Carte de Visite

A Gentleman.
Catlin & Williams, Jacksonville, Ill., Circa 1860-65

The carte de visite is easily recognized by the small card on which the photograph is mounted. In this format, a small paper photographic print is mounted on a commercially produced card. The carte de visite (commonly abbreviated to CdV) today is not a rare item, being produced by the millions in the nineteenth century.

Despite the name, cartes de visite were rarely used as visiting cards. Given the number of calls a lady or gentleman made during a day or week, imagine the prodigious number of photographic visiting cards they would have to buy. Contemporary writers do give us some tantalizing glimpses of where they did continue to play the role of social intermediary. Although a writer in 1862 did say the carte de visite had come to "overshadow the contents of every card basket," it is likely visitors left their photograph there because the photograph album was still somewhat of a rare item at the time. By 1862, the fashion of "having one's likeness photographed upon his visiting card," according to Scientific American, had been modified into the custom of distributing dozens of small portraits among friends. Every young lady expected to receive photographs from a relative, a love interest or friend and then with the aggressiveness of a "lady beggar" as Vanity Fair put it, she besieges all of her acquaintances for personal photographs in order to form her collection. Cartes de visite were often autographed with a signature at the bottom of the card just below the image for handing out to guests by a variety of prominent persons such as politicians, reverends, actors and dancers.

Due its small size the carte de visite proved easy to handle and view without the use of an optical instrument or a special viewing angle, giving it advantages over the stereo photograph and the daguerreotype respectively. The small images were ubiquitous and collected by nearly everyone (Queen Victoria was passionate about collecting photographs). The Victorians were avid photograph collectors, every parlor having its share of carte de visite albums brimming with the images of family, friends and celebrated persons. Integral to the the carte de visite is the imprint or backmark, giving the name and location of the photographer.

The carte de visite image and card stock were both made to a standard size. The dimensions of the standard carte de visite mounting card were 2 1/2 x 4 inches. The standard dimensions of the carte de visite photograph (the image or print itself) were 2 1/8 x 3 1/2 inches and determined by the method used to create the negative. Once commercial suppliers began producing cards, the image had to be trimmed to the card size. Most cartes de visite photographs were carelessly trimmed when separated from the master print, so individual images often vary from the standard dimensions. You'll see cards with prints mounted at a slight angle or an angled cut on the bottom or top of the print. Because the cards were manufactured their dimensions are relatively uniform compared to the images. However, an examination of surviving cartes suggests that dimensions varied slightly for various reasons.

One way to identify cartes de visite made prior to 1860 is that some are slightly wider than the standard card. When the carte de visite album was introduced (the kind that you slide the card into pages with pockets), the wider version wasn't compatible with the album, so was apparently discontinued. An examination of the subject's costume or looking up activity dates for the photographer might prove a more accurate measure.

Timeline

  • Introduced. In November of 1854, the French photographer A. A. Disderi introduced a method for producing multiple images on a single glass plate, a format for mounting the resulting images on card stock and the name "carte de visite" to describe the product. Examples of cartes de visite before 1858 are extremely rare and are unlikely to be encountered outside of museums. The carte de visite began appearing in the United States late in the summer of 1859. By the end of 1860 the carte de visite had become the fashion throughout the country.
  • Peak. The height of the "carte craze" was the period 1860-1866, which included the photography boom that occurred during the American civil war. The early 1860s period saw the first commercial photographic albums (the carte album), which began to grace ordinary middle class parlors. By 1864, a family would have to be poor indeed to not own a carte de visite album.
  • Waned. Starting in 1866, the cabinet card began to erode the position held by the carte de visite. Carte production waned from 1870 to the late 1880s when they all but disappeared from the scene.
  • Last Used. Cartes were, however, produced after 1900, perhaps to 1906 or perhaps in limited numbers to 1920 (unused card stock dating to the turn of the nineteenth-century can still be purchased from dealers in antique photographica).