Like many families, we have custody of old pictures that are too precious to discard but frustratingly unlabeled. The long-gone relatives, so stiffly posed in these little portraits, knew who they were and saw no reason to write names or dates on the back. They couldn't have imagined who would be looking at the pictures more than a hundred years later, wondering about the people, the occasion, even how the pictures survived.
Many of these pictures are the cardboard cartes de visite, literally calling cards or visiting cards, although that was not how they were popularly used. But in our family, one of these old pictures did become our calling card for "visiting" a family that separated in the 1890s.
Photography got its popular start in 1839 with the invention of the daguerreotype. Later came pictures in the form of ambrotypes on glass. Such early pictures were one of a kind; no negative for multiple copies existed in these processes.
Tintypes, also known as ferrotypes, were introduced in the mid-1850s, but the real popularization of photography came with the carte de visite.
Cartes de visite were so named because they were the size of calling cards of that era. The photo was pasted on cardboard measuring 2-1/2 inches by 4 inches, usually with the photographer's business information beautifully presented on the back.
Parisian photographer André Adolphe Eugène Disdéri patented this new albumen-based process in 1854 using a camera with four lenses that efficiently and cheaply allowed up to eight prints to be made from a single glass negative plate.
Suddenly nearly everyone could afford a family photo, at least for special occasions. Disdéri and his process, it is said, became wildly famous after Napoleon III stopped his march to Italy to pose in Disdéri's studio for his own portrait. The carte de visite craze was born.
Carte albums could be found in virtually every Victorian parlor, collections that included not only family members but also famous people such as actors and singers. "Card portraits, as everybody knows, have become the social currency, the 'green-backs' of civilization," Oliver Wendell Holmes wrote in 1863.
Photographers made fortunes. The biography of one British photographer reported that more than half a million eggs were being delivered to his studio each year to meet the demand for these prints! (They were made with the albumen from egg whites mixed with salt to make a shiny surface and bind the photographic chemicals.)
The carte de visite album that survived and was handed down through our family includes a built-in music box, providing dual-media parlor entertainment, perhaps presaging the living room television set. The studio props used in the pictures are fascinating glimpses into the tastes of that era: balustrades, heavy curtains, sumptuous carpets, potted palm trees, fine furniture, and columns, even simulated outdoor scenes with little bridges and painted landscape backdrops.
The carte de visite process and popularity had moved to the US by 1860, and many Civil War soldiers left behind cartes de visite for their loved ones and carried similar pictures with them to war.
Around 1862 the larger so-called cabinet cards (4-1/2-by-6-1/2-inch cardboard) appeared and also became popular. We have several of those in our family collection, too, all frustratingly unidentified.
The popularity of cartes de visite diminished after 1900, however, when Kodak began selling the hugely popular cardboard Brownie box camera for $1.
Remarkably, these delicate prints have survived for generations. And one of ours, showing our grandfather Joseph and his sister Martha in a serious, awkward sibling pose, turned out to be literally a carte de visite for my sister and me.
Years of searching for descendents of the sister left in Berlin when our grand-father emigrated finally paid off when a particular letter, one of many we had written hopefully and painstakingly in German to presumed relatives, reached our second cousin in Berlin.
She had initially ignored our letters, suspicious of who was writing to her and asking questions about the past, until we photocopied the carte de visite of Joseph and Martha, along with other pictures, and mailed them.
It turned out that the cousin had the same carte de visite, passed down from her grandmother Martha. The occasion for the picture was their confirmations, she explained to us in her first reply.
When she saw our copy of the same picture she had, she was finally convinced that we were really family.
By the second letter, she had invited us to visit Berlin and stay in her house. We were no longer strangers, but rather family to be welcomed back more than a hundred years after parting.
We eventually did visit and that occasion, documented this time with digital photos, bridged two generations of separation and showed that in some cases, at least, cartes de visite literally are calling cards.