During the Civil War, it could be risky business for a young lady to give her photograph to a soldier, who wanted it for company, for the memory of home, to keep his hope of returning to her. The romantic implications were serious, implying a promise or even an engagement. And should romantic fancies fade, as they so often do, a girl’s reputation might be seriously tarnished if her unreturned photograph was in the possession of a less than scrupulous man.
A solider had his “likeness” or “shadow” taken in uniform, by photographers and in studios as he could find them. Many men had a new photograph taken with each rise in rank. A respectable young lady had her photograph taken in studios with backdrops and furniture, in genteel poses. Less respectable young ladies were photographed wearing only a smile, a furtive photographic pleasure for many a soldier far from home and the watchfulness of nice girls.
Out of fashion by the mid-1850’s, daguerreotypes were images made on a copper plate. Delicate to preserve, they were usually kept in small hinged, velvet-lined padded cases, with protective glass cover.
In the 1850’s and through the war, ambrotypes were made on glass plates, the image looking like a negative until blacking was painted onto the glass, the reflecting silver making it a positive image. These were often hand-tinted. Tintypes, on a metal plate, made an image with a dim tone and grey highlights, but they were more durable and cheap, and were sturdy enough to put into an envelope and mail.
Invented in 1851, the wet collodion photographic process gradually replaced the other types of photography. This process produced a glass negative and a beautifully detailed print. Given the quality of the prints and the ease with which they could be reproduced from the glass plates, the method thrived from the 1850s until about 1880.
Popular from 1860 on, a carte de visite was an albumen print, a 2-1/2″ x 4″ print on cardboard. The camera could make 8 separate negatives on single plate, so these images were faster to process and cheaper to buy. “Cardomania,” they called the fad, as it became popular to give away one’s portrait. Cartes de visite were also sold of celebrities: President Lincoln, General Grant, Queen Victoria.