When studio photography became affordable and accessible in the mid 19th century, many Americans took the opportunity to have their likenesses captured on glass, metal or paper.  Different formats gained or lost popularity as new photographic processes were invented.  By the 1860s, the carte de visite was one of the cheapest and most popular ways to have your photo taken.

the windsors

The carte de visite (CDV, or “visiting card,” named for its size) is a 2 1/8 x 3 1/2 inch albumen (paper) print mounted on a 2 1/2 x 4 inch card. This format was produced through the end of the 19th century, although by the 1870s the larger cabinet card print – mounted on 4 1/2 x 6 1/2 inch card – had become more common.  Since the albumen print method allowed for multiple copies of the same image, you could ensure that all your friends and family had a picture of your (not usually smiling) face.  Cards featuring celebrity portraits were marketed to their fans, and special photograph albums, with pages sized to hold CDVs and cabinet cards, were developed to cash in on the “cardomania” sweeping the nation. (An example can be seen at the bottom of this post.)

Our couple here, Henry and Mary Ann Windsor of Clarksburg, visited an unknown studio in September of 1865 to have their portraits taken.  (The photos were donated by Jane Sween, a descendant.)  We know the specific date thanks to the revenue stamps affixed to the reverse of each one.  The U.S. Revenue Act of 1864 included a tax on “luxury” items such as photographs; each of the Windsors’ CDVs was taxed 3 cents, meaning the photograph itself cost between 25 and 50 cents.  The photographer hand-canceled the stamps with his initials, A.S., and the date “Sep. 1865.”  (Some CDV cards include the photography studio’s name and address, but these are very simple cards with no information.) 

mary ann windsor tax stamp

Most of the stamp on Mrs. Windsor’s picture (the right side is covered by the white MCHS library label).

The images themselves are also fairly simple.  The couple took turns sitting in the photographer’s chair, in a vaguely ‘homey’ setting complete with a cloth-covered table, but without the elaborate props (curtains! furniture! plants!) or painted backdrops that litter the scene in many other studio portraits of the late 19th century.  (Although a closer look shows that there may be some kind of scenery painted onto the backdrop, after all – is that a tree on a mountain, on the right?) Mr. Windsor has his cane; Mrs. Windsor is holding a small book, perhaps the same book that is on the table in her husband’s portrait.  Neither is really smiling, as the exposure time required was a little long to hold a smile, and anyway this was a serious occasion; getting your portrait taken was not an everyday event. They are probably wearing their best outfits. 

Henry Windsor (1793-1871) married Mary Ann W. Simmons (1795-1868) in Montgomery County on November 17, 1818.  They lived at Henry’s father’s farm, “Homestead,” northeast of Clarksburg, and had eight children, two of whom died in their early teens.  There are two lovely little descriptions of the couple, collected in the genealogy files in our library, which shed some light on the personalities hinted at in these portraits:

By “J.A.W.,” Dec 22, 1896: “My youngest uncle on Father’s side was Uncle Henry, who lived on the old Grandfather [Thomas] Windsor [farm] ‘Homestead’ about 2 miles N.E. of Clarksburgh [sic], Montgomery Co., MD, where we all attended school.  Uncle Henry Windsor was a shorter man than any of his sons, but of a stout build.  His wife was a Miss Simmons of Frederick Co., MD.  We thought much of our Aunt Mary Windsor, and living closer to each other of any of our first cousins, we visited oftener and became more strongly attached to each other, and very many were the pleasant, happy visits we made back and forth with each other.  Sometimes one or more of the children and at other times almost the whole would visit each other, especially on holidays.  Sometimes go afishing, sometimes gathering strawberries, hurtleberries, or cherries, or (in the Autumn) chestnuts, or walnuts, or hickory nuts or persimmons.  Uncle Henry’s farm was very hilly, stony, and of poor soil so that it was a hard struggle with them to make a comfortable living.  ‘Aunt Mary’ took in weaving for to help.  The loom she used was of Uncle Henry’s manufacture.”

By Keturah Ann Windsor Waters, daughter of Henry and Mary Ann, 1902: “I was going to tell of my Papa he was such a good man when we were little when our supper was over we all had to gather around the old fashioned fire Place Papa with his note book all sing Mother in one corner Papa in the other he was one of the best singers I thought I ever did hear I think he is still singing in his heavenly home Mother was a Sweet woman also she died first [i.e., before Henry] the night we thought she would die we wanted Papa to go upstairs he was so afflicted he did not go he sat by her bed [downstairs] weeped oh it was so afflicting”

Our current special exhibit looks at photography, specifically snapshots of local people and places from about 1890 through the 1970s.  There’s also a little side exhibit on studio photography, including examples of mid 19th century formats such as the CDV.  Mrs. Windsor’s picture was on display in our two most recent exhibits; when it came time to choose images for our current photography exhibit, I decided to spread the love and use other CDVs instead.  But I couldn’t resist including her somehow – so she gets her own blog post.


A CDV album from our collections, owned and donated by the Van Hoesen family. The photo cards were inserted into the page/sleeve; the one on the right has been removed so you can see what I’m talking about.