How to Identify Antique Carte De Visite Photos: CDV Collecting

February 22, 2024

Introduction to Carte De Visite Photography

From its origins in the late 1850s to its widespread popularity around 1910, the carte de visite offers a unique glimpse into the past like no other medium. Join us as we uncover the stories, innovations, and cultural significance behind these small yet powerful photographic prints.

From its inception, the carte de visite revolutionized portrait photography, democratizing access to personal portraits for people from all walks of life. Pioneered by French photographer André Adolphe Eugène Disdéri, this ingenious format transformed the way people captured and shared their images, turning photographs into pocket-sized mementos and tokens of friendship.

Table of Contents

Carte De Visite History
Exploring the CVDs Cultural Impact
Tips for Dating and Identifying CDVs
Values of Antique CDVs
Common Carte De Visite Sizes
Dating CDVs Using Civil War Era Tax Stamps
Buy or Consign Antique CDVs at Auction

Cartes de Visite: A Quick Overview of the CDV

The term “carte de visite” translates to “visiting card” in French. They were essentially small cards with an affixed photograph, a technique pioneered by French photographer André Adolphe Eugène Disdéri. These cards, about 2.5 by 4 inches in size, democratized portrait photography by making it affordable and portable for many.

People didn’t just keep these photos for identification; they exchanged them as tokens of friendship and memory. This cultural practice turned carte de visite photography into something more significant than just snapshots; they became windows into the lives of people from the past.

As we explore the world of carte de visite photography, we uncover not just images but stories—stories of love, loss, and resilience—etched onto these tiny cards. Join us on this journey through time as we unravel the history and significance of cartes de visite photos.

Carte De Visite History

The invention of the carte de visite revolutionized photography by making it accessible to a wider audience. 

André Adolphe Eugène Disdéri’s innovation of mounting small photographs on cardstock not only made them durable but also turned them into collectibles. This accessibility meant that people from various social classes could afford to have their portraits taken and exchanged.

Selection of 1860s-1870s cartes de visite. Ulysses S. Grant, Louisa May Alcott, Charles Dickens, and an American Civil War soldier posing with his rifle.

The Invention of the CDV Process

André Adolphe Eugène Disdéri, a French photographer born in 1819, played a pivotal role in the development and popularization of the carte de visite (CDV). 

Disdéri began his career as a daguerreotypist, mastering the process of creating images on polished silver plates. However, it was his innovative spirit and entrepreneurial vision that propelled him to revolutionize the world of photography.

Disdéri’s breakthrough came in 1854 when he patented the carte de visite photographic process. Inspired by the emerging demand for affordable and portable photographic portraits, Disdéri devised a method to capture multiple images on a single glass plate negative. 

The CDV process allowed for efficient mass production of small photographic prints, each measuring around 2.5 by 4 inches.

The genius of Disdéri’s invention lay in its simplicity and practicality. By arranging multiple exposures on a single glass plate negative, he could capture several portraits in quick succession, significantly reducing the time and cost associated with traditional portrait photography. Moreover, the standardized size and format of the carte de visite made it convenient for distribution and exchange, further fueling its popularity among the masses.

Disdéri’s studio in Paris became a hub of photographic innovation and creativity, attracting clients from all walks of life, including royalty, celebrities, and ordinary citizens. His mastery of the carte de visite process earned him widespread acclaim and financial success, solidifying his reputation as one of the leading photographers of his time.

The Carte De Visite Phenomenon: Exploring its Cultural Impact

During the heyday of carte de visite photography, these small portraits weren’t just pictures—they were cultural artifacts that captured the essence of an era. Let’s delve into the societal impact and fascination surrounding the carte de visite craze.

Circa 1860s-1870s CDV portraits of some famous 19th century figures. Abraham Lincoln, Queen Victoria, Sarah Bernhardt, and Frederick Douglass.

Beyond the Image: A Cultural Phenomenon

By the early 1860s, CDVs had become synonymous with social status and refinement. Affluent individuals, including aristocrats, politicians, and artists, commissioned carte de visite portraits to disperse among friends, colleagues, and admirers. Notable figures such as Queen Victoria and Napoleon III embraced the trend, further fueling the CDV craze and elevating it to a symbol of cultural sophistication.

The carte de visite quickly became a social currency. In an era before social media, these tiny photographs served as personal connections, allowing people from all walks of life to share moments of their lives with others. The practice of exchanging CDVs was not only a means of staying connected but also a way of establishing social bonds and networks.

Understanding Carte De Visite Photography: What You Need to Know

As you delve deeper into the world of carte de visite photography, it’s essential to grasp the nuances that make each CDV unique. Here’s what you need to know:

A Variety of Styles

Carte de visite photos encompass a diverse range of artistic styles, reflecting the aesthetic preferences of both photographers and their subjects. From formal studio portraits to candid snapshots, CDVs capture a spectrum of poses, backdrops, and compositions. By exploring these various styles, you can gain insights into the prevailing tastes and trends of the era.

Tips for Dating and Identifying Carte De Visite Photos

Dating and identifying carte de visite photos can be a fun challenge for history buffs and collectors. To identify a CDV, it’s essential to understand the telltale signs that distinguish them from other types of antique photography from this period. 

Here’s how to spot a carte de visite:

  • Pay attention to the fashion and hairstyles depicted in the photograph, as these can provide valuable clues about the time period.
  • Examine the studio props, backdrops, and accessories for hints about the photographer’s style and the cultural context in which the photo was taken.
  • Look for any handwritten inscriptions, photographer’s marks, or tax stamps on the back of the card, as these can offer valuable information for dating and identifying CDVs.
Several c1870s-1880s examples of CDV images of performers related to P.T. Barnum. Tom Thumb, Admiral Dot, Commodore Nutt and Phebe J. Dunn, “the fat lady”.

Common Carte De Visite Sizes

Standard Size

Typically measuring around 2.5 by 4 inches, similar to a business card, the most common CDV photographs were mounted on slightly larger cardstock, often with decorative borders. CDVs of this size were mass-produced and widely distributed, making them accessible to people from all walks of life.

Variations

Despite the prevalence of the standard size, variations in CDV dimensions can be found. Some CDVs may be slightly larger or smaller than the typical 2.5 by 4 inches, reflecting differences in printing techniques, regional preferences, or individual photographer practices. Additionally, square CDVs and oval-shaped CDVs are not uncommon, adding to the diversity of sizes within the format.

Miniature CDVs

In addition to standard-sized CDVs, miniature versions were also produced. These smaller CDVs, often measuring around 1.5 by 2.5 inches or smaller, were intended for use as calling cards or keepsakes. 

While these tiny versions are less common than their standard-sized counterparts, miniature CDVs offer a charming glimpse into the Victorian practice of exchanging small photographic portraits as tokens of friendship and remembrance.

Dating CDVs Using Civil War Era Tax Stamps

During the American Civil War, the United States government imposed a tax on photographs, including cartes de visite. As a result, many CDVs from this period bear revenue stamps on their backs, providing valuable historical context and aiding in their identification and dating.

Pro Tip: If there’s a stamp on the back of a carte de visite photo, you can positively date the photo to 1864-1866.

Note that tax stamps can be found on various types of antique photographs, including Carte-de-Visite, Albumen Prints, and other hard image formats like tintypes. However, they are most frequently seen on Carte-de-Visite images because CDVs were the most popular photographic format of the day. You’ll see them on CDV photographs during the years 1864 and 1866.

Revenue stamps affixed to the back of carte de visite photographs vary in size, color, design, and imagery, depending on the issuing authority and time period. Tax stamps came in a variety of colors, including black, red, blue, green, and orange. The coloration often corresponded to the denomination of the tax paid, with higher denominations sometimes featuring more elaborate or vibrant colors.

There are also often postal cancellations on the stamps which can sometimes be dated. See Military Images Magazine’s piece on Pre-Imposition Tax Stamps for images of these different variations.

CDVs with Civil War Tax Stamps
Examples of 1860s Civil War era tax stamps in various colored denominations on the backs of American CDVs

Table to Identify CDV Date Based on Tax Stamps

Listed below are the tax rates applied to printed images during part of the 1860s. Note the variations in the stamp price based upon the value of the CDV photograph at the time:

Stamp ColorValueYearPhotograph Price Range
Green3 cents1864-1866$0.25 – $0.50
Orange or Blue2 cents1864-1866Less than $0.25
Red1 centMarch 1865 – August 1866Less than $0.10
Red5 cents1864-1866$0.51 – $1.00

Values of Antique Cartes De Visite

Understanding the value and collectibility of carte de visite (CDV) photographs involves exploring a several factors, ranging from rarity and condition to historical significance and subject matter. Here’s what you need to know:

Factors Influencing Value

Rarity: 

CDVs featuring rare subjects, unusual formats, or limited production runs are often more valuable to collectors. Images of notable historical figures, rare occupations, or obscure locations can command higher prices due to their scarcity.

Condition: 

As with all collectibles, the condition of a CDV significantly impacts its value. Well-preserved photographs with minimal fading, discoloration, or damage are generally more sought after than those showing signs of wear or deterioration.

Historical Significance: 

CDVs associated with significant historical events, cultural movements, or famous individuals hold intrinsic value for collectors. Photographs documenting pivotal moments in history or capturing iconic figures can fetch premium auction prices due to their historical significance.

Examples of circa 1860s-1870s carte de visite portrait subjects from all walks of life.

Conclusion: Buy or Consign Antique CDVs at Auction

In wrapping up our exploration of antique cartes de visite (CDV) photography, we’ve uncovered a rich tapestry of history and nostalgia. 

At Britannic Auctions, we serve as a bridge between collectors and these treasured images, offering online auctions where enthusiasts can acquire and appreciate these pieces. 

If you’re considering parting with your own collection of antique CDVs or albums, we invite you to reach out to us for a complimentary appraisal. Explore our historic photography page for more information.

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