In the 1860s photography had been in existence for several decades, but was an expensive and laborious undertaking with large glass plate negatives measuring 8 x 10 inches (20.4 x 25.4 cm). When the Parisian André Disdéri invented a process allowing eight prints to be made from a single glass plate the process became more easily affordable.
Tiny photographic prints of 3 ¼ x 2 ¼ inches (8.3 x 5.7 cm) were pasted onto mounts of around 4 x 2 ½ inches (10.2 x 6.4 cm). Information on the photographic studios was printed on the reverse of the mount. These early simple trade plates became more ornate over the years. As photography was a recent development links with painting were emphasised by photographers, who presented themselves as “Photographic Artists”.
Patented by Disdéri and therefore created in standard sizes, cartes-de-visite were named after the calling cards which were popular with the middle and upper classes during the previous decade. The cartes, however, crossed wider social boundaries, enabling ordinary people to have their portraits taken and to send these to their families and friends.
A collecting craze for cartes-de-visite swept across Europe and the rest of the world in the 1860s, sparked off by a report that Napoleon III had halted the French Army troops at the start of a march to Italy in order to pose for a carte-de-visite portrait in his uniform. Cartes were collected in their millions by all social classes from working people to Queen Victoria, whose collection ran to over one hundred albums, and the craze was known as “Cartomania”.
Photographic studios sprang up to meet this demand and found it a lucrative business, especially during the early years of the 1860s. From being fashionable in 1861 it rapidly became the most popular form of photography and at its peak the craze allowed photographers to schedule between forty and fifty sittings per day, with demand rising during summer. However, within a few years demand began to drop from the dizzy heights of the early 1860s. This led to a reduction in prices as the many studios competed with each other and looked for new photographic novelties to attract customers, including the larger sized cabinet portraits. Nevertheless cartes-de-visite continued to be produced and sold in large numbers until the 1890s, and even into the early years of the twentieth century.
The subjects of cartes-de-visite were not limited to portraits of private individuals, but included the first celebrity photographs which could be purchased in print shops, stationers, bookshops or from the photographers themselves. These images highlight the famous personalities of the day: from Queen Victoria and the royal family to leading writers such as Charles Dickens and Oscar Wilde, public personalities, actors and people in the news. Celebrities visiting a town would be photographed by enterprising local photographers and the resulting cartes offered for sale to the public. A further sideline was the production of cartes-de-visites depicting local views, important buildings, churches and monuments.
Whilst only a tiny proportion of the huge output of cartes-de-visite survives, many an album or box of old family photographs will contain some cartes, helping to bring to life the reminiscences of an older generation and the names on a family tree.