Cartomania: Revisiting the Nineteenth-Century Craze for Carte-de-Visite Portraiture
Long before people started sending photo postcards or sharing their selfies on social media apps, there was the carte-de-visite. These were small albumen prints mounted on thicker card that were frantically collected and traded by people all over the world during a brief moment of collective obsession in the mid-Nineteenth Century.
The carte-de-visite, or visiting card, was so called because it evolved out of a kind of calling card popular in Europe at the time. Although there’s evidence that several other photographers already offered similar products a few years earlier, it was only in 1854 that the carte-de-visite was patented by its “inventor”, the French photographer André Disdéri.
Disdéri also patented a quadruple-lens system for making more economic use of the large glass plate negatives required for making albumen prints. This allowed him to shoot 8 smaller images on a plate before developing, instead of wasting the entire negative on a single shot.
Cartes-de-Visite: the First Photo-Sharing Media?
Albumen prints could be quickly and cheaply printed in large numbers, so a sitter could commission a portrait from a professional photographer and then get many copies printed up as cartes-de-visite in order to send to family and friends – as mementoes of their love, companionship and friendship.
And for a few brief decades in the middle of the 19th Century, everyone was at it: from Emperors and empresses resplendent in full regalia, to bewhiskered generals, stiffly posed ladies, stern matrons, cherubic youths, milkfaced infants, grotesquely adorned babies in frilly collars, disheveled troops and the occasional rustic yokel. The world’s postal systems must have been inundated by the quantity of cartes in circulation.
While this was of course a painfully slow way of exchanging photos when compared to modern methods, in some respects it predicted the rise of photo sharing apps such as Flickr and Instagram. The irony is that these platforms are now filled with scans of cartes-de-visite. Thankfully, though, duck-faced bathroom-mirror pouting was not yet a thing in those times.
While anyone with the money could commission a carte-de-visite portrait of themselves, cartes were also commercially produced on a grand scale, and the initial boom in their popularity is largely attributed to the publication of cartes depicting well-know figures such as Queen Victoria or Napoleon III. In fact the carte-de-visite functioned a little like baseball cards or other trading cards, in that they were collectible and often featured the day’s celebrities. The most popular designs could be readily bought at stationers and other stores, rather like a photo postcard today.
Cartes-de-visite were usually displayed in especially made albums, and as they were made to a standard international size – 2.5 x 4 inches – they could be traded and sent anywhere in the world without risk of incompatibility between display formats. Trade and exchange was further encouraged by the fact that albumen prints were relatively stable and durable when compared to earlier photographic processes such as the daguerrotype, and so could be sent through the mail in regular envelopes without getting damaged.
No doubt due in part to their miniature dimensions, cartes-de-visite most often took the form of portraits – usually of an individual sitter, but sometimes of two people such as couples and siblings. Usually these were carefully posed studio portraits, with the subject standing against a painted backdrop, sitting on or standing next to a chair, or leaning on a classical plinth.
However, some photographers also used the carte-de-visite as an opportunity to document the world around them, marketing albums containing well-known architectural landmarks, scenes of natural beauty, events of historical importance and snapshots of daily life. From all across Europe to the American West, and even the far reaches of the colonies or other “exotic” locations, virtually everywhere and everyone eventually made their way on to the cartes. Indeed, in those significantly slower times, some carte-de-visite functioned almost like modern social media updates, bringing news and information from distant shores and featuring everything from train wrecks to funeral processions and curious novelties such as performing dogs or conjoined twins.
In the US, the fad for the carte-de-visite took place against the backdrop of the Civil War, and so cards depicting Abraham Lincoln and Union or Confederate generals were enormously popular items for collection or trade. Perhaps more than anything though, the prevalence of the carte-de-visite in the United States can be attributed to the desire of ordinary Americans to give easily transportable keepsakes of themselves to loved-ones before the war caused their separation – whether the separation was only temporary or, shall we say, more permanent in nature.
This was also a time when government forces were continuing their campaign of expansion into Native American territories – for example, against the Navaho and Apache in New Mexico and the Sioux in Minnesota. Accordingly, there are numerous examples of cartes-de-visite depicting the meeting of Native Americans and Europeans. Although rarely, if ever, do such images reflect the degree of violence and hostility that so frequently lay behind these encounters: most ending in the massacre of indigenous groups or their forced confinement to designated government reservations.
Indeed, despite the apparent innocence of a pastime such as collecting cartes-de-visite, this last point highlights the degree to which these images were often very far from ideologically neutral. In some respects, then, the carte-de-visite was almost the Instagram of its day: massively popular and superficially trivial, but by no means immune from manipulation by political or economic interests. Like social media, then, the carte-de-visite was widespread and highly informative, but often a quite manufactured and misleading source of visual information about the world.
For example, the enormous popularity of the carte-de-visite meant that it played a major role in establishing the clichéd image of the “Oriental” woman as an available and consumable object of desire for European and North American men. Erotically themed cartes-de-visite were produced and sold by (mostly European owned) photography studios across North Africa, the Middle East and beyond. While such erotically-charged photographs were largely the product of European Orientalist fantasy, rather than a reflection of reality on the ground, the far reaching circulation of the carte-de-visite meant that these images became well and truly absorbed into the West’s popular psyche: “Photographs of Oriental women may have turned the iconography of the harem and its female occupants into kitsch, but in doing so, the photographs also naturalized the mythology of Oriental eroticism” (Behdad and Gartlan, 2013, p. 28). Thus establishing the trope of a sexually alluring and available eastern Other that is still very much alive today.
Much like social media in our own times, the carte-de-visite was often used as a method of marketing and propaganda. From Ottoman Sultans to both abolitionists and pro-slavery activists in the US, political powers and pressure groups published collections of cartes-de-visite carefully designed to support their goals through the creation of a highly constructed public image and the promotion of a specific – and at times extremely partial -narrative.
It wasn’t all propaganda though, and as with social media today, cats were a surprisingly popular subject for cartes-de-visite, and many perfectly innocent images were printed and collected. Cardomania lasted for a couple of decades before the carte-de-visite’s popularity was eclipsed in the 1870s by the invention of the larger Cabinet Card. Nonetheless, while the initial fervor may have waned, cartes-de-visite remained in mass circulation right up until the 1910s.
Looking back at Nineteenth-Century cartes-de-visite provides a fascinating glimpse of the people and their lives at that time. In fact, as cartes-de-visite were printed in their millions, a great many of them still survive today. And this is where any similarities with social media end, as the chances of your own most cherished moments still being viewable on Facebook 150 years from now seems decidedly slim. From this perspective, printing postcards is a great way of guaranteeing that we leave some kind of historical legacy to future generations, so that we won’t be entirely forgotten once we’re gone.
Finally, often even bit as impressive as the photographs on the front of cartes-de-visite are the intricately designed insignias advertising the photographer’s studio on the reverse of the image. Try and replicate that on Instagram!
Behdad, Ali and Gartlan, Luke (2013). Photography’s Orientalism: New essays on colonial representation. Getty