Carte-de-visite photographs were the hot social media of the mid-nineteenth century. These small portrait photographs, mounted on cards, were some of the first such images to be commercially reproduced, and they created a craze for collectible photographs. People collected carte-de-visite portraits of family, friends and celebrities and then mounted them in photograph albums. Celebrity cartes-de-visite were sold at stationer’s shops the way postcards and greeting cards are today.
This enthusiasm for curating one’s own album of interesting photographs reached its height in the 1860s, so it is no surprise that when the renowned abolitionist and black rights advocate Frederick Douglass visited Hartford in the middle of the Civil War, a brand-new carte-de-visite image of him was made available to the public. Today in 1864, the Hartford Courant informed readers that: “S. H. Waite, No. 271 Main Street, has taken an admirable photograph of Frederick Douglass, which may be seen in the store window of Geer & Pond’s, where copies (carte de visites) can be purchased.”
That same day, Douglass spoke at Hartford’s Allyn Hall. His subject was Black civil rights, with a particular focus on the pay gap between Black and white soldiers in Civil War service. A reporter noted that Douglas thought “the distinction made in paying the colored soldier less than is paid the white recruit, when both share equally the burdens and dangers of the contest, very unjust; and in this few intelligent men will disagree with him. The color of the man who fights well should have nothing to do with his payment as a soldier.”
Douglass had argued passionately for the right of Blacks to serve in the union army, and he had actively recruited young men to serve in the so-called “colored” regiments, including Connecticut’s 29th Regiment Colored Volunteers. In January 1864, Douglass had eloquently addressed the men of the 29th in New Haven the preceding January,
.“You are pioneers of the liberty of your race,” he told the men. “ With the United States cap on your head, the United States eagle on your belt, the United States musket on your shoulder, not all the powers of darkness can prevent you from becoming American citizens. And not for yourselves alone are you marshaled—you are pioneers—on you depends the destiny of four millions of the colored race in this country. If you rise and flourish, we shall rise and flourish. If you win freedom and citizenship, we shall share your freedom and citizenship.”
At the Hartford talk on April 16, Douglass spoke to a “fair audience,” a reception that marked a significant improvement over his earlier visits to the state. In May of 1863, he had had considerable difficulty in even finding a Hartford venue that would let him speak. The advertisement promoting the carte-de-visite during the 1864 visit suggests that Douglas’s local popularity had risen considerably during the intervening year.
Conscious of his public image, Douglass sat frequently for portraits. He viewed the
emerging technology of photography (and its popularity) as a way to counter popular prejudices about Black Americans, and to iconographically represent black freedom and dignity .” The photographer for Douglass’s carte-de-visite shared these goals. Thirty-two-year-old-year-old Stephen H. Waite had come to Hartford from Massachusetts, where he was friends with the radical abolitionists John Greenleaf Whittier and Theodore Parker. He had opened his Hartford photography studio in 1863, and was an ideal choice to take the image memorializing Douglass’s visit, an image that has become one of the better known images of the great champion for Black freedom and equal rights.
Renee Graham, “Frederick Douglass Used Photographs to Force the Nation to Begin Addressing Racism,” WBUR, the ARTery
Nancy Finlay, ” ‘An Admirable Portrait’ of Frederick Douglass” connecticuthistory.org
Damaris Whitaker and Steve Thornton, “Abolitionist Frederick Douglass’ Hartford Visit Important Symbol,” Hartford Courant