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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 They were introduced in the 1860s and gradually superseded the smaller carte de visite format.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

27 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.

    1. Records are longgg gone. You can look at the location of the photograph and try to figure out what family lived in that area and guess by info on poll records/census sheets.

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  3. Would you be willing to sell some of your beautiful cabinet cards , I am up to trade as well

    Dennis
    Cheers

    1. I have a bunch of cabinet card photos and some photos know as daguerreotype if your interested I can send pictures of the photos

    2. I have a cabinet card from Warren’s in Boston of Benjamin the Beast Butler a union general and a politician from that area that I would sell

  4. I have been passed down a very old book with the cabinet portraits in im looking to get it checked out as I do not know how much it is worth if anyone can help

  5. I live in the U.S
    I have a very old black and white photo which i believe are my great grandparents. I think the photo was taken in Massachusetts. I would love to know the time period. How can i find out?

    1. Some clues to estimate the time period are: 1.) The clothing. If you are unfamiliar with period clothing, you can search “period clothing” (say, mid to late Victorian era for example) and that should return some good sources of information as well as images, which you can compare with your photo. 2.) The “color” of the photo – is it sepia toned or more grey toned (black and white)? If it is sepia, the photo is older, if more of a true black and white, it is nearer to the turn of the century.

  6. I am looking for a card of a relative. He was a Tallman in the circus and I have seen his card before. Louis Moilanen.

  7. Greetings!

    We are a small greeting card company, in your own words, LLC, producing greeting cards celebrating the LGBTQ community through photographs of affectionate men, women and children.

    Our cards are hand-crafted by rural, HIV+ men and women in a cottage industry, offering them dignity and income.

    We are always seeking interesting photographs. Might you have a listing or catalog of any such photographs for sale or use?

    Thank you,

    http://www.inyourownwords.ME

  8. I used to collect cabinet cards and have a collection of 150. After reading a little about cabinet cards, it is apparent that they date from ca. 1980 to ca. 1900. some are in fine condition, some are good and some are not-so-good. Is there a recognition software that allows one to obtain information about the people depicted? I tried using Google as a tool in determining the provenance of a military group posed around an American flag and the Google software came up with dozens of photos of groups w/ or without flags. I had hoped that a well-scanned image would be helpful to the Google software but apparently artificial intelligence only goes so far. If my cabinet cards depict the rich and famous, it’s a possibility that they would be worth more than a buck apiece. What do you think?

  9. Junge Mark,
    facial recognition software has limited value, especially if the photo is distressed/deteriorated, or the person depicted has facial hair, is wearing a hat, is in 3/4 profile. There is a cottage industry in self-avowed facial recognition savants who, for a healthy fee, will tell you that the photo of your great-great-uncle is actually Billy the Kid. Two tricks they use. First, rather than comparing the anonymous photo with an archive of, say, 10,000 images that includes the known Billy tintype, they compare it with just the known Billy tintype. Second, if the comparison level is, say, 85% or 70%, they declare it a match. An Amazon Rekognition executive recently said that he recommends to law enforcement that they use a a 99% threshold comparison, and even then if they get, say, one or more hits, it’s a clue, not a match. A clue deserving further investigation. In 2017 I wrote an essay on the uses and misuses of facial recognition technology: “Adventures in Wonderland: Identifying Old West Photos,” https://wildwesthistory.org/assets/wwhajournal1809-adventures-in-wonderland.pdf

  10. What is the best way to archive and store cabinet cards? I can’t seem to find plastic sleeves that have their specific dimensions.

  11. I have a hand coloured cabinet card photo of my maternal grandmother but it’s broken into four or five pieces how can I get it repaired ?

  12. Hi all i have over 200 cabinet cards that are in books i found them in a skip how do i know if they are worth anything please

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