Dating the Carte de Visite (1858 to 1872)

During the 1860s the there were two types of card mounted photographs available to the public—the stereograph and the carte de visite (CdV). Since their introduction in the United States around 1858, card mounted photographs became a popular and fairly inexpensive feature of the material culture. They became more popular as objects to be collected for memory and amusement, than as tools of etiquette (the calling card, see FIG 1).They served as objects to be collected and shared. Today they still serve that purposes, but most importantly to historians, they serve as a visual record of clothing, hairstyles and objects. Because the cards were very often contained identifying information of the source, sometimes the subject and even the date, they are extremely useful tools for study.[i]

The photographs mounted on CdV and stereograph cards were albumen prints. As improvements in salt print (calotype) papers unfolded, a French photographer, Louis-Désiré Blanqret-Evrard developed a new printing paper in 1850. The paper was coated with a mixture of egg white and ammonium chloride. The paper could be dried and stored until need by the photographer. Silver nitrate and pyrogallic acid were still (as used for ambrotypes) the image producing agents. The paper could be cut to any size and contact prints could be made from glass negatives. The paper was then mounted on card stock or paste board using starch or flour paste.[ii]

The purpose of this article is to provide useful technical information for dating CdVs from 1859 to 1872. Of course, the subject’s clothing and hairstyles, knowledge of geographical details in regard to scenic images and the history of any objects shown are also interpretative features.[iii] In the case of women’s clothing, a CdV may be dated to within a year if one is knowledgeable of the quickly changing fashion trends popularly delineated in fashion magazines such as Godey’s and Peterson’s ladies’ magazines.

As with all identification and dating exercises the concept of evidence and logic is required. While an image may “say” one thing about the photograph, the mounting may say another. It is incumbent upon the researcher to “listen” to all the factors when establishing a date for a card mounted photograph. The factors that I have organized are based and entirely due to the extensive research of one man, William C. Darrah. Darrah’s book, Cartes de Visite in Nineteenth Century Photography should be considered as a standard reference and bookshelf item. Copies of the first editions and additional printings are available at used book store, online and through Inter-library Loan.[iv] Darrah examined nearly forty thousand CdVs for his study and had a huge photograph collection of his own. I merely took the information presented in his book and arranged it in tabular format. I have added slightly to his research and that of others after collecting and examining a meager ten thousand CdVs.

The tables and their accompanying notes and figures make up the main offering of this article. Using them to establish a date for a card mounted image will provide documentation and dating information for an individual image of study or cataloging information for one’s photographic collection. For the most part, the tables are self-explanatory and in some cases additional notes have been added. The tables are “living” entities and constructive feedback is always appreciated.[v]

Table A lists the dating factors of the card stock used in mounting the image. Table B lists the dating factors of the decorative features found on the front of the CdV. Tables C and D list the dating factors of the imprint and backmark features found on the reverse of the card. Table E lists the dating factor of the image medium. Table F lists the dating factors of portrait styles. The shaded areas on all the tables highlights the Civil War years. One must keep in mind that many images we connect with the war years were taken after April 1865 and up to about 1868—that includes soldiers in uniform. Another factor to consider when characteristics are at opposition is that an earlier image might have been copied and mounted later.[vi]

As a demonstration for using the tables, a typical card photograph’s date (see FIG. 2A and FIG. 2B) can be approximated:
  • Card Stock: white, less that 0.20 thick, with square corners (slightly rounded with handling) = 1858–69.[i]
  • Decorative Features: two line border (thick and thin gilt) = 1861–69.
  • Imprint Features: three lines with the word “duplicates” = 1861–66.
  • Backmark Features: revenue stamp (two cent playing card (Scott R11 R2), photographer’s initials, but no date) = 1864–66.
  • Image Medium: albumen paper = 1858–72.
  • Portrait Styles: seated pose with drape or simple furniture = 1860–66.

[i]. The card’s height was trimmed (possibly to fit in an album). The very small radius (3/32 inch) rounded corners.

Combining and analyzing that dating ranges, the narrowest window is 1864–66. In this rare case, the subject has put a fancy stamp with his name and either he or the photographer, J. D. Vickery, has affixed a date to the image. The stamp may have been sold to him by the photographer. Further research of business directories and tax records might reveal information about the years that Vickery was taking photographs in Bath, New York.

A list of additional reference books related to card mounted photographs appears at the end of this article. Researchers are strongly advised to spend time studying them as the effort will greatly aid their efforts. Since card mounted photographs are rarely found with even the minimum of information such as on the back of the image in FIG. 2B, at least the image and its mount can be dated for studying the clothing, objects or physical scene in the photograph.


Fig. 1

A calling card with a mounted photograph. This “visiting” card is atypical in that it has a Gem size tintype mounted to it. Most calling cards did not. A search of 1860 and 1870 US Census indices not turn up a match for a Ned (or Fred) D. Simpson (or Sampson). The actual size of the card is 2.00 by 3.44 inches.

Fig. 2A & 2B

CdV of Jacob Hurley taken on 20 June 1866 and the reverse of the card. Card photographs with both the name of the subject and the date of the photograph are scarce. Rarer still is to find that information on a card with a backmark. Jacob Huber was an 1852 immigrant from Wurttemberg who settled in Bath, New York. He worked as shoemaker and laborer, and eventually became a gardener and church sexton around 1890. He may have died between 1910 and 1920 as he disappears from the US census records.

Fig. 4

Oval Frames. From left to right: one or more lines, decorative, decorative with tassels and decorative with rectangular surround.

Fig. 5

Two examples of printed labels for Fredericks and Company.

Fig. 6

Typeset imprint.

Fig. 7

Single line imprint.

Fig. 8

Three line imprint without “negatives” or “duplicates”.

Fig. 9

Three line imprint with “negatives” or duplicates.”

Fig. 10

Vignette Imprint.

Fig. 11

Imprint with curved lines.

Fig. 12

Large typeset imprint.

Fig. 13

Name vignette.

Fig. 14

Rubber stamped.

Fig. 15

Ornate Vignette.

Fig. 16

“Camera and Cherubs” graphic.

Fig. 17

Ornate ground work with bilateral ovoid area for imprint.

Fig. 18

Revenue stamp box.

Fig. 19

Revenue stamp affixed.

Fig. 20

Lengthwise imprint.

Article and photographs courtesy of MiPHS ranking member Bill Christen.

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