Carte De Viste - From My Window

By: 
Janie Thibodeau Martin

A few weeks ago I was going through a box of memorabilia with my mom and found a rubber-banded bunch of portraits.  They were about 2.1” x 3.5” and on card stock, sort of like old high school graduation pictures in a size intended to gift people, but obviously very old.

I asked Mom who the people in the 27 portraits were, but she had no idea.  She knew the pictures came from a pile of unwanted leftovers after my great-aunt Josephine (Huss) LaValley’s house was cleaned out after her death, and mom had never seen them before the cleanout, or talked to Aunt Jo, who lived in Peshtigo, about them.

Aunt Jo was my step-great aunt, her sister, Rosella, had married my paternal grandfather after my grandmother died.  We regarded Aunt Jo, a lady-like woman of great kindness and dignity, as a full member of our family.  Aunt Jo died in her 80’s around 1976.

I took the cards home and Mike did some internet exploring, and found that the portraits date from the late 1850’s to around 1910.  They are in good condition for being well over 100 years old. These types of photos were called “Carte De Viste” (French for “visiting cards”) and were similar to business cards, but for social purposes.  

Each of the card backs has the name and address of the photographer, but not a single one has the name of the subject, nor a date.  That’s frustrating, because there is no way to guess who these people are.  Some of the photographers were located in Oxford and Fowler, Indiana; Chicago, Illinois; and Menominee, MI; but most of them were taken in studios in Sweden.  The Swedish cities where the studios were located were Stockholm, Ronneby and Kalmar.  A single one is from Sydney, possibly Australia, and I was able to find the studio address on a mapping program.  There is a second possibility, again with a matching address, in Sydney, Nova Scotia.  Since many of the cards were from Sweden, it’s possible they were made for immigrants or visitors headed to America.  

My great aunt’s maiden name, Huss, is German; and her married name, LaValley, is French or German.  The connection of Swedish immigrants to Aunt Jo is puzzling, and it seems unlikely any of the pictures were blood relatives.   However, I know there were a lot of Swedish immigrants to northern Wisconsin.  It is possible she or her husband Adolph, or their parents had social ties to the people depicted.

I wish someone had written a name on the backs of the cards, so I could give them to a descendant, but not a single one gives any hint.  It puzzles me that no one did so.  

Most of the 27 cards depict formally dressed men, but there are seven of women, one of whom is stern looking and holds what appears to be a ruler; one of a little boy, and one of an infant.  There is a single card with two men on it, one attired in what looks like a sailor’s uniform.

According to the National Portrait Gallery, this form of picture became popular when a camera with multiple lens was invented, allowing photographers to put several small photographs on a single plate.  This greatly reduced the cost of portraits so even the lower middle class could afford them, and when Britan’s royal family had Cart De Viste portraits made, their popularity took off across the globe.

Thousands of Carte de Viste cards have survived; likely some column readers have some.  Most have a value of $2-$10 each.  However, identifiable portraits of famous people can go much higher, as do cards depicting a pet or a toy with a child.  

Antiques Roadshow had an appraisal of an intact album of Carte de Viste.  It contained almost 300 cards, but what inflated its value was three pictures of black Americans.  There was a famous woman abolitionist, the first elected black congressman, and a photo of a black cane carver, who made canes for disabled civil war veterans.  This album was valued at $8,000-$10,000.

The cards my mom has would have nominal monetary value.  The real value would be if there was any way to identify any of the interesting-looking people, but alas, I know of no way to do so.  It’s sad, that they are nameless “orphans.”

I welcome commentary, alternative viewpoints or ideas at this e-mail address:  JanieTMartin@gmail.com 

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