As I mentioned in the original post on Hidden mothers in Victorian portraits, in 19th century photographs of children you can sometimes spot a mother hiding behind a chair or underneath a decorative throw, ostensibly trying to hold their squirmy children still during the long exposure times of the camera. (You can see the original post and images here.) The response to the first post on ‘hidden mothers’ has been almost as ridiculously interesting as the phenomena itself, so I thought it called for a follow up post in order to show some more of these intriguing images and to share some of the insights and debates that these photographs have stirred. In short, are any of the children in these images dead? And if so, why is the mother hidden?
After the original post was published, an interesting debate took place in the comments section about whether or not any of the hidden mother images were post-mortem photographs, a suggestion originally put forth by photography blogger Chris from Static Instants. He pointed to the stands you could see helping to prop up some of the children, which might have been used to position the body and help give the deceased a life-like appearance.
Several other commentators disagreed (including the fantastic vintage photography bloggers Mrs Marvel from Who Were They? and usermattw from Pics of Then), and were quick to point out that these propping stands were primarily used to keep live subjects in position, and that deceased subjects were usually positioned in coffins or like they were sleeping. (To illustrate this, one commenter provided a great link to a gallery of compelling memento mori post-mortem photographs on Cogitz.) Others who disagreed with Chris pointed out that you could see subtle blurring of the feet in some of the photographs, where the child must have moved while it was being taken; others argued that there would be no need for a hidden mother to hold a dead child still during the photograph.
…until yesterday, when a new reader sent me this link to an AMAZING blog post on Victorian post-mortem photography on Margaret Gunning’s House of Dreams. Margaret argues that the post-mortem photographs which show people in coffins was a later development, and that earlier images usually try to make the subject look as lifelike as possible. She includes some chilling examples of post-mortem photography which makes the theory that some of the ‘hidden mother’ children are dead seem a lot more plausible (like this photo, or this one). But most importantly, included in her gallery of post-mortem photographs was this incredible image of a deceased infant WITH A HIDDEN MOTHER IN THE BACKGROUND! (the image to the right)
So we know at least one post-mortem photograph with a hidden mother exists, and I think a compelling case can be made for at least a few others, although I suspect the majority depict live children. What do you think? Are you convinced some of these pictures might be post-mortem photographs or do you see unmistakable signs of life?
Either way, I bet you’ll never look at a 19th century photograph of a child again without searching for signs of a hidden mother or without wondering if they were alive or not when the picture was taken.
// Photographs in this post are from a range of different places: click on individual images to go to the source.
Elsewhere on the Museum of Ridiculously Interesting Things:
- Hidden mothers in Victorian photographs
- A contemporary twist on hidden mothers
- 19th century mug shots from New Zealand
- Vintage ads for medical leeches
- Those backwards Victorians
- The mysterious coffins of Arthur’s Seat