Dating Images of 19th Century Children: Civil War Revenue Stamps


Figure 1.--Here is an example of a Federal Civil War era revenue stamp. They were required on all photographs taken during 1864-66. Thus we know cards with these stamps were taken during this period. Portraits without the stamp were presumably taken before or afterwards which can also be useful information. Here is the back if a CDV showing one of the stamps. Notice how the photographer has initialed over it as a cancellation, presumably Mr. Whipple himself. Some but not this one were actually dated. Click on the image to see the actual portrait.

We are constantly looking for any indicators from specific countries which may help provide clues on dates. So far we have only found one such indicator. There is one useful American indicator, albeit for only a short period. The U.S. Federal Government to help finance the Civil War approved a 3 cents tax on all photographs sold in the United States from September 1, 1864 to August 1, 1866. This is a period at the end of the War and a little over a year after the War. Because money was involved, the presence of these stamps is definitive confirmation that the stamp was used during this 2-year period. Photographers had to charge for the revenue stamp. This was only a short period, but it does help date the portraits with these stamps. The one thing we do not know is how extensively photographrs complied. Once the stamp was on there we assume that it would stay well afixed or leave a mark where it was removed. So we have a very good indicator for about a 2-year period in the mid-1860s in the northern states and areas controlled by Federal forces. The photographer was susposed to cancel the stamp by initialing it. Some may even have dates.

The Civil War (1861-65)

The American Civil War has been called the first modern war because of the number of men involved, the sweeping movements, the use of trains and telegraphs, and the increasing sophistication of the weaponery including rifled artillery, repeating weapons and iron-clad ships. The Civil War was the defining epoch of the American nation. It has been extensively studied in American history, but except for military scholars little noted outside the United States. The Civil War, however, had profound consequences for world history that were not immediately apparent in 1865. The losses and disruption of the war was staggering. More Americans died in the Civil War than in any other war America has fought--including World War II. This was in part because military tactics had not yet adjusted to the increasing leathality of weaponry. The South was devestated and the economic and social impacts were felt well into the 20th century. The industrial expansion of the north, however, was strongly promoted by the War. We do not know, however, of a major fashion change associated with the war. Military styled outfits such as Zouave outfits were popular, but lasting impacts on boys' fashions seem hard to detect. The Civil War does appear to be the watershead between the first and second half of the centuries. In a general way it also divides the period when long pants were common to the later era when kneepants dominated.

War Finances

The Civil War was the most massive effort ever undertaken by the U.S. Federal Government up to the time. The Federal Government was a much smaller institution in the 19th century than is the case today. Federal Revenues were very limited, primaily based on customs receipts. The Federal Government s thus had to look for new sources of revenue to finance the imense Federal war effort. Most northerners and southerners expected a short war. After relatively limited engagements in 1861, in became apparent that the War was going to continue for some time and require a much greater effort than anyone had imagined. Both the Federal and Confederate Governments faced the same issue. The Confederate Government faced the problem that the member states did not want to give up revenue authority. Thus the Confederacy attempted to finance the War by printing money. The Federal Government adopted fisically more responsible measures. Treasury Secretary Salmon Chase initially borrowed money to pay for the War. This was by 1862 clearly going to be inadequate to raise the sums needed.

Federal Finance Measures

The Civil War cost the Federal Government about $3 billion to wage. This is a substantial anount of money in modern terms. It was in the 1860s a massive amount of money and involved sums that the Federal Government had never before handled. The Federal Government borrowed huge sums, but about a quarter of the War was financed through various taxes. The principal tax used to finance the Federal Government up until the Civil War were custioms duries. For the sums needed, additional taxes were required. Congress passed The Revenue Act of 1862 which significantly increased taxes . The most dramatic step was the passage of the first Federal income tax, quite a significant departure in American history. Congress created the Office of Internal Revenue at this time--a Federal agency with which Americans are all to familiar. Comgress passed many other new taxes. Manuy of these were paid through adhesive revenue stamps looking much like postage stamps.

Adhesive Revenue Stamps (1862)

One of Congress' new measures was a range of new taxes to be paid by adhesive revenue stamps. These new taxes were applicable to quite a varied range of items: legal documents, playing cards, patent medicines, matches, and perfumes. These taxes eventually brought over $10 million annually to the Federal Treasury. Matches were an especially important revenue earner, about $1 million annually. Thee total revenue collected was about $40 million. This was about 1 percent of the cost of the War. Photographs were not at first included in the revenue measures.

Tax on Photographs (1864)

Congress passed another revenue act specifically on photographic images (June 30, 1864). The tax was applicable on all "photographs, ambrotypes, daguerreotypes or any other sun-pictures". It was paid by buying a revenue stamp which ws then attached to the back of the photograph. The tax was pro-rated based on the cost of the photograph. Which thus gives us an idea as to what photograohers charged at the time. The charges were 2 cents and up. The 2 cent stamp was for photographs costing up to 25 cents. The 3 cent stamp was for photographs costing 26-50 cents (figure 1). The 5 cent stamp was for photographs costing $0.50 to $1.00. Photographs costing over $1.00 required another 5 cent stamp for every extra dollar or fraction of a dollar. Of course not all photographs were CDVs, cabinet card, or other formats on which revenue stamps could wasily be afixed without spoiling the image. Other photigraphs such as those being bound into books could not have stamps afixed to them. This occurred because lithography was not yet suffucently advanced to actually reporoduce photographs by printing. There were also photogaphs such as thse put into lockets which were too small for stamps. The reveune act for these formats enacted a 5 percent tax which the client paid directly to the photographer.

The Stamps

The Federal Government did not have stamps specifically for the tax on photographs, although there were stamps for many other specific usages. Revenue officials at first attempted to do just this. There were for example stamps issued for "bank check," "contract," "bill of lading," "express", "playing cards", "telegraph", "certificate", "proprietary", "foreign exchange", ect. About 25 types of different revenue stamps were issued. But such a complicated system proved cumbersome and people complained because often often revenue officials ran out of some of the stamps. Congress thus acted to make the stamps interchangeable (late 1862). Thus the stamps used on photographs does not read "photograph", but instead could be any of the revenue stamps issued, as long as tge amount is correct. Notice that the stamp here is a "proprietary" stamp (figure 1). Proprietary stamps were for commercil products. They were used on a variety of products, including patent medicines, cosmetics, perfumes, and matches. They could as is shown here be used for the tax on photographs, but were not normally used on documents. The design of the revenue stamps were similar, although as explained above the script would specify a particular type of tax. They pictured George Washington in an complicted frame. "Internal Revenue" was at the top and the value at the side. The type of tax was stated at the bottom. The most common values used on photographs (1-3 cents) were mostly red, but the Government was not consstent so we see other colors (blue, orange, and green). A further complication here was that the Government permitted high volume manufacturers (mostly patent medicines and matches) to concoct their own unique color dies and were given a discount. These did not appear on photographs. Some of the first revenue stamps were not perforated. Others wer perforated horizontally or vertically. Most were, however, fully perforated like the stamp here (figure 1). Butler and Carpenter of Philadelphia was awarded the contract to print the stamps. Some photographs can be found with postage stamps. Apparently this was acceptable if the revenue stamps were unavailable.

CDVs

Carte de Visites (CDVs) are albumen prints, usually with dimensions were 2 1/2 by 4 inches, but there were ome variations. They were mounted on a cardboard mount. The front of the card had the photograph mounted. The back of the card had the name and usually the address of the phographer, normally in an elaborate design. As the name suggests, the origins are French. One source indicates that the CDV was first introdued in 1851. We do not believe that large numbers of CDVs appeared until about 1860. This appears to be about the same time that CDVs began to appear in America. We tend to note substantial numbers of CDVs appeaing in America about 1861. The CDV was dominant from about 1860-66, but with the introduction of te cabinent car in 1866 began to decline. Thus at the time of the Civil War, the CDV was the diminant type of photographic portrait. Thus most of the photographs with Civil war revenue stamps are CDVs. At the time, a CDV cost about $0.25, a little more for more prestigious photographers. Thus most of the revenue stamps on CDVs are 2 and 3 cent stamps. Some photographers gave a volumne discout, perhgaps six cards for $1.00. As more photographers opened studios and the procedures and materials became more standardized the prices declined to 10 for $1.00 or even less. More elaborate portraits such as those which had been colorized or hand tinted cost more and thus required a higher value stamp.

Chronology

The revenue stamps were required from September 1, 1864 to August 1, 1866. This is a period at the end of the War and a little over a year after the War. With the end of the Civil War (April 1865) the Federal Army was rapidly demobilized. Thus Federal expenf=ditures also rapidly declined. Congress repealed the stamp tax, although it was replaced with a lower ad valorem tax.

Validity

Because money was involved, the presence of these stamps is definitive confirmation that the stamp was used during this 2-year period. Photographers had to charge for the revenue stamp. This was only a short period, but it does help date the portraits with these stamps. The one thing we do not know is how extensively photographrs complied. The fine for violating te law was $10 per infraction so it could be very expensive if the photographer attempted to evade the taxes. So as far as we know there was a high rate of compliance. Once the stamp was on there we assume that it would stay well afixed or leave a mark where it was removed. So we have a very valid indicator for about a 2-year period in the mid-1860s in the northern states and areas controlled by Federal forces.

Absence

While the presence of these stamps is reliable evidence that the portrait was taken 1864-66, the absence of the stamps does not mean that the portraits were not taken during this period. Some people presume that all CDVs taken in the North between 1864-66 have a revenue stamp on the back, but some sources report that this is not the case. The tax was on the entire amount that was paid for any order of photos that were sold to a person. So, for example, if the tax was 2% of the total paid and a person bought $20 worth of photos, the tax would have only been 4 cents. Thus only two cent stamps were needed and these would be placed on the back of only 1 or 2 of the photos that were sold to the person -- whereas $20 would buy quite a few photos and most of them didn't end up with a tax stamp on the back. The exact taxation rate are well documented. [Darrah]

Cancellations

The photographer was susposed to cancel the stamp by initialing and dating it. Actual cancelation procedures varied widely. Some photographers had handstamps rather like a postal cancelation. Most seemed to have cancelled the stamps by initialing them or otherwise marking them. Here we see an initialed stamp (figure 1). Many wrote an "x" or othervmark over the stamp. Some photographers forgot to cancel the stamp.

Sources

Darrah, William. William Darrah has written one of the most informarive books on Carte De Vistes.

Kelbaugh, Ross J. Introduction to Civil War Photography (Thomas Publications, Gettysburg, Pennsylvania, 1991).

Friedberg, Richard. "Introduction to United States Revenue Stamps", Linn's Stamp News (Sidney, Ohio, 1994).






HBC





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Created: 10:55 PM 1/31/2006
Last updated: 4:43 AM 4/29/2008