Please help me — I can’t make sense of this bizarre 19th century photograph! It depicts a man tenderly cradling a baby doll, feeding it something from a little dish that sits on the table next to him (see un-cropped version below). Why does this photograph exist?
The photograph was made sometime between 1864 and 1866, dated from a tax revenue stamp on the back. It has been hand-coloured, to giving the doll’s dress and man’s cheek a pink glow.
Here are some of the best theories that my friends came up with, after I posted the image to Instagram:
- The man’s kid died and he snapped and now believes the doll contains the spirit of his dead child
- The photograph was made by a loving family humoring an odd brother who loves this doll belonging to his dead sister
- Haunted doll whispers demands for food in the man’s ear
- The man is demonstrating how to feed a small child
- It depicts a doll that’s supposed to be treated like a living thing to bring luck and prosperity, like a Luk Thep doll
- A playful photograph made for the man’s daughter before he departs on an extended voyage
- A subject study of a man with some sort of mental illness
Which theory do you think is most plausible? Or do you have a more interesting theory that explains this bizarre photograph?
Found via Family Tree Magazine.
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Oh! I’ve seen this picture before, and always had the same theory- I thought that the daughter was the one going away (To a hospital maybe? Somewhere where she couldn’t take her doll?), and this photograph was her father’s way of cheering her up. I can imagine him saying “Don’t worry, I’ve been taking good care of her for you!”
Perhaps I should hesitate to raise this suggestion since no one else seems to have raised it, but given the prevalence of momento mori photographs I have to wonder if that is indeed a doll the man is holding. Perhaps either due to the decomposition of the corpse or the nature of the child’s death, the “doll’s” head is a mask covering what lies beneath (or what is missing from beneath as the case may be)? You have to admit, that’s a pretty creepy looking doll so I don’t know which would be worse, that that’s a child’s corpse or that’s the sort of toy you would give a child.
My first thought was of an instructional picture on how to feed babies. It might seem silly unless one has actually had to feed a baby, haha. When we first introduced my daughter to solids, my mom had to show me how to hold her exactly like the man is doing in the picture, with one of her arms pressed against my torso and the other arm tucked under mine so she would stop grabbing the spoon long enough for me to get it to her mouth. At the same time, why would a man, instead of a mother or nurse, have been the model for such a picture in that era? Which leads me to think that the ‘picture for his daughter’ theory is more plausible.
Or maybe his photographer friend said, “Hey Charles, I need somone to practice my photography skills on. Sit in this chair. I have a bunch of props, such as this weird doll. Do whatever you want.”
I think that is a very plausible theory. I like that the photographer still went through the trouble of hand-colouring the print when he was finished.
Or maybe his friend, a budding photographer, said “Hey Fred, I need to practice my photography skills today. Can you just sit in this chair? I have some props, like this weird doll. Do whatever you want.”
There is no way that whole spoonful of food is going to fit in that doll’s mouth.
Hahaha I didn’t even notice that! That somehow makes this photograph even weirder.
I am of the opinion it may be a symbolic photo. His child may have died and he is feeding her through the doll. There were ghost images and other images that seem odd to us but were special to our predecessors in some way.
So my opinion is this might fall in the very real category of memento mori type images, such as ghost images. The mans child may have died and he is symbolically feeding her through the doll.
PS happy to see you posting again!
So sad and sweet, all at the same time!
The CDV is mounted behind a cheap, and likely regarded as feminine, mount; the image itself, while sharp enough, is flatly lit, and the coloring on the albumin emulsion is rather hastily and amateurishly done. The man appears to be of a class such that he could afford to drop a decent amount of change on a CDV, but did not spend enough to get a top-notch photographer or more elegant mount. I would suggest that the theory that this is for his daughter – perhaps preceding a separation (he could have, for example, been a businessman who had to take a coach or the transcontinental railroad for business). If this is the case, then it is probably his daughter’s doll in frame.
His well-groomed appearance and ability to sit still for 1+ seconds suggests that he’s no mental patient – I know rather a lot about 19th century psychiatry, and he does not look like, as it were, a “lunatic”.
In any case, I think it’s safe to say he was a member of the bourgeois class, and was having a bit of sport here.
Thanks for your observations! Sounds reasonable. If so, he seems like he’d be a fun father!
Haha, which reminds me of something rather hilarious – when my grandfather died, I inherited the photo collection, being the only professional photographer in the family. In an envelope was a “risqué” photograph of him hanging out of the shower, with suds in his hair (he must have been in his 50s or younger) making a “shush” finger over his mount with one hand, and holding a rubber duck in the other. Nothing too unseemly – a bit of his chest was exposed, but the caption on the back read “BACK IN A WEEK XOXO” – indicating that it was probably given to my grandmother when he went on his annual weeklong fishing expedition to Canada…