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Woman with an Accordion, daguerreotype 1840s: Is this the first picture of an accordion?

April 11, 2021
Black and white mage in a golden frame. Woman in colorized red and blue plaid dress. Straight dark hair pulled back behind a ribbon or hat on the back of her head. She is holding an odd accordion that is hard to see the details of.
Woman with an Accordion daguerreotype “1840s”, Metropolitan Museum of Art – Public Domain

We know without a doubt that the first movie of an accordion was made in 1888, because it was about the sixth second of film that Louis Aimé Augustin Le Prince shot.

But when was the first still-photo of a squeezebox taken? Good Question. The above photo makes its home at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York. It was put forth as an option for “oldest 🪗 pic” on #AccordionTwitter the other day by David Nessle in Sweden:

Looking closely, the photo raises additional questions. Specifically, it’s a really weird accordion. John Spiers and others noted the unusual arrangement of pallets and rods, and what may be a strap across the middle. I don’t recognize that design at all. Is that an early German type? It doesn’t look like a more common French “flutina” often seen in 1840s daguerreotypes.

Detail of the "Women with Accordion" photo. Shows the accordion in her hands, but not very clearly. The instrument has visible pallets but you can't see how the buttons are laid out.
Seriously, what’s up with those pallets? They’re split into two parts, like the reeds wouldn’t all fit on one side? And is that a strap across the middle? What’s going on there?

Topics to consider to help date this photo:

  • Did they stop making daguerreotypes at some point — so the pic would be older than that?
  • The photo looks hand tinted. Does that help date it?
  • What the heck kind of squeezebox is that?
  • Any idea where or when that kind of instrument was made?
  • Where might the picture have been taken?
  • Any idea who the person holding the instrument might be? They look pretty cool. 😎
  • Also, that’s a nice outfit, when was that style trending?
  • And, what other images might be contenders for “oldest photo of an accordion”?
Daguerreotypes were really fragile, so here it is in its fancy protective frame case. (Carry a few of these around in your pocket.)

Historical Hints:

The earliest instrument called an “accordion” was patented in 1829. They spread widely, first as higher-class bourgeois parlor instruments, then, after about 1860, becoming more affordable to all classes, and traveling rapidly around the world. By 1939 early high-class accordions would have been available across Europe, and filtering out to the rest of the world.

Photography developed 🙄 in stages with various processes. The daguerreotype was invented around 1839. They were expensive to start with, so that fits early accordions’s class status, and they seem to have been fairly popular in old portraits. Accordions were a step ahead of photography wherever it spread, so there’s no telling where the two would have first met.

Obligatory plug for my Accordion Revolution book, which covers the early spread of the instrument with many stories about its arrival in North America. James Bazin was making his (weird) accordions in New England by 1835, only six years after the original patent in Vienna. The first known professional in N. America was Moody Stanwood, who took it up in 1839 and played in the early minstrel group the Boston (later “Ethiopian”) Serenaders. Stanwood also published one of the first American primers The New and Complete Preceptor for the French Accordion in 1840. Meanwhile, we know accordions had arrived in Canada by 1843 because the nuns at the Ursulain convent in Quebec kept the receipts.

So, this picture could have been taken almost anywhere in the world. Whenever photography finally met up with the accordion. But when was their first date?

Leave comments below, along with suggestions of alternative contenders for Premier 🪗 Pix!

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