The Treasures We Find: Victorian Portrait Albums
One of the things we love most about our work is the process of honoring through discovery, of preserving and protecting, and then sharing the home and beloved items of the family that lived there before. As we set up sales, we often discover long-forgotten photo albums, photographs, and scrapbooks. Some are deeply personal to the family and others were collected or preserved simply because they represent a time that person loved or was interested in. Most of the time, these finds are kept by the family, but occasionally, if there is no family connection, we are asked to dispatch them. It is important to note that we generally do not throw away family photos. If the family would like them, we make sure to deliver them to the family. If the photos are unwanted and collectible, we try to sell them. If they don’t sell, we return them to the family or find them a home.
As collectors ourselves, we are particularly drawn to the early photographs of the 1850’s - 1870’s. There is such rich history here. Early photography was considered a major scientific advance of the time. André- Adolphe-Eugène Disdéri, a French photographer and former actor, invented the ‘Carte de Visite’ or Visiting Card and had his invention patented. He started off as a daguerreotypist. A daguerro type was one of the earliest photographs (1840) printed on metal using iodized-sensitive silverplate and mercury vapor. These early images are often haunting and the image looks a bit like the person is stuck in the metal, giving off a three-dimensional and ghostly view at times. These metal photographs were often set into book frames lined with velvet. I love daguerro types and the feeling of holding the little book, opening it up to view the photos within. As photography progressed with the invention of the carte-de-visite, they became the dominant form of photographic expression leading into the civil war era. These cards were primarily used for portraits and became popular for trading, even featuring famous individuals of the day, as well as regular folk. “Portraits in the mid-nineteenth century were commonly called “shadows,” a term that acquires added nuance when the image is all that remains. We see them clearly but cannot know them.” says scholar Rachel McBride Lindsey (Center for the Study of Material and Visual Cultures of Religion). Carte-de-visite were later replaced by larger Cabinet Cards, which were set in stands for home viewing, perched on top of furniture.
This brings me to the Victorian photo album - which held visiting cards and sometimes cabinet cards. Like daguerro type frame books, these photo albums are a thing of wonder to me. They came in all sizes - from mini - with only a few pages - to much larger. The standard size was about 9 x12. They often featured elaborate and beautiful binding in leather, velvet, or stamped metal. They must have been vibrantly colored in rich tones of green, red, blue, and such. Sometimes they had painted plates for the cover.
These exquisite books were held together through traditional bookbinding methods of the day, but usually had metal clasps in the center or sometimes even two - one on each end.
As visiting cards increased in popularity, the need for books to hold them all became all the rage.
As I’ve learned, these books often contained more than just portraits of the living. An interesting fact as we approach All Souls Day, sometimes they contained Memento Mori or post mortem photos. Memento Mori is latin for “remember we must die”, a comment on the fragility of life. In much earlier times, memento mori was usually referenced using certain imagery in paintings. In the Victorian Era, displaying these photos of the dead was considered a way to honor the deceased.
Having these portraits photographed became a ritual in the mourning process. Early on, these photos were often simply of the person in their casket. Later on, the person might be posed in a chair or as if sleeping, sometimes surrounded by their favorite things. It is said that because a photographic portrait was so expensive, sometimes a post-mortem photo was the only photo they would ever have taken. Some albums would hold other physical memories, like hair. Hair was often displayed as a simple braid tied with ribbon or could even be elaborately weaved into what was known as mourning jewelry.
I have personally never come across memento mori photos, but have found albums with hair mementos or even memorial cards.
Before I ran Estate Sales, I would go as a shopper and would often find these albums discarded in a pile of books, or sometimes even the “free” bin. I couldn’t bear to see them trashed and took it upon myself to “rescue” them. Often, the outside is in great shape, but the inside pages are ripped or torn due to the addition or removal of portraits over the years. On occasion, the book appears empty, only to surprise me later with two full pages of carte de visite. I found this leather-bound book in a room full of modern puzzles. I paid $1. Inside there were 25 carte de visite and also a few daguerreotypes.
You might be wondering - what are these albums worth? Well, there is a collector for EVERYTHING out there and victorian photo albums are no exception. Obviously, the better the condition, the higher the price. I have found that albums with the binding and clasp intact or in “fair” condition, can sell for $25 or more depending on the condition of the inside pages. Albums in excellent condition or with more elaborate features can fetch upwards of $50-$150. Many times, you can find just the carte de visite or cabinet cards for sale for $1-$2 apiece. Be on the lookout for carte de visite with famous or unusual subject matter. Those can be worth a lot and if you find one like that, consider having it looked at by an expert.
For me, these photos and albums are priceless and I am always so grateful to just get to look at them, much less own them. I wish I had one from my own family. I feel like they tell a story and I often wonder if my ancestors had similar experiences or clothing or expressions. They truly are a “shadow” of another time.