When Mom and I dug through one of her old steamer trunks recently, we uncovered a photograph album filled with Civil War photographs. What was so interesting about this particular album is that it had been assembled by a distant bachelor uncle who had served in various regiments of the Michigan Infantry during the war. The various photographs he had collected of fellow soldiers, his commanding officers, and politicians of the day were of a type known as a card portrait or “Cartes-de-visite” (abbreviated CDV).
What are Cartes-de-visite
Cartes-de-visite were wildly popular from 1860-1877 and the Victorian equivalent of trading cards that could be collected and preserved in an album. These small sepia photographs were about the size of a credit card and came mounted on a 2-1/2″ x 4″ piece of cardboard. Some of these card portraits were decorated with various borders, a few may have the person’s name stamped on the front, and almost all of them came with a fancy photograph’s stamp on the back to identify where they were made. CDVs were significant in that they represented the first widespread use of paper photographs for portraits.
Cartes-de-visite were first produced in 1854 by Parisian photographer Andre Adolphe Disderi who invented a way to create eight negatives on a single 8″ x 10″ sheet by using a sliding plate and a camera with four lenses. While this might not seem like a big deal now, back then the ability to make eight copies of a photograph from one plate was an amazing innovation. Disderi’s format didn’t become popular however until five years later when in the summer of 1859 cartes-de-visite were introduced in New York.
The CDV Craze
In the United States, the Civil War accelerated the craze for cartes-de-visite as soldiers, couples, friends, and family posed for portraits before they were separated by the war. CDVs of famous politicians, celebrities, royal families, and other notables were also available for purchase along with cards featuring famous buildings, religious imagery, and popular works of art.
The craze wasn’t just limited to the United States. Photographers set up shop throughout Europe and other countries as well, providing ordinary people with an affordable way to have family photographs that could be traded with one’s relatives.
The impact on photography
Even though tin types were still being produced during this time, Cartes-de-visite became more popular because they looked more natural with their rich sepia tones. And because the cost was so low, cheap prints that could be traded with relatives making it possible to put together family albums, a tradition that has continued today.
Cartes-de-visites held their popularity until the invention of the Kodak camera in the 1880s. Once people could take their own photographs, the need for a photographer and a studio became less important and the craze for the cards faded away.
Opinionated.blogs.nytimes: The Cartes-de-visite craze
Photo tree: Carte-de-Visite
Marquis-kyle.com The Carte-de-visite Craze by Peter Marquis-Kyle