On cabinet cards, designs outshine the photos
I’ve always been intrigued by cabinet cards. Not so much by the unsmiling and stiff people in the portraits but by the fancy designs promoting the photographers.
Cabinet cards were very prominent during the latter part of the 19th century, with people dressing up to be photographed in local studios. The photos were affixed to stiff 4″x 6″ cards with the photographer’s name usually on the front – and always on the back – in fancy lettering and designs. They were called cabinet cards because they could easily be set up in a cabinet in the parlor of a home.
At auction recently, I came across a handful of the cards and just started looking through them. The folks were wearing their Sunday best, and I’m sure that having their pictures professionally taken was a major occurrence. In several cases, their names were handwritten on the back. The cards were in plastic sleeves, so I suspect that they had belonged to a collector of vintage photographs. Several also had handwritten prices of $15 and $16.
Cabinet cards first came on the scene in the 1860s, and were popular toward the end of the 19th century, then replaced by real postcards that also bore photos. Kodak’s introduction of the camera for personal use also led to the demise.
Interestingly, people also purchased cards with portraits of other people. Cabinet cards of stage actresses were said to be pretty popular in New York, especially among bachelors (and even some poor people who could barely afford them but wanted to add a hint of elegance to their lives).
Most times, the photographers’ info was much more interesting than the subjects themselves – who seemed to almost never smile. The cards were imprinted with wording and designs, with the most elaborate artwork on the back. Card edges could also be different – from gilt borders to embossing to beveling.
The photographers’ penchant for advertising their studios is a boon for historians because it helps them to identify the picture-takers of the time. The photos themselves offer us a looking glass into the “dress, hair styles, fashion and the 19th c. ‘look,'” as one site noted.
Because of their size and the way they look, cabinet cards are very easy to identify, and they can also offer clues to how old they are.
One of the cards at auction showed fancy props in a studio, another advertising ploy for the photographer.
As photos became cheaper to make, studios began to spring up in towns and cities. It seemed that everyone wanted images of themselves, including African Americans, who donned their best clothes (and uniforms, in this case of a ball player), too, and had their pictures taken.
Here are the cabinet cards from the auction along with the photographers’ designs: