In my last blog post, “Victorian Women and the Revenue Stamp,” I discussed narrowing down the time frame of a carte-de-visite (CDV) photograph that has a revenue stamp on the back to between June 30, 1864, and August 1866. The revenue stamp clue is easy to spot and was a natural place to start.
The next clues will help you decide if your CDVs were [probably] created during the Civil War years, although there will always be exceptions. By the way, my main reference for much of this information is the book Cartes de Visite in Nineteenth Century Photography, by William C. Darrah (Gettysburgh, Penn.: W. C. Darrah, 1981).
The quickest way to separate early CDVs from late CDVs is to feel the thickness of the card stock. A very thin white card, called bristol board, was used from 1860 to 1866, although some photographers were using up stock after that. Card stocks gradually increased in thickness over the years up until 1885 as new products were regularly released. So if your CDV is very bendable and the cardboard is very thin, it is likely from the early CDV era. The first card stock was plain, but borders were quickly added, such as in the image below. One line and two lines were common and appeared in red, blue, green, purple, or black.
The next clue to look at is the size of the subject’s head in the image. If you take a look at the example above, you’ll notice the woman’s head is very small in relation to the size of the entire CDV. This was because of the quality of the lenses available in the early 1860s. The rule of thumb is if the image is smaller than about 3/4″ by 3/4″, than you can date the CDV to between 1860 and 1864. Images that are between 3/4″-1 1/4″ x 1 – 1 1/2″ can be dated to between 1860 and 1867, according to William Darrah’s book. On page 194 of his book, he’s got a recapitulation that helps to narrow down dates for CDVs through the last half of the 19th century.
The last clue that will help you clearly place a CDV in the Civil War time period is the phototographer’s imprint. There are actually a variety of choices that photographers used during the 1860s, and Darrah lists them in his book. But for the sake of this blog, the simpler the imprint, the better chance there is that the image was taken during the Civil War years. Imprints could have been single lines, two or three lines; they could have indicated that they preserved negatives or made duplicates, and they could have included a vignette with an eagle, shield or Liberty.
You may have noticed that the three examples I used in this blog are all Gilletts. Mrs. E. H., or Eliza H. Gillett, of LeRoy, New York, may have been the wife of G. C. Gillett of Ann Arbor and Saline, Michigan, the brother of Lucretia A. Gillett of Saline, Michigan. Yale University Library says that Eliza was known also as Mrs. G. C. or George Cooper Gillett and was active in LeRoy from 1853 to 1866.
Three Clues Narrow the Time Frame
I have tried to give you tools in this blog post so that you can date your CDVs that you might have based on the card stock, the portrait size, and the photographer’s imprint. These three characteristics, and the presence or lack of a revenue stamp, should help you narrow down whether or not your CDV is from the Civil War era. For Civil War reenactors trying to ensure their clothing and jewelry are period correct, studying real Civil War images is very useful. Being able to tell if an image is from the correct time period can be very beneficial for your research efforts.