Before Instagram, selfie sticks, disposable cameras, Polaroids, and box brownies, there were carte de visites — small photographic albumen prints, mounted on card, which were wildly popular during the Victorian era.
Also known as CdV, carte de visites followed the early pioneering photographic techniques such as daguerreotype and ambrotype, which were expensive and difficult to reproduce. Cartes de visites were born from calling cards, which bore the owner’s name and usually an emblem, and were presented to the host during a social visit. Homes often had a tray near the door for collecting calling cards.
In 1854, Paris photographer Andre Adolphe Disderi patented the 2 1/2″ x 4″ carte de visite format. They were created by using a sliding plate holder and a camera with four lenses. The technique spread to the photographic studios in the great cities of the world. Carte de visites were extensively used in the American Civil War era as families sought mementos before loved ones left for war. Queen Victoria had numerous albums filled with images of her extensive family.
Small and inexpensive to produce, cartes de visites became the international standard. They were collected, exchanged and placed in family albums. Most carte de visites were taken in studios but some adventurous photographers took them outdoors in early examples of photojournalism.
For many people, posing for a carte de visite was the first time they had been photographed. Smiles are almost completely absent. Some people look ill at ease. Most photographers posed their subjects as if they were being painted for a grand oil painting. Look past the stern expressions and you will see Victorian fashion, various accessories and props, uniforms, and hairstyles and epic facial hair.
From 1860 until the end of the century, carte de visites were immensely popular. But people didn’t just want pictures of themselves or loved ones, carte de visites of celebrities were also in demand. Images of politicians, authors, explorers, sports stars and other people of note were widely circulated. Eventually the larger cabinet cards replaced CdVs as the technology behind photography continued to advance.
A Selection of Carte de Visites
Bottle Corker. This undated photo was taken in Birmingham in the Midlands. We assume a bottle corker was someone who put corks into bottles rather than removed them.
Soccer Player. An unidentified Scottish footballer/soccer player. The photo was taken by John Spence of Bridge Street, Musselburgh. Circa 1880.
Australian Soldier. Taken in Sydney in 1863, the uniform appears to be that of the New South Wales Volunteer Artillery.
Mother and Baby. This was taken in the English seaside town of Torquay circa 1880. Interesting to see that the design of the baby carriage (aka the stroller) has come full circle
Kit Carson. This 1862 carte de visite shows Kit Carson (seated) and Edwin Perrin. Carson was a frontiersman and a Wild West legend in his own lifetime. Here he is pictured in his Union army coat. Perrin led the 1st New Mexico Volunteer Infantry in the American Civil War.
General Custer. George Custer in his Union uniform in 1865. The photo is printed from a negative taken by Matthew Brady, who was best known for his Civil War photography. Custer, a Civil War hero, was killed at the Battle of the Little Big Horn in 1876.
Man with Top Hat. This gentleman from Palermo in Italy, circa 1870, looks like a true man about town in his immaculate clothing, dapper cane and stupendous top hat laid to one side.
Alexandre Dumas Pere & Adah Isaacs Menken. Adah Isaacs Menken was the highest paid actress in the middle of the 18th century. While performing in France in 1866, she had an affair with author Alexandre Dumas, which caused a scandal as he was more than twice her age. Her only book, Infelicia, a collection of 31 poems, was published several days after her death.
Hans Christian Andersen. The Danish author of The Little Mermaid and The Snow Queen poses for a carte de visite. A keen traveler, Andersen died in 1875.
Victor Hugo. An 1874 carte de visite of Hugo. He published his last novel in 1874, Quatre-vingt-treize, about the Reign of Terror during the French Revolution.
Boy and his Toy Horse. Circa 1880s and taken in Liverpool, the smartly dressed boy is also holding a riding crop.
Little Artists. Booted and suited, two smartly dressed boys from Naples. Circa 1860.
Lady Reading. This Italian lady is completely focused on her book. Circa 1860.
Soldier and Wife. Circa 1890, this carte de visite was taken in Bury St Edmonds. The two stripes show that he was a corporal. He’s smoking while she holds a book and looks decidedly uncomfortable.
Italian Solider. This military man from Bologna looks completely at ease. Circa 1890s.
David Livingstone. “Doctor Livingstone, I presume?” This is the explorer David Livingstone, who was famously found by fellow explorer Henry Morton Stanley in 1871 near Lake Tanganyika in Africa.
Three Priests. A trio of Catholic priests in Rome circa 1870. Two are following instructions and posing for the shot but the third isn’t cooperating. Looks like a scene from Father Ted.
Sultan of Turkey. Abdul Aziz Khan was the 32nd Sultan of the Ottoman Empire, and reigned between 1861 and 1876. A formidable looking man.
William Makepeace Thackeray. Taken in London, undated. William Makepeace Thackeray was a novelist famous for writing Vanity Fair.
Edward VII. Taken in September 1863 when he was the Prince of Wales, Edward is wearing full Highland dress. Abergeldie Castle is close to the Queen’s Scottish home of Balmoral.
Randolph Churchill. Winston’s dad. Randolph was both Chancellor of the Exchequer and Leader of the House of Commons during his Tory political career.
Swiss Costume. Circa 1870, a lady in traditional Swiss dress.
Water Carrier. A Venetian water carrier around 1870.
Facial Hair. This gentleman from Torino has outstanding muttonchops. Circa 1870.
Dad and Kids. It must have been a cold day when this father posed with his warmly wrapped up children.
About the author: Richard Davies is the Content Manager at AbeBooks. This article was also published here.