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By Colin Harding on

How to spot a carte de visite (late 1850s–c.1910)

In our latest post about dating your old family photographs, Colin Harding shows you how to identify cartes de visite—a 19th century collecting craze.

To help you date your old family photographs, so far I’ve shown you how to spot daguerreotypes, collodion positives and ferrotypes. Today we turn to the distinguishing features of the carte de visite—a 19th century collecting craze.

Laughing man, c.1875, F. Pons, National Media Museum Collection
Laughing man, c.1875, F. Pons, Science Museum Group collection

About cartes de visite

A carte de visite is a photograph mounted on a piece of card the size of a formal visiting card—hence the name. The format was patented by the French photographer Andre Adolphe Eugene Disdéri (1819–1889) in 1854.

Most professional portrait photographers of the 1850s took either daguerreotypes or collodion positives. With both processes, each picture was unique and multiple copies could only be made with difficulty, if at all.

'Tennyson', 1861, National Media Museum Collection
‘Tennyson’, 1861, Science Museum Group collection

People wanting larger portraits or more than one copy could have whole plate prints made from wet collodion negatives, but there was little demand for these except in the most fashionable studios because they were expensive (£2–4 depending on the size and whether it was hand coloured or not).

Realising that there was a market for a process which could produce a large number of prints very cheaply, Disdéri devised a way of reducing costs by taking several portraits on one photographic plate.

This required the use of a special camera and many different types were developed.

Some had several lenses, which could be uncovered either individually, or all at the same time to give 4 or 8 photographs on the same plate. Others had a mechanism for moving the photographic plate so that each image was recorded on a different area.


The carte de visite collecting craze

Cartes de visite was introduced to England in 1857. In May 1860, J. E. Mayall took carte portraits of Queen Victoria, Prince Albert and their children. These were published later that year and the popularity of carte portraits soared.

Queen Victoria, c.1887, John C. Murdoch, National Media Museum Collection
Queen Victoria, c.1887, John C. Murdoch, Science Museum Group collection

People began to collect portraits of their family, friends and celebrities and mounting them in photograph albums. Celebrity cartes were sold at stationer’s shops in the same way that picture postcards are today.

The craze for collecting celebrity cartes de visite in albums reached its peak during the 1860s, but the format remained popular until the beginning of the 20th century, and cartes can still be found in large numbers, loose or in family albums.


Use these clues to identify a carte de visite

Because they were popular for so long, it can sometimes be difficult to date cartes de visite.

The subject’s clothing and the photographer’s name and address, often printed on the back, can be very helpful, but changes in the cardboard mount can also assist with dating.

Size
Cartes were small paper prints—about 3.5 x 2 inches pasted onto standard sized cardboard mounts, about 4 x 2.5 inches. This size remained unchanged throughout the carte’s history.

Mount
If you have several examples of cartes you can compare, the relative thickness of the cardboard mount can indicate a rough date. Generally, the thinner the mount, the earlier the photograph.

Shape
The shape of the cardboard mount can also help with dating. Early cartes produced in the 1860s usually have square corners. In the 1870s, mounts with rounded corners were introduced.

Mother and baby, Oscar Gustav Rejlander, National Media Museum Collection
Mother and baby, Oscar Gustav Rejlander, Science Museum Group collection
The Siamese Twins, Eng and Chang Bunker, c.1870, London Stereoscopic & Photographic Company, National Media Museum Collection
The Siamese Twins, Eng and Chang Bunker, c.1870, London Stereoscopic & Photographic Company, Science Museum Group collection
'Paddling his own Canoe', The London Stereoscopic & Photographic Company, National Media Museum Collection
‘Paddling his own Canoe’, The London Stereoscopic & Photographic Company, Science Museum Group collection
Monsieur Léotard with his trapeze, checking his plimsole, c.1865, Disdéri & Co., National Media Museum Collection
Monsieur Léotard with his trapeze, checking his plimsole, c.1865, Disdéri & Co., Science Museum Group collection
'Abe Lincoln', c.1863, Matthew Brady, National Media Museum Collection
‘Abe Lincoln’, c.1863, Matthew Brady, Science Museum Group collection
Group of six people outdoors, R. H. Kinnear, National Media Museum Collection
Group of six people outdoors, R. H. Kinnear, Science Museum Group collection
Charles Dickens, 1890, Mason & Co. Ltd., National Media Museum Collection
Charles Dickens, 1890, Mason & Co. Ltd., Science Museum Group collection
A dog on a chair, c.1865, National Media Museum Collection
A dog on a chair, c.1865, Science Museum Group collection

Further reading and interesting links