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.