The Interwebs informs me that the business card came first, and the calling card second. At some point in the seventeenth century (in Europe; China was two hundred years ahead, as usual. But they had printing first, so they had a head start) businessmen would drop these off at the offices or homes of prospective clients as a warning that they would be coming to give a sales talk at some later date. The upper classes picked up on this custom and converted it to social calls. (My own theory is that the bourgeois came up with the whole card idea first because they were the first class that really needed to be able to read. It is only my own mean-spirited imagination that sees the dukes and earls picking it up just to show off they they’d been to school, too. I suppose Moliere has already included a character who could NOT read, but was high class enough to drop off calling cards, and learned only too late that the printer had made an unfortunate and obscene typo, leading the people he visited to expect…where were we?)
So technically, the “Visiting Card” or business card came first, and then came the “Calling Card”. I had rather expected that these cards were unnecessary in the days of the Interwebs, unlike the days when business folk had special file drawers or Rolodex-style wheels for saving them. It is not so. Estimates claim that in 2019 alone, over 7 billion cards were printed, mainly business cards, as calling cards have fallen out of favor except with certain quirky teenagers who use them for dating. HOWEVER, then the Covids came along, and nobody wanted to take something you had touched, and the business went into something of a spiral. We’ll see what happens next. Tweetcards?
But we are taking a long time to get to the subject of this column, which is a special sort of calling card. During the nineteenth century, a bunch of techno-geeks were fooling around with an invention which would eventually be called the camera. Like a lot of techno-geeks, they came up with the invention first, and then had to come up with ways to make money on it. Some chaps became artists and took breathtaking photographs for exhibit, while others set up galleries and sold pictures of anything at all in bulk. Others set up studios and would take your picture for a fee, cameras being too complex for the average human to handle.
Other techno-geeks, like techno-geeks everywhere, thought of odd branches of the profession. Have I told you about the Parisian pornographer who tried to convince the French government that old-style passports, with a lengthy description of the rightful user, could be replaced with new ones, with a photograph? Yep, this fellow turned aside from raunch to invent the passport photo and, by extension, the ID photo, driver’s license photo, and the rest. Another photographer looked at the calling card and invented the Carte-de-visite.
The carte-de-visite, or cdv as collectors call it, was a stiff piece of cardboard of the same kind used for larger family photos, but about the size of a large calling card. In place of the name, a photograph was applied, so you could drop these off at a friend’s home, and they would recognize who it was who had called. The usefulness of this could be debated (you might not recognize your neighbors once they dressed up for the photographer) but the popularity was obvious. Everybody wanted the new notion and ordered plenty. The photographers, understanding their customers, printed up cdvs with pictures of celebrities and royalty on them, creating an early form of trading card. Millions of cards with millions of faces were produced, and as most of them were on good, solid card stock, millions exist today.
But they are still collected, some for the same reasons they were collected in the 1870s: the faces were instantly recognizable and important. (“I’ll trade you these three prince Alberts for that Sarah Bernhardt.” “Throw in that Princess Alice or no deal.”) Others are saved because they are like the Real Photo Post Cards, because the faces are unknown, but were frozen at a moment of acclaim or passing importance. That’s what I have sitting around here mostly, and we will look at some of those in our next thrilling installment. (Book now: seating is limited.)