In the A.S. Williams III Americana Collection at the University of Alabama, leather and cloth-bound photograph albums from the 1860s and 1870s line the dark wooden shelves, some dozen in all, small and large, cloth and leather, embossed and plain. At first glance the photographs they contain, called cartes de visites, all seem remarkably similar: pieces of card stock about 2.5 inches wide and 4 inches tall, mounted with albumen images of stiffly posed men and women, hair glossed back, faces anonymously blank. Many of these figures are in fact anonymous, or nearly so, identified only by a scrawled pencil inscription—Aunt Maria, Uncle Paul—or perhaps a line of description on their hidden flip sides. A closer inspection, though, reveals some intriguing narratives: images of young men in uniform next to miniaturized reproductions of popular paintings of pets; a portrait of Napoleon across from a Civil War general; a striking cartoon of Lincoln and Washington in mutual embrace. Though the Williams Collection also owns a rare two-volume edition of Alexander Gardner’s famous Sketchbook of the War, it is in these more modest albums that the domestic narrative of the 1860s and 1870s is written.
Nineteenth-century viewers were just as likely to envision the war through the more personalized lens of the family album as through the battlefield photographs by professionals such as Alexander Gardner and Matthew Brady, which have taken the more prominent place in the historical record. The carte de visite album, which became commercially available just as the country headed into war, was an important means for a domestic middle-class audience to contend with and record their experiences of the Civil War. Literary historian Ellen Gruber Garvey’s assertion that scrapbooks “open a window into the lives and thoughts of people who did not respond to the world with their own writing” is equally true of the carte de visite album. These leather- or cloth-bound albums, accessible to a range of budgets, allowed collectors to arrange small photographs in a personalized mix that often juxtaposed commercially reproduced images of artworks and celebrities alongside the more intimate studio portraits of friends and family members. During the Civil War and Reconstruction periods, this eclectic mix of the public and private included prominent political figures and wartime generals.
Although these albums were common in Northern and Southern middle-class homes, they can be difficult to interpret for historians and family members alike. Identifying the person—or people—who put the albums together can be challenging, as can tracking down information about the sitters. The albums themselves, with their thin and fragile paper pages, are an obstacle rather than an aide to interpretation. Removing the photographs to read the inscriptions on the back cannot easily be done without damaging the paper sleeves. These difficulties often leave key historical questions, such as the precise dating of the albums and the stories behind the images, unanswered.
Interpretive challenges aside, many of these albums can nevertheless offer insights into how ordinary Americans from both the North and the South experienced the Civil War. One of the fascinating aspects of these works is the way that they anticipate social media like Facebook and Twitter by mixing personal and popular photographs. Yet unlike these open-form twenty-first-century media, the book structure of carte de visite albums encouraged a compiler to present his or her story with a thought-out beginning, middle, and end. An excellent example of such a narrative arc is the Perley E. Collings Album, a tan embossed leather album kept after the Civil War by a former infantryman. As this volume shows, the micro-history of carte de visite albums, although sometimes all too open to interpretation, can tell us captivating stories that go beyond the history of photography into topics such as the significance of popular art images to daily life, the relationship between the domestic and the battlefield, and the continuing impact of the Civil War on the lives of post-war Americans.
Compilations such as the Collings Album were created with the aim not just of recording personal histories, but also of inspiring general interest. In his book Reading American Photographs, historian Alan Trachtenberg writes that the commercial reproduction of well-known battlefield and camp photographs as cartes de visites, and carte de visite series such as Brady’s Album Gallery “permitted their owners to assemble sequences on their own” as “private panoramas” in personal image albums, creating their own narratives and captions for views of the war. In the case of family albums, such personalization went one step further, as compilers mixed portraits of family members with political and sentimental prints. Like so many nineteenth-century documents that to modern viewers can seem like intensely private things—letters, diaries, scrapbooks—family photograph albums were intended for both private and public consumption. Although recording a personal history, they were placed openly in parlors, inviting friends and acquaintances to browse their pages.