Andre Adolphe-Eugene Disderi

"Cartomania" and Sitting for a Carte-de-Visite Portrait

2008_038_59DS1Woman and Man Wearing Fraternal Regalia, 1860-1863. Henry R. Cornell (1836-1906). Ligonier, Indiana. Gift in Memory of Jacques Noel Jacobsen, 2008.038.59.

The Scottish Rite Masonic Museum & Library holds over two hundred cartes-de-visite, or small souvenir photographs mounted on stiff card backings, in its collections. Though diminutive in size (approximately 2-1/2 by 4 inches), these cards were immense in popularity in the US and Europe during the mid-1800s, as they offered a much more affordable and convenient way to have one’s likeness reproduced than had been previously available. Patented in 1854 by French photographer André Adolphe-Eugène Disdéri (1819-1889), cartes-de-visite soon came to dominate the photography market, with “cartomania” reaching its apex around 1862. More like baseball cards than calling or visiting cards, cartes-de-visite were traded among friends and acquaintances, who collected them and put them into specially made albums. Stationery shops sold cards depicting celebrities and well-known figures, as well.

Independent Order of Odd Fellows Member, 1860-1869. Gift in Memory of Jacques Noel Jacobsen, 2008.038.36.

The experience of having one's photograph taken for a carte-de-visite was detailed with humor and wit by none other than Charles Dickens (1812-1870) in an 1862 issue of the weekly literary magazine he founded, All the Year Round. For all the delights of these cards, Dickens noted, sitting for one was "not a pleasant performance to go through." After entering the "dismal house" where the typical studio was located, the subject was shown into a cramped, darkened space strewn with well-worn props; "dazzled and oppressed by the glare of light above his head" the sitter in his "environment of pillar and curtain" had to hold his pose for the "utterly exhausting" thirty seconds it took to capture the likeness. "Terrific are the temptations of those thirty seconds," Dickens observed, when the sitter had to keep perfectly still and hold a steady gaze on some doorknob or keyhole. His account goes a long way in explaining the serious or stiff expressions on many subjects' faces.

Cartes-de-visite were more than just a cultural craze, however. These small portraits offered a new medium for documenting and preserving one’s identity and allegiances. They were very popular with soldiers during the Civil War. As shown in the Scottish Rite Masonic Museum & Library’s collection (a sampling of which can be seen here), Freemasons and members of other fraternal organizations used them to convey information about their affiliations and achievements.

Royal Arch Mason Wearing Sash and Apron, 1860-1863. Culber Brothers, Hodges. White River Junction, Vermont. Gift in Memory of Jacques Noel Jacobsen, 2008.038.52.

Eventually, the carte-de-visite was eclipsed in the realm of popular portraiture by the cabinet card, which was larger and therefore more eye-catching to display. The Scottish Rite Masonic Museum & Library will feature examples of cartes-de-visite, cabinet cards, and many other types of portraits in its upcoming exhibition, "What's in a Portrait?" To keep in touch while the Museum & Library is closed due to the stay-at-home advisory in Massachusetts, please join us on Facebook and check out our online exhibitions and online collections. And, as always, we welcome your comments below.



Harding, Colin. "How to Spot a Carte de Visite (Late 1850s-c.1910)." Science + Media Museum blog, 27 June 2013. Accessed on April 8, 2020 at

Dickens, Charles. "The Carte de Visite." All the Year Round. Vol. VII, April 26, 1862. Accessed on April 8, 2020 at

"Cabinet Card." City Gallery, copyright 1995-2005. Accessed on April 8, 2020 at

Volpe, Andrea L. "The Cartes de Visite Craze." The New York Times. August 6, 2013. Accessed on April 8, 2020 at

The Carte-de-Visite and Society: Innovation, Education and Nationalism

2003_010_113DS1As an aspiring curator, I started working at the National Heritage Museum as an intern this past fall. The internship allows me to work directly with the collection by scanning and linking photographs to the museum’s database in order to make these objects accessible online. Recently, I came across a collection of cartes-de-visite depicting portraits of famous individuals including: George Frederic Handel (1685-1759), Martin Luther (1483-1546), Alexandre Dumas (1802-1870), Dante (1265-1321) (see below), Rembrandt (1606-1669), and Christopher Columbus (1451-1506) (at left). All except for Dumas had died before the invention of the carte-de-visite. Questions arose in my mind. How did these carte-de-visite portraits differ from ones of everyday people of the late 1800s? I thought this over for a few moments and asked myself another question. Did these cartes-de-visite function as a discussion starter? Perhaps discussions about these images took place at social gatherings?

Carte-de-visite is French for visiting card. The carte-de-visite (or CDV) was a photographic marvel of its age during the late 1800s. The card was small in size, about 2 ½ x 4 inches, and showed an image on albumen paper. Although the details continue to be debated, it is widely believed that Andre Adolphe-Eugène Disdèri (1819-1889) invented the carte-de-visite in 1854, since he introduced the name, format and method for producing the images. Disdèri's process produced up to eight different poses with a single lens, allowing for production on a single wet glass plate. The photographs were produced on a single sheet of albumen paper, which would be cut and adhered to a card. In 1862 and 1865 the process was enhanced by the addition of lenses to the camera, which increased exposures and decreased the size of the photo. Because multiple exposures were produced on a single plate, this process aided mass production and ultimately made the carte-de-visite more affordable.2003_010_120DS1

Disdèri’s new process became extremely popular with nobility after he photographed Napoleon III in 1859. The popularity and affordability of the carte-de-visite allowed it to spread to the middle class; soon scenes of important sites, art work, and images of historical figures were easily carried in one’s pocket or purse via the carte-de-visite. This led me back to my initial questions. Were they merely the trading cards of the late 1800s? Could there be something more to these tiny art works? The carte-de-visite arrived at a time of great social reform, which was characterized by the spread of women’s rights, the idea of universal education and the fight for more humane working conditions. According to historian William C. Darrah, photographers wanted to get these once unobtainable objects into the public’s hands in order to educate the masses. They also hoped to instill a form of nationalistic pride in their country. I think that if education played a factor, the carte-de-visite must have been discussed as a form of intellectual enlightenment at social gatherings. What do you think?  Leave us a comment below!


William C. Darrah, Cartes de Visite: In Nineteenth Century Photography, Gettysburg, PA: W.C. Darrah Publishers, 1981.

William Crawford, Keepers of the Light: A History and Working Guide to Early Photographic Processes, Dobbs Ferry, NY: Morgan and Morgan, 1979.

George Gilbert, Photography: The Early Years: A Historical Guide for Collectors, New York, NY: Harper & Row Publishers, 1980.

Top: Christopher Columbus (1451-1506), 1850-1900, German, National Heritage Museum collection, gift of Patricia MacMillan, 2003.010.113.

Bottom: Dante Alighieri, (1265-1321), 1850-1900, German, National Heritage Museum collection, gift of Patricia MacMillan, 2003.010.120.