Photo of the Week: Personal Correspondents

[Lincoln and son], circa 1864; John B. Woodward papers, ARC.275; Brooklyn Historical Society

[Lincoln and son], circa 1864; John B. Woodward papers, ARC.275; Brooklyn Historical Society

In April 1865, General Lee surrendered the Confederate Army of Northern Virginia at Appomattox Court House. Thanks to the popularity of cartes de visite photographs, like the one pictured above, we can better understand how personal and nationalized portraits shaped the wartime experience on the battlefront and the home front. Cartes de visite first came to the United States from Paris in 1859 and because incredibly popular. They were the first inexpensive, mass produced photographs and for the first time, working and middle class people could afford to have their portraits taken and reproduced so they could give them to loved ones. In Brooklyn alone, the number of photography studios doubled between 1858 and 1864, many of them in downtown Brooklyn on Fulton Street. Photograph albums were invented so that Americans could house the growing number of cartes de visite that they amassed. Photography and photograph albums allowed Brooklynites to maintain a connection to family members, even if away at war.

The photo of the week is a carte de visite of Lincoln reading with his son Tad. While cartes de visite in BHS’s collections often feature everyday Brooklynites who distributed their portraits to loved ones, many people also collected widely-distributed cares de visite of famous people. Collecting these seemingly personal images of national leaders crystallized a collective sense of nationalism among Americans. The above photograph is particularly unique because while it is posed, it feels like a candid, private moment. The portrait, observed Andrea Volpe in a recent article on the New York Times “Disunion” blog, “evokes comfort and protection, not from a president consumed with war and politics, but from a tender patriarch.”

This photograph comes from the John B. Woodward collection. This collection consists of correspondence, ephemera, scrapbooks, cartes de visite, cabinet cards, and other materials relating to Brooklyn resident John Blackburne Woodward (1835-1896). To learn more about this collection, be sure to check out the finding aid here. This photograph, along with many other cartes de visite and letters, are now on display in the Personal Correspondents exhibit at Brooklyn Historical Society. There is a rich history and connection between photography and the civil war which can be explored further through this unique and engaging exhibit featuring items from the BHS collection. It’s not to be missed!

Interested in seeing more photos from BHS’s collection? Visit our online image gallery, which includes a selection of our images. Interested in seeing even more historic Brooklyn images? Visit our Brooklyn Visual Heritage website here. To search BHS’s entire collection of images, archives, maps, and special collections visit BHS’s Othmer Library Wed-Sat, 1:00-5:00 p.m.

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