The Civil War Connections Blog

Cartomania

Collecting cards has been a hobby of Americans for far longer than many may realize.  Today, someone might have a signed baseball card of Mickey Mantle or Hank Aaron on their shelf, no doubt an excellent conversation piece and noteworthy specimen of Americana.  However, in the 1860’s, the portraits of a very different kind of celebrity appeared on a special type of collectible card that intrigued members of the public.  Politicians, generals, authors, and other public figures were featured on what were called “cartes de visite,” or calling cards, which were sold in photography studios or given as gifts.  Often the cards would be mailed to the celebrity printed on them in the hope that it would be returned signed by the recipient.  After the card was returned, it would be placed in an album separate from that of the family, but held in high regard nonetheless.  (Imagine owning an album with figures such as John Boehner or Nancy Pelosi, weird!)  This practice was so popular during the Civil War that the nation’s obsession became known as “Cartomania.”[i]

One of Abraham Lincoln’s personal secretaries, John Hay, joined in on the craze, but he didn’t always have to mail his cards to get them signed.  Hay compiled a collection of 200 cards while employed under Lincoln and placed them in an elegant leather bound album (pictured below).  Many of the cards in Hay’s collection are believed to have been obtained when the respective celebrities would visit the Capitol; however, this was not the case for the Confederates showcased in his album.[ii]

Image 1 of 55, Civil War photograph album, ca. 1861-65.  

Hay’s Album. Image 1 of 55. Civil War Photograph Album, ca. 1861-1865. James Wadsworth Family Papers.

In this post I have included some of my favorite pages.  I was extremely surprised and happy to see Winfield Scott make an appearance; the mind behind the Anaconda Plan and rather pompous yet brilliant hero of the Mexican-American War.  I would highly suggest perusing the digitized copy of Hay’s book HERE where you can flip through the pages and examine each card individually. Though I prefer not to make sweeping generalizations, I think it would be safe to say that any Civil War historian would love to own Hay’s collection of signed cartes; baseball cards don’t hold a candle to this compilation of nineteenth century celebrities.  Even as a self-proclaimed baseball fan, I would give my right arm to add Hay’s volume to my shelf; a sentiment that I cannot extend to any card signed by my beloved Atlanta Braves. 

Image 6 of 55, Civil War photograph album, ca. 1861-65. 
(From top left to bottom right) Abraham Lincoln, Hannibal Hamlin, Andrew Johnson, and B.F. Wade. Image 6 of 55. Civil War Photograph Album, ca. 1861-1865. James Wadsworth Family Papers.
Image 38 of 55, Civil War photograph album, ca. 1861-65.  

(From top left to bottom right) Jefferson Davis, Alexander Stephens, P.T. Beauregard, Robert E. Lee.  Image 38 of 55. Civil War Photograph Album, ca. 1861-1865. James Wadsworth Family Papers.

Image 40 of 55, Civil War photograph album, ca. 1861-65.  
(From top left to bottom right) Ulysses S. Grant, Winfield Scott, Nelson Miles, and Henry Halleck.  Image 40 of 55. Civil War Photograph Album, ca. 1861-1865. James Wadsworth Family Papers.

[i] “Civil War Photograph Album ca. 1861-1865.” James Wadsworth Family Papers. Words and Deeds in American History: Selected Documents Celebrating the Manuscript Division’s First 100 Years. The Library of Congress. Web. 22 May 2012. <http://memory.loc.gov/cgi-bin/query/r?ammem/mcc:@field(DOCID+@lit(mcc/051))>.

[ii] “Civil War Photograph Album ca. 1861-1865.” James Wadsworth Family Papers. Words and Deeds in American History: Selected Documents Celebrating the Manuscript Division’s First 100 Years. The Library of Congress. Web. 22 May 2012. <http://memory.loc.gov/cgi-bin/query/r?ammem/mcc:@field(DOCID+@lit(mcc/051))>.