When you think of Victorian photography, what do you picture? Probably grim, unsmiling people in fancy clothes, all shot in austere black and white or sepia. They can be pretty creepy as well, right? But some images from this era are a little spookier than others. And, yes, we’re talking about baby photos. Take a close look at any picture of an infant from this time, and you’ll likely spot an eerie figure lurking in the background of the shot. Can’t see it right away? Here’s a clue: think about who or what is hiding beneath those conspicuous blankets…
If you’re just cooing over the photographed children – and we wouldn’t blame you – you probably won’t notice these mysterious interlopers to begin with. But when you finally spot one, a chill may run down your spine. It’s really unnerving! And here’s the thing. After that horrible scare, you’ll no doubt pick up on similar figures in the backgrounds of other Victorian baby pictures.
What’s going on? Once you’ve spotted the blanket-clad figures, you’ll think these scary snaps wouldn’t look out of place in a horror movie! But back in the day, these photos weren’t anything out of the ordinary. That’s despite the strange shapes, which take on different forms depending on the child in the frame.
Sometimes, this apparition has a dark piece of fabric draped over it, making it look for all the world like a terrifying specter. In other cases, it’s hiding behind a curtain. Then there are the chairs that clearly aren’t normal pieces of furniture. Like we said, it varies.
While you try to wrap your mind around this phenomenon, rest assured – there is an explanation. And it has a lot to do with the intricacies of Victorian photography and the equipment folks used during the period. Unsurprisingly, snapping a picture back then wasn’t as straightforward as it is today! Yet it was still a popular pastime.
It all began in the summer of 1839. That’s when a man named Louis-Jacques-Mandé Daguerre unveiled a brand-new photography method to the world in Paris, France. This appropriately became known as the “daguerreotype process,” and it was a true game-changer.
Why was the Frenchman’s idea so revolutionary? Well, it was said to produce photographs with a “truthful likeness” of the person or object in the frame. And this exciting prospect – one that we now very much take for granted – wowed folks at the time. Before long, daguerreotype shops were all the rage, with more than 70 of the outlets to be found in New York City come 1850. That’s a huge number!
Yet it’s not really surprising that photography was so instantly popular. After all, who wouldn’t want to carry around an image of their beloved babies wherever they go? We still do this today! But unlike the standard cameras that we’re familiar with now, aspiring snappers didn’t use film to capture their images. Instead, they had to produce their works on copper panels coated with silver.
These sheets lacked the suppleness of film, of course, and were much weightier. A photographer would then expose their panel to light when they were ready to take a picture, and this burned a likeness of the subject onto the surface. But the full details of the image could only be seen once the silver-coated copper was taken out of the camera and treated with mercury fumes.
That doesn’t seem the easiest of methods! But it produced surprisingly good results. Well, for the time, anyway. So, the daguerreotype process remained popular despite a couple of big strikes against it – and we mean big strikes. This will begin to explain those shadowy figures in the baby photos, too.
Imagine you’ve just walked into a daguerreotype studio to have your photo taken after Daguerre’s invention hit the mainstream. Then you get yourself into position in front of the camera and decide upon your pose. Finally, once everything’s ready, you hold your stance, and you wait. And wait. And wait a little longer.
You see, daguerreotypes could take as long as 15 minutes to be exposed. Not seconds. Minutes. So yes, this meant people would have to stay completely still for up to a quarter of an hour. That’s a huge ask, even if you’re a patient individual!
Daguerreotypes were pretty costly as well. Back in the 1850s, the price of a single picture reportedly ranged from around 50 cents to $2. Now, that may not sound too bad – roughly in line with the cost of color prints at present. But when you rework the figures into modern money, your jaw will hit the floor.
That 50-cent daguerreotype cost the equivalent of around $16 today. And that $2 image? About $67. Wow! Needless to say, only the rich were partaking. But at least one problem with the process was eventually fixed. After some adjustments, the exposure time was able to be cut to under 60 seconds.
Still, as the 1860s rolled around, the daguerreotype process began to lose ground to other forms of photography. For example, the so-called “wet-collodion” method – which emerged in 1851 – became increasingly in demand. Why? Well, it chopped exposure times even further. That had to be good news for photographers and subjects alike – particularly those with little ones in tow.
With this process, a photo appeared within roughly 30 seconds of exposure. That’s a much more palatable prospect than staying motionless for 15 minutes! Then again, it still wasn’t perfect. Holding a pose for more than just a few seconds isn’t that easy if you’re the fidgety type. Like, say, a baby.
And photographers found themselves fighting against the clock once they had taken their pictures. Now, they had just a 15-minute window to develop a snap after exposing the wet collodion to light. Talk about a change of pace! We can only imagine how stressful that could’ve gotten.
But what impact did this innovative new method have on the world of art? You’d think that people would not need traditional portraits when they could just get a snap in a fraction of the time. And, yes, photography did eventually become the go-to form for a simple image of a loved one.
Artists adapted with the times, however, by producing more complex paintings – ones that photographers would struggle to replicate just using a camera. And ever since, photography and fine art have worked in tandem. Interesting, right?
It doesn’t explain the creepy figures lurking in the background of old baby photos, though. So why are they there? Is the whole phenomenon an attempt to add an artistic flourish to the images – with photographers trying to beat painters at their own game? Or is it all because of something more sinister?
In truth, it’s neither of those things. And the explanation isn’t as complicated as you may think. Those eerie shapes are actually the babies’ moms, obscuring themselves with whatever materials were lying around studios. We can practically sense your relief from here! But why on Earth did the mothers do this?
Well, remember the exposure times that we discussed earlier? If it’s difficult for a grown adult to stay motionless for 30 seconds, just imagine what it’s like for a baby. You’d never get the picture! So to help make things easier for the photographers, moms would step in to keep their kids positioned.
Instead of just posing alongside their children, though, the women would attempt to camouflage themselves to blend into the backgrounds of the photos. And while the process threw up some truly bizarre results, it ultimately worked. The kids remained still, and the photographers could complete their snaps. All’s well that ends well, eh?
This strange custom is also the subject of a fascinating book from 2013. Titled The Hidden Mother, the work shares over 1,000 examples of moms concealing themselves in Victorian baby photos – and that figure alone should tell you how widespread the practice was. The book’s editor, Linda Fregni Nagler, has explained, too, how these women chose to be tucked out of sight.
Speaking to Fast Company in 2013, Nagler said, “To catalog the hidden mothers for my archives, I have used a number of keywords [that] categorize the many ways in which they hid themselves. Those keywords are highly descriptive: burqa, cut-out mother, phantom limb, cloth, big hand, darkroom trick, ink spot, head from behind, cropped head, furniture, metal matte and so on.”
Yes, we know some of those methods are very different from the ones we’ve spoken about so far. As it turns out, not every mom draped a piece of material over her body to cover herself up. Some mothers were even blatantly in shot – although that didn’t mean they wanted to be the center of attention.
To get rid of the women from the snaps, then, a very primitive form of Photoshop was used. Basically, the moms’ facial features would be blotted out – which sounds pretty darn scary in itself. In other cases, their heads would simply be cut from the pictures, leaving the babies posing with what looks like decapitated bodies. Lovely!
Just as spooky are the pics that show floating hands – and no arms or body in sight – hovering around the baby. And some of the pictures just generally have a spectral vibe, although that can be explained away as a side effect from the wet collodion process.
While photos created using wet collodion were faster to develop than daguerreotypes, there was still one drawback: the colors of an image were affected. Any white areas of a shot would look as though they were light brown instead – something that the darker parts of a photo only accentuated. Altogether, this ended up making the snaps appear weirdly unnatural. The headless moms didn’t exactly help, either.
And some Victorian-era pictures of babies are unsettling for an entirely different reason. Sometimes, photographs were taken of little ones after death. These were mementos, most likely, of young lives that had barely even started before they were cruelly snuffed out.
At first glance, the infants in these tragic images may just appear to be reclining – even sleeping. Take a look at their painted-on eyes, though, and they’ll give the heartbreaking truth away. Yet while such photos can be harrowing to look at, they served an important purpose: providing some comfort for bereaved parents by helping them remember their loved ones.
But, of course, there were also plenty of pictures taken of healthy babies – whether the moms were in shot or not. Spare a thought, then, for the photographers who had to patiently wait for fussy infants to settle before they could even consider putting images down on daguerreotype or wet collodion. And a few snappers did indeed rise to this challenge, according to New York-based historian Mark Osterman.
In 2013 Osterman told The Guardian, “There were plenty of photographers who just specialized in taking [pictures of] babies and old people. Old people can be shaky and cranky and difficult to deal with, just like babies. So the photographers had to have plenty of light and patience. They might need 18 to 30 seconds to get a clear negative.”
Who were these saintly figures? Well, sometimes they were women. That’s right: unlike many other careers, photography was deemed a socially acceptable option for those of the fairer sex. And according to The Guardian, women took to the pursuit in their droves. It’s said, in fact, that in the ten years from 1861, the number of female professional snappers jumped fourfold.
So, did women photographers bring anything different to the table? Well, when it came to taking pictures of babies, apparently not. As the men did, they’d just try to occupy the youngsters in whatever ways they could – by bringing in certain animals, for instance. Yes, birds and monkeys were sometimes housed in the photography shops. That’s one way to do it!
But if those methods didn’t get the job done in the end, there was an alternative solution. A publication from the time claimed that opium should “effectively prevent the sitters from being conscious of themselves, or of the camera, or of anything else.” It goes without saying that this wouldn’t fly today.
In any case, the photographic landscape started to change at the turn of the century. This was all thanks to the advent of Kodak’s famed Brownie camera, which could be used by pretty much anyone and didn’t cost a lot to purchase. The film was relatively cheap as well.
The Brownie was essentially a “point-and-shoot” camera, as a user just needed to flip a switch to snap a shot. There was no need to worry about exposure times, either, which must’ve been a relief! And Kodak even removed the final bar stopping the public from taking up photography en masse. Processing pics, the company said, would be its responsibility now.
So, what did that mean for the hidden mothers’ methods? After all, if you could now create a photo of someone without having to wait around for 30 seconds, were moms really needed in the pictures to help calm their children? Well, maybe not, but the practice continued into the 20th century – despite the advances in camera technology.
By the Roaring Twenties, however, the moms had all but disappeared – when it came to the baby pics, anyway. And from there, you wouldn’t spot any more creepy figures looming over infants in photographs. But as weird and spooky as some of these images turned out, the method has its place in history – and it certainly won’t be forgotten.
This wasn’t the only pressure placed on Victorian women, either. Because the Victorian era also saw the publication of a deluge of advice books aimed at the young brides-to-be and newly married females. And much of the material contained within such literature confirms the stereotype we have of the Victorians, especially that of the upper classes. Indeed, judging by these books, the Victorians do seem to be a straitlaced lot when it came to sexual matters. But most shocking of all to modern sensibilities are the casual assumptions of male superiority. Read on, and prepare to be outraged!
20. At least a rudimentary knowledge of biology
It was assumed that most of the young women at whom Victorian guides on marriage were aimed would be from the upper-middle or middle classes. And from that supposition sprung the quite reasonable idea that these young women’s knowledge of basic biology was scant – if it even existed at all.
So, what awaited a young woman on her wedding night was likely to be even more of a mystery – and perhaps a rather terrifying one at that. Walter Gallichan, writing in his 1918 The Psychology of Marriage, advised, “It is necessary that the virgin should not enter the married state without even theoretical knowledge of sex.” Alarmingly, he went on to say about the wedding night, “Now and then one reads a painful report of suicide at this crisis in a girl’s life.”
19. But a bride shouldn’t know too much…
A torrent of advice faced young women about getting wed. All fine, but the problem was that the advice had something of a tendency to be contradictory. So, while Walter Gallichan said that women should have at least a theoretical knowledge of what was likely to happen on their wedding night, other authors had different advice.
Indeed, if the young bride-to-be also peeked into Maurice Bigelow’s 1916 collection of lectures on sex education, she’d read that too much knowledge was positively harmful. In Bigelow’s view, a young woman should only be taught that she was the proud owner of a vulva. And no further detail was advisable as it “might arouse curiosity that leads to exploration and irritation.”
18. Don’t ask too much of your husband
Some (of the mostly male) writers of marriage advice for women in the Victorian era recognized that there might even be young ladies who actually enjoyed sex. In fact, after her wedding night, Queen Victoria confided to her diary that carnal knowledge with Prince Albert had been a “foretaste of heaven.” Which rather contradicts her somewhat joyless image and the idea that Victorian women were all horrified by sex.
But the truth was, according to Bernarr Macfadden’s 1918 tome Womanhood and Marriage, that women with sexual appetites had to be mindful of their husband’s welfare. This was because “the life-giving fluid called the semen, which is produced in the creative organs of the man, is of great value in the upbuilding of his own body.” So, it was believed that the vital male fluid could not just be squandered willy-nilly.
17. Don’t be too willing
In fact, don’t be too willing is a little weak; the message from Ruth Smythers, “Beloved wife of The Reverend L.D. Smythers,” in 1894 was much stronger than that. Yes, her Instruction and Advice for the Young Bride positively struck terror into the reader at the prospect of marital relations. “Some young women,” Smythers revealed with apparent horror, “actually anticipate the wedding night ordeal with curiosity and pleasure!”
In fact, Smythers offered her advice – complete with shouty capitals – thus, “One cardinal rule of marriage should never be forgotten: GIVE LITTLE, GIVE SELDOM, AND ABOVE ALL, GIVE GRUDGINGLY.” And the consequences of ignoring her counsel? “Otherwise what could have been a proper marriage could become an orgy of sexual lust.” The horror.
16. Don’t have a career
Yes, that’s right, it would be better for all concerned if young women completely foreswore the tiresome world of work. Of course, the truth in Victorian times was that poor women would have had little choice but to earn a wage. For upper-class ladies, though, working was vulgar and demeaning to their husbands.
In her 2016 book Unmentionable: The Victorian Lady’s Guide to Sex, Marriage, and Manners, Therese Oneill explains that women who had particular talents in, say, literature or music were considered unmarriageable. Because, as she points out, “For a wife to work was to declare that her husband was incompetent and could not provide for his family.” It seems, then, that the Victorian male psyche was nothing if not fragile.
15. The dangers of lovemaking for pleasure
If the well-brought-up young Victorian lady managed to survive the horrors of her first night of marriage and even found that she enjoyed sex, she still had serious pitfalls to negotiate. You see, it was held that unbridled pleasure in sex even within marriage could be a dangerous pastime, and it was therefore something to be avoided at all costs.
In fact, Oneill tells us that health “experts” propounded the view that overindulgence in enjoyable sex could lead to illnesses such as cancer. And as Oneill wrote in her book, “These doctors very seldom cited anything remotely connected to science for their beliefs, but they didn’t need to. Most of the people who bought their books thought being punished by God and nature for transgressing their designs made perfect sense.”
14. Don’t conceive when depressed or drunk
The Victorians, or at least those who wrote marriage manuals for women, seemed to spend quite a lot of their time thinking about the horrors of the actual sexual act from the feminine point of view. But then, of course, there is another factor when it comes to sex: children.
And the nature of the sex, it was thought, could have an impact on the future child. Oneill writes that it was believed that being drunk or even a bit depressed at the moment of conception would result in unimaginative or even sickly children; so no sex unless you were both sober and in a cheerful mood!
13. No nagging
You might think that Victorian women had a lot to put up with from husbands whom they were supposed to obey without question. And speaking to Country Life, author Oneill warmed to that theme. “In a world where a woman was at the mercy of her husband’s mood and decisions, she might find a lot to complain about,” Oneill said.
But Oneill went on to tell Country Life that despite having plenty of grounds for complaint, wives were in fact admonished not to nag their husbands. She cited the work of one American, William Jay, who wrote about Christian marriage in the early part of the 19th century. Jay said that a woman had no right to scold her husband since a woman’s plight was “the consequence of the sin of your own [female] sex.”
12. Fashionable, but not too fashionable
One of the many puzzles Victorian women had to face was the question of their appearance. Oneill told Country Life that women were entreated to dress fashionably – but there were apparently limits. That’s right: women should be fashionable “but not too fashionable,” Oneill told the magazine.
Being “too fashionable” might give the impression that a woman thought herself to be above her station, which of course would never do. What’s more, it might entail spending too much of her husband’s money – another thing to be avoided at all costs. And women were also instructed not to be too clean. You see, excessive cleanliness, apparently, might make others feel awkward.
11. Just say no to makeup
Similarly, Oneill told Country Life that as well as being fashionable but not too fashionable, women should be “alluring but not too alluring” – which sounds like another complicated conundrum for Victorian women to negotiate. And one way to look too alluring was to use makeup.
As Oneill pointed out, “Nothing would humiliate a man more than for his wife to appear of easy virtue.” Despite that entreaty, though, women were still expected to look their best. And that meant having pale but healthy-looking skin, “rosy lips” and bright, clear eyes. But remember: women had to achieve this without resorting to the makeup box. Tricky.
10. Ignore infidelity
So, having foresworn makeup and taking great care not to be too fashionable, the Victorian married woman had yet another important rule to bear in mind. And that was how to react if her husband should stray from the marital bed, seeking solace elsewhere. So what should be done in such a case? Well, according to the Victorians, it was the woman’s duty to turn a blind eye.
Yes, the mindset of the day, according to Oneill, was, “It’s in a man’s nature to go searching for a new version of the girl you used to be before you bore him seven children and made the comforts of his home the envy of the neighborhood.” And any idea of fairness just didn’t come into it. “Those were the unspoken rules of Victorian cheating,” Oneill pointed out.
9. Don’t marry for love
In modern Western society, most would regard romantic love as the prime reason for getting married. But some in the Victorian era believed that marrying someone just because you were in love with them was an error. What’s more, it was an error that would likely result in an unhappy union.
One who offered advice along those lines was Elizabeth Lanfear. Her Letters to Young Ladies on Their Entrance into the World came out in 1824. And in it, she warns against marrying for mere love. Lanfear counsels the young Victorian woman to make a careful judgment about a prospective husband, rather than making an arbitrary choice “dignified by the name of love.”
8. Stick to your own class
Lanfear had other strong views about the paramount importance of choosing a well-matched spouse too. And class was one of the key issues. In her Letters to Young Ladies she wrote, “The woman who marries a man of superior rank to her own is not always treated according to her deserts by his relations.”
And conversely, Lanfear said, “While she who weds with one of an inferior rank in life has no right to expect that her friends will associate with her husband, or treat him with that respect which she may think his due.” So there you have it; marrying outside your class was a likely recipe for misery and sorrow.
7. Let your husband win arguments
And here’s some more advice from yet another Victorian man, Arthur Freeling. This time, the dutiful wife is instructed in how to argue with her husband – or, more precisely, how not to. Yes, there should only ever be one outcome of a Victorian marital dispute: the husband must always be allowed to come out on top.
In fact, the very title of Freeling’s 1839 publication The Young Bride’s Book: Being Hints for Regulating the Conduct of Married Women gives a pretty strong clue to the man’s views. And in Freeling’s work, he writes that from the very first disagreement of a marriage, the woman must always let the man’s views prevail.
6. Don’t over-tighten your corset
In fact, this piece of Victorian advice is perhaps one of the few that make sense to modern ears – even though, yet again, it comes from a man; in this case, the guidance comes from one Haydn Brown. We are, of course, back on the subject of women’s attire, but this time the subject is rather delicate, as we’re focusing on ladies’ undergarments. And Brown’s 1899 book, Advice to Single Women, gave a warning about over-tightened corsetry.
“There is everything that is lithe and dainty, something femininely fetching, about a pretty little waist; but when it is fashioned with such difficulty, and under so much agony, one loses interest in it to a great extent,” wrote Haydn. Notice that he seems more concerned about his failing interest than in the woman’s health. It’s sound advice anyway, though.
5. Never naked
And once the beleaguered Victorian wife had finally managed to extricate herself from her over-tightened corsets at bedtime, she had another important mission to attend to. That’s right: she must never, according to Ruth Smythers’ 1894 Instruction and Advice for the Young Brides, allow her husband to cast his beady eyes on her naked flesh.
“The wise bride,” wrote Smythers, “will make it the goal never to allow her husband to see her unclothed body, and never allow him to display his unclothed body to her.” And Smythers went further, too, adding, “Sex, when it cannot be prevented, should be practiced only in total darkness.” She also advised the wearing of “thick cotton nightgowns” which “need not be removed during the sex act.”
4. Keep still
Smythers’ instructional article was originally published in The Madison Institute Newsletter’s fall 1894 issue. And in it, Smythers also offered advice on how the young Victorian bride should conduct herself in the unfortunate circumstance of finding herself engaged in lovemaking with her husband. Before the act, Smythers advised, the wife should remain absolutely silent.
This was because the husband might interpret any noise “as a sign of encouragement.” And once the husband is in the marital bed, “the wife should lie as still as possible.” Otherwise, “Bodily motion on her part could be interpreted as sexual excitement by the optimistic husband.” So, if this advice is anything to go by, it seems a wonder that the Victorians ever managed to produce the next generation.
3. Solitary confinement after childbirth
Assuming that the young Victorian wife had succumbed at some point to the sexual demands of her husband despite Smythers’ advice, childbirth was the next likely lifetime milestone. And writing in 1896, Elizabeth Scovil had plenty of advice for the pregnant wife in Preparation for Motherhood.
Apparently, the key thing for the new mother just after she had given birth was isolation. Scovil wrote, “Excitement is dangerous, and no visitors must be permitted to enter the room, nor should conversation be allowed, even if she wishes to talk.” Additionally, the lights should be dimmed, and no reading should be allowed either. So after an anesthetic-free delivery, the new mother was, in effect, sentenced to solitary confinement. And she shouldn’t arise from her bed for at least nine days.
2. Marry a philanderer?
On the face of it, this piece of advice seems to completely contradict the strictly straitlaced morality that we attribute to the Victorians. But according to contemporary author Mimi Matthews, some Victorian women took a particular view of the man who had clearly engaged in affairs before marriage. First, his sexual experience would make him a better lover. Second, with the man having had his fun, there would perhaps be less chance that he’d be unfaithful.
However, Matthews goes on to say that most advice manuals for young Victorian women counseled against marrying an “experienced” man. And in her What Women Should Know published in 1887, Eliza Bisbee Duffey issues a stern warning. “A young man who has led a wild, dissipated life may have contracted the worst and most loathsome of diseases,” she wrote.
1. Ration your charms
We’re back to Ruth, the “Beloved wife of The Reverend L.D. Smythers,” again. And this time she offers some strict rules about the permissible frequency of lovemaking within marriage. “The wise bride will permit a maximum of two brief sexual experiences weekly during the first months of marriage,” Smythers writes.
And what’s more, “As time goes by she should make every effort to reduce this frequency,” she continues. In fact, Smythers’ writings are so bizarre that some have said that her pamphlet is a hoax. But Snopes, the most reputable of hoax-busters, says that the allegation is “Unproven.” If you want to judge the authenticity of Smythers’ work for yourself, though, you can still buy a reprint of the booklet on Amazon.