Author: has written 5299 posts for this blog.

Jill began blogging for Feministe in 2005. She has since written as a weekly columnist for the Guardian newspaper and in April 2014 she was appointed as senior political writer for Cosmopolitan magazine.
Return to: Homepage | Blog Index

30 Responses

  1. Sara
    Sara January 24, 2012 at 12:05 pm |

    Reminds me of The Lovers by Rene Magritte.

  2. Katya
    Katya January 24, 2012 at 12:05 pm |

    Fascinating, indeed! The accompanying text says that the mothers were present in order to hold the children and keep them still so that the image would be in sharp focus, which kind of makes sense. The photos where it’s not obvious mom is in the photo at all (the drape or cover just looks like a curtain or the kid’s seat or whatever) don’t throw me as much as the ones in which it is obvious that mom is under the blanket–like a normal family photo but with mom in a burka. The latter seem to actually call more attention to mom’s presence than if she just held the kid and took a normal picture.

  3. jessmilkshake
    jessmilkshake January 24, 2012 at 12:07 pm |

    That is fascinating. From a practical standpoint, I can understand needing to keep little kids calm and still for the picture (as the mom of a very wiggly baby) but I wonder how much choice these women had to be in the picture. Did they opt out or were they covered up by the photographer because that was the expectation? It makes me think of mothers in my family who are always the ones taking the pictures or protesting that they don’t want their picture taken. That “mom culture” expectation that you sort of erase/martyr yourself in multiple ways, not just in photographs…

  4. Donna L
    Donna L January 24, 2012 at 12:10 pm |

    Fascinating. I think it’s reasonable to guess that one of them (the 4th one down) is of an invisible father, since whoever it is, is wearing pants — not likely for a mom in the 19th century!

  5. Kara
    Kara January 24, 2012 at 1:54 pm |

    Interesting! I can completely understand the need for someone to be in the photo to ensure that the kids stayed still, especially since daguerreotypes and tintypes needed long exposure times. I guess maybe the moms were cropped out by the matting and framing later? But why was it so important that only the kids be in the photo?

    Well, the Victorians had a lot of what I consider to be very odd photography customs (i.e. the memento mori postmortem photography practices)

    Also, is it just me, or did some of those kids (especially numbers 6, 8, and the group of three kids at number 10) look really creepy?

  6. Echo Zen
    Echo Zen January 24, 2012 at 1:55 pm |

    Maybe it’s just I, but the mothers sure look like spectres of Death. :-o

  7. Comrade Kevin
    Comrade Kevin January 24, 2012 at 2:19 pm |

    There is something really bleak and chilling about the portrayal here. Perhaps it’s the technology of the time?

    My immediate visceral impression is that the mothers are the Grim Reaper personified.

  8. igglanova
    igglanova January 24, 2012 at 2:59 pm |

    Count me among the ones who immediately thought of the Grim Reaper. There’s something kind of monstrous about the eerie spectre of the mother emerging from behind the ‘skin’ the room itself to summon the child back to THE GRAVE with her for eternity…I mean holy shit, if I were the kid in any of these photos I might just pee a little.

    If any of my ancestors had photos like these taken, I would cherish them forever for being so unwittingly badass.

  9. djiril
    djiril January 24, 2012 at 3:49 pm |

    Well, the Victorians had a lot of what I consider to be very odd photography customs (i.e. the memento mori postmortem photography practices)

    Well, people having their photo’s taken had to hold still for a long time back then, and no one can hold still better than dead people.

  10. Tamara
    Tamara January 24, 2012 at 4:18 pm |

    My toddler would just freak out if she had to sit on me cover up like that. No way would that help keep her still!

  11. Tamara
    Tamara January 24, 2012 at 4:19 pm |

    er, ‘covered’ that should be.

  12. Andie
    Andie January 24, 2012 at 4:40 pm |

    I just thought the Victorians had really oddly-shaped furniture. I stand corrected.

  13. Sally
    Sally January 24, 2012 at 4:44 pm |

    How long do you bet until someone makes their facebook identity phone one of these? And how much do you like it when a person’s ID photo features the kid more than them?

  14. Andie
    Andie January 24, 2012 at 4:49 pm |

    Come to think of it, when my daughters were born, the welcome wagon gave me vouchers for a free portrait sitting, and although I wasn’t *in* the picture, I do remember having to crouch down behind the platform, covered in a blanket and hold them in the sitting position so neither of them would fall over.

  15. anna
    anna January 24, 2012 at 4:53 pm |

    I could actually see this done as a feminist art project about how mothers are expected to disappear their own needs for their children’s supposed good. But instead, it actually happened, with no thought given to the mother’s feelings.


  16. Miriam
    Miriam January 24, 2012 at 4:55 pm |

    Well, people having their photo’s taken had to hold still for a long time back then, and no one can hold still better than dead people.

    That and getting a photograph was prohibitively expensive for the average person, so the only time you’d get a photograph was on a special occasion, like a birth or a death. Usually a death.

  17. PeggyLuWho
    PeggyLuWho January 24, 2012 at 5:45 pm |

    There are a series of pictures of my mother and me like this taken when I was a few weeks old, circa 1977. You cannot tell that she’s under the blanket at all, and I only know because she told me. It didn’t stop at the Victorian era.

  18. Val
    Val January 24, 2012 at 5:53 pm |

    Yes, and if you look at the linked images, at least one of them is in its original frame. It blocks out the invisible mother/father/adult acting as a live support for child who could not or would not sit/stand still alone long enough to generate a decent image with the camera technology available at that time.

    This was pretty much what you had to do to photograph children, back then. If kids could not be made to hold still for, like 20 seconds, parents/family had no pictures of them. It’s just an old-timey version of what Andie describes above.

    Oh, and the “creepy” children? Are likely the result of long exposure times also. If the child moved, the image was blurred and useless. However, if the child stayed pretty still, but blinked or moved their faces a bit, the image was still recognizable, if a bit odd-looking. As Miriam says, photographs were expensive. It seems likely that many parents were willing to accept those odd keepsake images because despite their efforts, complete stillness could not be achieved. Historical images of live infants are often more “creepy” than those of older children.

    Also explains the many sombre faces in historical images, generally. It’s hard to hold a real smile for more than a few seconds. Neutral expressions are much easier to hold, but now that we expect photo smiles, it’s easy to project serious/sadness onto people who were just dealing with the constraints of their technology.

    For me, the real feminist interest in these comes from wondering how many of these children are boys…since it was standard then to dress ALL children in skirts/dresses for their first 2-8 years.

  19. Aunt B.
    Aunt B. January 24, 2012 at 8:07 pm |

    Val, a good rule of thumb is that the boys will have their hair parted on the side while the girls have their hair parted in the middle.

    I’m sure there are some exceptions, but in general, if you’re looking to guess the gender on a nineteenth-century kid, that’s the safe bet.

  20. LotusBen
    LotusBen January 25, 2012 at 5:07 am |

    Seems kinda creepy to me. Not sure why the mother should be absent from the photo if she was needed to hold the child still. I guess some weird illusion is preferrable to many people than reality. Also it seems sorta like objectifying the children. . .putting them out like products on display, rather than showing them in a relationship with a loving adult.

  21. Kierra
    Kierra January 25, 2012 at 8:51 am |

    Not sure why the mother should be absent from the photo if she was needed to hold the child still.

    One explanation from one of the comments at the link is that if the mother was covered she could continue to talk to the child/ren without messing up the shot.

  22. Val
    Val January 25, 2012 at 10:58 am |

    @LotusBen Do you find modern portraits of children inherently creepy? The ones where they are shown without their parents? Do those objectify the children or celebrate them? Personally, I think these images show that the Victorians felt that their children were important enough to be the “star” in images taken at no little expense.

  23. Val
    Val January 25, 2012 at 12:13 pm |

    @Aunt B. Thanks! The linked images have some skirted kids without noticeable hair parts, but I’ll keep it in mind when I am looking at these kinds of images, generally.

  24. Molly Brown
    Molly Brown January 25, 2012 at 1:29 pm |

    And how much do you like it when a person’s ID photo features the kid more than them?

    I don’t like it at all when a woman puts her kid in her identity photo. It’s like the woman doesn’t have an identity separate from her child or is hiding behind the kid.

  25. LotusBen
    LotusBen January 25, 2012 at 1:42 pm |


    No, I don’t find modern portraits of kids inherently creepy. Part of that is probably because I am more accustomed to the modern style so I take it for granted and don’t question its implications. Also, since cameras are more advanced nowadays, the kids don’t have to sit still as long as they would have had to for these pictures. It seems a bit exploitative to make kids sit still for a long period of time for photos that will mainly be of interest to adults.

    Also, objectifcation and celebration aren’t necessarily mutually exclusive. For example, with “sexy” women, objectification and celebration (of a sort) normally go hand in hand. I could see these pictures as a similiar instance. Of course, all this is just my subjective hit. I’ll admit I’m relatively uninformed about the topic and Victorian-era aesthetics in general.

  26. Q Grrl
    Q Grrl January 25, 2012 at 2:10 pm |

    How do we know these are the mothers? Couldn’t they be caretakers? I didn’t see any historical references, but maybe I missed them. This could easily be as much a race/class issue as on of just trying to get portraits of the children sans adults.

  27. Val
    Val January 25, 2012 at 11:52 pm |

    @LotusBen…totally agree, images can be both celebratory and objectifying. In this case, I think it is easy to see the images as extra exploitive because of the unfamiliar context, the weird format/method used to acquire them and the general idea that N. American Victorian/Edwardian culture accepted exploitation of women that would be unacceptable and illegal now.

    I think you underestimate children’s interest in these images. Seeing a permanent likeness is pretty cool and they were nothing like as commonplace then as now. I know my child was way more interested in having individual school portraits framed and hung as bedroom decoration than I was in mailing them out to extended family.

    @Q grrl…also agree about caretakers. Someone pointed out that at least one image shows trousers…so unlikely to be the mother. I still think they were trying to photograph the children without any adult, but race and class issues are probably being covered up along with (any) mothers. Would any of those caretakers show up even when the image is of the whole “family” of children and adulsts. I doubt it.

  28. Medusa
    Medusa January 26, 2012 at 3:34 am |

    I don’t like it at all when a woman puts her kid in her identity photo. It’s like the woman doesn’t have an identity separate from her child or is hiding behind the kid.

    Eh. A lot of the men on my Facebook also do this. It’s mildly lame, but doesn’t bother me from a feminist perspective.

  29. Donna L
    Donna L January 26, 2012 at 6:21 am |

    For anyone interested, there are about 140 of this type of photo at .

    I kind of like the one with the baby holding a sword and standing next to a dog:

  30. Betty8
    Betty8 January 28, 2012 at 3:24 pm |

    I think it’s an interesting issue that women will put their kids as their facebook photo or be so far behind the kid. It is that melting of their own identity to be first “mommy” then person. It is particularly odd when people use it for photos that are going to be seen in business exchanges. Maybe some people think it makes them more attractive, but it has the opposite effect on me. I think the person is not confident enough to have their own photo. I mean, how many teenagers put their mom’s photo as their facebook photo? If you can’t have your own photo as your facebook photo, it seems that you don’t think you are worth enough on your own.

Comments are closed.

The commenting period has expired for this post. If you wish to re-open the discussion, please do so in the latest Open Thread.