In our age of rabid social media use, the profile picture has become the de facto online avatar. Whether a formal headshot, carefully crafted selfie, or ironic meme, our profile picture represents a core aspect of our online identities. The idea behind the profile picture is much older than the advent of social media, however—it’s as old as the photographic medium itself.
In 1854, French photographer André-Adolphe-Eugène Disdéri patented the carte de visite, a slender 2 1/2-by-4-inch photographic print mounted on sturdy paper. Disdéri initially developed the carte de visite as a way of saving production costs—the small size of the photograph allowed him to take eight separate pictures for every single photographic plate. Conveniently, it was also approximately the size of a calling card, the wealthy Victorian socialite’s version of a business card, which they distributed to friends and acquaintances during house calls. With the increased capacities of printing technology, visiting cards of the time typically featured ornate designs and bright colors. With the ability to add one’s portrait to the card, the carte de visite represented a natural next step in pictorial communication.