Photo Detective: Cartes de Visite

In the 19th century, small photographs called cartes de visite served a variety of purposes from business advertisements to family portraits. They were even sold in sets that both children and adults collected by subject. In addition to pictures of ordinary people, cartes de visite featured royalty, Civil War generals, medical anomalies and even the risque.

If you own any carte de visite images, try to obtain a copy of William C. Darrah's book Cartes de Visite in Nineteenth Century Photography (self-published, out of print) from a local library. Darrah offers advice on dating these small card photographs using card thickness, color, trim, props, photographer's imprints and even the subjects' poses as clues. It's a fascinating in-depth study of just one type of paper photograph.

Larry Betts found several of these pictures in an old family album, but he's not sure who's depicted. They might be members of his Transue family. Originally from Pennsylvania, they migrated to Tiffin, Ohio, between 1870 and 1880. Using Darrah's data on cartes de visite, costume clues and the photographer's imprint, let's try to determine when two of his images (pictured above) were taken.

Photographer's imprint
Written on the backs of both images is this photographer's imprint: "Photographed by A.M. Bachman, Allentown, PA." Bachman appears in the Directory of Pennsylvania Photographers, 1839-1900 by Linda A. Ries and Jay W. Ruby (Pennsylvania Historical and Museum Commission, $29.95) without dates of operation. Several images by Bachman also appear in the online finding aid for the William C. Darrah Collection of Cartes-de-visite, 1860-1900, at Pennsylvania State University. While the majority of the Bachman images are undated, one reference mentions that Bachman took a portrait around 1875. That places Bachman in Allentown around the time the Transue family lived there.

Identifying a carte de visite
Using Darrah's data, several new pieces of information come to light. First, the style and color of the cards dates them to around 1870, when square-cornered cards in that color were common. The image of the two boys has a plain background, while in the portrait of the girl, the photographer used drapery and a chair as props. These props suggest a timeframe of 1860 to 1868.

Clothing clues
The boys wear loose-fitting jackets, two different styles of ties and long pants. The general appearance of their suits doesn't date the picture, but the girl's dress, with its overskirt, suggests the picture was taken in the early 1870s. Throughout the 19th century, children's attire mimicked what adults wore. The only difference is the length of the girl's skirt, which is shorter due to her youth.

The clothing clues disagree by a few years with Darrah's data, but dating photographs is not always an exact science. While Darrah's book suggests this type of image dates to the late 1860s, it's possible that a photographer used the same card stock and props for several years. If these two pictures were taken around 1870, then the owner can examine his family history for three children who were born in the 1860s (they all appear to be under 12 in these pictures). When the photographer took these pictures, he numbered them in case the family returned for copies. On the back of the boys' picture is the number 5064, and on the girl's 5065. These two images were probably taken on the same day, so it's likely that the three children were from the same family. If in fact they are members of the Transue family, then they might have posed for images prior to moving to Ohio. To determine more specific dates for the pictures, Betts could find out when the family migrated to Ohio and find possible matches for the children.

Solving any photo mystery requires not only adding up the visible clues, but also following up on those clues with additional research. In this case, it might help to locate information on local Allentown, Pa., furniture makers to see if any date can be assigned to the distinctive chair used as a prop in the girl's portrait.

If anyone has information relating to these three children, please contact me at