What a Card!

Chances are if you have an old box of family photos there are a few cards de visite and/or cabinet cards in there.   These paper prints started to appear in the U. S. right around the beginning of the Civil war and quickly became popular, pushing aside the Dagguerotype.

Cards de visite were small and meant to be used as calling cards and exchanged with friends.  They were the equivalent of our modern day school-picture wallets.

Old Photo-Familly Group-Cabinet card

Shortly after the Civil War larger sized prints became popular, the most common being the cabinet card, so named because the stiff backing and larger size (4 ½ x 6 ½) made it possible to display the photographs in a cabinet.

These were first used in the horizontal or landscape mode and featured family groups and were later adapted for portraits.   The cabinet card passed out of fashion in the early days of the 1900s as personal cameras became more readily available and candid photographs were favored.


Old Photo-Familly Group-Cabinet card_2

Judging by the clothing (more on this in subsequent posts) and the embossing on the cabinet card’s backing this photograph was probably produced in 1895-1905, toward the end of the cabinet card era.

Most early cabinet cards were albumen prints made with egg white and they will display a sepia tone or a greenish cast.   True black and white cabinet cards were produced using other photographic methods. These are likely to have been produced toward the end of the century.

Some VERY general guidelines for dating cabinet cards:

Characteristics of the card-stock backing:

  • 1866-1890-Likely to be plain cut
  • 1890-1900-Rounded corners or beveled edges
  • 1885-1900s-Scalloped edges

The Borders:

  • 1866-1900-There may be none
  • 1866-1880-single or double line
  • 1870-1880s-Thick gilt border line
  • 1895-1900s-Embossed patterns
  • 1886-onward-Graphic ornamentation lines, perhaps separating the photographer’s name/locating from the image

The back side:

First of all always check the back carefully for anything that might be written there, perhaps in pencil, or faded ink.  Use a jeweler’s loupe to check as your naked eye may miss it.

Generally speaking, if the backside contains an advertisement for the photographic studio, the larger and more ornate it is, the later it was produced.  Up until about 1890s this ad would only have taken up about half the card.  Thereafter it might have covered the entire back.

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