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By Colin Harding on

How to spot a cabinet card (1866–c.1914)

In the penultimate post in our series showing you how to date your old family photographs using physical clues, Colin Harding offers some tips on how to identify cabinet cards.

In the penultimate post of our series showing you how to date your old photographs by using physical clues to determine the process used to create it, I’m going to show you how to spot a cabinet card.

Man and dog, c. 1900, F. Davey © National Media Museum / SSPL. Creative Commons BY-NC-SA
Man and dog, c. 1900, F. Davey © Science Museum Group collection

About cabinet cards

Cabinet cards are photographs mounted on stiff pieces of cardboard. They were introduced in the 1860s and gradually superseded the smaller carte de visite format.

The front of the card is usually printed or embossed with the photographer’s details, and the back of the cabinet card is often printed with elaborate designs.

The popularity of the cabinet card waned around the turn of the century, particularly after the introduction of the photographic postcard, but they were still being produced right until the First World War.

Fireman with a motorcycle, c. 1900, Edward Sweetland © National Media Museum / SSPL. Creative Commons BY-NC-SA
Fireman with a motorcycle, c. 1900, Edward Sweetland © Science Museum Group collection

Use these clues to identify a cabinet card

Size
The cabinet card was basically a larger version of the carte de visite. Paper prints measuring about 5.5 x 4 inches were pasted to standard sized cardboard mounts measuring 6.5 x 4.25 inches.

Mount
Cabinet card mounts are usually thicker than those of cartes de visite.

Edges
By the 1880s, cabinet card mounts sometimes had bevelled edges, and were often finished in gold or silver.

Colour
The colour of the cardboard mount can also help date the photograph. Cream mounts were always popular, but bolder, dark colours like black, dark brown, green or burgundy began to appear in the 1880s and 1890s.

Three children, c. 1914, J.E. Reeves © National Media Museum / SSPL. Creative Commons BY-NC-SA
Three children, c. 1914, J.E. Reeves © Science Museum Group collection
The Prince of Wales, 1877, Charles Bergamasco © National Media Museum / SSPL. Creative Commons BY-NC-SA
The Prince of Wales, 1877, Charles Bergamasco © Science Museum Group collection
Young girl looking at a photograph album, c. 1890, Long & Faulkner © National Media Museum / SSPL. Creative Commons BY-NC-SA
Young girl looking at a photograph album, c. 1890, Long & Faulkner © Science Museum Group collection
A lacrosse team, c. 1900, Messrs Stearn © National Media Museum / SSPL. Creative Commons BY-NC-SA
A lacrosse team, c. 1900, Messrs Stearn © Science Museum Group collection
Woman holding a photograph album, c. 1880, William Notman © National Media Museum / SSPL. Creative Commons BY-NC-SA
Woman holding a photograph album, c. 1880, William Notman © Science Museum Group collection
Family group, c. 1907, Permain & Son © National Media Museum / SSPL. Creative Commons BY-NC-SA
Family group, c. 1907, Permain & Son © Science Museum Group collection
Two women, one dressed as a man, c. 1905, John Emberson © National Media Museum / SSPL. Creative Commons BY-NC-SA
Two women, one dressed as a man, c. 1905, John Emberson © Science Museum Group collection
Sunday School group, Bradford, 1898, Ino E. Cole © National Media Museum / SSPL. Creative Commons BY-NC-SA
Sunday School group, Bradford, 1898, Ino E. Cole © Science Museum Group collection
Three brothers, 1884, B.J. Edwards © National Media Museum / SSPL. Creative Commons BY-NC-SA
Three brothers, 1884, B.J. Edwards © Science Museum Group collection
Charles Darwin, c. 1880, Elliot & Fry © National Media Museum / SSPL. Creative Commons BY-NC-SA
Charles Darwin, c. 1880, Elliot & Fry © Science Museum Group collection
Portrait of a couple, c. 1900, Joseph Patrick Scannell © National Media Museum / SSPL. Creative Commons BY-NC-SA
Portrait of a couple, c. 1900, Joseph Patrick Scannell © Science Museum Group collection
Elsie, Marjorie and Frieda Devitt, c. 1890, Gunn & Stuart © National Media Museum / SSPL. Creative Commons BY-NC-SA
Elsie, Marjorie and Frieda Devitt, c. 1890, Gunn & Stuart © Science Museum Group collection
Portrait of a woman, c. 1895, Wakefield © National Media Museum / SSPL. Creative Commons BY-NC-SA
Portrait of a woman, c. 1895, Wakefield © Science Museum Group collection
Two brothers, 1896, Gunn & Stuart © National Media Museum / SSPL. Creative Commons BY-NC-SA
Two brothers, 1896, Gunn & Stuart © Science Museum Group collection

More in the series

6 comments on “How to spot a cabinet card (1866–c.1914)

  1. I have no problem identifying “cabinet cards” now or generally dating them. However, my ancestors did not provide the names of people in the photos. I only have the identity of the photography shop. Is there any way to find out who is in the photos through the photography shop? Is anyone keeping track of what happened to a photo shop’s records after it closed? Can you please advise.

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