Dating carte de visite

In the penultimate post of our series showing you how to date your old photographs by using physical clues to determine the process used to create it, I’m going to show you how to spot a cabinet card.Cabinet cards are photographs mounted on stiff pieces of cardboard.Many of these figures are in fact anonymous, or nearly so, identified only by a scrawled pencil inscription—Aunt Maria, Uncle Paul—or perhaps a line of description on their hidden flip sides.A closer inspection, though, reveals some intriguing narratives: images of young men in uniform next to miniaturized reproductions of popular paintings of pets; a portrait of Napoleon across from a Civil War general; a striking cartoon of Lincoln and Washington in mutual embrace.

Colour The colour of the cardboard mount can also help date the photograph.

Literary historian Ellen Gruber Garvey’s assertion that scrapbooks “open a window into the lives and thoughts of people who did not respond to the world with their own writing” is equally true of the carte de visite album.

These leather- or cloth-bound albums, accessible to a range of budgets, allowed collectors to arrange small photographs in a personalized mix that often juxtaposed commercially reproduced images of artworks and celebrities alongside the more intimate studio portraits of friends and family members.

Interpretive challenges aside, many of these albums can nevertheless offer insights into how ordinary Americans from both the North and the South experienced the Civil War.

One of the fascinating aspects of these works is the way that they anticipate social media like Facebook and Twitter by mixing personal and popular photographs.

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Paper prints measuring about 5.5 x 4 inches were pasted to standard sized cardboard mounts measuring 6.5 x 4.25 inches.

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