Estimating When A Carte de Visite Was Made

A Gentleman
Catlin & Williams, Jacksonville, Ill.

A carte de visite can usually be dated to within two years 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 carte de visite image was made. 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.

This carte de visite is typical of the 1860s illustrating the double gilt rules and square corners characteristic of the period. The card is plain, lightweight Bristol board. The "sepia" look of the image comes from a natural yellowing of the original yellowish-brown image tone, which is imparted through "gold-toning" and by the albumen paper.

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) Many other details can help to date a photograph, such as accessories, costume and fashion or landmarks.

The card stock or decoration can only date the card, not the image. Often copies were made of an older image. A subscriber to my PhotoGen list had a cabinet card that dated to the 1890s by card style, but the gentleman pictured was clearly in 1840s costume. The conclusion we came to was that this was an older ambrotype or daguerreotype image copied onto the cabinet card. Photographers started offering copying services in the 1860s and 1870s as cameras and lenses improved in quality. The "wet-plate" negative contributed greatly to the increase in copying over the daguerreotype, which required making a photograph of the original photograph (rephotographing) the original for each copy. Family members frequently had photographs copied to give to "new" members of the family as it expanded through births and marriages.