First Steps: Carte-de-visite
Carte-de-visite (CDV) or cartes, are the small paper on card photographs, they measure typically 10.2 x 6.2cm, and the photograph which was pasted on to the card was roughly cut to about 9.0 x 5.7cm. They are described as sepia in colour (dark brown), but most have now faded to a yellow brown. The photographers details are usually printed or embossed on the lower front, or on the back of the card.
examples of back designs
They were produced in vast numbers, and the format was used worldwide. Once the size had been established it did not change - for one good reason - photograph albums were produced with slots cut to fit them.
They were used from 1859 onward and a variation was still being used up to about 1908 (no real cut-off date). They were a cheap way of getting your photograph taken and almost anyone could afford it. They were sold in six or twelve sets, some identical, some slight variations on the pose, the camera used mulitple lenses or the plate slider positioned to take the different poses on one plate. The contact print was then cut up and pasted on the card. The negative was on a glass sheet and the print used paper treated using egg-white (albumen print) and toned with gold.
How were they used? Most families would have had a photograph album - a smart leather volume that was deliberately made up to look like a bible (family trees had been written in the front of the family bible) and this was your family tree in photographs and often set out in family units with the owner's father and mother usually being first. So you distributed your twelve identical cartes far and wide, sent in the post to fill family and sometimes friends albums all over the world - particulary important where families has emigrated and the family back home wanted to see a photograph of the grandchildren. There were also wall frames that could have a number of cartes slotted into them making a pleasing design as well as small stands, travelling cases - like playing card boxes, and they were sometimes cut up for putting into lockets. Used as visiting cards? no I dont think so.
What about them gives a rough date to start with? The early ones from 1859 had simple square cut corners which changed gradually to rounded corners during 1872 to 1879, why? To slip into the album slots without tearing the page. The 1860s card back or cardstock was very thin, often layers of paper stuck together, by the 1870 -1880s much better and thicker card was used and that of the late 1880s and 1890s quite robust. Around 1900 a different style came in with a wider border and embossed channels and designs and square corners again.
Where you find printed on the back:
Electric light after 1877.
Chromotype c.1878 - about 1884
Gas light after 1879.
Luxograph c.1879 to about 1885.
The New Instantaneous Process about 1881 onwards.
Magnesium flash about 1887 onwards.
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© Roger Vaughan Personal Collection 2012