6th January 1868. Cardomania.

The 19th century had its celebrities- famous novelists, music-hall artistes, politicians, members of royalty and aristocracy as opposed to footballers and pop-stars.

Many of these personalities appeared on carte de visite which were small photos 2 ½ by 4 inches used as calling cards which often would be autographed and in the ‘cardomania’ of the 1860.s they were avidly collected.

However as with autograph hunting there were rebuffs as seen in a letter dated ‘sixth January 1868’ when the author G.A. Sala wrote from the Reform Club, Pall Mall: [I do not mean to] ‘take you down or make you look small if so accept my humble apologies-regarding the affixing of photographs to autographs…a practice sufficient to raise a cold shudder in a properly constituted mind’.


Front and reverse of a Carte de Visite.

‘I earnestly hope you will not be able to obtain a portrait of me’, he went on: ‘I do not recognise any rights of public to enquire into habit and manners or personal appearance of the author and if the writer puts his name instead of writing anonymously he does so in the principal of trades who affixes his trade mark as with Kirby’s Needles or Bass Pale Ale’. A true Victorian brush-off!

However like all crazes Carte de Visite were superseded by the Cabinet Card of larger dimensions which were adapted for portrait display in the 1880.s.

nThe introduction of the Cabinet Card saw the temporary demise of the photo album. It also saw the re-touching of face blemishes and artists were hired to touch up negatives before printing, reminiscent of today’s computerised doctoring.

These were however declined in the next decade to be replaced by snapshots, unmounted prints and scrapbook albums.

One who did well out of the Carte de Visite mania was John Mayall an English photographer who in May 1860 took photographs of Queen Victoria and the Royal Family and given permission to produce as Carte de Visite and as small portraits were put in an album and sold in vast numbers.(1)

After the death of Prince Albert the Photographic News reported a great demand for his portrait and within one week 70,000 were ordered from Marion & Company.

Charles Dickens sat for many photographs throughout his life and a familiar image was sold. as a Carte de Visite in the 1860.s the height of the craze. One shows Dickens writing at a desk whilst using a quill pen.


It was based on a photo taken by (George) Herbert Watkins in the spring of 1858 and for which a painted backdrop of drapery and bookcase were added. Dickens was to describe the slight rigidity and desperate grimness in photos, reflecting the longer exposure times of the period.

(1) Mayall had an advertisement in Daguerrotype in Dickens’, Bleak House.

Ref: ephemera-soc.org.uk. Carte de Visite/Pics.

Ref: Dickens 1867 Private collection of Thos. E McCarty/Pic.

Ref: John Mayall 1813-1901 biography.

Ref: Queen Victoria. First Media Monarch OUP. J Plunkett. 2003.


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About colindunkerley

My name is Colin Dunkerley who having spent two years in the Royal Army Pay Corps ploughed many a barren industrial furrow until drawn to the 'chalk-face' as a teacher, now retired. I have spent the last 15 years researching all aspects of life in Britain since Roman times.

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