Tuesday, January 5, 2010

Vintage Baby pictures- HOLD STILL!

Chris, a friend of mine, was recently browsing an antique store in Barnegut, New Jersey, and found a magazine for collectors of postcards and other paper items. He mailed me a copy, because he knew that I enjoy collecting postcards which illustrate my family history. Incidentally, Chris collects old 45 rpm records; one time he tracked down a copy for me of Lee Dorsey's "Working in a Coal Mine". The song ends with the line, "Ohhh, I'm so tired".

In the studio photographs shown above, do you see the ghostly shape of another human being behind the baby- but hidden by a drape or curtain?

The January 2010 issue of The Paper and Advertising Collectors Marketplace (PAC CM) had an interesting article on "Uncovering the Hidden Mother (and Father) in Photographs. In the nineteenth century, exposure times for photographs were often measured by several seconds rather than fractions of a second as in modern cameras. So, how does a photographer hold a squirming baby down long enough to take an un-blurred picture- and still focus mainly on the baby? One way is to have the mother sit in a chair, hold the baby, and cover the mother's face with a drape or curtain.

The PAC CM magazine article mentioned several other techniques. In some cases, holes in the back of the chair were large enough for the mother to squat down and reach through the holes to hold the baby. A photographer named Fred Pohle invented a medal holder which babies were strapped into and held motionless for the photographer. Perhaps a less traumatic method was for the mother to hold the baby and then be cropped out of the picture during the processing or matting the picture so that the mother was hidden in the frame of the mounted photograph.

The article prompted me to go through my own photo collection looking for vintage baby pictures of my family to see if any of these techniques were used- particularly "Hidden mothers".

(click to enlarge; then use browser's "back" key)
Perhaps the oldest picture in my collection (see above) is that of my great grandparents, Thomas W. Russell and Eleanor, nee. Hartley, holding their second- and third- born children, Nicholson and Jane Ann or "Jenny". The date of the photo, 1880, is easy to pinpoint. Jenny was born in Sep 1879 and looks about a year old or less. The photo was taken at Schmiechen Studios in Sunderland, County Durham, England, and by Aug 1881, the family, or at least the father Thomas, had immigrated to Pennsylvania. In the picture you can see the parents have a pretty tight hold on the children, particularly holding their arms or tiny little hands.
Unfortunately, the first two children, both daughters, of Thomas and Eleanor died before this picture was taken. One daughter died at about a year; the other daughter, at 11 years. One of the points of the PAC CM article was that often pictures of children were taken because of the high infant mortality in the mid-19th century. The photographs served as reminders.
My great grandfather, Joseph Austel, had 10 children by his first wife, but only one child by his second wife, Rosa, nee. Friedrich. Rosa had a valued picture of the son, Paul, who died in 1904 at age 4 or 5 years. Rosa kept the photograph on an alter that she put together herself and placed at the top of the stairs leading to the second floor. She kept a candle burning on the alter. My mother remembers her grandmother praying at the makeshift alter, but somehow, the picture of Paul has been lost.
The two baby pictures above show my maternal grandfather, Charles Anton Gailliot, born 1894, and his first cousin, once removed, Mildred Ann "Millie" Gailliot, born 1907. Their common ancestors were Anton Gailliot and Johanna "Helena" Schlebusch. Both babies are propped on a chair and lay on what looks like sheep skins. Perhaps these shaggy foundations gave more warmth and comfort than if not present. Would that not have been a calming influence on a baby? In Millie's picture, on the right, there seems to be a folded piece of material behind her head. Could this be her "hidden mother". In certainly does not look like part of the chair. I like the cute way Millie is grasping the back of the chair in her left hand.

By the early twentieth century, cameras and films had improved so that exposure times were reduced, and thus the pictures were less likely to be blurred by the subject's movement. Still, the youngest child in the middle of these offspring of Robert William Kramp and Martha, nee. Streich (on left) apparently needed to be steadied. Note the sister holding the baby's hand.
On the right, is my grandmother's sister, Mrs. Rose Salmon, nee. Austel, holding her first child, John. John's left hand seems to be slightly blurred compared to the rest of the picture. I'm glad the beautiful mother in this case was not hidden.
1. Go to the homepage of The Paper and Advertising Collectors' Marketplace. Today, I could flip through the pages of their publication and see more pictures of "Hidden Mothers" in baby photographs including the whole text of the article. Perhaps in the future, one may have to look up Vol. 32, No. 1 (Jan 2010) on their site.
2. The "Dead Fred" genealogy photo archive web site also has an unidentified couple who were photographed at Bolko Schmieken Studios in England. I do not believe they are related to my family.

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