Carte de Visite photographs were wildly popular and made for decades in countries around the world. The format was an international standard; for the first time, relatives and friends could exchange portraits, knowing they would find a place in the recipient’s family album–whether that album was located in Brooklyn, Berlin or Brazil.
In addition, unlike earlier photographs made with such processes as the daguerreotype and ambrotype, cartes de visite could be sent through the mail without the need for a bulky case and fragile cover-glass. Their small size also made them relatively inexpensive, and they became so widespread that by 1863 Dr. Oliver Wendell Holmes would write, “Card portraits, as everybody knows, have become the social currency, the ‘green-backs’ of civilization.”
The predecessors of cartes de visite were calling cards. During the 1850s, it was the custom to present one’s calling card at the time of a social visit. These cards were smaller than today’s business cards, frequently consisting of a name engraved and printed on glossy stock; in later years, designs became more elaborate. Families would often provide decorative baskets or trays to receive calling cards from visitors. During the 1850s, there were sporadic reports of photographers in the U.S. or Europe preparing photographic calling cards, in which the portrait replaces the engraved name. The example shown here is a rare survivor: a salt print 1-7/8 inches tall on glossy card stock, 2″ x 3-1/4″. Other early salt print calling cards vary in size.
During the 1860s the craze for these cards became immense.
An article in the Photographic Journal, reports:
“The public are little aware of the sale of the cartes de visite of celebrated persons. As might be expected, the chief demand is for members of the Royal Fanily….
No greater tribute to the memory of His late Royal Highness the Prince Consort would have been paid than the fact that within one week of his decease no less than 70,000 of his cartes de visite were ordered…
Our great thoroughfares are filled with photographers; there are not less than thirty-five in Regent Street alone.”