia, and an associate of Seth Pancoast, who was a physician, “sexual hygienist,” Platonist, and speculator on the occult healing properties of the different wavelengths of visible light.  Pancoast’s study of the Kabbala suggested to him that baths of blue and red light could be used as therapy to “balance” the human organism.  Like Pancoast (who, in the mid 1870s, became an associate of Helena Blavatsky and an early vice-president of the Theosophical Society) and like a few other Philadelphia scientists (such as chemist Robert Hare), Rehn was an early devoted spiritualist and a public lecturer on the subject.  He became a leader of the spiritualist Harmonial Association of Philadelphia.  In 1864 Rehn and his scientifically-minded spiritualist colleagues in Philadelphia formed a kind of Explorers’ Club for spiritualists, which they called “The Penetralium.”  Members were intent on bringing the investigative methods of science into the realm of spirit.  The Penetralium, an early version of the Society for Psychical Research, sponsored an annual lecture series for members—Rehn’s 1867 lecture was on “The Forces of Nature.”

Isaac Rehn and James Cutting Encounter Imponderable Forces

Like many other spiritualists, Rehn’s political convictions ran to radicalism.  In the early 1870s, he was a founder and leader of the Philadelphia section of the International Workingmen’s Association.  Karl Marx and the other members of the Central Council of the International soon disenfranchised it, along with a few other American sections, such as Victoria Woodhull’s New York section, because it was filled with what Marx called “bourgeois spiritists.”

As the following two selections make clear, when the ambrotype first appeared in 1854, spiritualist newspapers credited Rehn, not Cutting, with its invention.  They thought it was appropriate that a spiritualist would have invented the ambrotype because its images were “everlasting,” sandwiched between glass.

New and Beautiful Invention.

Bros. Partridge and Brittan:

The world has latterly, been indebted to Bro. I. Rehn, at present of the Harmonial Benevolent Association of Philadelphia, for a very valuable improvement in Photography, or the Art of taking likenesses, etc., by the Camera. It is peculiarly appropriate for a Spiritualist to perfect the science of picture-taking, by the use of Heaven’s best gift to man—LIGHT. And this Bro. Rehn seems to have done effectually.

He denominates his improvement the AMBROTYPE. The picture, instead of being taken on a silver plate, as is usual in the Daguerreotype, is impressed upon glass. It is much more clean and distinct than in the Daguerreotype, and can as easily be seen and examined from one point of view as another, which is not the case in Daguerre’s method. The picture, moreover, is imperishable, unfading; the chemical process being such, that the impression itself consists, as it were, of pure silver, without any alloy of mercury, as is the case in the Daguerreotype. It is also effectually sealed against the admission of air. This department of the invention, I believe, is to be attributed to Mr. James A. Cutting, 49 Tremont Street, Boston, Mass.

When seen through the stereoscope, the Ambrotype appears to stand out like a living figure to the eye of the observer, giving in the most impressive manner the very image of the person or object represented. All desirous of a good picture will find themselves fully satisfied by a call at the office of Bro. Rehn, 126 Arch Street, Philadelphia, or at that of Mr. Cutting, at Boston, as above.

On the occasion of our recent visit to Philadelphia, we had an opportunity to examine some specimens of Mr. Rehn’s pictures, and have no hesitation in saying, that they are decidedly superior to any pictures—taken by any similar process—which we have ever seen.—ED. TELEGRAPH

Spiritual Telegraph (New York) November 18, 1854.


Improvements in Photography.

Among the recent improvements in the Photographic Art we have witnessed nothing that will at all compare with the Patent Ambrotypes furnished by I. Rehn, at his American Gallery of Photography, 126 Arch Street, Philadelphia, and by James A. Cutting, 49 Tremont Street, Boston. The term employed to distinguish these pictures, and to characterize this last and greatest achievement in this department of art, is derived from the Greek word Ambrotos, and implies that the object is indestructible. The process has been patented in the United States, England, and France, and the pictures so far surpass all others in their remarkable beauty, durability, and relief, that they will doubtless soon supersede the ordinary Daguerreotype altogether, and, at the same time, leave us, in this respect, little to desire, which art can accomplish.

The metallic plates used for daguerreotypes will not long resist the action of the atmosphere; hence the picture is gradually impaired, and in a few years loses its strength and beauty. But the Ambrotypes are free from this objection. Moreover, they do not reverse the objects reflected, but represent every thing in its true position. The image of the object is reflected on a plate of French glass, the surface of which is previously subjected to the operation of certain chemical agents, and thus rendered sensitive to the action of light. Another glass plate is then placed over the picture, and the two are hermetically sealed in such a manner that neither time nor the elements can impair the picture, which may be seen in any light. These exquisite specimens of art may be immersed in water for months together without the slightest injury, and it is believed that they will remain for ages without any perceptible change in their unequaled depth of light and shade, and the peculiar richness of their tone.

The Franklin Institute, at its late exhibition, awarded to Mr. Rehn the highest premium for his Ambrotypes; also for his Mezzographs, which are made perfect without the use of the artist’s pencil. From one to one thousand impressions of the latter may be produced from a single sitting. The Mezzographs are an improvement in the Crystalotype process, the picture being taken from life, and altogether superior in the accuracy of its details and the clearness of its effect. Mr. Rehn’s AMBROTYPE STEREOSCOPES must be seen to be appreciated, for their bold relief and exquisite beauty somewhat transcend our powers of description.

A fine specimen of Prof. Rehn’s Ambrotypes may be seen at this office.

Spiritual Telegraph (New York) March 3, 1855.

Rehn received a patent for “Solar Printing on Canvas,” which involved brushing a mixture of albumen, gesso, and silver nitrate onto a canvas, drying it, then exposing it under an enlarger and developing and fixing it.  This came out of his experiments with “heliography,” exposing to direct sunlight sensitized surfaces on which he had placed a variety of objects, which would block exposure of the parts of the surface that were directly below them.

Rehn’s heliograph of ferns, in the Smithsonian’s collection.

Rehn also received a patent for improvements in photolithography, for fine printing, such as of bank notes (to discourage counterfeiting), and he pioneered microphotography.

Some of Rehn’s experiments in photography echoed techniques that were apparently being used in spiritualist circles to create weird effects involving the development of latent images on objects other than metal plates.  Consider the following note, for example, from the Spiritual Telegraph:

A WONDERFUL SPIRIT-PHOTO—Some months ago we published the [. . .] fact that the likeness of a certain well-known Spiritualist, a clergyman of this city, was suddenly found impressed on a piece of painted floor-cloth under a stove, at Mr. Snyder’s, at Green Point, where the gentleman was in the habit of attending Spiritual circles. As we then stated, the likeness of a negro was also impressed in a kneeling posture by the side of the clergyman, and that the latter was significantly pointing him up to heaven. The gentleman exhibited this picture at the TELEGRAPH office Conference on Tuesday evening of last week, and stated a fact concerning it—

The picture, which ordinarily is dark and somewhat indistinct in its features, will, when placed in the hands of certain mediums, becomes distinctly illuminated, and sometimes so remarkably as to exhibit even the color of the eyes! This phenomenon has been witnessed by numerous persons, as well as those who had not been previously told of its existence [. . .] while being examined by the curious shortly after its first discovery, it suddenly became entirely invisible, but that in the course of a week the figures reappeared as distinctly as at first.

—Spiritual Telegraph (New York) December 9, 1854.

The effect here was almost certainly created through masking a chemically impregnated photosensitive surface.  Perhaps the mask for portions of the image did not even need to be created anew: The image recalls the British Anti-Slavery Society’s widely disseminated woodcut of a kneeling Black man in chains, over the motto “Am I not a Man and a Brother?”

A decade later, a writer in the Philadelphia Photographer described a popular fad for cheap packages of magic cards.  They were blank when taken out of the box, but developed images after a few minutes of exposure to the moist heat of the hand or the breath.  The writer described the chemical process for producing the latent images, but the dismissive tone of his description of the cards suggests that, by that time, they were associated with images of low or perhaps titillating subjects.

Frederick Douglass Views an Image Developed on a Living Parchment

Although Isaac Rehn was both a photographer and a spiritualist, no evidence exists that he produced photographs of spirits.  That was left to others.

Reference notes:

[The photo of Isaac Rehn above is courtesy of Joseph Beglan.]

Isaac Rehn’s role in Philadelphia Section 26 of the International Workingmen’s Association is documented in the Papers of the International Workingmen’s Association, archived in microfilm form at the State Historical Society of Wisconsin.  The Society has published a guide to the microfilm edition (1972).  The records of Section 26, from 1871-1876, which includes correspondence to and from Rehn, are described on pages 12-13 of the Guide.  A recent book that describes the Philadelphia Section of the International and briefly describes Rehn’s role in it is Timothy Messer-Kruse, The Yankee International: Marxism and the American Reform Tradition, 1848-1876 (University of North Carolina Press, 1998): 116, 132, 138, and 238-239.

Rehn’s honorary M.D. degree and faculty appointment (1874-76) at the Penn Medical University are documented in Harold J. Abrahams, Extinct Medical Schools of Nineteenth-Century Philadelphia (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 1966): 209, 213, and 227.

Some of the spirit communications that guided the séance circle of which Rehn was a member are preserved in the manuscript papers of another of its members, Peter Osborn, which are held by the Manuscript Division of the Library of Congress.  Rehn often spoke at large gatherings of spiritualists in the Philadelphia region, such as the celebratory events marking the anniversaries of the Fox sisters’ first spirit-rappings.  These speeches were sometimes printed in the spiritualist press’s reporting of the festivities.  Some of Rehn’s efforts in organizing and leading the spiritualist community in Philadelphia, as well as his association with Seth Pancoast and Robert Hare, are documented in Emma Hardinge Britten, Modern American Spiritualism: A Twenty Years’ Record of the Communion between Earth and the World of Spirits (New York: The Author, 1879): 273-279.  Pancoast, who had taught microscopy and anatomy at Penn Medical University, expounded his ideas on light in his books, The Kabbala: The True Science of Light; an Introduction to the Philosophy and Theosophy of the Ancient Sages.  Together with a Chapter on Light in the Vegetable Kingdom (Philadelphia: J. M. Stoddart & Co., 1877) and Blue and Red Light; or, Light and Its Rays as Medicine; Showing that Light is the Original and Sole Source of Life, as It is the Source of All the Physical and Vital Forces in Nature; and That Light is Nature’s Own and Only Remedy for Disease (Philadelphia: J. M. Stoddart & Co., 1877).

The city directories for Washington D. C. and Philadelphia for the years 1869-1871 reveal that Isaac Rehn and his family (including his sons John Z. and William J. Rehn, who were also artists and photographers) moved to Washington during 1870 and set up business there as photographers.  Isaac was in partnership with Norris Peters (Peters & Rehn photographers, on Pennsylvania Avenue, two blocks from Matthew Brady’s studio).  Peters had just the left the Patent Office, where he had been a clerk.  Much of their business was in photolithography.  By the following year, Isaac was back in business in Philadelphia, as a lithographer, photographer, and labor organizer.  Eventually, he moved back to York, Pennsylvania, where he had spent his childhood, and he died there in September 1883.  More genealogical information on Isaac Rehn and his family is in Joseph F. Beglan, A Family & Its Heritage (Baltimore: J. F. Beglan, 1988).

Rehn’s testimony as a witness for the applicant (Cutting’s estate) at the hearings considering the merits of extending the bromide patent can be found in Edward L. Wilson, “Supplement. Report of the Secretary of the National Photographic Convention, held in New York, April 7th and 8th, 1868,” in the Philadelphia Photographer (1868): 281-293, and the article that follows (294-300), “Preliminary Argument.”  Wilson therein describes Rehn as “the Bromide sledge hammer,” referring, it seems clear, to Rehn’s earlier efforts to insure the enforcement of the patent, before Cutting and he both had signed over their claims to Timothy Hubbard.  Please note that I present no argument that Rehn (or Cutting) were in fact the inventors of the use of bromide in collodion—the essential key to making ambrotypes, despite what the spiritualist press or the original patent examiner believed.  The evidence presented at the patent extension hearing made clear that even Cutting’s original patent claim had been weak, insofar as the evidence undercut the claim that the process was new with Cutting (or Rehn).

Examples of Rehn’s photographic work exist in many collections.  The George Eastman House, for example, owns thirty-four photographs by him, mostly ambrotypes.  His work is also represented in the collections of the Historical Society of Pennsylvania and the Library Company of Philadelphia.  Standard reference works on the history of photography that mention Rehn include Merry A. Foresta, American Photographs: The First Century from the Isaacs Collection in the National Museum of American Art (Washington, DC: Smithsonian Institution Press, 1996); Beaumont Newhall, The Daguerreotype in America (New York: Duell, Sloan & Pearce, 1961); and Floyd and Marion Rinhart, American Daguerreian Art (New York: C. N. Potter, 1967).

Among Isaac Rehn’s sons was Frank Knox Morton Rehn (1848-1914), an important American painter and graphic artist.

The latent images in the “magic photographs” that became popular in the mid-1860s were activated by the moisture (or by water), which activation became more rapid with a rise in temperature.  Herman Vogel wrote from Germany about the fad for “magic photographs” there, “Photographic Novelties of Germany,” Philadelphia Photographer, July 1866: 205-207.  See also Edward Wilson, “Magic Photographs,” 217-218; and Wilson, “Photographic Summary. Sympathetic Prints,” Philadelphia Photographer, June 1866: 185.  By that time, New York photographer John Towler had already published The Magic Photograph; with Full Directions and Formulas for Making It (New York: J. H. Ladd, 1866) and The Silver Sunbeam; a Practical and Theoretical Textbook on Sun Drawing and Photographic Printing (New York: J. H. Ladd, 1864).


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