Every Donkey has his Carte de Visite.


Word and Image
October 13, 2015
Satirical card showing a dog delivering a carte-de-visite
“Cartes de Visite are now la mode,
I call with mine at your abode.”

1860s satirical card showing a scruffy puppy delivering a carte de visite photograph to “Miss Puss”
Bequeathed by Guy Tristram Little.
E.2628-1953

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

Page from a photograph album, showing four carte de visites.
Four carte de visites mounted in a photograph album,  1860-2.
E.1942:1  to 175-1995.

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.

Two satirical prints showing a goose and a duck posing for carte de visite photographs
Two satirical engravings on card showing a goose and a duck posing for carte de visite photographs. Early 1860s.
Bequeathed by Guy Tristram Little.
E.2626-1953 and E.2625-1953
Two satirical prints showing a monkey and a donkey posing for carte de visite photographs
Two satirical engravings on card showing a monkey and a donkey posing for carte de visite photographs. Early 1860s.
Bequeathed by Guy Tristram Little.
E.2622-1953 and E.2624-1953

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.

Two satirical prints showing a dog and a cat posing for carte de visite photographs
Two satirical engravings on card showing a dog and a cat posing for carte de visite photographs. Early 1860s.
Bequeathed by Guy Tristram Little.
E.2623-1953 and E.2627-1953

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.

Two satirical prints showing a parrot and a dog posing for carte de visite photographs
Two satirical engravings on card showing a parrot and a puppy posing for carte de visite photographs. Early 1860s.
Bequeathed by Guy Tristram Little.
E.2621-1953 and E.2630-1953

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 Happy Family. Satirical engraving showing animals posing as a family group for a carte de visite
“The Happy Family.” Satirical engraving showing animals and birds posing as a family group for a carte de visite. Early 1860s.
Bequeathed by Guy Tristram Little.
E.2629-1953

The final image brings together almost all the characters from the previous cards into a family group.

3 comments so far, view or add yours

Comments

What on earth is 54mm x 89mm? I haven’t got a clue how big or small that is. Could you tell us in inches, so we can attempt to visualise what you mean

Dear John Finnemore,

54 millimetres by 89 millimetres would be about 2.25 inches by 3 inches. I hope that this helps you more clearly visualise the size of a typical carte de visite.

Best wishes,

Daniel Milford-Cottam

Wow, I didn’t imagine there was anyone in the world so old as to not know what mm look like. I’m over 50 and even my parents understand the metric system and have done for decades. At school I was taught little else.

Great insight into an earlier world of selfies and the mockery of same. (Those are pictures of oneself taken using a mobile phone)

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