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Buying and Selling Cabinet Cards 1865-1905

Buying and Selling Cabinet Cards

David S. Shields

Purchasing photographs of celebrities became a popular pastime in1860 when the carte de visite created a vogue.  These inexpensive paper images mounted on a 2 ½ x 4 inch card afforded their possessors the pleasure of holding the famous in the palms of their hands.  Royals dominated the early collections, as did politicians, civil war officers,  divines, and opera singers.  E. & H. T. Anthony sold albums in which the images could be arrayed, providing several formats, the most popular of which contained slots for four CDV’s per page with 25 pages. In late 1865 both Jeremiah Gurney and Mathew Brady began offering a larger format photograph, “the carte imperial.”  “At first it found but little favor, as there were no albums large enough contain pictures of that size.”[1] This lack was quickly remedied, and the greater fidelity of the larger sized image drove ballooning sales.  The larger sized image became known as the cabinet card.

When the public first purchased cabinet cards, would-be customers went to the photographers’ galleries--To Gurney’s or Fredricks’s or Howell’s or Sarony’s where images lined the walls of spacious viewing salons.  But in New York a second venue quickly emerged where one could purchases cabinet portraits from any of the city’s theatrical photographers. These retail dealers in photographs concentrated on Nassau Street—Thomas H. Levy, E. B. Fay.[2]   The corner of Nassau and Beckman Streets in the decades after the Civil War was the busiest in America, and associated with the rise of photography because Samuel F. B. Morse, who brought the art from France, performed his first experiments there.  In 1881 a reporter from the New York Tribune observed, “At a store in Nassau Street it was said that actresses’ pictures sold the readiest of any class.  They were bought mostly by young men, a number of whom made collections embracing every actor and actress coming to New York.”[3]

Photographers galleries and retail dealers enjoyed intense business in the winter months, a doldrum in spring, and a revival in summer when tourists visited Manhattan.  Metropolitan theatergoers dominated the winter trade and bought the reigning queens and to a lesser extent kings of the stage.  The summer visitors, however, had a more promiscuous interest in beauty and sentiment.  It was for these indiscriminate lovers of beauty that stores began stocking pictures of any pretty person whom a photographer could get to pose—chorines, society girls, or models recruited from regular portrait business.  Beginning in the 1870s and expanding through the 1890s, this portion of the stock grew.  In 1893 Kate Jordan visited Ritzmann’s, one of the large retailers, on Broadway.  “On the walls, in glass cases, in the windows, were lines of photographs, tiers of them, and in boxes and stacked rows, a full ton of them.  Photographs everywhere.  There were actors and actresses galore, minister, pugilists, authors, statesmen and women who are photographed for beauty’s sake alone.  These last were in the majority.”[4] Jordon spoke of the odd fashion among well-heeled tourists to “make up collections of photographs—beauty albums—and others of people with tragic or pathetic histories.” One wonders given the density of imagery in these shops how eyes fixed on particular beautiful faces, or how the pathetic stories might be foregrounded.  Did a customer’s acquaintance with the latest sad news predispose a search for select unfortunate creatures?  

What can be determined with some certainty is the willingness of photographers such as Benjamin J. Falk, Otto Sarony, Jacob Schloss, and Jonathan Burrow to expose and offer for sale numbers of poses from shoots of beauties.  When Evret Wendell bought the back stock of Sarony Studio in 1908 and later bestowed the archive to his alma mater, Harvard, he preserved a massive deposit of the “just beauties.” The collection contains long runs of images of girls like the seventeen year old French runaway Lola Gordon [Sarony Studio: Lola Gordon], who became a chorus girl in “The Wizard of Oz,” (1902) but lacked the language skills and responsiveness to become an actress typifies the photo beauty. 

The general interest in beauty influenced the theater in profound ways.  With the rise of the extravaganza, casts expanded with chorines and ballet dancers added as eye candy.  Leading ladies found themselves competing for the focus of the audience’s eyes.  Managers of the 1870s and 1880s ventured young women with little experience but great beauty in conspicuous roles, and certain of these performers—Adelaide Neilson, Maude Granger, Mary Anderson, Mrs. Mary Scott Siddons, Mrs. James Brown Potter, and Lillian Russell became immensely popular.  The older tragediennes who had been the central stars in the theatrical firmament—Charlotte Cushman, Adelaide Ristori, and their ilk—found themselves marginalized in the affections of the post-war generation of theater goers.  Photography, which only required that one pose and not act, amplified the tide toward beauty. 

Commentators identified several consequences of the cultural turn toward beauty. One was the appearance of a new class of creature on the stage, the figurante.  The New York Herald supplied a characterization of the figurante in autumn 1885.  “There are some girls who are conscious of being shapely, and they want to let the world know it.  Don’t find fault with them too quickly.  It’s all they have instead of talent, and they’re not going to hide it under a bushel, or a muslin dress either.”[5]  When queried what qualification a figurante needs to appear on the New York stage, the commentator replied, “A good face and a graceful figure.  A pretty face is always catching, although in spectacles, and the like shapeliness is much consulted.  Then ease and self-possession are needed by both men and women.”  The revelation of the body as a mode of projecting self-possession was the hallmark of the post “Black Crook" American theater. Yet we should not view this revelation as the exclusive preserve of the theater—the physical culture movement, too, made exhibitionism a kind of liberation from the norms of performing American womanhood.  Every bloomer girl scorching across American townscapes on a bicycle showing a Gibson girl hourglass figure disciplined by exercise and not a corset made a similar statement of self-possession as a figurante striding into the limelight.  The photograph made these creatures items of consumption.

But who was doing the consuming? Two contradictory streams of reportage appeared in contemporary print.  On one hand there were the bachelors—from college boys to the legendary Broadway swells. These were reputed to adorned their apartment walls of burlesque queens, Lydia Thompson, Pauline Markham, Maude Branscombe, and the “diva of the dudes,” Lillian Russell.  In 1886 the Boston Herald sketched “A Wall Street Youth” noting that his bachelor apartment was adorned with “a great number of photographs of actresses in various attitudes, and also for the most part in tights.”[6] None of the performers were named, but in 1893 a New Yorker reported of Lillian Russell’s photographs, “Three times as many of her photographs as those of any other actress are sold every year.  She is especially popular with college boys.  A Harvard man bought 90 of her pictures at one time af few weeks ago.  In fact, she is popular with nearly all men.  A well known New Yorker has a standing order with her photographer to send him one of every style of picture she has taken.”[7] Associations of actress portraits and bachelor apartments were so much a commonplace in the final decades of the century that the New York World dispatched a reporter in 1892 to interview typical metropolitan bachelors to determine which were the favorites of the moment.  First question: “Is Miss Russell a favourite?”  Answer:  “Yes and no.  Many rave over her.  For my own collection I have seven large photographs of Miss Russell—mostly in her character in Apollo, as the costume of it becomes her wonderfully.  These are nice grouped above my mantel.”[8] He then assured the reporter that an actress’s mentality had as much weight as her anatomy in the selection of portraits. 

These articles featuring unnamed city bachelors and their tastes in shapely stage women have a fictive quality to them.  Contemporary critics openly doubted that the stage door johnnies and big city swells constituted the heart of fandom.  Some instructed us to put aside the fan boy and turn to the fan girl as explanation of the explosive sale of performer portraits, particularly those of actresses, including actresses in tights.  “The stage door dude lives only in newspapers . . . There is, however, who haunts the stage door . . . . [S]he does not go to the stage door to see the hero, the leading juvenile or the handsome villain, but, astonishing fact, to see the heroine, the ingénue or the soubrette . . . . The stage door girl’s room is usually decorated with photographs of her favorites.”[9] Was the fan girl as mythological a creature as the writer of this piece claimed the Broadway swell to be?  Apparently not.  In the very first newspaper piece published on the sale of portraits of stage personalities, issued by the New York Sun in autumn 1876, we read, “The general adoration of such handsome actors as Rignold, Booth, Montague, Thorne, and others, attributed to school-girls, is not evinced in the purchase of their pictures to any astonishing extent.  The purchasers are mostly women and girls, it is true, but in the main they buy the faces of their own sex.”[10]

The predominance of female buyers posed problems for certain persons: retailers complained of their pickiness: 

            “Here are the Langtrys,” pushing a box toward her.

            “Oh, yes; good! Why, pshaw, no; these are all heads.  I want a Japanese Langtry.”

Sellers also complained of the level of service demanded. “They look at every picture we have, mix the photos up so that it takes the boy an hour to straighten them out, and when they have discovered some photograph we happen to be out of they ask for it and make that the excuse for not buying any.”[11] Since the bulk of the buying was done by women, this complaint seems hyperbolic.  A more interesting problem was raised by social workers who visited the tenements and worried over the expenditure of discretionary money on images. “The Portraits on the bedroom walls and on the bureaus of young working girls are all photographs of pretty actresses—or so nearly all that the exceptions are remarkable. Rarely has she seen pictures of actors.” The tenement worker, herself a woman, theorized, “A picture of a pretty actress represents the acme of feminine charms in beauty, grace, fashionable attire, luxury, ease, success and popularity.  The possession and posting up of pictures of a professional beauty is an expression of mild idolatry—the worship of everything desired by or possible to the sex.”[12] The cultural presumption in this devotion is that beauty, charm, and popularity might be possible to any woman, regardless of class, since they are gifts of providence and attainments of common graces; learning, on the other hand, or extraordinary skill, however, required expenditures of time that no working woman had available.

To characterize the tenement girls’ interest in the actress photographs as idolatry suggested a gulf between wish and reality that precluded anything more than faithful attention.  That was hardly how poor women or women in general reacted to the images.  Knowing that a place on stage was reserved for the figurante, those poor women who had shapes applied to the theater manager for a place in the chorus. Even respectable women understood that the assertion of sexual power entailed in the tights image could be put to personal use, without going on stage, simply by going to the local photographer, putting on a costume, and distributing the image to those you wanted to fall under the sway of you shapeliness.  In 1886 newspapers across the country began printing syndicated stories about “A Rather Singular Craze.”[13]  “There was a time when the posing for photographs in costume was a special privilege of the actress. Now, many women in this city think that they look just as well in tights as the actresses, and day after day I am called upon to photograph some society beauty in costume.” The Chatham Street photographer quoted here indicated that married dominated this trade, though working girls came in on Monday, the usual day off. Problems arose only when the photographer chose to offer a society girl’s photographs for sale, or offer them to a company as an advertising image under a made up name.  

A conjunction of events made the early 1870s the period when the cabinet card became a fashionable consumable.  The E. & H. T. Anthony company and Napoleon Sarony’s partner Alfred S. Campbell had devised mechanical developers that could produce hundreds, even thousands of images from a negative.  The rise of the extravaganza had made beauty a principal attraction of the stage.  The mortality of the Civil War had led to declines of the population of employable men, leading in cities and towns to a resort to women in the workforce.  Working women had disposable income to spend on things that attracted them.  As we have seen, beauty attracted them particularly.

By the mid-1870’s the brisk sale of certain performers’ images captured the attention of newspaper editors. As did the growing ubiquity of display—what had once been confined to photographers’ galleries spread to retain image brokers, then to the windows of any urban retain establishment, then to newsstands, and in the mid-1880s to cigarette packs and advertising.[14] As early as 1876, New York commentators noticed that the image market had shifted from fame to celebrity—from portraits of accomplished people to beautiful people: “Portraits of authors, rifle teams, rowing crews, and men otherwise famous sell numerously; but the bulk of the trade is in the faces of beautiful women.  The general adoration of such handsome actors as Rignold, Booth, Montague, Thorne, and others, attributed to school-girls, is not evinced in the purchase of their pictures to any astonishing extent, but in the main they buy the faces of their own sex.”

Napoleon Sarony in 1884 commented on the development of the market.  It is a matter of some interest that he neglected to mention the first performer that brought him major sales, the bohemian Ada Isaacs Menken, whose death in 1868 occassioned a run on images her had taken in Birmingham in 1863. Sarony spoke of living actresses instead. “The first women for whose pictures there was any noted demand were Fanny Davenport, Clara Morris and Adelaide Neilson.  Very few pictures were sold of Ristori, but thousands were sold of Miss Davenport and other thousands of Miss Morris, although the greatest favorite of early times was Adelaide Neilson.”  Sarony further observed that Mary Anderson was the most avidly sought figure of the 1880s while opera singer Adelina Patti also enjoyed a following, as did Sarah Bernhardt. When a questioner queried the photographer about male subjects, Sarony observed, “Men as a rule don’t sell as well as women, if they are great popular favorites.  The two great exceptions were Montague, formerly of Wallack’s, and George Rignold, who, you remember, play here as Henry V. Why, it was with difficulty we could keep pace with our orders.  Schoolgirls from all over the country, young women everywhere, wanted their pictures.“

Sarony identified Adelaide Neilson as the determinative figure in the rise of the beauty portrait in America.  The English-born actress emerged as a force on the stage precisely because she had the intelligence to exploit her good looks.  “Through assiduous effort she became a good actress, but it was her face that made her fortune, not only because she exhibited it adroitly in acting, but she never lost an opportunity to have it portrayed for public admiration.  The photographer had only to invite her once to his gallery.  From here to San Franciso she faced the camera on every possible occasion.”[15] Neilson did not demand a sitting fee or percentage of the sales (Sarah Bernhardt and the stars of the 1880s inaugurated that practice), but requested a free supply of images if she liked a portrait.  “These she gave away broadcast, and yet always in a manner to impress the recipient that he was a singularly favored individual.”  The recipient of the gift photograph in this account was male.  So we have a peculiar picture of the transmission of these photographs, with the purchased items being consumed by women or men, and gift photographs being sent by actresses to men. 

By 1875 stage beauties as a matter of course kept by them an album of photographs for reference in interviews with the press.  When Clara Rousby made herself available to New York reporters after arriving from London in January 1875, she displayed an elegantly bound album on a hotel tea table.  “It was full of pictures of herself, each with a different expression of face, a different pose, and nearly every one with a different costume.”[16] For an experienced actress, no more convenient way existed to communicate the range of one’s abilities, the depth of one’s experience, and the variety of one’s expression. 

Both Rousby and Adelaide Neilson were English performers who ignited followings in America.  The mystique of the English beauty reached its apogee with the “professional beauty” craze of 1877 to 1882.[17]  Quintessentially embodied in the person of Lily Langtry, the beautiful wife of an English yachtsman who became the mistress of the Prince of Wales, and after their separation, a sensation on the English stage. The Professional beauty occupied an ambiguous space between High Society and the stage, moving from one zone to the other.  Society beauties on both sides of the Atlantic took to dressing up in charity balls,[18] going to photographers in costume,[19] starring in amateur theatrical, then becoming stars of the theatrical world.  Mrs. Patrick Campbell in England and Mrs. James Brown Potter in America followed this pattern exactly. Then there were those women of middling background but blessed with beauty, grace, and wit who married into society.  Langtry herself supplied a definition of professional beauty: “I should say it means a woman whose beauty has been so remarked by her contemporaries that her name has become synonymous with extraordinary physical attractiveness.”[20]  We should note that no single arbiter, not even the Prince of Wales, gives rise to this judgment; it is a communal judgment by ‘contemporaries.’ Communal professsions that an individual is beautiful presuppose that the beauty is sufficiently public to be admired. The stage was one arena of publicity. The cabinet portrait in the shop window another. 

One point that Langtry stressed in her interview was the mutability of the ideal of beauty over time.  Since communities render judgments and communities change, what is seen as attractive will alter with the passage of time, particularly when the media that frame the presentation of beauty depend on the introduction of novelty to refresh interest in what is being shown.  A professional beauty is not a timeless beauty, but a creature of a generation.  Twenty years, a generation, approximated the period in which a woman could appear as a romantic lead.  Age worked its inevitable changes on the flesh, and even rigorously fit and cosmetically ingenious performers such as Mrs. Patrick Campbell and Maggie Mitchell could stretch the period to a quarter century.  If we turn to published notices about the best selling portraits of actresses and actors of the period 1875 to 1905, the heyday of the cabinet card, we shall see that tastes changed with rather greater rapidity than the generation span that Langtry proposed.

The following list presents the master list of saleable images—a hall of fame for popular portraits—drawn from 25 newspaper stories spanning from 1876 to 1908. Those names in bold face have been identified in a story as the hottest sellers of a place and time.  Actresses appear first in alphabetical order, Actors second. Each name is linked to an image above. The genre of the performer, dates of notice with the date bolded when the performer is indicated to be a best seller. Unbolded names were steady sellers.  


BEST SELLERS 1876-1908

Maude Adams   [drama]                   1902   1908

Mary Anderson [drama]                   1881   1882   1885   1888

Belle Archer    [drama]                        1888

Ethel Barrymore [drama]                 1908

Anna de Belocca   [opera]                1882

Sarah Bernhardt  [drama]               1881   1888

Kitty Blanchard  [drama]                    1876

Maude Branscome  [burlesque]       1878   1881

Billie Burke  [drama]                          1908

Marie Burroughs     [drama]               1885

Kate Castleton   [comic opera]         1882

Lina Cavalieri    [opera]                   1908

Georgia Cayvan    [drama]                 1885

Kate Claxton [drama]                      1876   1878

Rose Coghlan  [drama]                      1882

Lotta Crabtree [drama]                   1876   1882

Fanny Davenport [drama]              1876   1881   1885   1895

Emma Eames  [opera]                      1908

Maxine Elliott   [drama]                     1908

Effie Ellsler    [drama]                     1885   1888

Pearl Eytinge    [drama]                    1882

Mary Garden  [opera]                     1908

Maude Granger  [drama]               1876   1878   1881

Alice Harrison   [comic opera]           1876

Caroline Miskell Hoyt   [drama]    1895

Ethel Jackson   [operetta]                1908

Fanny Janauschek  [drama]             1882   1885

Marie Jansen    [comic opera]           1885

Lily Langtry   [drama]                   1881   1882   1885   1887

Nellie Larkelle   [burlesque]             1882

Jeffreys Lewis   [drama]                  1876   1885

Pauline Markham    [burlesque]       1876

Julia Marlowe      [drama]             1888   1908

Sadie Martinot     [drama]             1885

Maggie Mitchell       [drama]             1876   1887

Helen Modjeska      [drama]             1885

Clara Morris           [drama]              1876   1885

Adelaide Neilson [drama]              1876   1881   1882   1885

Evelyn Nesbit         [dancer]             1908

Christine Nilsson    [opera]               1876

Lillian Nordica        [opera]               1908

Adelina Patti       [opera]               1882

Irene Perry           [comic opera]      1882

Annie Pixley       [drama]              1885

Cora Urquart Potter [drama]        1887

Ada Rehan            [drama]              1895

Emily Rigl             [drama]               1876

Eleanor Robson    [drama]               1908

Parepa Rosa      [opera]                 1876

Annie Russell       [opera]                 1882

Lillian Russell   [comic opera]        1882   1887   1888   1893   1895

Mrs. Scott-Siddons  [drama]         1876

Fritzi Scheff         [opera]                 1908

Alma Stanley      [dancer]                1882

Mme. Theo       [comic opera]         1882

Lydia Thompson  [burlesque]           1876

Eliza Weathersby [burlesque]           1876   1878



Lawrence Barrett   [drama]          1881   1882   1887

Kyrle Bellew           [drama]           1886

Edwin Booth           [drama]           1881   1882   1885   1887

Donald Brian          [operetta]        1908

John Brougham        [drama]            1876

Enrico Caruso        [opera]             1908

Giuseppe Del Puente  [opera]        1882

Henry Dixey   [comic opera]            1885   1887

John Drew        [drama]                    1895

William Faversham  [drama]              1895   1908

James Hackett    [drama]                   1908

Henry Irving    [drama]                      1887

Joseph Jefferson  [drama]                  1885   1895

Herbert Kelcey   [drama]                1893

John McCullough   [drama]            1881

Henry Miller     [drama]                  1895

Henry J. Montague   [drama]         1876   1881

Richard Mansfield    [drama]              1895

George Rignold    [drama]              1878

Alexander Salvini  [drama]            1893

Gus Williams    [burlesque]             1882


The Eclipse of the Cabinet Card

The cabinet card was the handy image par excellence. Its 4.5 inch x 6.5 inch fit the palm of the average hand neatly.  The image viewed from one and half to two feet possessed all the detail one might want, yet had an intimate proximity.  The cabinet, by far the most popular format for a card-backed image, cost about 35 cents in the 1890s, with discounts for bulk purchases.  Paris Panels, with flat trimmed tops and bottoms, were somewhat larger, and cost 75 cents.  William Morrison’s table of comparative prices was fairly standard for the profession.

Panels (7x13)                                   $.1.25

Panels (9x14)                                   $1.50

Panels (11x14)                                 $1.50

Panels (14x17)                                 $3.00

Panels (16x20)                                 $4.00

Panels (18x22)                                 $5.00

The 11x14 became the largest card size in mass circulation, adopted by Joseph Byron, Joseph Hall, and later White Studios for their production stills.  Initially they offered card backed versions of the images, but began the simultaneously release in glossy paper images for use by magazine editors.  All of the larger formats were manufactured primarily for use as publicity by theater owners on the circuits.  Yet for devotees of certain performers, these Certain of the life-sized bust images are the most visually arresting visual artifacts of the late 19th century stage.

 The market for theatrical images began to decline with the publication of The Theatre Magazine (founded in 1900 as Our Players Gallery and converted the following year to The Theatre). The editors announced the ambition to feature “pictures from the principal scenes of every play produced in the United States and from many of those produced abroad.  There will be also published in each issue many portraits of actors, actresses, and singers.”[21] This issue featured thirty five such photographs, the next twenty-six, the next thirty five. In each issue at least two images took up the entire 11x14 page. The cover portrait was printed in six colors.  It could be purchased at a New York newsstand for 25 cents, and for 35 in other cities.  The quality of the half-tone images was such that, superadded to the spectacular color cover, it offered the public a bargain so attractive that demand eroded for the hand-held cabinet photo.           

The anxiety experienced by theatrical photographers at the lost of this reliable  stream of revenue can be measured by the energy with which they embraced a decidedly inferior vehicle of reproduction, the post-card, as a replacement.  Post-cards of scenic views had been a fixture of the photography market since the 1880s.  But making the image of a performer the shared image between sender and recipient required some cultural work.  The precedent that made the photographers explore the post card as a medium for imagery was set by the cigarette cards of the 1880s and 1890s.  Cheaply reproduced knock offs of favorite cabinet cards by Ogden’s Guinea Gold Cigarettes, Gail & Ax’s Navy Long Cut Tobacco, Relief Long Cut, Sweet Caporal, Old Fashion Fine Cut Tobacco, and Duke’s Cigarettes.  Each company produced a series of images and, as with most cards, a collecting culture emerged.  Young men would trade cards to complete a series, so the exchange of images, particularly actress images, among persons had become a common practice before the turn of the century.  Yet American photographers did not embrace the postcard until the Parisian photographer Leopold Reutlinger printed his series of art nouveau beauties in 1900.  These images made the French Postcard a byword of risqué titillation. Belatedly the photographers began leasing images to postcard printers, just as they had to the cigarette companies twenty years previously.

The decline of the cabinet card took place most visible at the newsstand.  In the 1880s the newspaper, cabinet cards, tobacco products, and peanuts took up the stand’s constricted space.  In the 1890s slick magazines made inroads.  From 1900 to 1910 magazines and postcards supplanted the cabinet cards almost entirely.  Burr McIntosh, who became the most important cabinet card photographer to emerge at the turn of the century, observed in 1911:

As to the profit in the theatrical photographic business, that depends altogether on what use is made of the pictures.  Until about ten years ago millions of photographs of popular actors and actresses were sold every year.  Now that is absolutely a lost trade.  Before the magazines and newspapers used photographs so extensively, theater-goes had to have an ‘album’ of their favorites.  Now, with a new face of their particular joy appearing almost hourly, an ‘album’ would be ridiculous. [22]

Photographers realized that their images had to appear in magazines, and whether a theatrical producer paid for them, or an editor commissioned a job or wage position, or a photographer sent them to an editor gratis just to get sufficient public presence to secure a society clientele, the economics of the theatrical portrait and the production still had changed, bringing an end to the handy image by 1911. 

What economic arrangement had the magazine overthrown?  From Gurney & Son’s depositing copyright copies of cabinet cards from “The Devil’s Auction” and “The White Fawn” in 1868, photographers asserted a right to protection that the government did not support.  A reluctance to extend copyright protection to photographs arose from the mechanical nature of tis reproduction.  At issue was the photographer’s creativity.  Could the photographer’s skill posing, arranging visual surroundings, and manipulating the image warrant the sorts of protection granted to graphic works of art?  In 1884 Napoleon Sarony in a famous case suing Giles-Burrow Lithograph company for its appropriation of an image of a reclining Oscar Wilde convinced the justices of the Supreme Court that his handling of the photographic process constituted a kind of artistry.[23]  Since George Richardson operated the studio’s camera, Sarony’s authorship of the photograph arose from his “posing” of the subject.  In the 1870s and 1880s newspapers spilt much ink on Sarony’s verbal coaching and posing method.  It grew so famous that it inspired parody:

He is a nervous little fellow, and it is almost as good as a play to have a sitting with him.  He keeps up an incessant talking in broken English, and oses himself before you in 50 different attitudes.  He scolds and praises, and hops around like an Indian in a war-dance, and finally takes your pictures.[24]

At some juncture during his proceedings he would demand a sitter to freeze. He admired actresses above all sitters for their ability to do just that.  When he was not confident of the muscular discipline of his sitter, he would have Richardson take the picture at a moment when had distracted the sitter into natural expression.[25]

While after March 1884 any photographer could copyright any portrait he or she superintended the sitting and be confident that a court would support their property rights in an image he or she created, as the publishing industry increased its dependency on photographic illustrations as technology enhanced image fidelity, it sought to erode photographers’ rights.  Publishers’ chief obstacle in the use of celebrity images was the exclusive image rights agreements that studios negotiated with important persons.  Sarony made use of this kind of arrangement by contracting with  certain opera singers, actresses, and actors. Sarah Bernhardt was the first. This was particularly important in tours by European luminaries.  If it was generally known that a photographer had an exclusive right to a performer’s image—and this was something proclaimed to the public and to the photographic profession—then any appearance of an image resembling a photographed pose in print could be presumed to derive from the contracting photographer.           

These exclusive arrangements proved troublesome and short-lived, lasting five years at most in the early 1880s.  Rival photographers offered sitters unlimited numbers of free images for the right of selling prints from a sitting. Artists exercised a right to refuse issue of an image.  Adelina Patti when she got older resented Sarony’s inability to eliminate her wrinkles and refused release of all but of her images despite the photographer’s $5,000 payment.[26]  Furthermore, “Professional photographing is unprofitable, but, as actors and actresses are the best possible subjects, it is a very good advertisement.  I paid $1,500 to Bernhardt, Langtry, and Oscar Wilde for the exclusive right to photograph them in this country.  I had the sum back in each case many times over.  On the pictures of professional nobodies we lose, for we do them at half rates, and yet have no sale for them.  Sometimes, however, a nobody suddenly becomes a personage, and then we poor obliging artists have our reward.”[27]   By the nobody who becomes somebody Sarony particularly refers to those stage beauties who possessed little talent, but whose face and figure caught on when displayed in the windows and display cases of photographers. Maude Branscombe led the lists of talentless eye catchers and became an international celebrity largely through photographs.  Venie Clancey, Lizzie Webster, and later, Irma LaPierre, Minnie Palmer, a host of single named attractions from the world of the dance or from the Parisian Follies Bergeres supplied Sarony, Mora, Moreno, and Falk a steady income.

Because paying performers of this ilk were a speculation, photographers frequently rendered payment in product.  The beauty would received a crate of images in various formats that could be used in self-publicizing.  Since the stage abounded in performers who reckoned themselves either beautiful or talented, and were only marginally so, negotiating with performers of the second rank proved troublesome.  If one did not command much of an audience or earn critical accolades, the photographer expected a performer to pay for publicity portraits.  The problem lay in that considerable number of actors and actresses who suffered delusions of grandeur.  Benjamin J. Falk regularly sued actresses who did not forward payment after receiving prints, making sure the names got in the papers as a warning to others. 

Several photographers—usually those located in smaller cities—found a remunerative use for second rank performers, employing them in genre photographs—narrative tableaux illustrative of themes, characteristic scenes, or human dilemmas. This kind of photograph took on sufficient importance in the market place that the professional exhibitions distributed prizes in the “genre” images as well as portraiture.  During the amateur photography boom of the 1880s many avocational photographers embraced genre images as their form of artistic expression, so much so that Stieglitz when he appropriated amateurism as the designation of his aesthetic movement, had to torch the practice in his critiques of contemporary photography repeatedly.  Certain professional producers of celebrity images—Fitz W. Guerin in St. Louis and Simon L. Stein in Milwaukee—explored  genre photography to such an extent, that their fame lay in pictorial storytelling rather than portraiture.  Guerin’s rather macabre explorations of the human response to death in his genre scenes extended from children burying a dead rabbit to a physician dispassionately performing an autopsy on a beautiful girl in a laboratory.  [Guerin:  Burying the Dead Rabbit]

One category of performer heavily used in genre images were children.  Children fascinated audiences during the last half of the 19th century.  Indeed, a repertoire of plays with child leads—“Little Lord Faultleroy,” “Editha’s Burglar,” “The Girl I Left Behind Me,” “Bootle’s Baby,” “Little Nell,” and “Partners”—supplied a sequence of girls and boys with star vehicles, establishing performers such as Gertie Homan, Tommy Russell, Bijou Fernandez,  and Laura Hope Crews. In some respect the stage participated in a general cultural fixation on precocious children.  This fascination climaxed in the 1880s with the fiction of Mrs. Frances Hodgson-Burnet, author of Sara Crewe, Little Lord Fauntleroy, and Editha’s Burglar.  The question what to do with these child performers in photographs produced four responses: employ them to create one’s own visual dramas in the studio (the genre response), recreate the familiar stage scenes in which they appeared as tableaux (the Sarony response),  create child beauty portraits making them idols of admiring eyes (the Benjamin J. Falk option), or combine approaches 1 and 3 using attractive children in advertising images.           

Falk’s creation of the child performer beauty portrait in certain respects simply adapted the usual methods applied to adult performers, scaling them to the diminutive proportions of a six to twelve year old.  Exoticizing a girl in the style of Jose Maria Mora with a Middle Eastern headdress and tambourine  transformed round face brunette Henriette to a Mediterranean creature.  Styling five year old Enid in a Fifth Avenue hat with ostrich plumes and draping her shoulders with a feather stole made her a mini-metropolitan.  Falk, a decidedly less strange and scary man than Sarony, won the confidence of New York’s stage mothers, and with their aid made newsstand stars of child beauties such as Marion Chase, Lulie (who inspired in Falk rare experiments in genre scenes of wash day in the tenements), Rita, Marguerite, Flossie Sutton, Jessie, and his favorite, “Little Rose-Bud.” [Falk: Little Rose-Bud in Tree] Issued in 1888, the climactic year of the cultural child craze, Falk’s cabinet, presents his model as a self-possessed, handsome country girl, perched on the sturdy branch of a prop tree.  She candidly engages the eyes of an on-looker, gazing down on her spectator.  Falk granted her the same self-sovereignty, intelligence, and naturalness that he  gave the women who interested him—Belle Archer, Mrs Cora Brown Potter, Cleo de Merode, or Amy Busby.  One could imagine another girl buying the image, a mother, father, or young boy. 

The infantilization and sexing up of girl models fell to other photographers in the 1890s, particularly those involved in the production of advertising images.  It is perhaps useful at this juncture to recall that the sexual mystification of the burlesque queens in the 1860s  entailed no infantilization; instead of rendering women baby dolls, they were made Amazons, given male attributes, trousers, and later tights that displayed the mature amplitude of their bodies.  It was only after the cultural emergence of “the girl” as the culturally potent figure in the last dozen years of the 19th century, that its reduction to the girly took place.  The Chicago theatrical photographer William M. Morrison assisted in this change.  His 1898 Anheuser Busch Beer ad showing an eight year old girl,  elbow propped on beer barrel like a fuddled bar maid, stein spilling in a loosely gripped right hand, shocks with its play of age, alcohol, and allure.  [Morrison:  Beer Ad]

Morrison’s embrace of advertising added a third revenue stream besides direct sale of images, and the walk-in trade in portraiture attracted by his reputation as a celebrity portraitist. Until the 1890s, the employment of theater celebrity portraits in advertising had been fraught with problems.  The lithographic printing companies who dominated public advertising imagery producing posters and handbills had been the most aggressive poachers of photographers’ work.  The Burrow-Giles Lithograph Company at 22 Gold Street in New York had targeted Sarony’s best selling sittings for its color posters on behalf Brown’s Iron Bitters and other clients.  While attention has focused on their appropriation of the photograph of Oscar Wilde, the company had pinched a tinted photograph from the Lily Langtry sitting for “An Unequal Match” in the same year.  [Burrow-Giles-LillyLangtry-Brown’s Bitters]  No payment was made to Sarony.  Sarony’s response was to establish his copyright.  Then he founded Sarony Publishing Company to engage in the mass reproduction of his images.  Yet he never lent his images to purveyors of goods and services.  Nor did Falk.  Both however occasionally permitted cigarette makers to make use of images for their premium cards included in cigarette packs. 

Whether or not a theatrical photographer embraced advertising depended on their ability or lack of ability to secure payment from editors, theatrical managers, and performers, on their personal concern for ‘artistry,’ and their ability to sue violators of their copyright.  The second point deserves particular attention.  Beginning in 1891, with Alfred Stieglitz’s campaign for artistic photography in the pages of the American Amateur Photographer, artistry was insistently connected to the pictorial elements of an image, and dissevered from narrative elements, particularly of a generic sort.  Advertising cherished story-telling in the 1890s and would do so until the 1910s when fashion imagery—determinedly pictorial in character—married with theatrical personality in metropolitan studios to create fashion photography.  For the last generation of cabinet photographers, a personal choice between art and having photography become an instrument of sales of non-theatrical merchandise, a stark binary, determined one’s path.  Sarony, Falk, Marceau, and Schloss cleaved to the ideal of artistry.  Morrison, Dana, and Tomlinson chose commerce. 

[1] “Popular Photographs,” New York Herald (October 26, 1884). 

[2] “Nassau Street,” New York Herald (February 24, 1879), 10.

[3] “Photographs,” Cleveland Plain Dealer (November 4, 1881), 2; reprinted from New York Tribune.

[4] “Beauty Albums,” Worcester Daily Spy (July 25, 1893).

[5] “The Profession of Posing,” New York Herald (September 27, 1885).

[6] “Business and Pleasures,” Boston Herald (February 24, 1886), 3.

[7] “Photograph Favorites,” Bismark Tribune (July 8, 1893).

[8] “Photographs for Swells,” Omaha World Herald (February 1, 1892).

[9] “Stage Door Girls,” Harrisburg Patriot (January 3, 1896).

[10] “Some Curious Facts about the Sale of Photographs,” Chicago Times(November 5, 1876). Reprint from New York Sun

[11] “The Craze for Pictures,” New York Herald (April 24, 1885).

[12] New York Sun (December 18, 1887), 9.

[13] “A Rather Singular Craze,” The Omaha Daily Bee (May 26, 1886), 2.

[14] “Girls Pictured,” Kansas City Times (May 28, 1886). This treats the ubiquity of the cigarette portrait particularly.

[15] “Adelaide Neilson-Her Photographs, and the Way She Distributed them.” Kansas City Star (September 28, 1885). Reprinted from the New York Letter.

[16] “An English Stage Beauty,” Dallas Weekly Herald (January 16, 1875), 1. Reprinted from the New York Sun.

[17] For the impact of the craze of sales, see “Actresses’ Photos,” The Evening Star (November 11, 1882), 7.

[18] “Photographs of ‘Our Best Society,’” New York Tribune (June 2, 1876).

[19] Love to be Photographed,” Kansas City Star (February 18, 1899). Reprinted from the New York Letter. “Society Bells,” Wheeling Register (March 29, 1877). Reprinted from the Springfield Republican.

[20] “Power of Women’s Beauty,” Wheeling Register (June 16, 1895). Bok Syndicate Press story, 1895.

[21] “A Foreward,” The Theatre Vol 1, #3 (May 1901), 1.

[22] Julian Johnson, “Fame Via the Camera Route,” Los Angeles Times, August 20, 1911, III:1.

[23] An eye-witness account of Sarony’s interactions with Wilde during the famous sitting were published as “Art’s Apostle,” Boston Herald, January 15, 1882, 8.

[24] Brunswick, “The Enthusiastic Sarony,” Boston Saturday Gazette, January 27, 1877, 2.

[25] “Taking People Unawares,” Trenton Evening Times , May 1, 1897, 3.

[26] “Queens of the Camera,” Wheeling Register, June 25, 1883, [3].

[27] Saint Paul Globe, February 3, 1889.  Patricia Marks, Sara Bernhardt’s First American Tour (Jefferson, NC: McFarland, 2003), 168.