Digital Commonwealth

Carte de Visite Collection

Boston Public Library

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The carte de visite, also known as a CDV, was a photographic format first produced in the 1850s, which became wildly popular in the 1860s. It consisted of a small photographic print (typically an albumen print) mounted on card stock measuring approximately 2 1/2 x 4 1/4 inches. The cards were often elaborately stamped with the name of the photographer or the studio on the back.

Although there were various claims to the invention of the carte de visite, it is widely accepted that French photographer A. A. Disdéri, who patented a process in 1854 for printing up to eight carte de visite images at a time onto a sheet from a single negative, played the most prominent role in the invention and the popularization of the CDV format.

The modest and uniform size of the carte de visite made it relatively cheap to produce and helped to popularize photography in the late 19th century. Along with the stereograph, another format developed in the 19th century, the CDV made photography ubiquitous in all corners of the globe. Primarily used for portraiture, even people of modest means could afford to sit for a carte de visite portrait that could be shared with family and friends and bound into albums as keepsakes.

The carte de visite can be partially credited with the creation of the modern idea of celebrity, as studios often sold tens of thousands of portraits of prominent people--from statesmen and writers to actors and actresses. In the United States, the carte de visite became popular during the Civil War era and many soldiers would commemorate their service and sacrifice with a carte de visite portrait.

The carte de visite remained popular into the 1870s before being supplanted by the larger cabinet card format; but despite its small size and relatively brief reign of popularity, the carte de visite played a major role in the history of photography.