Oh See De CDV!

     Last time, we were discussing the cdv, or carte-de-visite, a combination portrait and calling card popular for about fifty years, roughly between the Civil War and World War I.  The vast majority of these were produced for use, rather than as collectibles, and do not benefit from having a name printed on them.  And, of course, they were produced largely to be given away.  As time went by, just as with business cards today, people looked at them and wondered, “Who gave me this?  Why did I keep it?”   As photos. They had a slightly longer life expectancy but, with time, thousands found their way into the great retail recyclery: the garage sale.  Once separated from their natural habitat, unlabeled cdvs lost virtually any chance of being labeled.

     So we have little or no chance of finding out who that young lady at the top of this column is.  Her picture was yaken in Berlin: we have that much information.  But who she was and what her goals (she had some: look at that face) and why she was important enough to someone to clip the corners of the card and fit her into an album, we will probably never know.

     What about this young man?  Shoes glossily polished, watch chain displayed, barely old enough to shave, he must have been on the verge of something important.  Is the picture a memento of his first day on the job, his first day of college, or his appearance before a judge to answer charges of outhouse-tipping?

     And this young lady?  Why did she choose this picture to hand out to friends, or send with job applications?  Has she just taken a degree or been awarded a prize for her essay on toenail fungus?  Without a note on the back, we have no way of knowing.

     Particularly susceptible to this sort of thing, of course, are cdvs of children.  Since children don’t especially need business cards or calling cards, these were probably made by proud parents to leave at friends houses to let them know how little Jehosaphat was getting along.  With time, babies change their faces and often become largely unrecognizable.  So unless they got labeled right away, the picture now tells us very little.  Except personality, perhaps.  This toddler is clearly plotting world domination.

     While this one is simply wishing she were someplace else, and wondering why the man with the big machine there keeps telling her about watching birdies she can’t even see.

     This infant wants to know how much longer he has to sit barelegged on this mangy sheep skin.

     Whereas this young man wants to know when his next coffee break is.  (Man, this job will be easier once I can tell time.)

     This one, of course, knocked off work early and is already on his way to the club, where he can show off his fancy new suit.

     And get into a fight with this other party animal.  (Though he may be late; he looks a little overwhelmed by whatever contraption that is the photographer has him sitting on.)

     WHY can’t people label their photographs, especially those on cdvs, made especially for dropping off at other people’s houses?  Why can’t they be more like the parents of Harry, here.  Thanks to the fact that they labeled AND dated this cdv before they dropped it off, and thanks to the photographer putting a logo on the back, we know that in August of 1879 there lived a lad named Harry D. Earl.  And he really liked thumbs.

     Makes me feel much better.

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