CDVs by State


The location data collected on the cartes-de-visite provides an extraordinarily valuable resource to researchers. Due to how the photographs were advertised and sold, studios listed their address or general location on the back of the carte-de-visite and often left out information such as the specific photographer, the subject, or the year the photograph was taken. As a result, the location information was recorded on the day the photograph was taken, while many other details were later written on the backing by the customer, by archivists and collectors, or lost altogether.

The consistent inclusion of location information provided by studios and their photographers lends itself to geospatial analysis. Developed in France in the early 1850s, cartes-de-visite were originally handed out to friends and family as calling cards during visits (Jeffrey Ruggles, Photography in Virginia (Richmond: Virginia Historical Society, 2008), 26). Studios and galleries commonly sold the small photographs by the dozen, allowing customers to have a supply of prints for their social circle. Photographers took advantage of the format and included what amounted to small advertisements on the backing, letting the recipient know where they could also obtain cartes-de-visite. Distributed through personal networks, cartes-de-visite allowed studios to announce their location to a receptive audience.

Advertisement on reverse of a carte-de-visite.
Advertisement on reverse of a carte-de-visite.

The A.S. Williams III Americana Collection is home to 3,356 cartes-de-visite, 3,311 of which include a location. These range from the names of small towns, where studios would have been easily found, to specific addresses in larger cities like Baltimore, New Orleans, or Richmond. Both the location map and the state map above, reveal how photography spread through the South in accordance with the region's settlement and growth. The older, former Chesapeake colonies of Virginia and Maryland dominate the collection. Settled earlier and more densely than their more southern counterparts, these two states granted photographers more opportunity to establish themselves in cities and smaller towns. This is especially evident in Virginia, where photographers lined the Shenandoah Valley and opened studios in towns like Staunton, Harrisonburg, and Roanaoke. In contrast, photographers in states like Georgia, Alabama, and Mississippi occasionally found themselves relocating to new towns and states in search of new business.

In larger southern cities, the collection reveals how photographic studios clustered on specific streets or commercial districts. In Baltimore, for instance, studios lined West Baltimore Street, while photographers in Louisville populated Market Street, Main Street, and nearby blocks. Using the collection, scholars can not only understand how photography spread across the southern states, but also explore the prominence of these institutions in local cities and towns.

Photographers and Studios

Unknown African American Woman, Petersburg, Virginia, 1879.
Unknown African American Woman, Petersburg, Virginia, 1879.

The cartes-de-visite of the A.S. Williams III Americana Collection feature the work of about 1,100 unique photographers and studios. Due to the tendency of studios to not list specific photographers, as well as the Americanization of some European names, the actual number is likely slightly lower. With significant and impressive exceptions, the collection holds an average of three examples of each studio’s work. Taken as a whole, the cartes-de-visite provide a rich cross-section of southern photography over the second half of the nineteenth century.

The largest bodies of work, shown above, provide a unique opportunity for researchers to not only explore the work of a single studio or gallery, but to gain a glimpse of the residents in specific towns and cities. The cartes-de-visite allow scholars to examine what types of people purchased these inexpensive photographs and how they presented themselves to friends and family. In larger cities with several major studios, the cartes-de-visite provide a valuable view into nineteenth-century urban life.

Carte-de-visite of Otis H. Russell by C.R. Rees & Co., 1873.

For example, the cartes-de-visite holds an impressive amount of work from C.R. Rees. The Williams Collection includes seventy-three photographs taken either by Charles Richard Rees or his employees. Born to German immigrants in Allentown, Pennsylvania, Rees first established a photographic studio in Richmond, Virginia in 1851. After a brief attempt in the mid-1850s to open a gallery in New York City, Rees and his family  returned to the area and established themselves as fixtures in Richmond and nearby Petersburg (D.A. Serrano, “Southern Exposure: The Life and Times of C. R. Rees & Co,” Old Photographic: The Online Vintage Photographic Magazine (blog), accessed December 1, 2014).  After his studio burned in April 1865 along with the rest of Richmond,  Rees reopened and continued working in the area until at least 1880 (Photography in Virginia, 65). The collection features examples from throughout his career and spans several different partnerships, studios, and galleries. Through the photographs of C.R. Rees and other similarly prolific photographers, researchers can investigate the photographic techniques of individuals studios and see the types of customers drawn to these establishments.

Cartes-de-Visite by Year

Robinson & Murphy Backing, Huntsville, Alabama, 1870.
Robinson & Murphy Backing, Huntsville, Alabama, 1870.

Throughout the late nineteenth century, photographers treated the backing of cartes-de-visite as advertising for potential customers. Many studios included elaborate descriptions of their services and listed location information so that the recipients of the carte-de-visite knew where to get their own photos taken. Concerned more with growing their businesses than with recording the moment for posterity, studios and galleries rarely included when the cartes-de-visite was actually taken. As a result,  many of the collection's images are either undated or list dates or estimates provided by customers, recipients, or contemporary archivists.

While the dates recorded by customers, recipients, and archivists provide a relatively reliable chronological record, the estimates, determined as part of this project, pose challenges. Using city directories, prosopographies, and local histories, project members determined when photographers in larger cities like Baltimore, New Orleans, and Louisville worked at specific addresses. William F. Shorey, for instance, operated in Baltimore, Maryland between 1864 and 1890. Based on city directories, Shorey moved his studio in 1867, 1879, and 1888. Using the location information on the photograph's backing, we determined approximate ranges for when the photographs were taken. While this process only creates a narrower span, the estimates help fill in the gaps concerning the spread of southern photography.

J.W. Clary carte-de-visite, with date range added by an archivist or collector.

Despite the progress brought about by these efforts, only 609 and of the 3356 cartes-de-visite possess either dates or estimates. Although this represents less than one-fifth of the collection, the sample roughly corresponds to the rise and fall of cartes-de-visite in the South. In the early 1850s, southern photography grew steadily through the sale of daguerreotypes, tintypes and ambrotypes. After the Panic of 1857 shuttered many studios and galleries, inexpensive albumen prints, and in particular cartes-de-visite, allowed the remaining photographers to expand their businesses and without the expensive materials and processes necessary for daguerreotypes and other, earlier kinds of photography (Jeffrey Ruggles, Photography in Virginia (Richmond: Virginia Historical Society, 2008), 25). As the cartes-de-visite grew in popularity, the inexpensive format became an accessible memento for a wide range of people. During the Civil War, soldiers took advantage of cartes-de-visite to send photographs to their families and loved ones. Cartes-de-visite also became an important part of wartime propaganda, with both the Confederacy and the Union circulating portraits of generals and leaders (Ruggles, 49).

Photographic formats remained largely the same throughout the 1860s and 1870s. As the South recovered from wartime devastation, cartes-de-visite remained popular and the prints dropped in price as materials became easier to produce (Ruggles, 63). By the 1880s and 1890s, however, the cabinet card, a larger, higher quality albumen print, challenged and eventually surpassed the carte-de-visite in popularity. By the twentieth century, newer photographic technologies replaced both the carte-de-visite and the cabinet card and the formats disappeared from use. Spanning from 1851 to 1896, the Southern Cartes-de-Visite Collection reflects the explosion of the format in the South and its gradual decline.