With the rise of relatively inexpensive albumen printing in the 1860s, photographic visiting cards—universally known by the more tony-sounding cartes de visite, reflecting their French origins—became wildly popular.
Of a standard size of 2½ by 4 inches, they could be inserted in commercially available albums. School and college students, no doubt encouraged by photography studios, soon took advantage. In the decades before the rise of the photographic yearbook (Williston’s Log first appeared in 1902), seniors typically purchased photo albums and filled them with the cartes de visite of their classmates.
Recently a set of cartes de visite stamped “Graduating Class, Williston Seminary, 1862” came into the hands of Rex Solomon ‘84, who has generously donated them to the Williston Northampton Archives. It is a significant gift. Though incomplete, it is the earliest set of class photographs in the Archives’ collection.
The images are in especially good condition for their age and chemistry. Typically, chemicals, impurities, and moisture in the original paper, glue, and cardboard backing react with the environment and one another, causing fading, yellowing, mildew, and the deterioration of the paper itself. But after 150 years, these photographs remain remarkably sharp and clean.
Around the turn of the 20th century, the United States and Europe were swept by a craze for postcards. Useful not only for mail, the cards were snapped up by scrapbookers and collectors. Cities and towns, large and small, published “views.” They were a source of civic pride. Easthampton was no exception. In fact, largely through the enthusiasm of a local shopkeeper and photography buff named Charles J. Keene,1 Easthampton was featured in more postcard images than any other U.S. location except New York. The Williston Northampton Archives hold nearly 300 postcards of the school and the town.
Many of the older and more attractive cards were published by Raphael Tuck & Co., ca. 1890-1915, although the photographs used for the cards sometimes dated from the 1880’s or even earlier. Tuck developed a process of tinting black and white photographs to produce color images via lithographic printing. When images were colorized, they were often altered to include vehicles and people not present in the original photographs.
1Keene’s other claim to Williston Northampton fame is that he lived in what is now French House.
(“Wish You Were Here” will be a regular feature of “From the Archives,” probably until we run out of postcards.)
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