photos guide Judging the Authenticity of Photographs

© david rudd cycleback,


Early Mounted Photographs


1800s cabinet card


Nearly all 1800s paper photographic prints are mounted.  A percentage of early 1900s photographs are also mounted.  Mounted means the print is affixed to a heavier backing, usually larger than the photographic print.  The backing is usually a sheet of cardboard, but 1800s photographic prints can be found mounted in books, on scorecards and other items.  These mounted photographs come in various sizes and shapes. 


Some sizes of mounted photographs have names, like the cabinet card and carte de visite.  Some sizes aren’t named, and are represented by their size— ala, ‘1880s 13x7 inches mounted photograph.’  As size effects desirability and value, a seller should always list the height and width of the mount.


Within the different types and sizes of mounted photographs there are differences in style of the mounts.  This difference includes the colors, text and printed graphics.  As with cars and clothes, the style of the mounts changed over the years.  Just as a 1960 Ford car driving down the road looks different than a 1980 Ford, an 1860 carte de visite looks different than an 1890 carte. 


Each mounted photograph was made in limited numbers.  If you find an 1892 cabinet card of the Harvard baseball team or 1910 imperial cabinet card showing a high school class there will be no more than a handful of other original copies and it often is unique. 


The following looks at the different kinds of mounted photographs, including how to judge their age.  The kinds are ordered as follows: cartes de visite (aka CDV), cabinet cards, stereoviews and miscellaneous mounted photos.








Standard American Civil War era CDV


Definition: a paper photographic print pasted to a larger card, the card measuring about 2-1/2” by 4.”  Most cartes de visite used albumen prints, though other prints, including the gelatin-silver print, were used later on.  Carte de visite is the singular.  Cartes de visite is the plural.  Also popularly referred to as CDV and carte. 


Duration: 1850s to early 1900s.  Popular 1860s-70s


Cartes de visite, often nicknamed cartes and CDVs, is French for visiting card, as this was a popular early use of these small picture cards.  A woman might hand out or mail a carte with her picture on it to friends and relatives.  In the United States cartes became popular at the beginning of the Civil War.  They were used for many purposes, including as identification cards for soldiers, trade cards for businesses and as family photos.  Cartes of popular subjects could be bought at local stores.  Queen Victoria, Abraham Lincoln and famous theatres actors were popular subjects.  Collecting cartes and putting them into specially made albums was a popular hobby, and many of these albums exist today.


Cartes come in many photographic and mount styles.  Some are plain, while others are ornate.  Most have the photograph studio’s stamp or embossment on front and/or back, making it easy to identify cartes by famous photographers



Dating the Carte de Visite


Along with the subject in the image (style of uniforms, type of equipment, identifiable athlete, etc), cartes can be dated by the style of the mount, as this changed over time.  The following describes the general trends.  Exceptions to these trends will be found.  

Albumen prints were regularly used until the early to mid 1890s.  Most 1900s cartes will have gelatin-silver prints with more black and white images.  Examples with carbon prints and cyanotypes (bright blue images) are rare but can be found.


1850s-60s cartes usually had the albumen print pasted to a thin mount that is white, off white or light cream.  The mount corners are square.  A square cornered CDV is reliably dated the 1850s or 1860s.  While often there is the studio name printed on back, there usually is no printed text on the front.  1860s cartes often had one or two thin red or blue lines around albumen print.  Unusually small vignetted images (oval images) date to this period (example pictured on next page). 


Starting in the early 1870s the mounts had rounded corners and came in more colors.  By the mid 1870s gold gilded, beveled edges were used.  By the 1880s dark colors were common and the mount often had scalloped edges. 


The mount thickness changed over time, with the earlier ones being thinner than the later ones.  The 1860s mounts are typically thinner than the 1870s mounts which are typically thinner than the 1880s and later mounts.  Having inexpensive examples from different years on hand will help judge thickness.


The photography studio’s logo on the back of the mount changed in size over time.  In the 1860s the logo was relatively small and with conservative font.  As the years went by the design became larger and more ornate, sometimes taking up the entire back.  Note that 1860s and early 1870s CDVs that were used as trade cards (give away cards advertising a product or service) can have larger advertisements on back.


Large ornate studio names on the bottom front of the mount are typical of late 1800s cartes. 


The early studio backgrounds in the images were typically plain.  By the late 1800s backgrounds were often busy and garish. 


Tax stamps on the back of CDVs help give a date.  From August 1st 1864 to August 1st 1866 the US government required that tax stamps be put on photographs.  A later amendment allowed for 1 cent stamps to be used.  CDVs with a 1 cent stamp date between March 1864 and August 1866.  Blue stamps are from the summer of 1866.  The stamps often have a cancellation date.  Tax stamps can be faked, so the collector shouldn’t rely alone on stamps.  However, if everything else looks consistent with the era, a tax stamp is a great bonus and will usually raise the value.





American Civil War CDV front and back.  Typical to the era, the front has square corners and plain white borders.  The back has a small photography studio text and a 2 cent tax stamp.  Also notice that there is little in the background behind the young soldier.





1860s carte with white mount, square

corners and small vignette image.



1869 carte de viste of the famous

Cincinnati Red Stockings baseball team.




CDV backs:  On the left is a 1860s CDV with a small, conservative photography text.  On the right is a late 1800s example with a large, busy text and design. 




front and back of an 1882 CDV of the Cambridge University (UK) rowing team






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1890s cabinet card of Heavyweight boxing champ John L. Sullivan


Definition.  A photographic print pasted to a larger card, the card measuring about 4-1/2” X 6-1/2”

Duration: 1860s-1920s.  Most popular 1880s-1890s.


The cabinet card is a larger version of the carte de visite, which it replaced in popularity.  It received its name because it was popular to display the mounted photograph in a cabinet.  Cabinets depict a wide variety of subjects, including normal families, Presidents and celebrities, animals, buildings, nature and school classes. High end cabinet cards depicting famous athletes regularly sell for hundreds of dollars and more.



Dating the Cabinet Card


Along with the subject in the image, the mount style is helpful in giving an approximate date.  The following are the general style trends.  Exceptions to these trends will be found.


Cabinet cards with albumen prints usually date 1890s and before.  Most 1900s cabinets are gelatin-silver. Later 1890s cabinets can be either albumen or gelatin. Cabinets with cyanotypes, carbon prints and photomechanical prints can be found from both centuries.


The earliest cabinet card mounts were thin, light in weight and light cream, sepia, white or off white. While these light colors were used for many years after, in the 1880s and later various colors were used.  If a cabinet has a black, red, green or dark grey mount, for examples, the cabinet more than probably dates to the 1880s or after. 


During the 1860s and 70s the photographer’s name and address was often printed neatly and small below the image.  If the photographer’s name is large and stylish, especially if the photographer’s name is in an ornate cursive style, the cabinet probably dates from the 1880s or after. 


In the 1860s and 70s, the photographer often had his or his studio’s name printed conservatively and rather small on back.  If the name and design on back is ornate and takes up the entire back, the cabinet dates 1880s or later.


Cards with gold beveled edges date to the mid 1880s to just after 1890.  Jet black mounts with gold text mostly date to the late 1880s-90s.  Cabinets from the 1890s often have scalloped edges.  Cabinet cards with an embossed studio name and other embossed designs on the front of the mount date to the 1890s or later.


In the early 1900s mounts often came in different shapes and designs, including square.  These cabinets often have intricate designs or embossed patterns on the mounts, often with an embossed faux frame around the gelatin-silver print. 


The earlier the cabinet the rarer.  Cabinets from the 1860s are rarer than from 1870s and so on.  When in doubt, a cabinet is more likely to be from the 1880s than the 1860s.


1890s albumen cabinet with scalloped edges and large stylized studio design/text common to the era.  Elaborate, multi-colored and ‘modern’ mounts like this usually date to the 1890s and after.



1877 cabinet card of the Boston Bostons baseball team by the well known photographer John Wood.  Notice the period cream colored mount and how the photographer’s name and address is small and neat on the front.








1890 Buffalo Bisons baseball team.  Even though the mount is white like in the 1860s-70s, the large, bold photographer’s helps identify it as being from the later 1800s.







The edge of this 1904 cabinet has the embossed photographer’s name and design next to a gelatin silver print.




Early 1900s cabinet card of a football player.  The ornate embossed design on the mount helps identify it as bein as from the 1900s.  (image courtesy Keith Jarvic).






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Definition:  Two mounted photographs shot by a special camera to give a 3-Dimensional effect when viewed through a special viewer.

Duration: 1850s-1930s


Stereoview, stereograph and stereoscopic photograph are names for a form of entertainment long before television and radio.  A family would own a box full of stereoviews, each stereoview depicting an entertaining subject.  Subjects included far away places and interesting people. 


Stereoviews with ambrotypes and Daguerreotypes are rare.  Albumen stereoviews were produced from the 1860s to the 1890s.  The earliest albumen mounts were lightweight, flat and with square corners.  They were usually cream or white.  Starting in the later 1860s a heavier mount with rounded corners was used.  The color was pale yellow, changing to bright yellow and orange in the 1870s.  From the late 1870s on, mounts were warped.  Most stereoviews from the 1900s are gelatin silver, and often have heavily warped, dark pencil-grey mounts.


Standard dark grey curved mounted Keystone View brand stereoview of the 1920s.




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Unusual 1908 Dickenson College football team photographic calendar.  Consists of a postcard sized team photo tied with red ribbon to a football shaped cardboard mount.  The mount includes a small calendar and a woman holding a real cloth pennant.


While most mounted photographs were cabinet cards, stereoviews and cartes de visite, examples can be found in many other sizes. 


Mounted photographs with multi color mounts and/or embossed designs, particularly an embossed faux frame and photgrapher’s name, date from after 1890 and usually after 1900. 1860s-1870s mounts were usually white, cream, sepia or very light grey.  While these color mounts were used in later years, other colors usually date after 1880.  For example, a black, green or dark grey mount more than likely dates to the 1880s or later. Very large mounted photographs sometimes do not have the photographer’s name and address on the front, and the photographic print is sometimes the same size as the mount.



Standard Commercial Sizes : ‘Card Photographs’


The following lists other standard sizes/names of mounted photographs made from the 1800s to early 1900s.  This list comes from the U.S. Library of Congress.  Amongst photograph historians, these photos are called card photographs (e.g. cabinet card, imperial cabinet card).  These sizes and names were commercial standards, not unlike the AA battery or size 9 shoe.  Some of the more obscure examples, including ones not listed here, were made up simply as a marketing ploys (‘New for 1890—the boudoir card!’). 


Do not worry, it is not necessary to memorize or worry about all the different sizes and names listed below.  If you are selling a mounted photograph and don’t know whether it’s a cabinet card, boudoir card or other, call it a ‘card photograph’ or ‘mounted photograph’ and give the dimensions of the mount.  Most potential buyers haven’t heard of a boudoir or Swiss card anyway.


* Kodak card — 4-1/4 x 5-1/4in.; 10.8 x 13.3 cm; 1880’s (photographic print is circular). These were the first Kodak ‘snapshots’

* Boudoir — 5-1/2 x 8-1/2in.; 14 x 21.06 cm; 1890’s-

* Swiss card — 6-1/2 x 2.85in.; 16.5 x 7.3 cm

* Imperial (aka imperial cabinet card)- 7 x 10in.; 17.8 x 25.4 cm; 1890’s-

* Promenade card — 7-1/2 x 4in.; 19 x 10.2 cm

* Paris card — 9-3/4 x 6-3/4in.; 24.8 x 17.1 cm

* Panel card — 13 x 7-1/2in.; 33 x 19 cm


Large oval photographs held in frames with bubble (concave) glass were popular in the late 1800s and early 1900s.


The largest 19th century photographs are called mammoth photographs and are typically rectangular.  There is no specific size requirement, but those around 17x17 inches and larger can be called mammoths.  These photos are rare.


Large, framed and often highly attractive ‘crayon portraits’ were made in the 1800s and early 1900s. These were artistic photographs that resemble a cross between photographs and charcoal or crayon sketches.  They can be monochrome or  with charcoal coloring.  The photographer started with a light photograph and embellished it with chalk and crayons.  Most common are albumen crayon portraits from the late 1800s.





21” x 16” framed ‘crayon portrait.
      photos guide


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