What fits into your shirt pocket, is a little bendable but basically sturdy, and shows the photographic portraits of nearly 500 people? No, not your iPhone.
The answer is the carte de visite (cdv) pictured here. It is backmarked for Ashford, Brothers & Co., of 76 Newgate Street, London, and was probably created in 1863 or 1864. Its caption reads,
“Upwards of five hundred photographic portraits of the most celebrated personalities of the age. With a hand-magnifying glass, every portrait will be seen perfect.”
This recent arrival in the Lincoln Collection caught our eye because Abraham and Mary appear in the second row from the bottom, in the center. Both photos were taken in mid-1861, but the carte’s centerpiece — a floral circle traced within the montage — shows the British royal family. Just below Victoria and Albert (he died in Dec. 1861) are the Prince and Princess of Wales, Albert Edward and Alexandra, who were married in March 1863. Lord Palmerston, British prime minister (1859-1865), looms just over that floral family.
Americans fill the bottom two rows, plus George Washington above Lincoln, and politically this card may be judged ‘neutral’ (except, perhaps, for its placing of the prime minister above the royal family). To the right of Lincoln are Jefferson Davis and some his cabinet and generals; to the left of Mary are an equal number of Union men, including editor Horace Greeley at bottom left near Edwin Stanton and Simon Cameron, both of them a secretary of war and another clue that this was certainly made no earlier than January 1862. But we can detect no Ulysses Grant or George G. Meade, so this may pre-date August 1863, when full news of their major July victories reached Europe.
As for those other 400-odd faces, mainly British but evidently some Europeans and a few Asians, we welcome any facial-recognition experts among our readers to send us their ideas. Shakespeare, Dickens, Thackeray, Florence Nightingale, Isambard Brunel are likely. Much of the left column depicts women, with a few more here and there.
Our collection’s previous record “tiny faces” cdv, made in New York, depicts 109 Union commanders of the army and navy, with each name printed on the back. This almost-500 cdv suggests not just that the British were technically a little ahead of the Americans in their skilled use of lenses and artful collage, but that the entire science of photography, a quarter-century old when this card appeared, had made leaps not unlike what the laptop and microchip underwent between, say, 1985 and 2010.
Knowing what we do now of photography’s tricks, colors, shadings, and overall development since 1864, just imagine what the next 150 years could bring in the power of computing. And Lincoln would have liked that: he grasped the importance of rail, riflery, and cameras to his own career, and surely would have appreciated the chance to let the people get new information as thunderously as the rains fall. Yet he also might have preferred that 500 names could be printed on the back of a cdv as readily as their faces were. He was a man of the word, not of the image.