By Ronald S. Coddington
Jesse Harrison Whitehurst knew the ebbs and flows of the photography business better than most of his contemporaries. The daguerreian pioneer had a knack for adapting to new innovations, and keen sense of trends and fashion that propelled him to prominence. He rode a wave of success and established a chain of studios along the East coast.
Business however, had fallen off by the late 1850s. An economic downturn and an increasingly unstable political situation likely contributed to the reversal of his fortunes. By 1861, the Whitehurst Empire had shrunk to a single gallery in the nation’s capital.
Then came the war. Whitehurst, a native Virginian in his early forties, saw an opportunity to revive his empire. Following the Union debacle at First Bull Run, he launched a newspaper advertising campaign that targeted patriotic citizen soldiers and their families. “Selling views of military encampments, & c. See his card photographs, suitable for sending in letters. Likenesses of many of the slain at the recent battle can be obtained at this gallery. Go to Whitehurst’s and obtain a likeness before going to the battle field.”
Whitehurst understood that the latest fashion in likenesses—the card photograph—coincided propitiously with the start of the Civil War, and could become big business.
But even Whitehurst could not have predicted that the card photograph, better known as the carte de visite, would develop into a social media phenomenon in America during the war years—the Facebook of the 1860s. The excitement generated by the carte de visite was perhaps the greatest since the birth of photography.
The Rise and Fall of the Daguerreotype
Whitehurst was about 20 years old when photography was discovered in 1839. The vast majority of citizen soldiers to whom he marketed his studio services were the first to be born into a world with photography. They were the ‘Photography Generation.’
In January 1839, Frenchman Louis Jacques Mandé Daguerre announced the first successful commercial photographic process. As an artist who had used the camera obscura as a drawing aid to project images onto surfaces, he determined to find a repeatable method to permanently fix these projections to a surface. Daguerre was not alone in this pursuit. Fellow Frenchman Joseph Nicéphore Niépce, an artist who became fascinated with the process of lithography, had spent two decades searching for a solution. He had achieved several breakthroughs, including his hazy View from the Window at Le Gras, produced in 1826 or 1827, which is widely acknowledged as the first photograph.
Niépce and Daguerre joined forces in 1829. After Niépce died in 1833, Daguerre pressed forward, and, in 1835, he found the right combination of photosensitive chemicals and other materials. He spent the next few years perfecting his process. When he finally released the news to the world, the effect was electric.
Word traveled quickly to America, where the daguerreotype was hailed as ‘Rembrandt perfected.’ Firsthand accounts from Americans in France were widely published during that heady spring of 1839, including one letter by a Mr. Walsh. “I was admitted to M. Daguerre’s laboratory, and passed an hour in contemplating his drawings. It would be impossible for me to express the admiration which they produced. I can convey to you no idea of the exquisite perfection of the copies of objects and scenes, effected in ten minutes by the action of simple solar light upon his papiers sensibles. There is one view of the river Seine, bridges, quays, great edifices, &c., taken under a rainy sky, the graphic truth of which astonished and delighted me beyond measure. No human hand ever did or could trace a copy.”
Mr. Walsh came away with the impression that Daguerre’s images were produced on sensitive paper when, in fact, highly polished silver-plated copper was used. Another observer in France at this historic moment would not miss this detail—respected artist and inventor Samuel F. B. Morse, who shared his impressions in another published letter. The images he described after a visit with Daguerre, “are produced on a metallic surface, the principal pieces about 7 inches by 5, and they resemble aquatint engravings, for they are in simple chiaro oscuro, and not in colors. But the exquisite minuteness of the delineation cannot be conceived. No painting or engraving ever approached it.”
Having noted the lack of color and abundance of detail, Morse also called out a limitation caused by long exposure times. “Objects moving are not impressed. The Boulevard so constantly filled with a moving throng of pedestrians and carriages, was perfectly solitary, except an individual who was having his boots brushed. His feet were compelled, of course, to be stationary for some time, one being on the box of the boot-black, and the other on the ground. Consequently, his boots and legs are well defined, but he is without body or head because these were in motion.”
Yet, the strengths of the daguerreotype outweighed its weaknesses. Before Daguerre, painters and engravers chronicled our visual history. After Daguerre, photographers emerged as the preferred recorders, though many traditional artists and art critics looked askance upon the fledgling medium and its practitioners.
Instructions for how to produce a daguerreotype rapidly travelled across the Atlantic. Entrepreneurs in New York City, Boston, Cincinnati, New Orleans and elsewhere quickly mastered the medium.
These pioneers and those who followed spread photography to the far corners of antebellum America. Galleries with distinctive skylights cut into the roofs popped up in bustling Northern cities, bucolic Southern towns and rough and tumble frontier settlements. Most of these painters of light toiled anonymously in cramped studios and eked out a modest living. Some, most notably Mathew B. Brady, rose to fame and prosperity as photographer to the power elite. A small number lived a nomadic existence, lugging their camera and equipment by wagon from town to town.
Photo pioneers required a long list of supplies to sustain their businesses, including chemicals, plates, mats, cases and numerous other items. And, industrious manufacturers seized the opportunity. In Waterbury, Conn., the Scovill family had produced buttons and provided other hardware since the turn-of-the-century. In 1840, the company began production of metal plates to meet the growing demand by daguerreian photographers. Within a few years, the company became one of the nation’s leading suppliers of photographic supplies.
The daguerreotype remained popular in America for nearly 15 years. Many prominent early citizens, including 6th President John Quincy Adams, abolitionist Frederick Douglass and first lady Dolley Madison sat for daguerreians. The first known photographs of conflict are a small, random group of daguerreotypes produced during the Mexican War (1846-1848).
In the mid-1850s, the introduction of cheaper ambrotypes and tintypes undercut the dominant market position of the daguerreotype. Composed of less expensive glass and metal plates, the production cost was significantly reduced. Consumers who once paid $2.50 for a daguerreotype could now shell out as little as 50 cents for a tintype. Daguerreotypes would be largely extinct before the decade was out, although a few diehards continued to produce them into 1860-61.
The Birth of the Carte de Visite
Meanwhile, back in Europe, a radically different photographic process had been introduced—paper images printed from negatives. British scientist William Henry Fox Talbot announced his invention shortly after Daguerre went public back in 1839. But Talbot’s prints, known as calotypes or talbotypes, were no match for the magnificent qualities of the daguerreotype. Then, in March 1851, another Brit, Frederick Scott Archer, introduced a process that built upon Talbot’s concept. Archer traced the lack of fine detail to the paper negatives. He deduced that the naturally uneven surface texture caused the quality issues. He replaced the paper with a smooth plate of glass coated in a syrupy chemical cocktail known as collodion. The paper print that resulted rivaled the daguerreotype. Moreover, the collodion process added a further advantage: portability. Photographers could employ the process out in the field.
The collodion process sounded the death knell of the daguerreotype, the ambrotype and the tintype. Looking back on the watershed event a quarter-century later, an article in the British Journal of Photography declared, “Previous to the discovery of the collodion process by Archer the production of portraits was confined to the Talbotype paper process and the daguerreotype. By the former, portraits possessing great vigour and undoubted merit, although devoid of delicacy, were obtained; by the latter, the results secured fulfilled the highest requirements of sharpness and delicacy. There existed, however, a very important distinction between these two processes; for by the former the camera picture was a negative capable of yielding an unlimited number of prints, while by the latter method each picture was complete in itself and lacked the power of reproduction.”
Archer published a manual of instruction in 1852. A second edition, The Collodion Process on Glass, followed in 1854. British photographer Roger Fenton adopted the collodion process when he made history as the first photographer to systematically cover conflict during the Crimean War (1854-1856).
If Archer sounded the death knell of the hard plates, a former actor and daguerreian photographer in Paris landed the decisive blow. On Nov. 27, 1854, André-Adolphe-Eugène Disdéri patented the carte de visite format. His goal was to make the production of photograph-making more cost effective. The concept was simple: Rather than make one exposure from a single collodion-treated glass negative, he divided the negative into 10 separate exposures. The number was later revised to a more practical eight. The print that resulted was cut into rectangles, and each was pasted to a thin sheet of cardboard that measured about 2 ½ by 4 inches. This change reduced the cost of a carte de visite to a fraction of a daguerreotype, ambrotype or tintype. A multi-lens camera was later introduced to make the production more efficient.
Though Disdéri is properly credited as the patent holder and inventor, similar ideas for affixing a photograph to a visiting card were recorded by others as early as 1851, a full three years before the patent date.
Though cost was essential to the widespread adoption of the carte de visite, intimacy proved the critical factor.
Whatever its origins and advantages, the carte de visite failed to catch on with photographers or the public initially. Then, in May 1859, Disdéri photographed Napoleon III and Empress Eugénie. Fashion-conscience Parisians finally took note, and the carte de visite exploded in a wave of popularity. A year later, a similar event occurred in England when John Jabez Edwin Mayall photographed the British royal family. Three months later, Mayall was granted permission to distribute the portraits for sale as albums of cartes de visite, which British subjects responded to enthusiastically.
Though cost was essential to the widespread adoption of the carte de visite, intimacy proved the critical factor. The Encyclopedia of Nineteenth-Century Photography described it this way, “Small, ephemeral commodities which were widely available, easy to hold, easy to pass around, easy to look over by the dozen within a drawing room, cartes possessed little distinction in themselves. They were literally ‘touchy-feely’ artefacts; not to be looked at with deferential awe or revered from a distance but catalogued and collected, gossiped and commented upon.”
Cartes de visite were social media for the 19th century. “Cardomania,” or “Cartomania,” as the phenomenon came to be known, was the subject of a humorous rant in a popular British magazine. “I don’t know how it fares with you in London, but I know that we in Paris have a sorry life of it. By which it I do not allude to the frost, nor to the macadamized Boulevards, nor to the tightness of the money-market—no, nor yet to the indefinite rise of house-rents, but to a far worse nuisance—the cardomania. Ever since it has become the fashion to have squinting, ghastly photographs, instead of the true, plain honest visiting-card—ever since it has become the fashion to make collections of these said photographs—above all, ever since the fatal invention of albums ad hoc, farewell peace! Whichever way you turn, requests for your portrait are leveled at you like so many guns. All is acceptable prey; indifferent features, respectable age, obscure position—nothing comes amiss to the greedy monster, Album.”
All the Rage in America
The carte de visite arrived in America in the spring of 1860. Though Americans were preoccupied with the presidential election and other national issues, they embraced the photographic form with a fervor that rivaled their European cousins.
By April 1861, the same month Londoners chuckled about the perils of cardomania over tea and biscuits, and South Carolina troops fired the first hostile shots of the Civil War at Fort Sumter in Charleston Harbor, the carte de visite had already spread across America. On April 10, two days before the bombardment of Fort Sumter, a Washington, D.C., bookstore advertisement for a variety of photograph albums read, “The Parisian Fashion of inserting “Cartes de Visite” Portraits of one’s Friends in an Album is becoming ‘the mode’ in all the cities and towns of the United States, to meet this demand we have procured some twenty Varieties of Albums.”
The debut of the carte de visite in America and the start of the Civil War is noteworthy. The inherent strengths of the format—affordability, reproducibility and share-ability—eased the anxious concern of families that sent their sons off to war, on both sides. Long periods of separation might be made somewhat more endurable if parents were able to receive a letter containing the latest carte de visite portrait of their soldier from some far away camp. Conversely, a homesick husband might find consolation by carrying a carte de visite of his wife and children on campaign, or a boy away from home for the first time could find comfort from longing with a portrait of the girl he left behind.
Despite the popularity of paper photographs, many soldiers and citizens still preferred ambrotypes and tintypes, which continued to be produced through the war years.
An informal study of surviving soldier images of all formats suggests that enlisted men preferred ambrotypes and tintypes early in the war, while officers gravitated to the carte de visite. This may reflect a perception that cartes de visite were only for the elite, a notion supported by advertising and news reports. Late war images, which include a mix of enlisted men and officers, suggest that any such perceptions had disappeared.
The best-known Civil War soldier story that involved a soldier and a photograph is illustrative of the transition from plate to paper. Sgt. Amos Humiston of the 154th New York Infantry was killed during the first day of the Battle of Gettysburg, his identity temporarily lost in the chaos and carnage of fighting. He died clutching an ambrotype of three children. A description of the youngsters circulated in newspapers throughout the North in an attempt to identify the dead soldier. Eventually, Humiston’s wife, Philinda, responded to the query and received a carte de visite copy, which she confirmed as a portrait of her two sons and daughter. The original ambrotype and the proceeds from the sales of cartes de visite of the original image were presented to the widowed Philinda.
The carte de visite had advantages particularly useful in wartime. The front and back of the cardboard mount provided ample space for a soldier to sign his name, rank, company and regiment, and even a note. Options for soldiers to inscribe an ambrotype or tintype were limited. The two most popular methods found on surviving images include writing on the inside of a case or the back of the metal or glass plate, or tucking a note behind the back of the image plate.
There was also a minor irritant that the carte de visite resolved—an annoyance the observant Samuel F.B. Morse failed to mention in his 1839 letter: Hard plate images pictured the subject in reverse as if looking into a mirror. This was often overlooked by men and women dressed in civilian clothes. Patterned dresses, striped trousers and other bits of clothing generally appeared the same no matter how you looked at them; the most common exception being perhaps the position of a pocket watch chain. But for soldiers dressed in uniforms marked with insignias, and who wore distinctive equipment on his left and right sides, the reversal problem became obvious. Many soldiers compensated for this deficiency by holding their musket in the opposite hand, flipping belts and cartridge boxes, and even reversing the company letters and regimental numbers on their caps. The results however, were usually not convincing.
Color photography would not develop until long after the Civil War. Ambrotypists and tintypists added tints to give the impression of full color. Some portraits were delicately colored with oil-based washes. Others were treated with less care—a haphazard dash of rose on the cheeks and a thick dollop of gold-gilt that obliterated details on rank insignia, buttons, belt plates and other uniform brass. The vast majority of cartes de visite were not colored. There may have been less desire to tint the paper photographs because they were thought of in small multiples rather than uniquely crafted artisanal objects. It is also possible that the application of tints to the paper prints, which were typically sold in a dozen at a time, was not cost effective.
Motion was less of a problem in portrait photography than with landscapes and urban scenes. Most portraiture took place indoors in a controlled environment. Still, carte de visite exposure time might take 15 seconds, necessitating the use of adjustable iron braces to steady the soldier’s head. Other more subtle techniques, resting an arm on a prop column or a hand on a chair, for example, also helped steady the subject at the expense of making the sitter appear stiff and unnatural. As sitters learned how to pose for the camera, this became less of an issue.
All things considered, cardomania dominated the American photographic scene throughout the Civil War years. The popular fascination became so widespread that one of the great American men of letters, Oliver Wendell Holmes Sr., proclaimed the influence of the little carte de visite in an essay published in the July 1863 issue of Atlantic Monthly magazine. “Card-portraits,” declared Holmes, “as everybody knows, have become the social currency, the sentimental ‘Green-backs’ of civilization.”
Whitehurst’s 1861 advertisement likely increased his sales. But the carte de visite did not save his empire. He sold out in the summer of 1865, and died 10 years later.
The federal military likewise found value in photography, and employed a number of photographers in official and semi-official positions to record the war.
In a military context, photography provided the common soldier in America with a profound individualism once reserved for a select group of gentlemen officers through canvas and oils.
For the first time, the freckled face of the greenest private could be glimpsed on par with the wrinkled countenance of his seasoned colonel. The escaped slave who enlisted in the U.S. Colored infantry could be viewed next to his impossibly young white captain, perhaps side by side on adjoining pages of a photo album. The upshot was a renewed sense of identity and self-worth for which the American fighting man had taken a special pride since the unexpected triumph of Washington’s ragtag band of colonial rebels over the elite troops of the world’s reigning superpower. Now, this individualism took hold with fresh energy in a new and exciting form of artistic expression.
By the end of the war, cardomania had reached its zenith. The introduction of the 5-by-7 inch cabinet card in 1866 marked the beginning of the end for the carte de visite. By the early 1870s the cabinet card was all the rage, and the carte de visite faded into oblivion.
Today, the carte de visite appears as a blip on the timeline of photographic history wedged between the celebrated qualities of the daguerreotype and the brilliant results achieved when the paper formats matured later in the century. The bulk of surviving cartes de visite have been ravaged by time. Decades of exposure to the elements have dulled the brilliant shine of their albumen surfaces and drained their purplish eggplant hues of their resonance, obliterating fine details and leaving behind a lifeless sepia tone. Ragged and scuffed mounts prevail, their corners clipped to prevent creasing, in accordance with album manufacturers’ instructions. Then, the thin images were inserted into thick and inflexible album pages.
Meanwhile, their hard plate cousins remain almost as pristine as when first made. The permanence of the materials used to produce them, and their careful packaging with brass mats, cover glass and protective cases, have withstood the test of time.
Cartes de visite, ambrotypes and tintypes compose the earliest photographic record of the volunteer American soldier and sailor during a major war. These relics are a primary source for the study of weapons, uniforms, equipment and aspects of soldier life.
They are also a relatively new source for scholarship. For years, they were largely forgotten in attics and basements. The Civil War centennial inspired a new generation to take an active interest in blue and gray relics, and the old photos began to surface. At first, little or no monetary value was placed on them. They were given away as a bonus to the buyer of a musket or sword. Before long, sellers of Civil War antiques realized a market existed for photographs, and by the end of the 1970s a thriving community of photo collectors was active.
Perhaps the most significant legacy of the carte de visite is its impact on the democratization of photography. A cheap and reproducible form of social media, they were accessible to all. “Here there is no barrier of rank, no chancel end; the poorest owns his three inches of cardboard, and the richest can claim no more,” avowed the London Review in 1862. “When they serve as pegs on which to hang our knowledge and sentiment, our memories and associations, they may be the highest use.”
References: National Republican (Washington, D.C.), Aug. 2, 1861; Massachusetts Spy (Worcester, Massachusetts), May 29, 1839; Christian Watchman (Boston, Mass.), April 26, 1839; British Journal of Photography, Feb. 26, 1875; John Hannavy, Encyclopedia of Nineteenth-Century Photography, Vol. 1; John Ruffini, “A Contemporary Hobby.” MacMillan’s Magazine (Vol. III, No. 6, April 1861); Daily National Intelligencer (Washington, D.C.), April 10, 1861; Oliver Wendell Holmes, “Doings of the Sunbeam.” Atlantic Monthly Magazine (Vol. XII, July 1863); London Review, August 9, 1862.
Ronald S. Coddington is Editor and Publisher of MI.
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