Estimating When a Cabinet Card Image Was Produced

A Lady.
Kirkness & Walsh, S.E. Cor. Broadway & Bank St., Baltimore, MD.

The cabinet card shares many features and characteristics with the carte de visite. At first, the styles of cabinet cards followed those of the carte de visite. As the popularity of the cabinet card rose, it began to dictate style to the waning carte de visite. The earliest cabinet portraits, introduced in 1866, were a larger version of the plain Bristol board carte de visite stock with the usual gilt borders. There has not been as much research on the cabinet card styles as on the carte de visite styles, therefore they may be more difficult to assess. But like the CdV, the an approximate date for a cabinet image should be obtainable through an understanding of it's features. Gallery operators replenished their supply of card stock about every six months and card manufacturers encouraged this demand by brining out a new line of decorative cards each year. Because of this constant change, a card mount offers the best clue to when a cabinet image was made. The styles of later cartes de visite of known date should be used as a guide to dating the cabinet card. The CdV styles in all likelihood tracked somewhat behind those introduced for cabinet stock each year. Note that dating the mount does not necessarily date the image. The photographer may have been using up old card stock. Many photographers advertised their copying services. The outline of a daguerreotype frame can be seen in some carte de visite copies. The complexity of imprint is another factor in dating a card. Early on, imprints were simply one or tow lines giving the name and location of the photographer. Later imprints show a great variety and richness of ornamentation. Trends in imprint styles can help approximate a date. The size of portrait and pose are also keys to arriving at a more precise date. The presence or a U. S. Internal Revenue stamp can date the image to the period 1 Aug 1864 to 1 Aug 1866 (roughly the end of the American Civil War to the introduction of the cabinet card; I think it would be rare to find a cabinet portrait bearing a tax stamp). Many other details can help to date a photograph, such as accessories, costume and fashion or landmarks.

This cabinet portrait circa early 1890s, appears to be a matte-collodion print, showing a neutral-black image tone much like that of modern black & white gelatin prints. The image tone has a remarkable tonality, offering a range of brilliant tones from sparkling silver to deep black. Mounted on a dark green card with beveled gilt edges, typical of the 1890s The dark green card makes for an excellent contrast to the image color, complimented by the understated blind imprint.

Cabinet cards styles followed those of the carte de visite right after their introduction in 1866 for portraits, usually a plain Bristol board card with the double gold lines for a border. Later, cabinet styles would become more ornate and as the carte de visite waned, the cabinet card would set the style for the carte. Therefore, cabinet card styles can be used to approximate a date for an unknown cabinet card.

It is worth noting that card stock or decorative feature of a card photograph can only date the card, not the image. Often copies were made of an older image. For example, a cabinet card that is shown to have been made in the 1890s by card style, but the sitter is pictured clearly in 1840s costume is certainly a copy of an old ambrotype or daguerreotype image.

So far, the following table is best recommendation for dating a cabinet card image other than the general statement that cabinet styles can be coordinated with carte styles. Usually cabinet styles followed those of carte style until the 1880s, when the increasing popularity of cabinet cards seems to meant that carte styles followed those introduced for cabinets.

Card Colors
1866 - 1880 White card stock of a light weight
1880 - 1890 Different colors for face and back of mounts
1882 - 1888 Face of buff, matte-finished, with a back of creamy-yellow,
1866 - 1880 Red or gold rules, single and double lines
1884 - 1885 Wide gold borders
1885 - 1892 Gold beveled edges
1889 - 1896 Rounded corner rule of single line
1890 - 1892 Metallic green or gold impressed border
1896 Impressed outer border, without color.
1866 - 1880 Square, lightweight mount
1880 - 1890 Square, heavy board with scalloped sides.
(from Willis, Photography as A Tool in Genealogy)