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Carte de visite One photographic form monopolized the decade of the 1860s, it was the CDV, a small albumen print on card stock 2½ inches wide by 4 inches high. By far, it was the most popular type of photograph sold in the 1860s. Interesting enough, though they are generally described as being 4 inches by 2½, only the card stock is that size, give or take a smidgen, but the image itself is still smaller in order to leave a margin between the edge of the albumen print and the card stock on which it is glued. These little albumen prints became popular all over the world, and particularly in the United States. What forces were put in motion to create this phenomenon?
1) First and foremost, the invention and production of cameras that took many images simultaneously on a single plate came into being, first patented in 1854 by Disdéri in France, and in 1855 in America by Albert Sands Southworth. By the mid-1860s the simple four tube camera was sold by every supply house in America and was perfect for the multiple images inexpensively produced on one glass plate. This glass negative could produce dozens or even thousands of positive images on light sensitive paper with the development of the positive negative process coming into universal acceptance in photo studios throughout the world. This quantum shift in technology turned the photographer from an artist, slowly and deliberately producing one image at a time into a mass producer of images for all classes and every appetite.
2) Many photographs were produced quicker and less expensively, making it easier to merchandise them at bargain prices. Usually sold in batches of twelve, the high end photographers priced them at three dollars a dozen, which broke down to twenty five cents apiece, and a profit could still be made at half that price. They were wonderfully inexpensive and came into the market at just the right time. The public was tired of the more expensive cased images and wanted something different and cheaper, thus the stand alone photos. An ancillary benefit for the studio was that most photographers turned every CDV photo into an advertisement by inexpensively having their logos mass produced on the reverse of the card stock.
3) The photographic album was developed in the late 1850s and it became a household item in every parlor by the beginning of the next decade. In America, every family had at least one family album. Relatives from near and far sent their CDVs to distant branches of the family who reciprocated in kind, thus the birth of the family album. By 1860 the albums were being advertised as much as the photographs. It became a great profit center for the photographer over and above the photograph. The CDV didn‘t really take off in America till the CDV album was popularized, mass produced and sold in photo studios along with the small albumen photos. At the height of its popularity, Abraham Bogardus of New York City reported processing a record 1800 CDVs in a single day.
4) The American Civil War elevated a popular activity into a craze. What service person didn‘t get his dozen uniformed portraits made to disperse amongst his loved ones? What sweetheart didn‘t give a portrait of herself to her loved one as he left for the War? Along with military photos of dear ones, a new industry was born with the carte-de-visite albums being manufactured en masse for a public hungry to buy them. With the War another trend seized the country. Firmly entrenched on the first page of most Northern family albums was President Lincoln, and as the war years advanced, General Grant in the North and General Lee in the South became quite popular. The CDV of a General mixed amongst family members in uniform produced the effect that the family had friends in high places. Eventually most military heroes sat for their photos and the celebrity CDV was born. By mid-decade, every public figure had his or her image mass produced and sold to the public. Actors, artists, inventors, writers and even the infamous became popular subjects. After the War, Booth the Assassin was one of the most popular. The firm of E. & H. T. Anthony, the largest photographic supply house in America at that time literally made millions of CDVs. The Civil War itself was documented by thousands of CDVs of military encampments, equipment, soldiers in formation, and naval vessels. Many photographers would buy a good photo of a celebrity and re-photograph it, thus bootlegging the original and selling it many times over to the ever hungry public. Even some of the better studios succumbed to that practice.
5) In England the Queen and her Consort, Prince Albert were the most popular subjects sold. Only the Prince of Wales came close in popularity. Every Royal Family in Europe surrendered to the photographer‘s camera, and since the Royal Houses of England, Germany and Russia were closely related, it was not unusual to find German and Russian Royal portraits in the English photo-album. The British Empire was at the height of its colonial power and CDV sized views of Calcutta India, Toronto Canada or Canberra Australia found their way back to the families of those serving the Crown in those far flung outposts of the Empire. In conjunction with the early stereo-cards, this small photo became the window to the world for the middle-classes as both an entertainment and a learning tool for those who viewed them. Viewing devices other than albums also found their way into living rooms around the world. Many utilized a magnifying glass to enlarge the image and bring out the details. Other devices stored and viewed the images sequentially thus enhancing the viewing experience.
6) In France it was the intellects of the day that were quite popular in the CDV. George Sands, Victor Hugo and Alexander Dumas sold briskly alongside Napoleon III. Celebrities of the stage, particularly actresses were also very popular in France as well as elsewhere.
7) By the end of the American Civil War Salisbury, Bro. & Co., of Providence RI was advertising 1000 celebrity cards for $40.00, ONLY FOUR CENTS EACH, and informing the industrious peddler that AGENTS CAN MAKE TWENTY DOLLARS PER DAY CANVASSING THEIR OWN TOWNS! Uniformity of size was paramount so any CDV could be trimmed to fit in any CDV album. Though the CDV size remained popular through the sixties, in the decade of the 1870s, the larger sized Cabinet Card replaced it in popularity, proving again that nothing stays the same and the public‘s thirst for change is unquenchable. In spite of the popularity of the newer and larger sizes, the 2 ½ by 4 inch card stubbornly persisted.
8) One last note concerning the business end of photography. The CDV was the first wildly popular photograph that required a sitting and a return visit to pick up the finished product. The daguerreotype, the ambrotype and the tintype all required but one visit to the photographer and the sitting was quickly followed by the image being presented to the client within minutes. This was not so with the albumen print. It took too long to develop, print, finish and mount the images. Broadsides started to advertise that photos must be paid for at the time of the "taking session" since it was much easier for the customer to find the photographer than the photographer to find the customer. Those photographers who did not understand this shift in basic business practice soon had the facts forcefully and clearly illustrated to them by those sitters who did not return for the finished product.
9) The CDV was born in the mid-eighteen-fifties, came of age in the 1860s and were still being produced in most studios through the eighteen-seventies and eighties and stubbornly held on into the nineties. By the eighties, the card stock was thickened to allow for the edges to be beveled. Corners were rounded, and the finish was shinier, thus giving it a more professional look and feel, but at heart it was still the CDV. One interesting side note, the large profit made on celebrity photos was by the photographers and distributors at first. In the beginning, the celebrities did not get a royalty from the mass-production of their images, though the attendant fame to a popular image may have paid off in other ways for the famous or infamous sitter. The public thirst for celebrity images allowed the celebrity to bargain for payment of larger and larger amounts for each sitting. This reached it's peak when The New York City photographer Napoleon Sarony is reported to have paid $1500.00 in advance for one sitting of Sarah Bernhardt showing that even then, the business of being famous could be of monetary value in itself.
© 2006 Matthew R. Isenburg