On the fringe of reality there are stories of love and loss and ambition and folly. Repentance and dreams. Sex and passion and nightmare. A collision of fantasy and the physicality of flesh. Immortality, despair, torture, and meaning. Cowardice and strength. Blood and life and hope. Some dark place.
Fannie Fenn of Charlotte, Michigan, c. 1900.
This post is not going to be a history of cabinet cards or even what defines them. (I don’t know enough to speak to either of those topics.)
I don’t know why I like them. I can’t articulate how I feel when I hold one. I can’t explain why some speak to me, while others do not. I just like them. I like imagining the life lived. I like the feeling of history in my hand, the tangible object and the intangible existence of one long dead. I make up stories in my head of who the person was, what made them special, and stories of who they loved and who loved them.
Unknown woman. Greenfield, MA
Too often there’s no way to know anything of the subject beyond who took the photo and where the photo was taken. Being able to put a name to the person is rare. Rarer still is being able to find out anything beyond the barest biographical data of where they were born, whether they married and had children, and where they finally died. Sometimes this makes me sad, knowing that photo was of a special day, commemorated for a forgotten reason, and all of this is lost, even the date unrecorded. Was this a coming of age photo? First communion photos are boringly common. Primarily young women in their virginal white dresses clutching a prayerbook or bible, standing next to a candle in an obvious studio shot made up to look affluent. Was this to document a birthday, a new dress, a marriage? (Or, morbidly, a death?)
Unknown women. Boone, IA
I collect all kinds of cards, but primarily attractive young women, interesting women with expressive faces, or men with some sort of striking feature (mostly interesting facial hair). I prefer isolated headshots or photos taken away from a studio. I’m not excited by group shots. I love photos where there is something interesting in the photo, something that obviously meant enough to the subject to want to see it preserved forever (like a toy, or a musical instrument, or beloved pet). I prefer photos of Iowans, and I love when I can figure out who the person is.
An antique dealer once told me, “Two is a spare, three is a collection,” so by that recconing I am a collector. I never really set out to collect cabinet cards, and I would say I am barely a collector, but I have a couple hundred of these cards. Probably fewer, actually. I’m fairly picky when it comes to what I will buy, but buy I do, so at some point you either have to admit you collect, or stop buying. Someday I can imagine having thousands, but I’m not there yet. Financially, I also can’t justify having a large collection. I don’t like paying more than $2 for a card, but for special ones I will shell out more. I’d say I average about $3 a card. The cheaper the card, the less likely I will take a pass, but every card costs me at least a dollar. Take $3 and multiple that by thousands and at some point you’re talking a fairly sizable investment. My photos aren’t that valuable, and I can afford them, but still, I balk at the idea of having thousands of dollars tied up in these things.
Someday I would like to start selling as well, part with the ones I don’t care for (occasionally I buy a small set of cards where I am buying the whole lot only to get one or two that I really want), to perhaps make my hobby be fully self-funded. That would be awesome.
I registered the domain somedarkplace.com with the idea of having a place where I can publish scans of the cooler cards. My vision would be to write a flash fiction or short story for each image, and to publish a post a day, and at the end of the put together the photos and writing into an actual book. I’ve had this dream for years, and I’m honest enough with myself to know it’s not really a practical dream. Still.
My next project will be getting that site off the ground. I know how I want it to look, and how I want it to function. Finding the time to make it happen will be the challenge.
I want to learn more about the process of creating these cards, of dating them, and the various varieties that exist. I am sure I’ll write more about them as I find out interesting things, but for today I just wanted to share one of my hobbies. You know, so you can pretend like you know me even better!
Unknown man. Unknown location.
p.s. If you come across any cool cards, and you want to make my day, buy them and send them to me:
PO Box 546
Ames, IA 50010
I won’t pay you anything for them, and I may just resell them to buy ones I actually like, but hey, it’s the thought that counts, right? Won’t you think of me? (I mostly kid.)
The author as a middleaged idiot.