Cartes-de-visite: The Original Trading Cards

The reverse sides of some Cartes-de-visites

The Bridge of Dead Things mentions two types of Victorian photograph that were common from the late 1850’s onwards: the full-sized portrait which Mr George takes of Lizzie Blaylock when she visits Maull and Polyblank, and the much smaller “carte-de-visite” (or visiting-card format) like those that The Great Aladdin and Padmini, Little Indian Princess used as publicity shots.

Carte-de-visite of a Young Man - photo by Alexander Watt, Dundee (1870's)

Though these two formats differed in size, they both started life the same way—as 8x10 inch glass-plate negatives. These heavy, fragile negatives may have been difficult to store, but their one great advantage was that they made printing extremely easy: you only had to pop one on top of a sheet of sensitized paper and expose it to light; the weight of the glass kept the paper perfectly flat. This is what was called “contact printing”; Victorian photographers didn’t make enlargements.

It’s the cameras that were used that made them different. Full-sized portraits employed a standard plate camera which had only one lens. The reverse side of a Maull & Polyblank Cartes-de-visite card Cartes-de-visite were made with a special plate camera that had eight separate lenses, each of which could be uncovered singly to give the sitter eight different poses, or uncovered collectively to give eight practically identical versions of a single pose. Once printed, the photos were cut up using a guillotine and then pasted on to sturdy backing-cards. Hey presto! Eight portraits for the price of one.

Cartes-de-visite became extremely popular in the 1860’s. People traded them as visiting cards, sent them to friends and loved ones, or (as in the case of The Great Aladdin) used them to publicize themselves. Cartes-de-visite of eminent public figures were often found on sale at stationers and bookshops in the exactly same way that postcards are today. Not surprisingly, the all-time best-seller was an exclusive portrait of Queen Victoria by John Jabez Edwin Mayall.

Take a moment to study the cartes-de-visite on this page. In some you’ll see painted backdrops, similar to those that Tyler and Frederick had to grapple with when Mr George took Lizzie’s photo. One of the six portraits here provided the inspiration for a character in my novel. I wonder if you can guess which one, and whom it inspired?

Which portrait inspired which character? Click to see if you were right…
Find out more about the carte-de-visite format at Wikipedia