We recently made available a series of portraits from Record Unit 95, largely featuring 19th and early 20th century scientists, politicians, educators, Smithsonian employees, and general correspondents and contemporaries of Smithsonian staff. The majority of these are cartes-de-visite and cabinet cards, both popular photographic formats used for portraiture between the 1860s and early 1900s. These card photographs were frequently traded with friends and acquaintances, and often included in correspondence to the Smithsonian. Administrators Spencer Fullerton Baird and George Brown Goode would also solicit these photographs from prominent scientists of their time.
Rather than focusing on the subjects of these portraits and their context within the Smithsonian universe, we want to shift our gaze to the simple beauty of the designs, known as backmarks, featured on the backs of the card mounts that conveyed information about the photographer.
A product of the Victorian era, card mount backmarks often featured indulgent flourishes, ornate decoration, lavish type-setting, and patterned backgrounds. Many included design elements related to photography or portraiture, such as studio curtains, cameras, palettes, or light symbols. While some photographic studios had original art created for their mounts, others may have chosen a design from a photo supply catalog.
Included among the embellishments is very useful contextual information that helps us add more descriptive value to our catalog records. In particular, the addresses offer a helpful way to more accurately date this kind of material, especially useful in cases where this information is not included elsewhere on the finished product. Photo studio locations changed often, so a photograph can be dated by conducting research in the New York Public Library's Photographers' Identities Catalog, which tracks addresses and active dates of photographers. For example, the below card mounts show different addresses for photographers Samuel Montague Fassett and Frederick Gutekunst. Fassett was at this Chicago studio between 1872 and 1875 and was located at this Washington, D.C. address between 1876 and 1880. Gutenkunst briefly operated in his 704 & 706 Arch Street studio between 1865 and 1866 before a more permanent move to his 712 Arch Street location.
See below for a selection of backmarks from Record Unit 95!
Smithsonian Institution, Photograph Collection, Record Unit 95, Smithsonian Institution Archives
Smithsonian Institution. Assistant Secretary in charge of the United States National Museum Correspondence and Memoranda, circa 1884, Accession 00-026, Smithsonian Institution Archives
"Rolling Up Our Cardigans with Record Unit 95," by Emily Niekrasz, The Bigger Picture, Smithsonian Institution Archives
Photographers' Identities Catalog database, New York Public Library
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