When mom and I dug through Great-Grandma’s steamer trunk recently, we uncovered a treasure trove of portrait cards that dated back to the time of the Civil War. Portrait cards, also known as Cartes-de-Visite (or CDVs) were inexpensive photographs that were wildly popular between 1860-1877.
Cartes-de-Visite are one of easier types of vintage photographs to identify. The images were sepia in color and printed on thin paper which were then glued to a 2-3/8″ x 4-1/4″ piece of cardboard. Up through the 1860s, the backgrounds of the CDVs were either blank or had a chair or some other prop that a person could use to steady themselves. By the 1870s, decorative backdrops and more interesting props were used in the photographs as well.
For collectors of cartes-de-visite, a fun discovery is finding photocards with a colored stamp affixed to the back. We turned up several orange 2¢ stamps in our collection of CDVs and while they look like hand cancelled postage stamps, they turned out to be something very different.
These colorful stamps are Tax Revenue Stamps and they were used to help pay for the Civil War. This tax was assessed on all photographs and was paid for by buying a revenue stamp. The stamp would be attached to the back of the card and then initialled and dated by the photographer. The revenue tax was required from September of 1864 to August of 1866, making it a great way to identify Civil War era photographs.
Since Tax Revenue Stamps were based on the actual price of the photograph, the cost of the stamp is an indicator of how much a photograph might have cost back then. At the time of the Civil War, most CDVs and tin-types cost between 25¢ – 50¢.
A photograph that cost 25¢ or less would have required a blue or orange 2¢ revenue stamp. For photographs costing 25¢-50¢, the stamp would have been a green 3¢. A red 5¢ stamp would have been used on photos that were originally 50¢- $1. The red 1¢ revenue stamp would not appear until 1865 when Congress lowered the tax on photographs that cost less than 10¢ to just a penny. By the end of 1865, the tax on photographs was repealed which is why you won’t find any stamps on photos from 1866 onward.
Tax Revenue Stamps are not only interesting for what they were, but also in how they are a marvelous indicator of the age of a carte-de-visite or tin type. For any family, finding an album filled with cartes-de-visite is an exciting discovery. CDVs that can be dated back to the Civil War with a Tax Revenue Stamp is what Grandma used to call “the icing on the cake.”
Photo Tree.com Carte-de-visite
Old Photographic: Tax stamps on carte-de-visite photos
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