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CABINET CARDS, 1863-1906

Kirk Cabinet Card CABINET CARDS are photographic prints mounted on card stock, which made the prints stronger and more durable than the photographic print alone. They came to be called “cabinet cards,” because they could be easily propped up and displayed in the home, especially in a cabinet in the parlor. Eventually large albums were made to hold the cards, which soon became a staple in almost every home in the United States.
     A British photographic studio, Windsor & Bridge, introduced the cabinet card in 1863.  By 1866 the process appeared in the United States, soon displacing the ubiquitous Civil War era card-de-visite (CDV) photographs that were popular during the 1860s. Cabinet cards increased in popularity during the 1870s, and their use peaked during the Victorian Age—the 1880s and 1890s. Around the turn of the twentieth century the popularity of the cabinet card began to wane with development of the “real photo post card,” (RPPC) process that produced true postcards, as well as the introduction in 1900 of the one-dollar Kodak “Brownie” camera which opened the photographic process to the masses. By 1906 the cabinet card had all but disappeared, although a few photographers continued to use the process up to the early 1920s.
    The typical cabinet card was made up of a 4 x 5˝ inch photographic print, which was mounted on 4˝ x 6˝ card stock of varying weight. Over the years variations in the size of the cards appeared. These prints often were given unique names, such as Boudoir Cards ( 5˝ x 8˝ ) that appeared in the 1880s, or Imperial Mount (7 x 10) in the 1890s. Photographers also produced stereo cards for viewing with the Stereopticon, which also proved to be very popular.
    Cabinet cards photographs are usually a type of process called an albumen print. Albumen photographs, invented in the 1850s, were the end product of  the the first practical process that produced a black-and-white paper print from a glass negative. The word “albumen” is used to describe the print because the albumen found in egg whites was used to bind the photographic chemicals to the photographic paper. Some cabinet cards have a variety of so-called “sepia” tints which came from the introduction of different types of photographic papers. Some photographers also hired “artists” to hand-color the prints.
     Photographers soon began to use the blank border space at the bottom of the card to advertise the names and locations of their studios. Eventually, many also used the back for advertising, decorating them with ornate designs typical of Victorian sentimentalities. Fortunately, this activity made it possible to identify the photographers who took the pictures. Otherwise, the work of many of them would have remained unknown, since most  photographers did not sign their prints at that time. This meant that the names and work of thousands of photographers have been preserved whose identities and work might have been otherwise lost.
     The cabinet cards in this exhibit are fairly typical of the thousands of cards printed over the years and should give the viewer a sense of these historic artifacts.

Sources: James M. Reilly, Care and Identification of 19th Century Prints (Rochester, NY: Eastman Kodak, 1986); Kimberly Powell, “Cabinet Card,” (http://about.com/guide); Debra Clifford, "An Article on Antique Cabinet Card Photographs," Andersonville (http://ancestorville.com/articles/cabinet-card-photographs.html). Graphic: Cabinet card, 1983.0236.09.57.01, taken by George W. Kirk, circa 1875, in the Fred C. Lambert Collection, Marshall University; Alfred T. Proctor advertisement from Huntington Advertiser, February 11, 1898.