‘Many portraits of children in the 1900s contain their mother, disguised as chairs or camouflaged under decorative throws behind them.’ 

Hidden mother photography is a genre of photography common in the Victorian era in which they photographed young children with their mother present but hidden in the photograph. It arose from the need to keep children still while they took the photograph because of the long exposure times of early cameras.

Improvements in the technology led to this exposure time being drastically cut down to minutes, then seconds, throughout the 19th century. But in the meantime, the long exposures gave us a few unmistakable Victorian photography conventions, such as the stiff postures and unsmiling faces of people trying to remain perfectly still while their photograph was being taken.

Hidden mother photographs sometimes show a hand barely visible, an outline often draped in dark fabric. Photography was a new art, and shorter exposure times had not been developed yet. Because children had to be still for long periods in the photographer’s studio, mothers served as the supports for the baby during the long exposure process.

For some subject, braces were sometimes used to keep their heads and bodies still, but this would never work for babies. And, as we all know, getting a baby to hold a pose for any length of time on their own is nearly impossible, let alone upwards of a minute. Having the mothers hold them also kept the children content most of the time, which is of course, how the parents wanted them to look in the photos.

The results can seem grim to us today and it begs the question: why not just take a portrait of the mother and child together? A photographer’s fee would have been a hefty sum for many families back then, making it even more important to get a clear image.

These photographs were prized and having the mothers hold the children was like insurance against wasted money and a blurry image. And many of the parents wanted a portrait of only the child. Since so many children died young, a photo might have served as one of the few cherished reminders of the child for the parents to keep if the child did not survive. Sadly, this motivated many families to request this type of photo.

The photos speak to us of a time when resources and health were often scarce, a time when modern science could bring the wonder of photography into the world, but could not save the lives of sick children or keep a healthy child from freezing on a cold winter night by a cold, drafty window. What’s even more spine-chilling is the fact that mothers sometimes also did this to hold up their dead children for final creepy pictures before being buried.

London Crime Thriller Books by Paul:

I share a special love for London, both new and old. If you like London crime books, you will love these gritty thrillers.


The Carter’s: Wars in West London

Family is everything to the Carter’s. Alf Carter runs his criminal empire with the help of his two sons Kenny and Billy. But when family is everything, the ties that bind might be the deadliest of all. When Billy Carter should feel everything is before him, including the love of his life, it’s taken away, when terrifying gangland violence threatens his life.

Bagley’s Lane: Blood On The Streets

After three brutal murders in quick succession. DI Luca Rossi’s catapulted into a world that threatens him and his family’s way of life. With sheer squirm-in-your-seat moments throughout. Bagley’s Lane is a mesmerising, old-fashioned brutal story of loss, obsession and survival.

Love You Till I Die

Billy Pearce is a well-respected heavyweight boxer from London. After his one and only love is taken, his life is thrown into the menace and treachery of London’s criminal underworld. Love You Till I Die is a novel about loyalty and reliability, about people that love and care for each other but who, when push comes to shove, will do whatever to protect their own.

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