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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—an ubiquitous collectable in the 19th century.

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 (1819–89) 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.


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.


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.


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

More in the series

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

  1. Pingback: Social Networks in the House Divided Era – Bivouac of the Dead
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  3. Can you have a CDV without a mount? I have a very old picture of my 2x great grandmother and i’m pretty sure it is a CDV but it doesn’t have a mount though.

  4. I have a carte de visite photograph of an industrial scene in Kent. This is from a local museum and they have no further details. If it is a Cdv it must be after 1854, the date of the Paris patent. How would I go about getting more detail, like photographer etc..

  5. Pingback: Two Unseen Photographs of Queen Victoria Released in Honor of Her 200th Birthday - - michael k photography
  6. I have a CDV if one of my forebears produced by Henry J Sibley of Grafton Studios, London NW. Could you tell me which years Henry Sibley operated over.
    More generally is their a reference about the various studios around the country. Most of the sites I visit seem just to want to sell me pictures.

  7. I inherited an album with many unknown carte-de-visite. Are they of any value to anyone, any institution, or group? Most are from Louisville KY.

  8. Where can I buy an album or another storage unit for my CDV’s 4 x 6.5. No plasticized sheets that stick to the photos.


  9. My name is Rose, I’m taking a class in History on Photography. The more and more I research the answers I need to successfully complete quizzes, I find myself becoming more interested in taking photography. I really enjoy taking steps back in time. The culture, fashions, styles, the way they wore their hair, and the time put into looking their best. I really appreciate the endless travel photography has left. One of the best parts of what it offers is you can see it for yourself and not have to take the word of another human being and risk them giving you the truth or their own version of the truth. Thanks!

    Keep it coming!

  10. I have a photo signed and dated 1882!! Help me find out about it please if possible. I also have various photographs by C Hawkins and others

  11. I have been left a collection of cdv and I would love to find out who the people are . I have one beautiful picture and it is signed and dated 1882 can anyone help me with this? Thanks emma

  12. have a photo taken by W. W. Darnell. I believe it was taken in Cumberland Maryland probably around the 1880’s. It looks just like others I have that are CDV’s but it is bigger– 4×6. Definitely pasted on thin cardboard Edges of pic are squared but cardboard is rounded. It is possibly a cdv. Everything I read says they were only the 2.5 x 4 or so in size.

  13. I think have have numerous examples of my grandparents and children in this type of picture. They are from the early 1900’s in Indiana. I have several framed. Is this possible? They have no type of dating or insignia. I inherited these from my 2 aunts who we stayed with on a farm regularly.

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