The sun rises on another drab day in 1860 and a gangly man wills himself out of bed. The sun is more of a symbolic presence—it’s cold in the room and the fire in the hearth had long since absconded. He rubs his long fingers in his eyes, his mind a frustrating tumult of words. He slept poorly the night before. He sleeps poorly most nights now.
After fighting on his seemingly-endless pants, buttoning the many buttons from his neck to navel, and donning his top hat, the man steps out into the Manhattan wind. He is expected at Astor Place soon, but his mission first lay elsewhere, several blocks north. Snow crunches beneath his boots as he winds his way through the city. Soon he reaches it, Union Square and Broadway. He finds the door he sought, knocks. After a short moment made longer by the snow, a bearded man answers. “Mr. Lincoln!” he might have said, his voice betraying a brush of Irish, “Please, come in, let’s get started.”
While other days in Lincoln’s life (Jan. 1, 1863, Nov. 19, 1863, April 14, 1865) may ring more soundly in the public conscious, February 27, 1860, is just as important to the history of a nation in turmoil. On that Monday, an awkward man bereft of public office, fresh off of crushing defeat, delivered a 7000-word speech to a collection of the Republican Party’s most powerful New York officials. The Cooper Union address was rousing, eloquent, and tirelessly researched—a rhetorical tour-de-force. It convinced Republican leaders that the Founding Fathers would have thought restricting slavery of the utmost import in these troubled times. A leading Lincoln scholar, Harold Holzer, remarked that “[h]ad he not triumphed before the sophisticated and demanding audience he faced at New York’s Cooper Union on February 27, 1860, Lincoln would never have been nominated, much less elected, to the presidency in November.”
Despite all that, it’s important to note that the speech was second on Lincoln’s agenda for the day. His first stop had been a trip to a small studio by Union Square, one owned and operated by a Mathew Brady. The pairing was not unusual—by the time the 1860s rolled around, Brady was nationally renowned as an expert in the fledgling science of imprinting light on polished sheets of silver-plated copper and treating them with mercury vapor, a process more colloquially known as daguerreotype photography. While he would eventually focus on photojournalism (his Civil War photographs would leave him penniless), he began as a portrait photographer, one who specialized in the framing and symbolism of the image. Indeed, Brady even placed a “signed” column in the background of many of his photos, like an artist signing the corner of their paintings.
In 1860, Mr. Lincoln was in desperate need of some art. His appearance was a hindrance to his political aspirations. Lincoln himself lamented the widespread rumors of his “long, ungainly figure, large feet, clumsy hands, and long, gaunt head.” If he were to be president, that vaunted and respectable office, he needed to look the part. Or if he could not, people needed to believe he did. That’s where Brady came in.
That cold morning, Brady built an image of Lincoln that would change the course of a nation. His first task was the outfit. Brady garbed Lincoln in a three-piece suit. While not altogether interesting, the point of note was the upturned collar, partially obscured by bow-tie. The collar hid Lincoln’s long neck, and the well-fitting suit disguised his lengthy limbs. Beneath Lincoln’s hand, Brady placed two books. Lincoln’s fingers drape gingerly over them, suggesting a calm, learned expertise. Lincoln stands straight and proud and, contrary to the portraiture norm at the time, stares straight into the camera, allowing the viewer a personal, emotional connection with him. There is little else in the photo beyond the man, the books, and the steadfast column behind him. There need not be—the presidency in America is no kingship, and so there was no need for ostentation. Anodyne relatability was the name of the game, and Brady and Lincoln knew how to play.
The bare background offered another opportunity. Thanks to the power of woodcutting and of photographic negatives, the image could be transplanted into a variety of situations or landscapes. Lincoln made full use of this. Not long after his address, Lincoln’s photo adorned the cover of magazines like Harper’s Weekly, graced walls in the form of campaign posters, and travelled around the country as postcards or as buttons upon his supporters’ shirts. Forget the fact that Lincoln remained objectively awkward and unattractive. He had his image of statesmanship, of elegance, and that’s all he needed. In the 1860 election later that year, Lincoln took 180 electoral votes to John Breckinridge’s 72. Lincoln harbored no illusions as to what did the trick. “Brady and the Cooper Union speech,” he said, “made me President of the United States.”
Leaders and the wealthy had long understood the importance of image in cultivating a following—why else did ancient leaders stamp their faces on coins, did statesmen have their likenesses painted (flatteringly, of course) by artists of the age, or have themselves immortalized in towering sculptures of marble? However, the Brady-Lincoln portrait stands as one of the first widespread uses of a photograph in campaign propaganda. Here, photo preceded celebrity, as opposed to following it. It’s difficult to overstate the importance of such a move. People now had access to true-to-life images of their leaders and idols. Photographs didn’t allow the populace to know these people any better, but it engendered the perception that they did.
The power of distributed images, a role that paintings and sculpture struggled to fulfill, was not limited to politicians. Technological advances in the mid-19th century brought a revolution of the world’s social structure. The first among these was the 1850 invention of albumen paper by one Mr. Louis-Désiré Blanquart-Evrard. The new paper, coated in egg whites, dropped the production cost of photographs, leading to a new era of photographic mass-production. This set the stage for the second major photographic innovation of the time: the carte de visite.
The carte de visite, a pocket-sized photo along with a camera capable of producing such images eight at a time, kickstarted a new celebrity era. Photographers could now produce hundreds of pictures in a day, compared to only a few just years before. Whereas a portrait of a family member or other dignitary previously represented an exorbitant expense, the carte de visite made such a privilege available to all.
Throughout the 1860s, “cardomania,” as it was known, enraptured the nation. Enterprising actors, authors, and politicians seized the opportunity for the populace to know their faces. Stars looking to increase their renown stood outside theaters, signing their cards and handing them to passersby. Families collected them, storing their stacks in devices built to allow for easy viewing, complete with rotating displays and magnifiers. After a short time, the cards were ubiquitous and ruled social interaction, enough for poet Oliver Wendell Holmes to remark “[c]ard portraits as everybody knows have become the social currency, the greenbacks of civilization.”
Such a development led to the widespread rise of celebrity culture. Previously, celebrity had been largely confined to urban centers. Cities provided the seeding grounds for popularity in a non-image world. There was a far greater chance that the populace was literate. Cities would host shows and lectures, opportunities for actors, writers, and intellectuals to be seen and heard by those they wished to woo. New art and culture have always sprung up around financial centers, but that was about to change.
Everyday people began to realize the importance of cultivating image above all else. Sarah Bernhardt was an aspiring actress born into nothing—the illegitimate French daughter of a Jewish-Dutch courtesan who did not love her. The current of the time condemned her to an ugly future, but she was made golden by a concurrent rise of photography.
In fact, one could go as far as to say that Sarah Bernhardt was the prototypical modern celebrity. She appeared on stage first in 1862 in Iphigénie, a minor show in Paris that brought little acclaim. She was not deterred. As her career progressed she took on bigger and bigger roles, winning over the hearts of the poor and wealthy alike thanks to an indomitable stage presence and a willingness to bare true, unfettered emotion to her audience. But beyond her talents on the stage, there was a curious allure to Bernhardt that she knew how to cultivate. She was endlessly involved in amorous scandals (the father of her son is only speculated, and she started an affair with 70-year-old Victor Hugo when she was merely 27). She lied endlessly about all details in her life (enough that Alexandre Dumas once said “she’s such a liar, she may even be fat”), lending her a cloak of mystery and intrigue that titillated the populace. She sought out opportunities to polish her public legend, one that struck audiences and kept her in their minds (a common tale, one from Bernhardt herself, was that she slept in a coffin kept in her room in order to better understand tragedy).
But beyond all that, on the simplest level, Bernhardt was beautiful and she made sure people knew it. She visited photography studio after studio, demanding photographs that showed off her slender figure and stunning face. She distributed these photos across the world as she went on show tours, performing in numerous countries that did not speak the language she performed in. Her beauty and presence won them over all the same. Mark Twain once said she was in an acting class all her own, and Freud once placed a photo of her in his office.
It’s impossible to determine now if Bernhardt’s acting deserved the praise it received. Her stage acting did not translate as well to the emerging art of film. That didn’t stop her from earning the enduring reputation as one of the greatest actresses of all time, and as one of the first truly international stars. Bernhardt craved fame, coveted attention, and mastered the tools of the time to claim it.
Historian Daniel Boorstin once commented that a celebrity is “a person known for his well-knownness.” Brady, Bernhardt, and the carte de visite foreshadowed a celebrity culture in which image was everything. More than action, more than achievement, how one appeared and how one was perceived would become the definitive factors of one’s celebrity. These celebrity pioneers foreshadowed the rise of the paparazzi as they shared more and more about the personal lives of themselves and their subjects. They foreshadowed the world in which millions would be spent on public relations, marketing, photo shoots, social media, and products that would bring us, the loving citizenry, ever closer to the image of perfection that we found sold to us every day.
Is it better this way? The gap between the famous and the populace chips away with every post on Instagram, with every tell-all interview, every new magazine devoted to the lives of faraway people that distract us from the mundane problems of our own lives. There’s a romance here, an elegant tale of big money and big loves, power couples and feuds, tales we create by consuming. For what use are stars without planets to warm?