In 1854, a Frenchman, André Adolphe Eugène Disdéri, patented a new form of photograph called the carte de visite. These were small images, typically about 54 mm × 89 mm, mounted on thicker cards that measured 64 by 100 mm; about the same size as visiting-cards (literally, carte de visite). Disidéri’s invention meant that multiple copies of an image could be taken at a go, on a single sheet. The individual images would then be cut out and mounted on the cards. By 1860, the carte de visite had become a true nineteenth-century fad, with hundreds of thousands of these small photographs being produced and shared amongst friends and family. Photographs of Royalty and celebrities such as the author Charles Dickens were also collected and swapped in this manner, creating an early version of the trading-card phenomenon. The modern photograph album was invented in order to house collections of such images, such as this page from an early 1860s example
Of course, as with every fad, the satirists and cartoonists and the social commentators rushed out in force to poke as much fun as possible at it. In this post I am presenting a small group of engraved cards printed in London in the early 1860s. These cards are made to imitate carte de visites, but cheekily swap various animals and birds for the subjects, mocking the perceived vanity of those who would have their photographs taken.
Note how the smartly dressed monkey leans against an elegant chair with bird-shaped arm-rests, while the donkey is actually holding a carte de visite.
It appears that the dog is examining a visiting card – or another carte de visite through his quizzing-glass, while on the pedestal beside the elegantly clad cat is a card-case, (similar to this elaborate silver-gilt example from the Metalwork Collection) which would have held visiting cards or carte de visites for distribution among friends.
On the left, a grey parrot is shown holding up a crinoline petticoat and wearing a fashionable hat. The right image has been touched up with watercolour and is captioned “How to take your own Carte de Visite,” using a mirror to reflect the sitter – a yellow puppy with a collar, walking stick and eyeglass round his neck. The unknown artist probably little suspected that, 150 years later, the only real change to his drawing would be that the cheeky puppy might be holding a smartphone to take his own “selfie.”
The final image brings together almost all the characters from the previous cards into a family group.