Monday, March 19, 2012

Portable Portraits

QUESTION: I’ve noticed photographic portrait cards of Civil War soldiers at flea markets and antique shows. Are these good to collect or do people buy them just to add ambiance to their antique decorating?

ANSWER: The portrait cards you’ve been seeing at flea markets and antique shows, known as  carte de visites, are, indeed, highly collectible, especially if they’re photographs of someone special or famous.

Parisian photographer, André Adolphe Eugène Disderi, patented the first carte de visites, literally meaning “visiting cards,” in 1854. Each card, onto which the photographer pasted a small albumen print,  measured 2-1/2 x 4 inches. They became all the rage for several decades during and after the Civil War, both here and abroad. However,  Disderi's format didn’t become widely used until nearly five years after he patented it.

But once his format caught on, it became an international standard. For the first time, people could exchange portraits, which they could then place into matching slots in specially made carte de visite photo albums. It didn’t matter where the recipient lived since they could purchase these albums everywhere. Another advantage to carte de visites was that people could mail them to each other. Usually each print came with a special mailing envelope, making it easy for the sender to just address it and pop it into the mail. Earlier daguerreotype and ambrotype photographs, both done on glass plates, required the sender to package them in bulky boxes with sufficient packing to prevent breakage during shipment. And because of their small size, carte de visites were also somewhat inexpensive. 

Before the advent of carte de visites, people exchanged elaborate calling cards with their names engraved in decorative fonts. During the decade before the Civil War, it was the custom for a person to present his or her calling card whenever they visited someone. Life was very formal at the time, and no one received anyone they didn’t know without a calling card. Most people had a small basket or box in their parlor in which visitors could place their cards. A few photographers created and sold special photographic calling cards, but these weren’t standardized.

Using Disderi's method, a photographer could take eight negatives on a single 8 x 10-inch glass plate using a sliding plate holder and a camera with four lenses. That allowed him to make eight copies of the person’s portrait each time he printed the negative. This reduced production costs and allowed photographers to sell carte de visites at a reasonable price.

People were slow to purchase these new photo cards. However, legend says that after Disdéri published Emperor Napoleon III's photos in this format, the cartes gained widespread popularity.

Historians believe C. D. Fredericks introduced the carte de visite to the U.S. in New York late in the summer of 1859.  After carte de visites of Abraham Lincoln went on sale, they caught on like wildfire as soldiers and their families posed for them before war or death separated them. Carte de visites of famous people, like Ulysses S. Grant, became an instant hit, as people began collecting celebrity portraits of the time.

Civil War photographs are extremely collectible and have crossover appeal to collectors of both military and early photographs. From 1861 to 1865, the most method of portraiture was the tin-type and the carte de visite.

John L. Gihon of Chestnut St. in Philadelphia, was a portrait photographer who captured images of soldiers and prisoners at Fort Delaware off the shore of Delaware City, Delaware. His carte de visites eventually led to the production of early baseball cards for the Philadelphia Athletics in the 1870s. He died of an illness at only 39. Gihon charged his customers $2.50 for a sitting and six cards.

These little portraits were very important to Civil War soldiers. Since those, especially the Confederate prisoners, at Fort Delaware had to make do with what they had, they, usually officers, often borrowed pieces of uniforms, especially hats, and props, including swords, belts, sashes, from others confined with them so that they would appear as finely dressed as possible.

Prices of collectible carte de visites vary on condition, pose and subject. A carte de visite of surgeon Robert Hubbard, 17th Connecticut Infantry Volunteers, sold at auction for $374. Hubbard enlisted as surgeon of the regiment in August 1862 and became the acting medical director during the Battle of Gettysburg. He resigned in Dec. 1863.

A carte-de-visite of Dr. Mary Walker, taken by noted London photographer Elliott & Fry sold at auction for $1,380. She graduated from Syracuse Medical College in 1855 and was an author and early feminist who gained distinction during the Civil War as a humanitarian, surgeon, and spy. Congress awarded her  the Congressional Medal of Honor in January 1866 on the personal recommendation of General Sherman. She refused to part with it when Congress revoked it for “unusual circumstance” in 1917. Dr. Walker died in 1919, but it wasn’t until 1977 when President Carter officially reinstated the award.

Collectors can find a variety of carte de visites both at flea markets and antique shows and in some antique shops and online. Prices vary from a few dollars to several thousand. They’re great items to collect, especially if a collector can find the special albums to hold them, often sold with their carte de visites removed.

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