Words and Deeds in American History: Selected Documents Celebrating the Manuscript Division's First 100 Years

Civil War photograph album, ca. 1861-65.
(James Wadsworth Family Papers)


Cartes de visite, miniature portraits used as calling cards, were extremely popular during the American Civil War. These photographic calling cards, approximately 2½ x 4 inches in size, had been invented in France in the early 1850s, and their popularity quickly spread throughout Europe and eventually to the United States, where the corollary development of the photograph album spurred a collecting craze in the 1860s that became known as Cartomania.1 In addition to assembling albums of family photographs, the public sought to collect images of celebrities and views of favorite places and sites. John Hay (1838-1905), a personal secretary to President Abraham Lincoln (1809-1865) who later had a successful diplomatic and political career of his own, is thought to have assembled the cards in this album. Many of the two hundred individuals represented in Hay's album, including numerous army and navy officers, politicians, and cultural figures, were undoubtedly visitors to the Lincoln White House. Others, such as Confederate president Jefferson Davis (1808-1889) and generals Robert E. Lee (1807-1870) and James Longstreet (1821-1904), were unlikely to have called at the Executive Mansion.

Most of the portraits in Hay's album are signed, greatly increasing their value. It was common practice during the war to acquire such portraits through gift or purchase, mail them to the individuals represented, and hope for their return--signed. Thus on the back of many of the cartes are notes requesting that the sitter affix his signature at the bottom of the carte, high enough to be seen when in an album. It was also customary for many photographers, including both Mathew B. Brady (1823-1896) and Alexander Gardner (1821-1882) whose work is well documented in this album, to keep stocks of autographed cartes for sale to souvenir album collectors. Hay was acquainted with both Brady and Gardner and went to the latter's studio with Lincoln for the president's sitting and separately to have his own photograph taken. He could quite possibly have purchased cartes from Gardner and others to supplement those he acquired directly from the sitters.

Hay thoughtfully arranged his collection of cartes in a decorative, leather-bound album patented by Altemus & Company of Philadelphia on 21 July 1863. Like many such albums, this one has gold-stamped decoration on the cover and spine, engraved circular ivory bosses at each corner of the cover, and two brass foredge clasps. The text block consists of a title page, a blank index page, twenty-five album pages, and a back flyleaf. Each album page holds eight cartes--four on the front and four on the back--inserted in recessed pockets. Since the cartes were placed back-to-back in the album, sometimes the ink instructions to one sitter bled from the back of one carte onto the verso of another. The text block edges are gilt, as are the edges of the openings for each photograph. The openings have been numbered 1 through 200, possibly by the same hand who wrote on the first page "Do not touch the pictures with the fingers." Of particular interest to book conservators is the album's "hinged-back" spine, ingeniously engineered to permit flexible movement of the heavy, stiff-paged text block. The pages of the album are attached to the spine by leather hinges that are slotted and have metal pins inserted. Each pin alternately picks up hinges for the page in front of it and in back of it, forming a continuous attachment of leaves. As the pages are turned, they rotate on the pin.

This digital reproduction of the album allows viewers the opportunity to page through the cartes as if they were perusing the volume in Hay's home. These "album page views" enable readers to consider Hay's selection and arrangement of the photographs. For example, Hay began the album with Lincoln followed by his vice presidents and members of his Cabinet. Elsewhere in the album there are groupings of politicians and military officers, with images of cultural and literary figures toward the end of the book. By selecting the "View these cartes" option from any of the album pages, readers may see the images as they would appear outside the album. Both the front and verso of each carte is fully displayed, revealing studio logos, addresses, and other imprint information on the approximately twenty photographers and/or photographic firms represented in the album. One especially elaborate imprint is for Alexander Gardner's studios, which features an image of the United States Capitol and its grounds, complete with strolling figures on the esplanade.

The Hay album became the property of the Wadsworth family through Hay's daughter Alice, who married James W. Wadsworth, Jr. It was subsequently donated to the Library as part of the Wadsworth Family Papers.

1. William and Estelle Marder, Anthony the Man the Company the Cameras: An American Photographic Pioneer: 140 Year History of a Company from Anthony to Ansco to GAF (Plantation, Fla.: Pine Ridge Publishing Company): 88.

Janice E. Ruth, Manuscript Division; Jan Lancaster, National Digital Library Program; and Mary Wootton, Conservation Division

For Additional Information
For additional information on the James Wadsworth Family Papers, you can leave this site and read a summary catalog record for the collection.

Reproduction Number:
B&W negatives exist for each carte de visite (images of the fronts of the cards only). Negative numbers are displayed when viewing the cartes individually. Additionally, one color slide (A95) reproducing two pages of the album, containing cartes 141-148, is available.

Related Terms:
Army officers | Autographs | Brady, Mathew B. (1823 (ca.)-1896) | Calling cards | Carte de visite photographs | Civil War, 1861-1865 | Davis, Jefferson (1808-1889) | Gardner, Alexander (1821-1882) | Hay, John (1838-1905) | Lee, Robert E. (Robert Edward) (1807-1870) | Lincoln, Abraham (1809-1865) | Longstreet, James (1821-1904) | Naval officers | Photographs | Soldiers | Wadsworth, Alice Hay | Wadsworth, James (1768-1844)

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