A Picture is Worth... Two Cents?

One of the saddest things I do is wander antique stores and find boxes of discarded ancestors, those tintypes, dauerreotypes, cdv and cabinet card photos of the names relatives some genealogist will never know. These men, women and children, unnamed and unknown, languish and wait for some creative crafter to snap them up and use them as art. As a crafter who has done just that, they are a great resource; as a genealogical researcher, I wish more people had A.) identified these relatives, B.) dated the photos and C.) saved them for future generations.

In the 1860’s, when the first practical paper photographs were developed, Matthew Brady, one of the most celebrated 19th century American photographers, and his counterparts made photography affordable for the masses. The American public and Civil War soldiers flocked to the small Main Street studios to capture their likenesses as keepsakes for loved ones, leaving behind an extremely valuable record of their anonymous, if not invisible, lives.

During the Civil War, a wide variety of revenue taxes were imposed to help pay for the war effort, and in 1864, as the war raged on, Congress passed an act that also taxed photographs, ambrotypes, and daguerreotypes.

From 1 Aug 1864 to 1 Aug 1866, tax stamps were required on all photographs. Photographers were instructed to affix a revenue stamp of the appropriate denomination, determined by how much the purchaser paid for the image, to the back of each photograph, then cancel the stamp with their initials and the date. Tax stamps came in varying denominations but the most common stamps were the 2 cent and 3 cent stamps because most cdv's and tintypes cost between 25 cents and 50 cents.

The boom of the cdv photo made this very profitable for the North, as the new 'multiplying' camera, with nine or more lenses, could produce as many photographs with a single click. Any number of exact copies of the same image could be produced from the original glass plate negative, and photographers advertised discount prices for purchases by the dozen.

However, it was the same duplicity of photographs that made affixing revenue stamps time consuming, and many photographers took short cuts, like canceling the stamp with an “X” instead of their initials and date, or pre-cancelling entire sheets before they were even affixed to the photographs. It is also plausible that some photographers may have stopped using the stamps at all to save money, if they thought they could get away with it.

In 1865, Congress reduced the tax on images costing less than 10 cents to a 1 cent tax. The tax on photographs was repealed in 1865 and tax stamps on photographs were no longer required.

While the presence of a tax stamp narrows the likely date-range for the image, the absence of one is not necessarily proof that the photograph falls outside the 1864-1866 time frame. Stamps often fell off, or were removed by stamp collectors. Sometimes only a discolored stain remains where a stamp used to be, but other times there is no visible evidence. And since the Confederacy did not impose a tax on photographs, pictures taken in those states did not have a stamp.

Moral of the story - the sharpest minds and the most brilliant photographs both fade. Identify the smiling faces and date your pictures. Future generations will thank you for it.