It may seem quaint to those of us who “collect” friends on Facebook or create virtual photo albums on the iPad, but roughly 155 years ago a small, card-mounted image called the carte de visite took America by storm and spurred an early form of social networking. Cartes des visite were initially family mementos, but quickly became publicity pieces and collectibles. Bitten by the bug, average citizens bought up sets of their favorite celebrities and statesmen, trading popular images and even purchasing pirated pictures from unscrupulous sources.
No wonder, then, that by 1861 there was a photographic album developed specifically for housing and viewing cartes de visite. Within a few years, these books were proudly displayed alongside the family Bible in parlors across the country. A fine example is the Confederate album featured in the National Portrait Gallery’s Civil War exhibition. It is especially rare because so few photo albums of the Confederacy survive.
The Totten family, whose Virginia ancestors included a Confederate officer, donated their family’s intimate, leatherbound album to the Portrait Gallery. The fifty cartes des visite of Confederate leaders are inserted back-to-back into specially designed slots, so that one image appears on each page. Each individual is identified in a handwritten caption. Confederate president Jefferson Davis and his wife, Varina, appear in these pages, as do spy Rose Greenhow and Generals Robert E. Lee and Thomas “Stonewall” Jackson.
But there are also many southern captains, commodores, and lieutenants, now less known, whose likenesses were clearly prized by the Tottens’ ancestors. Surprisingly, Mary Todd Lincoln, wife of the Union president, is pictured here among her foes. A Kentucky native whose own brothers fought for the Confederacy, Mrs. Lincoln was often embraced by southerners who doubted her loyalty to the North.
New technologies developed in the 1850s were responsible for the photo frenzy referred to as “cartomania.” Unlike its predecessor, the daguerreotype, which was produced on a silver-coated plate, the carte de visite was printed on albumen paper in sunlight. And the carte de visite required no protective mat, case, or glass. The paper prints were mounted to durable 4 x 2 ½-inch cards for easy handling.
More important, cartes de visite could be mass-produced. Special cameras fitted with four tube lenses enabled multiple negatives to be made at a single sitting. This revolutionized the process and sent the price plummeting, from around two dollars for a single daguerreotype to two dollars for a dozen or more cartes de visite. The Totten family might only have spent about five dollars for their Confederate photos, but the album, with its gilt-edged pages, would have cost much more.
The Portrait Gallery’s Confederate album is a stunning reminder of photography’s role in the Civil War. It was the first time Americans could easily access true likenesses of their political and military leaders and envision them as real people. Of course, the most treasured cartes des visite during the war were of loved ones. It was common for a newly enlisted soldier to have a portrait of himself in uniform made for his wife, mother, or girlfriend. For those who did not return, such portraits became moving memorials. Cartes des visite portraits were also sent by mail from kin back home to their war-weary relatives in the field. Tragically, thousands of battered envelopes bearing such images were returned to the Dead-Letter Office of the U.S. Postal Service marked “undeliverable.”
—Amy Pastan, for the National Portrait Gallery
Elizabeth Siegel, Galleries of Friendship and Fame: A History of Nineteenth-Century American Photographic Albums (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2010).
Robert Taft, Photography and the American Scene: A Social History, 1839–1889 (New York: Macmillan, 1938).
Image: Carte-de-visite album of fifty Confederate leaders | Gift of the Totten family | Conserved with a grant from the Smithsonian Women’s Committee | NPG.2012.6