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copyright Sarah Fishburn

The French term carte-de-visite literally  means a “calling card”.  It came to describe a photographic process which originated in France in the mid-19th century  and was used throughout Europe.   Also referred to as CDVs, 300 to 400 million of these photographic “calling cards” were produced in England each year between 1861 and 1867.  The technique crossed the ocean to the United States in 1859, prior to the outbreak of our Civil War.

Wes Cowan, of Wesley Cowan's Historic Americana Auctions in Terrace Park, Ohio states, "There were hundreds of thousands of soldiers going off to war who wanted their picture taken. The technique was a phenomenal success."

Millions were sold in the United States when the process reached its greatest popularity in the 1870s and 1880s. The process, which flourished from the 1860s until the early 1900’s, was the reason for the demise of the ambrotype.
The process produced paper prints which were far less fragile than the glass plates produced by ambrotypes. Usually, multiple lenses were also used in making CDVs.  A camera would have four or eight lenses to produce multiple images with a single exposure of the camera.

CDVs are actually similar to the school photos that are taken today. As with school photos, multiple CDV portraits were printed at once and could be sent to friends, family, or lovers!  Further distinguishing it from the ambrotype or the daguerreotype, the CDV image was also recorded on a negative, which could be used again and again to reproduce the image.  On the backs of many CDVs you will see an artistic advertisement for the photographer or studio, along with words such as “Negatives Preserved” and 
“Duplicates at Reduced Prices”!

Eventually cartes-de-visite, which typically were mounted on 2 1/2 x 4 inch “card stock” started to be replaced by bigger prints known as cabinet cards. This name referred to their subsequent display in curio cabinets. Cabinet cards were also produced as multiple images but the final image was even larger than the 4 x 6 inch images that are standard today. Larger prints were considered better, and cabinet cards finally replaced CDVs in the early 1900’s.

I credit my own introduction to altered CDVs & cabinet cards to an incredibly talented artist, Jen Osborn!