For my 2015 novel titled INDIGO POINT, I’ve been researching actresses and theaters in the Victorian era. I’ve come across some wonderful “photo calling cards” of actresses of the time, some standard portraits, others depicting actresses in their most famous roles as Pocahontas or Meg Merriles, or the Widow Cheerly in The Soldier’s Daughter, a comedy popular in 1825.
These portraits, called cartes-de-visite were popularized by a French photographer named Andre Disderi. Born in France in 1819, Disderi opened a photo studio in Paris. It is said that Napoleon III halted his army and stopped in one day in 1859 to have his mug shot taken, and began the craze for these portraits, which were usually cheaper photographic images printed on stiff cardboard. Their durability made them popular as calling cards.
Two years later, Disderi was earning 50,000 pounds a year from one studio alone. Throughout the 1860’s the demand for these cards increased. Photographers in New York took advantage of their popularity and set up studios catering mostly to American stage actors of the day. One such photographer was Napoleon Sarony. In 1866, he established a studio on Broadway in New York City and for the next 30 years photographed virtually every actor and actress of the New York stage.
A cartes de visite provides a clue to solving a murder in INDIGO POINT. When you read the story I hope the experience will be a bit richer for having learned a little bit about these early celebrity photos.