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Old Photographs - Sub carte-de-visite size portraits

Towards the end of the 19th Century, as competition forced down prices between professional photographers, so some looked for new markets and for new products beyond the well-known carte de visite, cabinet and postcard formats. Some found a way ahead by introducing "cheap work" developing smaller, less expensive portrait formats, using less material, and marketed these, sometimes as novelties, to those who hitherto may not have been able to afford more traditional photographic products. Some photographers shifted primarily to these products, while others added them to their existing offerings. So we find from around the 1890s to perhaps the 1920s a variety of different offerings and formats of tiny portraits, some with different names, no standard nomenclature, a whole body of work which photo historians have not yet named or considered as a genre. These might be loosely described as a “sub carte-de-visite size formats”. A few of the formats produced did, and still do, have names, and we will first list these before going on to discuss the important un-named remainder.

Some of these portraits are poorly produced, indifferent quality images, but others are delightful little gems, full of character and detail and depicting different clients to the middle and upper classes found on surviving cartes de visite and cabinets. But these images don’t seem to have survived very well for a number of reasons:

  • small unmounted photographs are easily damaged and lost,
  • few purchasers paid extra to preserve them in albums or frames, (even though there were albums and frames for tiny portraits).  
  • some are wrongly identified as photo booth portraits and, because of our familiarity with these today, are thought to be of recent origin and little value or interest
  • few have the benefit of surviving captions or annotation to identify the sitter, the date, the occasion or the photographer.
  • by today's standards these prints are tiny. The combination of small size, lack of colour, simplicity of pose and lack of props or background all combine to convey to us a sense of low value or interest.

For these reasons, few examples of these tiny portraits have survived clearing the estates of at least two passing generations. It is interesting to speculate, what proportion of Victorian and Edwardian photographic portraits survive today, depicting the upper and middle classes? Might that be as high as 30 to 50 percent of these photographic products still surviving today (even though most surviving images lack information about the sitter's identity)? Compared to that, probably less than 1 percent of these tiny portraits, showing mainly Edwardian working class people, have survived.

Higher volume low cost portraiture posed another problem for the photographer – when the subject returned to pick up their prints, how to match the right print to each sitter and to do so quickly? Someone photographed for the first time might well not recognise their own likeness. This was achieved in many cases by showing a negative, job or ticket number within the image itself, sometimes by the simple expedient of hanging a scratched number on a slate on the backdrop, sometimes with a special camera which simultaneously photographed an internal counter and the sitter.  There was a range of specialist moveable camera backs and printing devices associated with these products, with patents by photographers such as Spiridione Grossi, Dennis Benjamin Seaman, George Thomas Bayley and others.

Stickybacks photographs are a sub-genre of the sub carte de visite size portrait. A lot of detailed research has been done into these, especially by David Simkin (see the amazing http://www.photohistory-sussex.co.uk/), but with that exception, there doesn't seem to be a lot of interest out there into this whole forgotten genre of sub carte-de-visite size portraits.

This site deals primarily with Cambridgeshire photographers. However, we have included these pages describing this genre because it is certain that there were Cambridgeshire photographers who produced this type of product and it is likely that, over time, more will be discovered. Examples so far found include: Stickybacks at Midgate Peterborough, Stickybacks at Narrow Bridge Street Peterborough and Edward Sphere Ball in Regent Street Cambridge. E.S.Ball's 1900 advertisement is shown below. (Cambridge Independent Press,  Fri 11 May 1900 p4)

12 Midgets 2/6d. 6 Carte de Visite 2/6d.  3 Cabinets 3/-.  Wedding and Family Groups, Residences, &c. 
Edward S. Ball, 57, Regent St., Cambridge.  Over eight years Operator to Scott & Wilkinson."

We have tried in the information below, and in linked pages, to provide examples and descriptions of survivals from this genre of images. Most of the examples used are from outside Cambridgeshire, which we will hope to replace over time with local material.

The shrinking carte de visite

The standard carte de visite was a photograph pasted onto a slightly larger card mount which was approximately 2.5 x 4.15 inches. Costs could be reduced by using cheaper mounts, often without any customised printing, by reducing the size of the photograph stuck to the mount, then by reducing the size of the mount itself as well as the size of the photograph. The composite photograph below illustrates these trends - in the top left hand corner is a fairly standard cdv by Gates Brothers, Cambridge. The top row has four other identical sized mounts but with reducing sizes of photographs attached; all four mounts have no printing on the front or rear, but instead bear the photographer's details impressed into the card with a hand embossing machine (the photographers are, left to right, Geo Pendry Nottingham, Geo Pendry Nottingham, J.Kerby and Son Ipswich and Harwich and Frank Hull of New Barnet). All of these top row images would have been sold as "cartes de visite" and would be regarded as such by today's collectors. The next two rows show a gradual reduction in the size of both the photographic images and the mounts, the smallest of these is a photograph just 0.85 x 1.2 inches on a mount 2.4 x 2.85 inches (by G Wilson of Grange). Would the photographers concerned have sold these as cartes de visite, or under some other name? I don't think that today's collector would call these smaller versions "cartes de visite". They are tiny photographic portraits, dressed up as something better and more traditional, by the simple expedient of sticking them onto a cheap card mount.

Collection of shrinking cartes de visite

Stamp Photographs

These were novelty photographs produced postage stamp sized, with a stamp like appearance, generally with a portrait within a border and in some cases with perforated edges. The earliest advertisement found for these is from 1863. An example pair of stamp photographs are shown below. These have been stuck onto a blank carte de visite mount, probably to display them within an album. There is more on stamp photographs on our site here.

Two stamp photographs


UK advertisements for midget photographs can be found in newspapers from around 1883, midget cartes de visite from around 1889. The term "Midget" became so widely used that it might have been applied to a whole range of different sizes of smaller prints and mounts.

The two images below, from Marion and Co's Photographic Catalogue of 1906, are of two different types of moveable or repeating backs for studio cameras. These replaced the standard plate-holding camera back and were used to expose only a part of the plate each time the shutter was fired. The photographer moved the camera back after each shot to successively expose all the parts of the plate, leaving four or six smaller exposures or more on each plate. The second of these is the more complex, with a round counter on the top and a locking mechanism so that it was not possible to create a double exposure by forgetting which positions on the plate had already been used. This back was patented in 1906 by the photographer George Thomas Bayley (believed to be George Thomas Bailey b.1862 Heavitree Devon, from 3 Union Street, East Stonehouse, Devon) (Patent GB190509729 (A) ― 1906-03-15). These "midget" repeating backs would produce six images on a half plate, four images on a quarter plate or six images on a quarter plate, landscape or portrait. This would theoretically give a variety of sizes: 1.6 x 1.4 in and 1.4 x 1.09 in and 2.13 x 1.6 in, but, depending on how much overlap or non overlap and trimming of the resultant images, the finished sizes would all be smaller.

Marion and Co, repeating midget back

Marion and Co, repeating midget back, 1906.

Marion and Co Soho Repeating back

Marion and Co "Soho" repeating back for stamp and midget photographs.

The British Midget, or Midget carte de visite, mount was 1516 x 214 inches or 3.3 x 5.7cm (according to Cassell's Cyclopedia of Photography, Ed B.Jones, 1911).

Hawkes 8 George Street, Plymouth, a studio established a quarter of a century, enthusiastically advertises Midget cartes on Page 1 of the Western Morning News, 23 May 1883, in the following terms:

The Carte Midget - Most popular in Paris
The Carte Midget - Takes well in London
The Carte Midget - Bound to go in the provinces
The Carte Midget - First introduction in the West
The Carte Midget - Most suitable for the present style of dress
The Carte Midget - Can be rendered at half the normal price
The Carte Midget - Noted in the extreme
The Carte Midget - You are bound to like them
The Carte Midget - Grand style for gentlemen’s half-lengths
The Carte Midget - Equally suitable for children
The Carte Midget - Vignettes are most charming
The Carte Midget - Come and see them
The Carte Midget - Most comical little pictures
The Carte Midget - Wonderfully taking little pictures
The Carte Midget - Just what has been wanted for a long time
The Carte Midget - Look at Hawkes’ window 8 George Street

Below is a selection of midget cartes, often with mounts printed on both the face and reverse, and with the overall appearance of a scaled down version of the traditional cdv.

A range of midget cartes de visite


Painted miniature portraits were produced for those who could afford them from the mid 18th century until after the introduction of Daguerreotypes and photography. The word "miniature" seems to have been used as a general descriptive term applied to smaller photographs since the 1850s, for example "miniature photographs to fit in lockets". Today collectors and sellers often refer to midget cartes as miniature cartes. However this does not seem to have become the name for any specific sizes or types of photographs or mounts.

The Royal Miniature

The image below is of a small portrait, about 2 in x 1.5 in, in an ornate embossed card mount 3 in x 2.25 in. The mount is labeled "The Royal Miniature" and on the reverse is shown the studio - "Sticky Backs, 48 Biggin Street Dover and Atlanta Pier Road Ilfracombe". Was "The Royal Miniature" a standard size and type of product or simply a grand name given by a Sticky Back photographer to a mount used for his portraits?

Royal Miniaturereverse of Royal Miniature

American Midgets

The example below is a portrait measuring just 1.35 x 1.2 inches, on flimsy paper, stamped on the reverse The American Midget, Lime Street, Liverpool. There is a dappled background and the print has faded somewhat. Although this sounds like a format size, it may simply be the name of a Liverpool studio from around 1900.

American Midget photograph

Promenade Midgets

Below is an example of a Promenade Midget carte de visite by W.M.Harrison of Truro. The mount is black card, printed on the face only, with rounded corners and a plain reverse. From the dress of the subject this would appear to date from 1890s. The carte unusually caries the description "PROMENADE MIDGET" on the face of the mount. Its size is 3.2 x 1.55 inches. Cassell's Cyclopedia of Photography, Ed B.Jones, 1911, describes the Promenade Midget mount as 318 x 138 inches.

Promenade Midget carte by W.M.Harrison of Truro


According to photo historian Peter Stubbs ( www.edinphoto.org.uk ), Minette photos measured about 1.5 ins x 2.5 ins mounted on cards 1.625 ins x 3 ins (broadly similar size and proportions to the ubiquitous cigarette card). Photo historian Jeremy Rowe (www.vintagephoto.com) gives the size of a minette carte as 1.5 x 2.38 in or 2 x 3.13 in. A search for the word "Minette" in the British Newspaper Archive does not provide a hit on a single photographer's advertisement mentioning this product. The variation in possible sizing and lack of advertising suggest that this must be a rather unusual product. The four photographs below could be Minettes from their sizing, but may not have been either labelled or sold as such. From left to right these are: 1) unknown boy by Cambridge photographer Ralph Starr (cropped slightly at the bottom) measures 1.4 in x 2.65in on a mount 1.5in x 3in, 2) unknown man by D.B.Seaman and Co, Douglas IOM on a single piece of photographic paper measuring 1.6 x 2.75in, 3) unknown girl, seated, black border, unmounted and printed on photographic paper, photographer unknown, 1.5 x 3.5in, and 4) vignette of unknown girl, photographer unknown, unmounted, printed on photographic paper and dated 1932, 1.8 x 3.45 ins.

Four Minettes

Stickybacks or Sticky Backs

The stickyback photograph was a small portrait, sometimes sold as a strip with multiples of the same image, sometimes as single images. Usually there is a photographer's name and/or address and job or negative number at either the top or bottom of the image, but these details may have been cropped off the print by some owners. A novelty feature was that the stickyback photo, like a postage stamp, had a gummed reverse, sticky when moistened. We have a full description and an explanation of the origins of the sticky back photograph on our site. See also the discussion below on "other tiny portraits"

Links to other Stickybacks pages on this site:

Various stickybacks photographers also produced other products, for example prints in real photograph postcard format.

Below are four stickyback photographs from the author's collection. The top two of unknown ladies are from 54 North Street Brighton. The pair below, cut from a strip, are dated on the reverse 1912 and were taken at Mr Stickybacks in Dublin and feature, left to right, Miss Dolly Hill, Mrs Ludlow Carlemes (Florrie), Miss Amie Rigby and Miss Kate Young.

Stickybacks examples


The first image below of an unknown man in a straw boater measures 1.6 x 2.05 inches, and has been inaccurately cut on a slant from a strip. Across the bottom of the strip is written "Morrotype" and a number 855. In the bottom left corner are some other numbers or letters which are indecipherable, but may be a partial date, best guess 1907. There is a similarity with a stickybacks photograph, but this is slightly larger and does not seem to have had an adhesive back. It could be a contemporary copy, possibly an improvement, of the Stickyback. The second photograph is a Morrotype apparently dated 12 June 1905. This image is reproduced with the kind permission of the owner, Penny Guest, and shows her Great Uncle, Sam Stephenson, b. 1881 who served in the Royal Marines Light Infantry and the Royal Navy Fleet Reserve. In 1905 Sam had connections with Halifax and Portsmouth, so it is possible that the Morrotypes were produced ar one or other of these locations. On the other hand, the dress and demeaner of the other sitter suggests a possible seaside or holiday location. Presumably a photographer with the name of Morro, (or possibly Morrot), claimed this as his or her own invention. No obvious trace has yet been found of such a photographer in the British Newspaper Archive, 1901 and 1911 England census returns, UK Patents of the period, or trade directories of Yorkshire and Hampshire. Below the two Morrotypes is the reverse of the 1905 image which has the remains of what might have been a photographer's or a picture framer's label - any suggestions as to its origin would be most gratefully received.

Morrotype1905 Morrotype of Sam Stephenson

Reverse of 1905 Morrotype

American Gem Tintypes

These tiny little tintypes are usually presented in a little oval cut out in a carte de visite sized mount. Often rather dark and murky in appearance, there are sometimes rust (oxidation) marks showing through the gummed paper sealing the metal plate onto the back of the mount. Below is an example with a festive greeting mount. For comparison purposes two other oval mounted photographs are shown - the tintype is on the left, photographer unknown.

Gem type and two other oval mounted small portraits

Below are three more examples of American Gem Tintypes. The one in the centre is in a mount with simple embossed decoration. There is a printed label on the reverse holding the tintype in position in the mount. The label shows this to be by The American Gem Studio, Commercial Road, Landport, Portsmouth. According to the label they were selling Gem portraits nine for 7.5 pence. This studio was also offering "Cameos" and cartes de visite.

Three American Gem tintypes

Reverse of American Gem tintype

Other mount sizes

There must have been other mount sizes and products with specific names. The two cartes below for example are obviously on mounts by professional mount manufacturers and do not fit into any of the above descriptions. That on the left, on a cream mount, is by Hawke of Plymouth measures 4.25 x 2 inches. That on the right, photographer unknown, on green facing card, with maroon reverse and gilt chamfer edges has no information about the photographer and measures 3 x 2.25 inches. Both have blank reverse sides.

Two cartes of unknown format

Other Tiny Portraits

Once the various named sub-genres of smaller portraits are taken into consideration, we have left a variety of tiny photographic portraits, examples of which are illustrated below.

Rather sadly, the late photo historian Roger Vaughan wrote:
"In every collection there is a small amount of dross left in the bottom of the drawer - well here is mine! - I do not fully understand what they are, but they appear to be early 20th century, and from some sort of photo booth? they have numbers above their heads 302, 304. .... The small size of these (2 inches by 1 inch and a half) makes me wonder what they were for? Just a cheap format perhaps. [I am told that they were suitable for cutting up and putting in lockets]" He illustrated this page with just a few tiny portraits. (www.cartes.freeuk.com/small/small.htm) .

Roger Vaughan's comments probably represent the views of today's collectors and photo historians. We think these tiny portraits deserve greater recognition. As to what they are called, we believe that, were we able to show these to professional photographers of the time when they were taken, they would simply call them "Stickybacks". To illustrate the point, three different writers to the editor of the British Journal of Photography in 1911 referred to the sector of their trade producing this type of work as: "the cheap jacks, the postcard, stickyback and 1s 11d enlargement branch of photography"; "the third rate, stickyback or postcard man"; “stickybacks and postcards .......class of business”. ( British Journal of photography 17 Feb 1911 p 130, British Journal of photography June 16 1911 p466, British Journal of Photography Sept 15 1911 p712.)

So perhaps today's collectors and photo historians should recognise these tiny portraits as "Stickybacks", even where the image does not include that word, or a known address of a stickyback photographer. Perhaps also "Stickybacks" need not even exhibit adhesive gum on the reverse.


Variety of sub carte de visite size portraits (1)


Variety of sub carte de visite size portraits (2)


Variety of sub carte de visite size portraits (3)


Variety of sub carte de visite size portraits (4)

Sub Carte De Visite Size Portrait Accessories.

Accessories were certainly available for these tiny portraits in the form of frames and albums. Below are two inexpensive tiny frames made from tooled scraps of leather.

tooled leather frames for tiny photos


Other Photographic Products Following On From The Sub Carte De Visite Size Portrait

Following on from these tiny early 20th century portraits we can discern a number of other photographic products and trends. Walking Pictures is a generic name for the candid unposed images taken of visitors and holidaymakers walking in the street, usually at holiday resorts. They were snapped then accosted by the photographer who would give them a ticket to collect their prints later from a nearby studio, prints on offer included postcards which could be sent to those left at home. This is an excellent site on walking pictures https://gohomeonapostcard.wordpress.com/: a couple of example walking pictures are shown below.

Two examples of Walking Pictures 1920s/30s

Tiny photos were also produced by photobooths. We have material on photobooths here. A product often mistaken for the photobooth photo is the Polyfoto - more on which is here. Another similar product is the passport photograph. British Passports included a photograph from 1914. From 1926 the passport photo had to be full face with no hat and a size was specified. In 1932 Cambridge Photographers Ramsey and Muspratt were charging 3/6d for three passport photos. This link will take you to an article about UK passport photos: http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/magazine-30988833.

Ping Pong photos or Penny Portraits

This https://griffonagedotcom.wordpress.com/2017/12/23/ping-pong-photos-an-introduction/ is a superb article by about "Ping Pong Photos" or "Penny Portraits" in the USA . In the United States “Ping Pong” or “Penny Portraits” were names applied to those studios producing portraits in the format of small, very inexpensive, photos or postcards for the masses. (i.e. similar in many respects to UK Stickybacks) Such studios could be found at US seaside or other holiday resorts. The name “Ping Pong” was derived from the photographer clicking the back of the camera back and forth into predetermined positions to expose a small part of the plate in each shot. Neither phrase has been found in the British Newspaper Archive. Photo historian Orla Fitzpatrick in her brilliant “Jacolette” blog for Sept 2011 has a post highlighting a postcard portrait of a young lady by the “American Ping Pong Studios” at 33 Upper O’Connell St , Dublin.


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www.FadingImages.uk is a non-commercial web site for local and family historians, listing photographers in Cambridgeshire 1840-2000
This page was last modified: 18 September 2018, 12:34

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