Cartes de Visite: Understanding the First Social Media Craze

Long before Snapchat and Instagram, cartes de visite (“CDVs”) were the latest trend in image-sharing social media. And, at the time, they were considered just as high tech as Snapchat and Instagram are today.

Because of the popularity of cartes de visite in the 1860s, they remain a popular collector’s item today. Ford’s Theatre Society is proud to count a number of cartes de visite of Ford’s Theatre actors in its collection, two of which are featured below. Read on to learn more about cartes de visite—the first social media fad—and how they swept America during the Civil War.

The History of Cartes de Visite

Photography was still a novelty in the decades leading up to the Civil War. It had been invented in 1839 by Louis Daguerre and others, but the “daguerreotypes” that used his technique were cumbersome to produce, could only create one image and were relatively expensive.

Carte-De-Visite images of Lucy Hale, Alice Grey, Effie Germon and Fannie Brown. Ford's Theatre collection.

In 1850s, Louis-Désiré Blanquart-Evrard invented albumen printing, in which a negative photograph is printed on thin paper coated with egg whites (albumen) and mounted on thick cardstock. This technique resulted in a crisp, clear image. It was also fast, cheap and easily mass-produced, allowing all segments of society access to photography.

Finally, in 1854 André-Adolphe-Eugène Disdéri solved the last piece of the puzzle: he printed multiple photographs on a single sheet of albumen paper, mounted those on cardstock, and then cut them to a standard 2 ½-by-4 inch size. This allowed photographers to print hundreds of photographs a day—and to do so at a low price while still preserving quality.

By 1862, Oliver Wendell Holmes wrote in Soundings from the Atlantic that cartes de visite “as everybody knows, have become the social currency, the sentimental ‘Green-backs’ of civilization, within a very recent period.”

Uses of Cartes de Visite during the Civil War

CDVs were used for a variety of purposes throughout the Civil War. As Holmes suggested, they were most frequently exchanged by family and friends as a means of cementing social bonds and remembering absent loved ones. It was common for families to arrange a portrait of fathers or sons—usually proudly wearing crisp new uniforms—before the soldiers left for battle. These photos of a son before he left for war are some of the most common CDVs found today.

They also naturally filled a romantic niche, as young men and women kept cartes of their intended—or multiple objects of their affection. John Wilkes Booth, an infamous ladies’ man, died with no less than five carte de visite portraits of various women in his pocket. One was his fiancée, Lucy Hale.

Cartes de visite also contributed to the rise of celebrity culture in America. It became common to collect not only one’s friends and family but also portraits of famous men and women. John Wilkes Booth was a frequent star in photo albums, if not always as popular as he would have liked on stage. Other actors and actresses, including Laura Keene and E. A. Sothern, the stars of Our American Cousin, also mass-produced their cartes de visite to distribute to fans.

John Wilkes Booth. Ford's Theatre collection.

A carte de visite of Laura Keene, star and manager of Our American Cousin, which was playing at Ford’s Theatre on the night Lincoln was assassinated. In the collection of Ford’s Theatre Society. A carte de visite of E A Sothern, comic star of Our American Cousin, which was playing at Ford’s Theatre on the night Lincoln was assassinated. In the collection of Ford’s Theatre Society.

President Lincoln and Cartes de Visite

Lincoln, who was well aware of the power of image and sat for more than 40 portraits throughout his life, also harnessed the “cartomania” trend. Thousands of portraits of Lincoln were bought and sold throughout his presidency; some painted him as the consummate everyman, some as a statesman, and some, endearingly, as simply a father.

Lincoln the Everyman. Library of Congress. Lincoln the Statesman. Library of Congress. Lincoln the Father, with his youngest son, Tad. Library of Congress.

These CDVs of Lincoln often became part of personal albums, as if Lincoln were a part of the family. The Shapell Manuscript Foundation holds an example autographed by the president himself. This particular portrait was created by Mathew Brady in 1864 and was one of Lincoln’s last.

Brady also took one of the first CDVs of Lincoln, an 1860 portrait taken just before the Cooper Union address that bolstered Lincoln’s standing in the Republican party. Lincoln is supposed to have said later that “Brady and the Cooper Institute made me president.”

Cementing their similarity to modern social media platforms, cartes de visite were very short-lived, quickly giving way to other social trends that built on the technology CDVs used. Their popularity lasted for only about a decade—in the 1870s they began to give way to larger format cabinet cards—but their influence is still felt today, on auction blocks around the world.

Heather Hoagland is former Exhibitions and Collections Manager for Ford’s Theatre Society. She holds an M.A. in Museum Studies from The George Washington University. Follow her on Twitter @HLHoagland.