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Victorian parents hiding in pictures to keep their babies still long enough for a portrait [20 pics]

Dec 3, 2013 By Abraham 65

In the late 1800′s, a photograph required about 30 seconds of exposure time to take. So anyone sitting for a portrait had to be able to sit still for at least a minute or so.

Kids, of course, found this difficult, so some parents, in order to get pics of their brood, sat for the portrait with their children but tried to pretend like they weren’t in the picture by using various disguises and hiding spots — in curtains, under blankets, behind chairs, and more…

While the existence of the pictures proves that these parents accomplished their goal of getting their kids to sit for a portrait, it also proves that a grown-up holding a baby while under a dark shroud is really creepy…

Mother and baby portrait

Mother and baby portrait

Mother and baby portrait

Mother and baby portrait

Mother and baby portrait

Mother and baby portrait

Mother and baby portrait

Mother and baby portrait

Mother and baby portrait

Mother and baby portrait

Mothers Hiding in Baby Pictures - 11

Mothers Hiding in Baby Pictures - 12

Mothers Hiding in Baby Pictures - 13

Mothers Hiding in Baby Pictures - 14

Mothers Hiding in Baby Pictures - 15

Mothers Hiding in Baby Pictures - 16

Mothers Hiding in Baby Pictures - 17

Mothers Hiding in Baby Pictures - 18

Mothers Hiding in Baby Pictures - 19

Mothers Hiding in Baby Pictures - 20

Many of these images are included in Linda Fregni Nagler’s book The Hidden Mother.

(via The Guardian, Ridiculously Interesting, Flickr)

65 Comments

  1. Michelle says:

    I guess I don’t understand why they wouldn’t just be in the picture with the kids. I understand wanting a pic of the child alone, but if the only way to do that produces these ridiculous scenes, I’d just opt to have a portrait of the parent and child together.

    1. janne says:

      Why photograph them at all ? They are very ugly and as they grw up they don t want anybody to look at those terrible photos. When you have seen one baby you have seen all.

      1. selie says:

        Way to be rude… Some of those babies are really cute. And every baby is different, even me and my twin looked different as babies.

        I do agree with you Michelle, why not just be in the photo with the baby instead of going through all that hassle? How knows now though.

      2. Tina says:

        Why be so rude??? Pictures of this era did not make anyone look fabulous. It is not like they could airbrush them or anything like we do now. How do you suppose your comment made the people who were kind enough to share their photos feel? Until you have the gumption to share something like this maybe you should just be quiet. I think they are adorable the only creepy part of any of the photos is the “shroud” around the children.

    2. Jill says:

      It’s because in most of the shots the child is dead. In the one of the little boy standing up holding some flowers, you can clearly see behind his feet the wooden stand that’s holding him up.

      And as for “Why photograph them at all? They are very ugly and as they grow up they won’t want anyone to look at those terrible photos…” these will be the only memento of a dead child. Very often the entire family posed with a deceased child–it was taken to the photographic studio for the occasion.

      1. Beverly says:

        Jill, Please study the history of photography. The stand you see was not to hold up a dead child. It is a posing stand, used in every 19th century studio to help live people hold still. These are also called head rests because the subject could rest on them. They did not, and could not, hold up dead people. You have bought the myth created by dishonest eBay sellers to sell ordinary photographs for more money.

        None of these children are dead!

        1. Jennifer Bourn says:

          There were most certainly stands to hold the dead in Victorian times. Flowers were usually a real give away that the figure in the photo was deceased. Not all of these pictures are of the dead, but at least one (the boy standing with flowers) is.

          1. Lynne says:

            According to renown vintage photography expert Stanley Burns, author of ” Sleeping Beauty: Memorial Photography in America,” “Sleeping Beauty II: Grief, Bereavement in Memorial Photography American and European Traditions,” and “SLEEPING BEAUTY III:
            Memorial Photography: The Children,” “While some images, (especially tintypes and ambrotypes), have a rosy tint added to the cheeks of the corpse, it is untrue that metal stands and other devices were used to pose the dead as though they were living. The use by photographers of a stand or arm rest (sometimes referred to as a Brady stand), which aided living persons to remain still long enough for the camera’s lengthy exposure-time, has given rise to this myth. While nineteenth century people may have wished their loved-ones to look their best in a memorial photograph, evidence of a metal stand should be understood as proof that the subject was a living person.”

    1. Lori Reid says:

      all the babies were cute, some of the pic. were a little strange, like the one where the parents hand is on the boys head and one of the babies looked like he was in the electric chair…I like anything to do w/history.

    1. Beverly says:

      By the time these were made the exposures were much shorter than 30 seconds. Even for a second or two even adults needed help keeping still. That is why they used head rests/posing stands and parents OR a lady assistant to help the small children hold still.

  2. strawrose says:

    Okay… to add to the creep factor, some of them are post-mortem photography. In other words, some are dead babies.

    1. sara mcd says:

      If they are then they are very well done. Which do you suppose are post-mortem and why do you think a deceased child would have difficulty staying still?

      1. erica says:

        right? my thoughts exactly, you seem to be confusing your Victorian photography. If they were dead they wouldn’t need someone to hold them still. funny though.

      1. Lynne says:

        Look at the feet of the boy with the flowers. Stands like that were sometimes used to prop up the deceased for memorial photography; it was intended to give the illusion of life. (Thus you could remember your child ‘as they were’) It would have a wire armature going under his shirt from the back.

        1. Spicey says:

          The boy is standing in front of a table. He is not dead. None of these pictures are of deceased children. Look up some pictures of deceased children and you should be able to tell the difference.

        2. Beverly says:

          Stands like that were never used to prop up dead people. That is as in “never” “did not happen” “could not be done”! They were used to help live people hold still. There was nothing on them to attach a body to. This is a myth that has taken over eBay and Pinterest but it did not happen.

    1. Samantha says:

      Because sometimes these would be the olny photo they had of the person and they wanted them to look alive.

    1. Janet says:

      The children are all dressed in the western clothes of the time period. In Islamic countries I think they would have still been wearing the local dress.

  3. Dave says:

    How do we know they were parents? Could have been nursemaids/nannies, therefore too low status to be snapped with their charges

    1. Beverly says:

      Dave is correct. In some cases the face of the woman is scratched out even if it was hidden by a frame or mat. The only logical reason is that it is not the mother but the photographer’s lady assistant and the family did not want a stranger in the photograph.

  4. Kayla says:

    After the introduction of the Daguerreotype in 1839 exposures would often take at least 20 minutes sometimes even more. Years after the commercialization of photography they developed chemicals that would expose in shorter amounts of time.

  5. CM says:

    Actually, only the very early photographs (pre-1845) require a long exposure time. By the 1850′s exposure time has been reduced to only a few seconds (not nearly as long as 20 seconds) by adding bromine fumes to the process.

  6. Janet says:

    I love how many of the photos were retouched, adding pink cheeks to the children so they would have that healthy glow!

  7. Beverly says:

    I collect “hidden mothers” in fact the last one of the woman with her back to the camera is one of mine mine. Kala is correct, the exposure for these were seconds. These photographs are called “hidden mothers” but it seems very likely that some are really the photographer’s lady assistant who’s job it was to help the women and children get ready to be photographed. The mother was probably standing behind the photographer talking to the baby. In some you can see bits of the adult’s face but in others the face has been scratched or painted out which would indicate to me that the person holding the child was not a family member and that they did not want a stranger in the family photographs. I find them to be endlessly.

    Also none of these babies are dead.

  8. Beverly says:

    I collect “hidden mothers” in fact the last one of the woman with her back to the camera is one of mine. Kala is correct, the exposure for these were seconds. These photographs are called “hidden mothers” but it seems very likely that some are really the photographer’s lady assistant who’s job it was to help the women and children get ready to be photographed. The mother was probably standing behind the photographer talking to the baby. In some you can see bits of the adult’s face but in others the face has been scratched or painted out which would indicate to me that the person holding the child was not a family member and that they did not want a stranger in the family photographs. I find them to be endlessly.

    Also none of these babies are dead.

    1. Sarah says:

      These are not the parents in these photos. These are the nannies (typically of African descent) that the families did not want to appear in the pictures. There was a very thorough presentation on this at a conference at the University of Houston this past year.

      1. Beverly says:

        No I have not been drinking. If you mean because I posted twice it did not show the first time so I hit Reply again and it posted twice.

  9. Beverly says:

    (whoops…_I see I left a word off of my post) I find them endlessly fascinating. I wish I did find them endlessly but I find enough.

    I also want to emphasize that at the time theses photographs were made the average exposure was far less than 30 seconds. It was a few seconds at most. Even for that short time it is difficult for babies and small children to hold still. Adults and older children where supplied with head rests, also called posing stands to help them hold still but babies and very little children often needed to be held.

    1. Gioia says:

      I loved this article. I had wondered before, while looking at our family tintypes, as to how on earth my great-great-great grandmother got her babies to sit still during the prolonged exposure time. I just went back and checked, and sure enough – now I can see the adult holding up the babies from underneath a sheet. Beverly, if you’d like copies, I’d be happy to send them to you.

        1. Genevieve says:

          Actually, that was indeed something that people did back then. Dead bodies were often dressed, made up, and then posed for pictures. Photos were rare and expensive then and sometimes a person would have gone their whole lives without having their photo taken. So when they died, their family would often take them to a studio to quickly preserve their alive-looking image in a photo before the uglier post-mortem effects set in. And mortality rates in infants were much higher then than they are now. Imagine a parent with a new child but that child dies before any photos were ever taken.

          I doubt that many of these are post-mortem photos because a dead baby wouldn’t require a person hiding in the backdrop to hold them still. Corpses are rather stiff and hold pretty still on their own. But it is possible, and post-mortem photos do exist quite numerously. Do a google search sometime.

          1. Lori Reid says:

            that one little boy, standing with someone ‘s hand on his head, def. not passed, really don’t know none of us were there, so we can all base our opinions, these little children passed away, never came to my mind.

  10. D says:

    My understanding is that most of the pic would get cropped out and go into a little oval frame. So you wouldn’t see the mother at all, just a nice pic of the kid.

    Don’t forget, photography was fairly new tech back then. They were still figuring out the best way to do things.

  11. Rlr27 says:

    Most of the photos are not post mortem, however, you can clearly see the stand holding the little boy up in photograph #14. I do believe that one is a post mortem photograph. The base of the stand is consistent with body stands in other post mortem photos I have studied, and the drapes are most likely concealing other measures used to keep the child in an upright position.

    1. lindsay says:

      it’s the legs of the chair/table the parent is sitting on/hiding behind…. you guys are looking WAY too far into this. Post-mortem photos wouldn’t have their eyes open, they would have sunken in and dried up by time the photos were taken.

  12. tammy says:

    They were parents just like us. Is it so hard to believe that parents might have wanted a picture of their children and perhaps didn’t like having their picture taken at all. Photography was still in its early stages and very very expensive. We ourselves have just stopped using negatives for prints. Someone said these weren’t mothers. How do you know??? Where you there?? Im sure these were indeed mothers who wanted their childrens own photos just like we do today. I myself have photos where you can see my arm holding my son up because they couldn’t or wouldn’t.

    I for one love the photos. Those are other peoples babies and those children probably grew up to be wonderful people. Its easy to forget they didn’t have near the luxuries that we do today. Photos cost a mint back then and usually only the wealthy could afford them. these photos were beyond precious (hence the demand and trend of post mortem) In that time period all of us im sure would have done the EXACT same things as they did back then. (if you believe in past lives……………. well then you did do it!!!!!!!!!!)

  13. DK says:

    I don’t understand the need to take pictures of babies. All babies look the same. A mass of unintelligent bag of bones without any personality. We need a good nuclear war or something to make sure most people can’t get kids. That way we can make sure the earth can survive without us overpopulating it or in worst case scenario some sort of population control and only allow the brightest people to get kids.

  14. Ron says:

    There is a special group of photographers from “Now I Lay Me Down to Sleep”, all members of Professional Photographers of America. They work in cooperation with local hospitals, receive special training, and photograph deceased infants with and without families. Very touching and emotional moments in the family’s life. The images above are not deceased children and infants.

  15. Penny Dollahon says:

    I have a funny one I bought in an antique store in Camus, Washington. Baby sitting on a table and woman dressed in black hiding behind the foliage of a tall straggly bush – making sure the precious little one doesn’t fall off the table top! I laugh every time I look at it. Will email it to anyone who collects these hidden Mama/woman/helper photos!

    ~ Penny

  16. stephan barbery says:

    Personne ne lit l’article ou quoi? Il faut un minimum de trente secondes pour avoir une photo nette à cette époque. Point!

  17. notthegirlnextdoor says:

    My first thought was “why not crop or color over the props LOL?” Sad they had to wait til death to take a pic.

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