This, from Time, is stunning:
The adoption of the Declaration of Independence—237 years ago today—can sometimes feel like an event not just from another time, but from another world. As depicted in John Trumbull’s now-iconic 19th-century painting of the founding fathers in Philadelphia, collectively creating the framework for the nation’s revolutionary political system, such an act of open rebellion by prominent, wealthy and established figures is literally inconceivable to most living Americans.
The Revolutionary War, raging at that time, saw men young and old answer the Colonies’ call to fight the British redcoats. In their allegiance to the ideals of liberty, these rough troops — illustrated in countless paintings and drawings known to history students everywhere — shouldered the monumental task of defending a nation that was, in many respects, not yet truly born.
But as alien as that epoch might feel, time and again we’re reminded that the past is not always as distant as it so often seems.
First daguerreotypes, and then glass-plate negatives became popular in the 1840s and 1850s; by 1853, some 70 years after the great and improbable American victory over the British, more than 3 million daguerreotypes a year were being produced in the United States alone.
As these photographic means developed, and the generation that experienced the Revolution firsthand continued to dwindle, a desire to document these men — a rapidly vanishing, living link with history — emerged.
A note by Rev. Smith pinned to the padding of his daguerreotype that reads “October 20 1854, A present to Lucy R. Fullen, by her Grandfather J. Smith, Born March 10, 1761”“Possible now it will soon be impossible forever, and now neglected it would be forever regretted,” wrote Reverend E. B. Hillard, author of The Last Men of the Revolution. Published in 1864, the 64-page book stands as the only record of its kind, immortalizing Revolutionary War veterans in photographs alongside their tales from the fight for independence. In July 1864, Hillard, accompanied by two photographers, brothers N. A. and R. A. Moore, traveled across New England and New York State to interview and photograph all known surviving veterans, six in total. The images, made on glass plate negatives, were then printed on albumen paper and pasted into the book, along with colored lithographs depicting the veteran’s homes.
In 1976, Popular Photography featured the images of The Last Men of the Revolution in its issue commemorating the United States’ Bicentennial. One reader, a Utah-based journalist named Joe Bauman, was already an avid collector of antique photography when he came across the piece.
“I realized that if these fellows were still alive at the time when glass plate negatives were being made in the 1860s, surely there were plenty who were alive during the daguerreian era,” Bauman told TIME.