In its early days photography was accessible primarily to the wealthy. André-Adolphe-Eugène Disdéri began to change that with his patent for the carte de visite (CdV). Similar techniques were in development by several innovators, but he filed the official patent in November 1854. By 1860, his CdV became a craze dubbed Victorian Cardomania. The phenomenon of collecting and sharing small cardboard-backed photographs, swept Europe and America and 19th-century social media was born.
Cartes de visite were portraits mounted on a cardboard stock, roughly 2 1/2 by 4 inches. They were exchanged between family members, friends and new acquaintances, just as simple calling cards had been exchanged before them. People collected these cards in albums and displayed them in their parlors for visitors to peruse.
Disdéri’s technique allowed a single colloidal-treated glass negative to be divided into ten repeating exposures (later revised to eight). The images were cut and mounted on cardboard. By making photography affordable to the growing middle class, he anticipated a huge spike in sales.
The big wave of customers didn’t come. At least, not until May 1859 when Disdéri photographed two popular “celebrities, Napoleon III and Empress Eugénie. Disdéri’s cartes de visite hit the must-have list among trendy Parisians.
Victorian Cardomania spread to England after John Jabez Edwin Mayall photographed the British royal family in 1860. An avid scrap booker, Queen Victoria fueled the trend. The public began collecting images of family and friends as well as celebrities and popular public figures like the royal family. Celebrity cartes were sold at various shops much like postcards are sold today. People mounted celebrity photos in their scrapbooks beside those of their own family and friends. (Think Pinterest!)
Personal columns were popular in English newspapers in the 1860s. They allowed people to correspond back and forth via paid ads. According to Jennifer Phegley in her book Courtship and Marriage in Victorian England, The London Journal published lists of people who wanted to correspond privately and offered more thorough profiles in the Weekly Times.
“In July 1868 the Journal also initiated sections that listed “Carte de Visite Wanted” and “Carte de Visite Received” to facilitate the exchange of photographs among personal advertisers.”
Victorian Cardomania caught on in American as the country edged toward Civil War in 1861. Cartes de visite family and friends on the home front an affordable way to connect with soldiers who had gone to war. The small photos were easily carried and offered an intimate reminder of the reasons soldiers were fighting.
Photographers including Alexander Gardner and Mathew B. Brady built reputations and businesses thanks to the popularity of CdV. Throughout the Civil War, people collected images of family members as well as famous military and political figures just as they did in Europe. Abraham Lincoln’s image was often included in photo albums with those of family members.
In his book, Faces of the Civil War Navies: An Album of Union and Confederate Sailors by Ronald S. Coddington said that Cardomania dominated photography throughout the Civil War.
“So big had the craze become that one of the great men of American letters, Oliver Wendell Holmes Sr., proclaimed the influence of the little carte de visite in the July 1863 issue of the Atlantic Monthly magazine “Card-portraits,” declared Holmes, “as everybody knows, have become the social currency, the sentimental ‘Green-backs’ of civilization.”
The publishing of Cartes de visite were not always positive events. Those of John Wilkes Booth and his co-conspirators were replicated on wanted posters after President Lincoln’s assassination.
As with all social media platforms, the carte de visit became passé. By the early 1870s the format was pushed aside by the bigger, better Cabinet Card at a whopping 4.5-by-6.5 inches. They were improved albumen prints mounted on heavier cardboard than their predecessors. As photographers were becoming celebrities unto themselves, their details (name, address, studio name) were often printed with elaborate designs on the back of the card.
Cabinet cards continued to be shared between family and friends. They also became essential to public figures including actors, actresses, circus people and all types of performers. They were traded much like baseball cards. Publicists and managers used them to build excitement for upcoming performances and to ensure large crowds.
The Cabinet Card waned by the turn of the century, particularly after the Kodak camera was introduced in 1893. Even so they were popular and continued to be produced until the early 1900s. The last cabinet cards were produced in the early 1920s.
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