150 years ago, in 1861, arose the Victorian phenomenon known as ‘Cartomania’ – the craze for collecting, exchanging and displaying neat, card-mounted carte de visite photographs. The carte de visite photographic print, measuring 6.5cms x 10cms, was patented in France in 1854 and had arrived in Britain by the end of the 1850s. Becoming decidedly fashionable following the August 1860 publication of John Mayall’s ‘Royal Album’ containing fourteen carte de visite portraits of members of the royal household, the popularity of the new format surged dramatically during 1861: by October of that year the carte was said to be ‘the most popular, the most deservedly popular also, and by far the most numerous class of English portraits.’
Although ‘celebrity’ cartes – images of the rich and famous – were popular collectors’ items, soon ordinary people were visiting their local photographer’s studio to pose for a carte de visite portrait of themselves. Since the resulting photographs were available in multiples, extra copies could be given to friends and family members, inspiring the first purpose-designed photograph albums. The carte de visite dominated 19th century portrait photography and was still a popular format in the early Edwardian era, only finally dying out during the First World War. Today millions of cartes de visite survive in public museum and gallery collections and in private family archives.
Much of my work as a professional dress historian, portrait specialist and ‘photo detective’ involves dating and analysing old carte de visite photographs for researchers who are tracing their family history. I write photo dating columns and photograph features for several well-known family history magazines and have a special ‘Cartomania’ article published in the December 2011 issue of Family Tree magazine. To discover more about dating cartes de visite photographs and understanding what these fascinating images represent, see my article in Family Tree magazine.