To Have and To Hold: Nineteenth-Century Photographic Cards of Mount Auburn

January 24, 2014
Asa Gray Garden Cabinet Card, c. 1881

Asa Gray Garden
Cabinet Card, c. 1881

When photography was introduced in 1839, only 8 years after the opening of Mount Auburn, the medium provided an entirely new way of seeing the Cemetery. Some of the earliest photographs of Mount Auburn were images taken by commercial photographers, who produced various formats including cartes-de-visite and cabinet cards. Card photographs, as they are known, consisted of photographic prints mounted on thick card stock of various sizes. The format was enormously popular among a wide national audience from the mid-to-late 1800s.

Egyptian Revival Gateway Carte-de-visite, c. 1860s G. K. Warren

Egyptian Revival Gateway Carte-de-visite, c. 1860s G. K. Warren

Hosea Ballou Monument Carte-de-visite, c. 1860s G. K. Warren

Hosea Ballou Monument Carte-de-visite, c. 1860s G. K. Warren

It was at this time that Mount Auburn was becoming a well-known tourist attraction. “The city does indeed throng to the spot so sacred,” the travel writer Caroline Gilman observed. “Daily, hourly, a line of carriages stands at its lofty gate, and countless guests pause at the solemn inscription. . .then enter to meditate among the unrivaled varieties of Mount Auburn.”[1] In 1849, horticulturalist Andrew Jackson Downing wrote that the Cemetery “idea took the public mind by storm. Travelers made pilgrimages to the Athens of New England to see the realization of their long cherished dream of a resting place for the dead.”[2]

Sumner Monument
Cabinet Card, c. 1880s

Card photographs made it possible for visitors to remember and carry with them this idyllic vision of the new rural cemetery. “Bostonians hoped that their cemetery would not only provide spiritual nourishment but also serve as an agent of cultural as well as moral excellence, exerting social control through acculturation,” historian Blanche Linden notes.[3] This acculturation process was fostered in part by the tremendously popular card photographs of Mount Auburn’s picturesque and contemplative landscape.

Atkins Monument Carte-de-visite, c. 1860s G. K. Warren

Atkins Monument
Carte-de-visite, c. 1860s
G. K. Warren

Wade Monument Carte-de-visite, c. 1860s G. K. Warren

Wade Monument
Carte-de-visite, c. 1860s
G. K. Warren

Cartes-de-visite, for example, proved both relatively inexpensive to produce and purchase and were small enough to fit into a wallet or purse. Introduced in 1854, the cards were made with a four-lens camera with a rotating back. A photographer took four views at once, or one at a time by uncapping each lens separately, then rotated the camera backing to take an additional four shots. The negative was contact printed onto albumen paper that was cut into eight individual images mounted onto card stock measuring 2 1/2 by 4 inches. Photographic studios produced millions of cartes in the mid-1800s, and collecting them turned into a craze known as “cartomania.”[4] Oliver Wendell Holmes (the physician and photography enthusiast who is buried at Mount Auburn) referred to cartes as “the sentimental greenbacks of civilization.”[5] Noted New England photographers (including George Kendall Warren and Miller & Brown, in Boston, and A. Kilburn in Littleton, New Hampshire) created numerous scenes of Mount Auburn and distributed them widely through their studios.

Bigelow Chapel
Carte-de-visite, c. 1860
G. K. Warren

Cartes-de-visite were also “incorporated into rituals of social exchange, display and collecting, all of which locate them in the culture of a coalescing American middle class,” historian Andrea Volpe argues. “The sheer volume of images prompted the first photograph albums.”[6] These albums offered an easy way to share views of Mount Auburn with family and friends. Popular cartes of Mount Auburn included pictures of Asa Gray Garden, Bigelow Chapel, the Egyptian Revival Gateway, and a number of significant monuments. Historian Geoffrey Batchen explains, “Cartes were scaled to be viewed in the hand rather than on the wall; they were meant to be touched as well as seen.”[7] The personalized format bestowed visitors with highly intimate photographic tokens of their cherished Cemetery.

Cabinet Card, September 24, 1888

After the Civil War, cabinet cards began to supplant cartes-de-visite. Often displayed in parlour cabinets, hence their name, cabinet cards enjoyed wide use from the mid-1860s to the turn of the century. They typically consisted of a 4 x 5 1/2 inch photograph mounted on 4 1/4 x 6 1/2 inch card stock, although some cards were larger. Lightweight mounts eventually gave way to heavier card stock. Studios embellished the cards in a variety of ways, from gold-beveled edges to embossed borders, creating impressive presentations of Mount Auburn, such as majestic portrayals of the Sphinx and Bigelow Chapel.

Bigelow Chapel
Cabinet Card, c. 1880
Bigelow Chapel Cabinet Card, c. 1880s

Bigelow Chapel
Cabinet Card, c. 1880s

While cabinet cards served as an ideal format for portraiture, photographers initially used them for landscapes. In this capacity, they offered splendid souvenir views of Mount Auburn for the public. The format, significantly larger than the carte-de-visite, provides historians today with wonderfully detailed views of Mount Auburn’s monuments, horticultural design, and changing landscape in the early years of the Cemetery. A cabinet card of the newly built Bigelow Chapel, for example, contrasts with one taken a few years later of the edifice covered with ivy. Several cabinet cards illustrate the ornamental landscape design embraced by the Cemetery in the late 1800s. Photographs taken in front of Bigelow Chapel document the formal curbing and wide carriage road, which was eventually replaced by a narrower avenue. An elegant card of the Booth monument reveals the dramatic granite curbing with space in front for horticultural display. This type of design went out of fashion, and today many of the curbs have been removed.

Edwin Booth Lot Cabinet Card, c. 1880s

Edwin Booth Lot
Cabinet Card, c. 1880s

Receiving Tomb Cabinet Card, c. 1873 - 1883

Receiving Tomb
Cabinet Card, c. 1873 – 1883

Ornamental features shown in a cabinet card of the old receiving tomb include a cast-iron bench and granite curbing along Auburn Lake. The photograph illustrates part of lost Mount Auburn as well: the receiving tomb, designed by Gridley J. F. Bryant in 1859 for temporary burials, was demolished in 1973 and replaced by today’s Auburn Court Crypts.

African American marching band at entrance to Mount Auburn Cabinet Card, c. 1880s

African American marching band at entrance to Mount Auburn
Cabinet Card, c. 1880s

The large format cabinet cards also capture a number of unique documentary views of events at Mount Auburn. A spontaneous image records an African American band gathered in front of the Egyptian Revival Gateway on a summer day. Thousands made pilgrimages to Mount Auburn at this time, and from its founding, the Cemetery offered a place of burial for all races and faiths. The photograph conveys the excitement and energy of the moment: the marching band, a young boy crossing the street, a passing street car, and crowds of black and white men, women, and children lining the streets.

Funeral Service for Colonel Austin C. Wellington Cabinet Card, September 23, 1888

Funeral Service for Colonel Austin C. Wellington
Cabinet Card, September 23, 1888

Floral tributes on the grave of Colonel Austin C. Wellington Cabinet Card, September 24, 1888

Floral tributes on the grave of Colonel Austin C. Wellington
Cabinet Card, September 24, 1888


The stately burial of Colonel Austin C. Wellington of the 38th  Massachusetts Regiment represents one of the only views of a funeral at Mount Auburn in the Cemetery’s historic photograph collections. Taken on September 23, 1888, the scene shows military attendees in full regalia and civilians in top hats and bowlers standing before the casket on a bier. Rows of soldiers appear along the adjacent avenues. A second image of the gravesite taken a day later, on September 24, documents the lavish but ephemeral outpouring of expression in the form of floral tributes (pennants, books, American flags, eagles, shields, and wreaths) that enveloped the lot. “Mount Auburn appealed to a sense of mystical excitement and even adventure, so much a part of the imagery of romanticism,” Linden explains.[8] From the early years of the Cemetery, cartes-de-visite and cabinet cards enabled visitors to have, hold, collect, and display their own mementoes of Mount Auburn’s beloved landscape. These photograph souvenirs survive as both telling artifacts that represent presentations of Mount Auburn to a nineteenth-century public and historic records that provide a revealing window into the Cemetery as it appeared in its first decades.


by Melissa Banta, Historical Collections Consultant


[1] Caroline Gilman, The Poetry of Travelling in the United States. New York: S. Colman, 1838, p. 158.

[2] Andrew Jackson Downing, “Public Cemeteries and Public Gardens,” The Horticulturist and Journal of Rural Art and Rural Taste. Vol. IV, No. 1, July, 1849, p. 1.

[3] Blanche M. G. Linden, Silent City on a Hill: Picturesque Landscapes of Memory and Boston’s Mount Auburn Cemetery. Amherst: University of Massachusetts Press, 2007, p. 240.

[4] Alison Hearn, “Sentimental Greenbacks of Civilization,” The Routledge Companion to Advertising and Promotional Culture, ed. Matthew P. McAllister and Emily West, New York: Routledge, 2013, p. 25.

[5] Oliver Wendell Holmes in Hearn, “Sentimental Greenbacks of Civilization,” p. 32.

[6] Andrea L. Volpe, “Cartes de Visite Portrait Photographs and the Culture of Class Formation,” Looking for America, ed. Ardis Cameron. Oxford: Blackwell Publishing, 2005, p. 43.

[7] Geoffrey Batchen, “Dreams of Ordinary Life: Cartes-de-Visite and the Bourgeois Imagination,” Image and Imagination, ed. Martha Langford, Montreal: McGill-Queen’s University Press, 2005, p. 72.

[8] Linden, p. 248.

About the Author: Melissa Banta

Consulting Curator, Historical Collections & Archives View all posts by Melissa Banta →

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