Despite the severe economic downturn following the Panic of 1837, the photography business in the United States grew at a brisk pace into the 1840s and ’50s. Only two sorts of people were thriving, a newspaperman wrote in 1843, “the beggars and the takers of likenesses by daguerreotype.” In 1853 the New York Tribune guessed that at least 3 million photographs had been taken throughout the country that year. And the 1860 United States Census counted 3,154 professional photographers in the nation.
One of the most prominent was Mathew Brady. As a young man, Brady had set an ambitious goal: His gallery at 205 Broadway, in Manhattan, a block away from P. T. Barnum’s American Museum, would contain “life-like portraits of every distinguished American now living.” He had come close, with a project called The Gallery of Illustrious Americans, which in 1850 offered the general public a new portrait every other week on “imperial folio drawing paper” for a dollar apiece, including two presidents, Zachary Taylor and Millard Fillmore; US senators John C. Calhoun, Henry Clay, and Daniel Webster; generals John C. Fremont and Winfield Scott; naturalist John J. Audubon; historian William Prescott; and New York Governor Silas Wright.