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A Brief History of the Carte de Visite from The American Museum of Photography™

A Brief History of the Carte de Visite from The American Museum of Photography™



Carte de Visite  photographs–small albumen prints mounted on cards 2-1/2 by 4 inches–were wildly popular and made for decades in countries around the world. The format was an international standard; for the first time, relatives and friends could exchange portraits, knowing they would find a place in the recipient’s family album–whether that album was located in Brooklyn, Berlin or Brazil. In addition, unlike earlier photographs made with such processes as the daguerreotype and ambrotype, cartes de visite could be sent through the mail without the need for a bulky case and fragile cover-glass. Their small size also made them relatively inexpensive, and they became so widespread that by 1863 Dr. Oliver Wendell Holmes would write, “Card portraits, as everybody knows, have become the social currency, the ‘green-backs’ of civilization.”

The predecessors of cartes de visite were calling cards. During the 1850s, it was the custom to present one’s calling card at the time of a social visit. These cards were smaller than today’s business cards, frequently consisting of a name engraved and printed on glossy stock; in later years, designs became more elaborate. Families would often provide decorative baskets or trays to receive calling cards from visitors. During the 1850s, there were sporadic reports of photographers in the U.S. or Europe preparing photographic calling cards, in which the portrait replaces the engraved name. The example shown here is a rare survivor: a salt print 1-7/8 inches tall on glossy card stock, 2″ x 3-1/4″. Other early salt print calling cards vary in size.

The standard 2-1/2″ x 4″ format was patented by a Parisian photographer, Andre Adolphe Disderi, in 1854. Through the use of a sliding plate holder and a camera with four lenses, eight negatives could be taken by Disderi’s method on a single 8″ x 10″ glass plate. That allowed eight prints to be made every time the negative was printed. Not all photographers followed this method, however. And Disderi’s format did not become popular until five years after he patented it. One persistent story, now discredited, said the Emperor Napoleon III was marching the French Army to Italy when he suddenly halted his troops and entered Disderi’s studio to pose in uniform for his carte de visite, touching off the craze. Cartes were introduced in New York, probably by C. D. Fredericks, late in the summer of 1859. The American Civil War gave the format enormous momentum as soldiers and their families posed for cartes before they were separated by war–or death. Queen Victoria compiled more than a hundred albums of cartes, featuring royalty and others of social prominence. In England, sales of cartes de visite ran in the hundreds of millions, annually.


The vast majority of cartes depict individuals or couples posed in the studio; the small size of the format appears to leave little room for more complex subject matter. But perhaps out of necessity (for example, a frontier photographer limited to a single camera), cartes de visite were also made of groups and landscapes and even as pioneering examples of photojournalism. Sometimes it seems as if the early photographers who made these small images were trying to capture the world around them on a tiny patch of paper and cardboard. Judging their work more than a century later, it can be argued that in many cases they succeeded.



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Top image: Unidentified photographer. Portrait of James Eaton (?). U.S., 1850s.

Center: Portrait of an undentified girl by Louis Walker of Philadelphia, circa 1860.

Bottom: Queen Victoria and Family with bust of Prince Albert. Taken by John Jabez Edwin Mayall, circa 1860.

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