May 2013

Letters of visit and photographic portraits

The introduction of the photographic portrait in Bolivia in the second half of the 19th century had a diverse impact on the social life of the people.

By: Walter Sánchez C.
Instituto de Investigaciones

A fragment of the reception leaf of the correspondence in the mail of Tarata. 1898.

On one hand, many sectors of the population that before could not have access to an individual or family portrait (mainly cholos and racially mixed) because it was only done through painting -- a luxury only accessible for people with money -- were quickly portrayed in an area that gave them the possibility to be perpetuated in time through the image. On the other hand, the photographic portrait, having been given permission to be reproduced in several copies, offered the possibility of being distributed among several people, friends, or relatives. Both aspects motivated the popularization of the photographic portrait. It became a kind of cheap, easily accessible backup and reproducible art form. It is because of all these possibilities, inexistent before, that will generate on one side, the appearance of many commercial photographers and of photographic studios, on the other side, of an extensive market of photographic portrait consumption. They will consolidate the presence of a great circuit of circulation and exchanges of photographs, a fact that will cover all the social areas, although with a greater emphasis among the people of the elite.

Copying a practice that was born in Europe, although with its own peculiarities, in the last third of the 19th century the custom of shipment of “letters of visit” or “visit cards” is popularized. The letter or card was a small piece cardboard measuring approximately 8 x 12 cm. that carried in its frontal part a photographic portrait —whether the bust or entire body— and, in the back, a blank space where usually a short legend was written in ink, the name of the person in the portrait was placed and even some notes of dedication. It is this small card, made in several copies, the one that was sent to close people, like a sign of courtesy or as note of presentation.

The fashion of the card or letter of visit with photographic portraits became so popular that hundreds of them circulated from a city or a town to another, even from an estate to another estate. Different types of mail were used according to the distance. Thus, many landowners used the private “service” of chaqui cachas (who were obliged to take commissions or letters to the families). For the interdepartmental deliveries, “houses” of specialized mail received the envelopes that were later transported from one place to another through the system of diligence.

Publicity of a lithographic business. 1881..

We know little of how mail service worked through diligence in the 19th century. La Guía del Viajero en La Paz, edited in 1880 by Nicolás Acosta, provides an initial idea: “Mail. We do not have news of the epoch of its establishment. Neither during the colonial period nor during the republic has there been an effort to improve the mail system. The house that it occupies now belongs to the monastery of Conceived. Street of the Commerce.” Correspondence had established rates and was differentiated not only according to the type of documents but also according to the individual weight. Among the different categories of what were called “Different impressions,” the prices were different. This is what the Guía publishes: “The current prices (of) circulars, announcements, letters of visits and prospects will cost 10 c/ for each 50 grams or fraction. The business papers, like engravings, photographs, lithographs, plans, and drawings cost 5 c/ for each 50 grams or fraction (1880: 67).” The main rural villages had their own service of public mail established that was associated also to the church. An example is Tarata, Cochabamba, a town of landowners and of long distance merchants. Toward the end of the 19th century, the mail service was so dynamic that in 1890 it had a responsibility to receive and to dispatch mail, the same one that not just noted the correspondence that was arrived or that was dispatched, but the content of each letter was registered, among the ones that included photographic portraits and letters of visit. One of these annotations indicates in a textual way: “I have received a certified letter from Belizario Rojas. It contains a portrait that remits the Guardian of the Convent for Eduvijis Quijarro marked with the N 34. Tarata, June 6 of 1898.” Another label: “I have received a certified letter of the P. Pr. Buenaventura Panozo that contains a photograph and that remits to Manuel Guevara Antezana, marked with the N 35. Tarata, July 13 of 1898.”

With its consolidation in the last decade of the 19th century, the state system Mails of Bolivia, which belonged to the State, began to prop up the state national public service, with offices in the main cities of Bolivia. From this moment, postcards began to flood the Bolivian market —in private editions as much as on those made by the business Mail of Bolivia—, being generated a new dynamics of relationship where there will be more important postal pasteboards with photographs of landscapes, “scenes of Indians,” and historic monumental places, disappearing, little by little, the letters or business cards with personalized photographic portraits.


Instituto de

Translated by
Eslyn Escudero

Calendario MAYO 2013

>Quinto Festival Infantil “Chiquival” Auditorio Christian Valbert de la Alianza Francesa
(La Paz Nº 784 casi C. Carrillo) Organiza: Alianza Francesa - 12 de abril

Cuenta cuentos “Cabra-cadabra”
(a cargo de Ana Balletta para niños de 3 a 6 años) 16:00

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