In an earlier column (see Unknown Subject: 3/15/2000) I discussed cartes de visite, or CDV portraits, popular during the Civil War era. This week's submission by Pat Morrison is a similar CDV portrait of a young woman.
Dating a CDV is a multi-step process. This type of photograph became available in 1858, and existed in many different formats throughout the 1860s and 1870s. The shape, style and color of these small cards changed as the decade progressed. Even the style of the portrait can help pinpoint a date. William C. Darrah's book, Cartes de visite in 19th Century Photography (self-published, $75), presents identification information and multiple examples. This particular portrait is on thin white paper with square corners. Square-cornered images on plain white paper were commonly used between 1858 and 1866. However the painted backdrop only became fashionable in 1861. Photographers used theatrically painted backdrops and props to add visual interest to the portraits. The only prop in this image is a table covered with drapery. This is also an indication that it was taken in the early 1860s
The woman's costume is very interesting. She is wearing a typical dress of the early 1860's with bishop sleeves gathered at the wrists and a full hoop skirt. Her accessories of dangling earrings, a small brooch and a watch at the waist were standard for a woman who cared about her appearance. Watches could be worn around the neck or draped at the waist from a belt. While it is difficult to see the belt in this image, the way she is wearing the watch confirms that she is wearing at least a thin belt of the same color as her dress. Her hair is worn in a center part, pulled behind the ears and braided low on the neck, as was the style.
The most telling piece of her costume is her collar. Throughout the 1860s, women's collars were white to contrast with the dress. However, she is wearing a dark colored collar that signifies mourning. She is therefore either a recent widow or has lost another family member. Full mourning costume included all black accessories such as a hat and veil. The lack of the formal mourning accessories may indicate her personality or that the death occurred several months before.
The other way to identify Civil War era photographs is the presence of a revenue stamp. From late 1864 until 1862, the United States levied a tax on photographs, so each image sold during those years has something resembling a postage stamp on the back. The fact that this photograph does not have this revenue stamp indicates it was taken prior to 1864.
Pat Morrison believes this woman to be her father's great-grandmother Harrison. Since her father was born in 1910, it is quite possible this is the case. Pat now needs to re-examine the family genealogy to see who was in mourning when this photograph was taken. By adding together all the clues presented in this simple image, it is likely this photograph was taken between 1861 and 1864.
Find out how to submit your own picture for possible analysis by Maureen Taylor. E-mail her at firstname.lastname@example.org.