To appreciate the designation “sun picture” is to understand the story of photography. The earliest known “photographs” were made during the 1820s by Joseph Nicéphore Niépce and were known as “heliographs” or, literally translated from the Greek, “sun writing.”

Niépce worked with a young protégé named Louis-Jacques-Mandé Daguerre, who went on to perfect the photographic process that came to be known as the daguerreotype. Although much more sophisticated than the heliograph, the daguerreotype (popular from 1839 to about 1860) still relied on sunlight for producing an image, as did later formats in photography such as ambrotypes (popular from 1851 to about 1860), tintypes (popular from the early 1850s to about 1930) and cartes de visite (popular from 1854 to about 1900).

Photographer J.F. Ryder canceled this green 3-cent “Telegraph” stamp for the carte de visite he took of this woman.

Photographer J.F. Ryder canceled this green 3-cent “Telegraph” stamp for the carte de visite he took of this woman.

This portrait of an unidentified Civil War soldier taken by J.P. Ball's Photographic Gallery of Cincinnati, Ohio, between 1864 and 1866, has a canceled green 3-cent stamp on the back, as well as Ball's company stamp, shown below.

This portrait of an unidentified Civil War soldier taken by J.P. Ball's Photographic Gallery of Cincinnati, Ohio, between 1864 and 1866, has a canceled green 3-cent stamp on the back, as well as Ball's company stamp, shown below.

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Tintypes — images on metal coated with dark lacquer — and the carte de visite — albumen prints — rapidly supplanted daguerreotypes and ambrotypes during the late 1850s and early 1860s. Even with all the advances in photography, these newer, reproducible photographs still relied on sunlight for production and were designated “sun pictures” by the U.S. government. In fact, daguerreotypes were considered to be sun pictures as verified in Nathaniel Hawthorne’s 1851 novel, House of the Seven Gables, in which the character, Mr. Holgrave, is described as a daguerreotypist; he “makes pictures out of sunlight.”

During the early 1860s, the federal government had become financially strapped as a result of the war. Taxes were levied on many items beginning in 1861 with the first personal income tax. The Revenue Act of 1861 mandated that all incomes over eight-hundred dollars would be taxed at three-percent. In the Revenue Act of 1862, incomes over six-hundred dollars were taxed at three-percent. These taxes were raised in 1864 and finally rescinded in 1872.

The Civil War was the first war to be widely photographed but that is not the only connection between the war and photography. The taxes generated by the 1861 and 1862 Revenue Acts were not generating enough money to keep up with the cost of the war. As the war raged on, so did the popularity of photographs. Millions of photographs, mostly tintypes and cartes de visite, were taken each year - a fact that did not escape the attention of Uncle Sam’s Internal Revenue Department.

Propriety Revenue Stamps in three different denominations: one-cent red, hand-canceled with a double slash; two-cent blue, rubber stamp-canceled with a date of May 26, 1865; and a three-cent green, which the photographer neglected to cancel.

Propriety Revenue Stamps in three different denominations: one-cent red, hand-canceled with a double slash; two-cent blue, rubber stamp-canceled with a date of May 26, 1865; and a three-cent green, which the photographer neglected to cancel.

Between September 1, 1864 and August 1, 1866, in an attempt at increasing revenue to help defray the cost of the Civil War, the United States government found a way to effectively tax sunlight for a small portion of the population — photographers and their subjects. A tariff was placed on all photographs during this two-year period, with the surcharge depending on the cost of the image. Whereas most cartes de visite were taxed at two-cents, specialty images, such as those that were hand-colored, would be taxed at three-cents or more.

The carte de visite on the left bears a blue, two-cent “Playing Card” revenue stamp, while the carte de visite on the right bears a green, three-cent “Proprietary” revenue stamp. Although they are the same in terms of size, the photo  on the right is hand-colored and so was taxed at a higher rate.

The carte de visite on the left bears a blue, two-cent “Playing Card” revenue stamp, while the carte de visite on the right bears a green, three-cent “Proprietary” revenue stamp. Although they are the same in terms of size, the photo on the right is hand-colored and so was taxed at a higher rate.

There was no specific stamp printed to use on photographs; consequently, a variety of tariff stamps were used interchangeably, such as the two-cent, green “Bank Check,” the two-cent, orange “U. S. Inter. Rev.,” the two-cent, blue “Playing Cards,” and the three-cent, green “Forn. Exchange.”

There was no specific stamp printed to use on photographs; consequently, a variety of tariff stamps were used interchangeably, such as the two-cent, green “Bank Check,” the two-cent, orange “U. S. Inter. Rev.,” the two-cent, blue “Playing Cards,” and the three-cent, green “Forn. Exchange.”

Early in the war, the government began to print adhesive stamps for different items on which taxes were levied; more than twenty different stamps were produced. There were no stamps produced specifically for photographs, which used the already existing tariff stamps interchangeably. This explains why photographs taken between September 1, 1864 and August 1, 1866 bear stamps such as “Playing Cards,” “Bank Check,” “Proprietary,” “Telegraph,” and “Foreign Exchange.” All of these stamps bear an image of George Washington. At times, a regular postage stamp was used to satisfy the tax — such finds are rare and highly coveted by collectors.

The rarely used one-cent red stamps (two horizontal and one vertical pair) indicate a date after March 1865. One horizontal pair (top left) and vertical pair (at right) are hand-canceled, while the second horizontal pair (bottom left) is rubber stamp-canceled February 15, 1866.

The rarely used one-cent red stamps (two horizontal and one vertical pair) indicate a date after March 1865. One horizontal pair (top left) and vertical pair (at right) are hand-canceled, while the second horizontal pair (bottom left) is rubber stamp-canceled February 15, 1866.

When a customer paid for their photograph, they paid the appropriate tax and a stamp for that amount was affixed to the back of the image. Images costing up to twenty-five cents required a two-cent tax stamp, which was usually either blue or orange. Images that cost twenty-six to fifty cents required a tax stamp of three cents, which were usually green. A red one-cent stamp was used beginning in March of 1865 for photographs that cost less than ten cents. These stamps could be imperforate, perforated horizontally, perforated vertically, or fully perforated and be affixed as a single stamp, two separate stamps or as a horizontal or vertical pair when more than one stamp was required to meet the tax requirement.

The presence of such revenue stamps on the back of the image clearly indicates the image was produced between September 1, 1864 and August 1, 1866. However, the absence of such a stamp does not exclude an image from having been taken during this time. Over time, some postage stamps may have been removed or fallen off, in which case, the back of the image will contain clear evidence that a stamp had been affixed at one time. In other cases, on orders that included multiple prints of a photo, the revenue stamp would be affixed to only one of the images.

Another canceled 3-cent of Photographer J.F. Ryder.

Another canceled 3-cent of Photographer J.F. Ryder.

There is no way to determine how many photographers may not have complied with the tax laws, but noncompliance meant a ten-dollar fine for each infraction. It is possible that some photographers, already resentful of the increased prices of glass, glue, paper and metal, did not collect the tax, perhaps as a financial incentive to the client.

Once the stamp was fixed to the back of the photograph, the photographer was supposed to cancel the stamp by writing his initials and the date. Most photographers did not follow this protocol and would, more often than not, write their initials or simply place an “X” on the stamp. Some of the better photography studios had rubber hand stamps with their studio’s name or initials along with the date. 

A carte de visite of a woman named Charlotte Scott holding a basket, circa 1864-1867. The canceled stamp on the back, shown below, is an orange 2-cent Bankcheck.

A carte de visite of a woman named Charlotte Scott holding a basket, circa 1864-1867. The canceled stamp on the back, shown below, is an orange 2-cent Bankcheck.

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A carte de visite of the north front of the U.S. Capitol, Washington, D.C., circa 1865. The canceled stamp,  shown below, is a blue 2-cent Proprietary one.

A carte de visite of the north front of the U.S. Capitol, Washington, D.C., circa 1865. The canceled stamp, shown below, is a blue 2-cent Proprietary one.

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A collector is fortunate to come across a photograph bearing a stamp that has been correctly canceled with the exact date the image was taken. Sometimes the photographer forgot to cancel the stamp, which is a prize to collectors. During this time, a number of photograph studios had card photograph stock printed with a fancy frame on the back in which the revenue stamp was placed; these are highly valued by collectors.

With this information, you can accurately date a photograph to within a two-year period, and if lucky, to the exact date the image was taken. Photographs bearing these tariff stamps have become a sub-category in photograph collecting and are a cross-collectible equally popular with stamp collectors. Many of these early postal treasures are hidden behind photographs in early Civil War-era photograph albums. Removing these photos without damaging the albums can be difficult, but it is worth the effort. Enjoy the hunt.