Collecting Victorian Carte de Visite Photographs

Where to begin?

Let’s start at the very beginning (a very good place to start).

In the early 19th Century, artists and men with scientific and technical abilities were attempting to make permanent the images that they captured on naturally light sensitive materials. The images just kept disappearing, but as each man made a little progress, others stepped in and took the process further.

Daguerreotype of Daguerre himself

Then, in the late 1830s, an artist/illusionist and theatre scene painter at the Paris Opera House, named Louis-Jacques-Mandé Daguerre (never called John Smith, are they?), invented a process that was permanent and good enough to sell. Yes, I know, it’s a long story and I have left out important stages along the way, but will get to cartes de visite before too long. 

Daguerre went about capturing a reversed image of his subject, with a primitive camera (by today’s standards), on a piece of silvered glass, coated with a light-sensitive material. This image was made permanent by the action of chemicals and the unique photograph that was created could be displayed in a specially made case. The problem was that the image was truly unique and there was no way to exactly re-produce it. Of course, you could re-photograph the photograph, but we all know that, even today, it results in some loss of fidelity. Apart from its unique qualities, the process took all day to complete and so the daguerreotype, as it became known, was very expensive. Exquisite and expensive. Too expensive for all but the wealthy and today, too expensive for me to collect.

Reproduction of photographs

At the time, many other men (including Fox-Talbot with his calotype process) were experimenting with other methods to make their photographs both permanent and reproducible. I won’t be going into these processes here, but have a large section on early photography in my book “A Victorian Society“. (Small advert “available from Amazon for £15 including postage”).

The big breakthrough came with two new processes.

First, the “wet collodian” negative was invented by Frederick Scott Archer of Manchester in 1850. This became the standard photographic process for creating negative images for the next thirty or so years. Glass sheets, coated with iodised collodion were made light sensitive in a chemical bath of silver nitrate. Once exposed to light in a camera and processed within the next few minutes, this produced a glass negative, capable of exquisite quality, from which many positive prints could be made.

Archer’s glass-negative process seemed to combine the best of the daguerreotype (its clarity) with the best of the calotype (its reproducibility).

The other big breakthrough, that same year, was the albumen print, introduced by French photographer Louis-Désiré Blanquard-Évrard (again, not John Smith). Paper was coated in a solution of egg white and salt and this solution was used to bind light sensitive chemicals to the paper. Once exposed to light through a glass negative, the albumen print positive was developed and fixed in chemical baths. I’ll stop here with the technical, as there are plenty of places to find out more on the web. Suffice it to say that…

  1. This process was popular almost to the end of the 19th Century.
  2. Photographers’ wives had a lot of egg yolks to use up.

The Carte de Visite

The next important development was the “carte de visite”. This was a type of small photograph, made on paper and glued onto card. The process was patented by Parisian photographer André Adolphe Eugène Disdéri (pronounced “did-air-ee” and not…you guessed) in 1854. Each photo was the size of a typical visiting card of the time and Disdéri designed a special camera that would expose up to eight of these photographs simultaneously or separately on a 10×8 inch glass plate. The negative was then printed onto paper and cut up into individual photos. So, the sitter could have 8 identical copies of one pose printed onto individual pieces of paper and mounted onto thin cardboard. Or, more commonly, the exposures could be of different poses, cutting down the possibilities of one or more being a dud or disliked by the sitter. What’s more, the process was relatively cheap and once the glass negative was made, any number of albumen re-prints could be sold. (In England, a typical price was 5 shillings a dozen by the 1880s)

Print from a 10×8 inch glass negative. Eight CDV pictures in 4 poses.


Photography had become a much more commercial venture. Disdéri photographed Emperor Napoleon III and his family in 1859 and now “anyone who was anyone” wanted a photograph of themselves. Suddenly, Paris had become the centre of the photographic world and French photographers, including Disdéri, began to open up studios in London, which became frequented by famous and fashionable people.

JJE Mayall self-portrait by daguerreotype

Now, along comes Oldham-born Jabez Mayall. His family had moved over the border to a village near Huddersfield in Yorkshire when he was a child, then as an adult he went to America to teach chemistry, where he became a daguerreotype photographer. The French photographers had four names each, so Jabez somehow became John Jabez Edwin Mayall when he moved back to London, England, in 1846 to set up what became a successful daguerreotype studio…but by 1860, the daguerreotype had been almost completely replaced by the carte-de-visite.

With the introduction of the carte de visite process, Mayall now spotted a new commercial opportunity for himself. In 1860, he photographed Queen Victoria and her family and sold the reproduction rights for a medium sized fortune. The royal photographs were now sold all over the country in stationers and newspaper shops as “cartes de visite”. Gradually, as Victorians became more prosperous, “having your photograph taken” became accessible to all but the poor. That’s when the number of photographers grew exponentially. That’s when family photo albums began. That’s why we can find anything upwards of 40,000 cartes de visite (CDVs) available to buy at any one time.

Collecting Cartes de Visite (CDVs)

I developed my own interest in CDVs in 2016, when I began to research and write my book on the early photographers of Oldham. The research process included accessing the Oldham Photographic Society album, which contained photographs by the founding members, from early 1868, when the album was bought, through to about the 1880s, when the Oldham PS photographers abandoned it. The album also contains images by nationally well-known photographers, which they had bought by mail order, as examples to emulate, since printed magazines and books could not reproduce photographs yet.

I was blown away with the quality of some of them. I was given permission to copy and reproduce the photographs in my book and did use some of them. However, I wanted more, of different and later dates, to include in the book a section on dating photographs! So I began what I intended to be a small collection to help illustrate my book, but which is still growing.

From my personal collection

At first I looked for photographers from Oldham (the ones who were founder members of the Oldham Photographic Society in particular), followed by CDVs from the town of my birth. I was interested that some of the Oldham photographers moved away to the seaside, where they settled and brought up families of more photographers, so I started looking at Blackpool CDVs taken by Oldham-born men in particular.

Next I looked for photographers who were famous or important at the time and whose work I admire.

Next I looked for early examples from the late 1850s and early 1860s.

Next I looked for pretty ones in good condition…pretty children, pretty dresses and so on.

I learned to be careful how much I spent and I learned to gradually limit my acquisitions to pictures that would add significantly to my collection and to not just random photos (well, most of the time!).

Tips for starting your own carte de visite collection

From my personal collection
  1. Do some research about CDVs before you begin to buy and try to decide what kind of photographs you want to collect.
  2. Find out where to buy and what the prices are likely to be. For example, you might pick up a collection for not much money at a boot sale or charity shop. They are likely to be very cheap and you could turn up something spectacular among the miscellany of images…It could be a good way to start, but you will also make a very diverse collection of pictures in various states of wear and fading and from all over the country.
  3. On-line auction sites. Ebay comes to mind of course, where prices start very low and go up to hundreds or thousands of pounds. Today I looked at prices – the least was 80p for a set of three rather faded CDVs from an Oban photographer. At the top end was a rather good study of a woman by Julia Margaret Cameron for £1,925.27 and the highest price was £2,750.38 for one CDV picture of a black slave nursing a white infant, with £47 postage on top (what???) – photographer unknown. Be careful what you bid on…again, research will help deter you from making expensive mistakes. But sometimes you’ll see a photo and just want it. Simple as that, like the one of the two girls here which cost about £5…a little more than I usually pay. Delcampe and eBid auctions have also been recommended to me but I have never tried them.
  4. Don’t buy CDVs expecting to make a fortune on re-sale. Most have a limited value. Rare CDVs, in fantastic condition, by famous photographers, of famous people, are the most expensive and collectable. The vast majority of sellers are honest, but if you are paying hundreds of pounds for a picture, consider if it could be a fake. Modestly priced photos are not likely to be faked because it would take so much time to make a good fake, selling it for a couple of pounds wouldn’t be viable.
  5. Look at the condition of the photo. The images of the CDVs on auction sites usually allow you to zoom in and you can examine the sharpness of the image and its condition. If not, ask the seller to provide a better scan of it. Avoid pictures with lots of white spots all over, foxing (age-related deterioration that causes dark spots and browning) or where the face is indistinct. General condition: if the photo has a good clear un-faded image after 150 years, it’s likely to stay a good image in your collection. Badly faded images are on their way out already and should be avoided unless they’re particularly important examples.
  6. Look at the condition of the mount too…avoid tatty mounts and any that have been damaged. Some mounts will have been trimmed down to fit an album and that affects the value too.
  7. Have a short-list of photographers whose work you like and want to collect. I like to write a short biography of the photographer and I’ve started keep those in the album, interleaved with the photo sleeves.
  8. You might like to collect by subject matter, such as children, people with bicycles, large families, soldiers, policemen, women in crinoline or bustle dresses, pictures of famous people, actresses, politicians and royalty…and so on. You could collect discreet periods, e.g. 1860s, 1870s…or particular towns.
  9. Keep your collection in archival storage, each in its own separate pocket. Enclose the albums completely in archival boxes if you can. The storage temperature should be as even as possible and below 23 degrees Celsius. In cooler temperatures, deterioration is slowed. Relative humidity should be below 65% to prevent mould but not less than 15%. Store off the ground, with good air circulation and away from heat sources.
  10. Finally, enjoy your collection.

Cabinet Photographs and Postcards

As the popularity of CDVs grew, there was also a demand for larger photographs which could be prominently displayed on furniture or in frames and these became known as cabinet cards. The photographs were mounted on thicker cardboard, 6×4 inches approximately in size. They became popular from about the 1870s until the First World War, when the unmounted photographic postcard took over, which had space for a message and address on the back and could be posted to friends and relatives.

A Victorian Society

There’s a full page of information on my book at

error: © Christine Widdall - Kirklees Cousins