Friday, July 23, 2021


By Mary Davis

Charles Joice (Personal Family Collection)

Today, people take dozens of pictures a day, but back in the 1880s, a person was fortunate to have just one photograph of a loved one. I can’t help but feel that the value of a photograph has been diluted with the plethora of digital images, both ones we’ve taken and the deluge of them on the Internet.

In The Débutante’s Secret, a stranger watching Aunt Henny has a cabinet card he is often looking at. But what is a cabinet card? The term and general meaning of cabinet card has been in my little brain filed under “things I can use in my stories set in the late 1800s and on,” but I can’t remember specifically when I learned this information.

Photographs were first printed on paper from a negative in 1847. That’s a lot farther back than I realized.

Allen Calkin (Personal Family Collection)

When photography was beginning to gain popularity, cartes-de-visite (visting cards) were created in France in the 1850s, a smaller (2.5 x 4 inches) precursor to cabinet cards. Cabinet cards consisted of a thin-paper photograph (roughly 4 x 5.5 inches) mounted on a light-to-heavy-weight cardstock (roughly 3.5 x 6.5 inches). Where the cartes-de-visite were small and designed to give as calling cards or to give to a friend, cabinet cards by design were meant to sit upon a cabinet and could be viewed from across the room.

Agnes McGregor (Personal Family Collection)

Due to the photography process and difference in paper, earlier photographs and cabinet cards were the brownish sepia tone because of the albumen process used. Albumen is found in egg whites. This process was replaced by collodion, gelatin, and gelatin bromide processes, which generally created black and white photographs.

Cabinet cards were first introduced in 1863 in landscape format before they introduced portrait style. Though they were around in the 1870s, they rose to the height of their popularity in the 1880s and began to decline in the 1890s.

Harold Blakey (Personal Family Collection)

Over the decades, various weights and colors of cardstock were used to mount these photographic memories on. Light-weight card and light colors were more common in the early years (1866-1880), then heavier card and darker colors from 1880s on. Borders and lettering also changed from decade to decade. Some had one or two lines in red or gold and some were edged in one color or another. Often some sort of embossing framed the picture.

Vanity, too, was a consideration. From nearly the beginning, photographers employed artists to touch up negatives to hide facial imperfections before making prints. I suppose this was wise to keep customers happy if they were going to lay down a chunk of money. Besides, the photographer’s name was generally printed or embossed on the card so others could find them to have their portrait taken.

E. D. & Mary E. Shugart 1908 (Personal Family Collection)

For a time (early on), cabinet cards supplanted the photographic album that had become popular with the smaller cartes-de-visite. The cardstock used for cabinet cards was generally thicker than for the cartes-de-visite.

With the invention of the Brownie camera in 1900 and personal photography becoming popular, cabinet cards fell out of favor. The last ones were likely made in the 1930s, but they had been mostly gone since around 1920.

***All images of cabinet cards in this post are from my private family collection and may not be used elsewhere without written permission. I feel blessed to have these treasures.

Russel & Floyd Calkin 1903 (Personal Family Collection)

I love to see tons of pictures of my grand-babies, but I also value these single images of bygone relatives. I love the feel of a physical picture in my hands and print off photos just so I can hold them.

Do you prefer digital or physical copies of pictures?


THE DÉBUTANTE'S SECRET (Quilting Circle 4)

Will Geneviève open her heart to a love she never imagined?

Washington State 1894

Geneviève Marseille has one purpose in coming to Kamola—stopping her brother from digging up the past. Deputy Montana has lived a simple life. But when a fancy French lady steps off the train and into his arms, his modest existence might not be enough anymore. A nemesis from Aunt Henny's past arrives in town threatening her with jail. Will she flee as she’d done all those years ago, or stand her ground in the town she’s made her home? When secrets come out, will the lives of Geneviève, Montana, and Aunt Henny ever be the same?


MARY DAVIS is a bestselling, award-winning novelist of over two dozen titles in both historical and contemporary themes. Her latest release is THE DAMSEL’S INTENT (The Quilting Circle Book 3, Salah Award Winner). The Quilting Circle Book 4, THE DÉBUTANTE'S SECRET, will release August of 2021. Some of her other recent titles include; "Holly and Ivy" in A Bouquet of Brides CollectionCourting Her Amish HeartThe Widow’s PlightCourting Her Secret Heart , “Zola’s Cross-Country Adventure” in The MISSAdventure Brides Collection , and Courting Her Prodigal Heart . 2019 titles include The Daughter's Predicament and "Bygones" in Thimbles and Threads. She is a member of ACFW and active in critique groups.
Mary lives in the Pacific Northwest with her husband of over thirty-six years and one cat. She has three adult children and three incredibly adorable grandchildren. Find her online at:


  1. I have several of these cabinet cards as well (although I didn't know they had a name.) We enjoy them so much more when there is a name on them. We have a collection from my grandmother and great-aunt that have no names on them. i don't think anyone imagined the photos would be kept for generations. Although i love printed photos we are digitizing ours so they are easier to preserve and take up less space.As we get older and are working on downsizing we have thousands of pictures. From our ancestors to the present. Rare pics your family collection will remain with us even after they are digitized. This was a very interesting article.

    1. Jubileewriter,
      I'm glad you enjoyed this post. I am mesmerized by these old photos. If you plan to discard your physical copies of old photos, you could ask your local library if they would want them. Or perhaps a local historical society would want them. Or you could send them to an eager person like me who loves those physical copies to hold in their hands.

  2. Thanks for posting! Your family pictures are awesome! I'm torn between digital and printed photos. Due to the fact that I have 5 or 6 boxes of printed photos that I have no idea what to do with I can understand the move to digital. But not having any quick access to my digitals photos as they are a bit scattered on devices, I regret not having the printed ones. And yes, I do know that I could take advantage of a digital (cloud) service and get them all in one place. I don't care for technology that much and it might require too many brain cells!!

    1. Connie,
      I agree with not wanting to put them in the cloud. I don't like using that many brain cells either. Plus, it feels like it puts a physical distance as well as the time distance away from past generations. I like to hold photos in my hands.

  3. We have some of these cabinet cards of my husbands family, although I was unfamiliar with the name. We are so blessed to have them. I love physical pictures. Growing up, we paged through family albums every time we visited my paternal grandparents. I never tired of looking at them.

    1. Linda,
      I love physical photos too. There is nothing like holding them in your hands.

  4. this is a wonderful post. thanks for sharing. I have always loved old photos. my husband and i have a number of them from our families ancestors. so fun to go through them. i now like digital, but always will love the physical photos more.

    1. Lori,
      I love the old photos too. Seeing their faces makes them come alive in some way.

  5. I have worked on genealogy and my family history for a long time and through the journey have ran across all kinds of photos. When I found cabinet cards, I researched the history of photographs in's a fascination subject. I gave Presentations for our local historical society to many groups and taught a photography 101 class on finding old photographs and how to identify them. My prized possession if the 1912 postcard photograph of my great-grandmother holding her son, my grandfather.

    1. Karen,
      That 1912 postcard photograph is a treasure indeed!