The earliest known surviving photograph was made in the year 1826 by a French inventor named Joseph Niepce. This original photo was captured in asphalt on a pewter plate and took an exposure time of eight hours. Nowadays, we have trouble getting our families to sit still for eight seconds! But before there were coordinated khaki outfits and continuous shooting settings, people took to photography for a much spookier, and at times, morbid, reason.

first recorded photograph

View from the Window at Le Gras 1826 or 1827, believed to be the earliest surviving camera photograph. Original (left) & colorized reoriented enhancement (right). Photo by Jonnychiwa via Wikimedia Commons

So, that’s where we began—pewter plates and eight hours of development. But, let’s move on to where we ended up going. In the 10-year time span between this grey photograph and the Victorian Era in the late 1830s, many advances were made in the world of photography. While the photos developed much clearer than the original pewter, a few things did stay the same—such as the long exposure times.

Post-Mortem Childhood Portraits

In the mid to late 1800s, the Civil War was brewing, and America was forced to prepare for an avalanche of deaths to follow. Unfortunately, death was becoming more of a commonplace than anyone could have imagined, especially among young children. Aside from the upcoming war, mortality rates for children under five sat just above 40%.

In these unfortunate circumstances, there were a multitude of ways to grieve the losses of loved ones. Now more than ever, people looked to photography for comfort. While oil paintings were only affordable to the wealthy, photographs emerged as a somewhat cost-effective way to remember loved ones after they passed. Lost children became particularly popular subjects of these photos.

Deceased children were sometimes posed with parents, alone, or with siblings. These post-mortem shots often served as the only reminder of what someone looked like, as the technology to snap a few pictures of your kids on a daily basis was simply not at-the-ready. While many might be photographed with their eyes closed to look as though they were sleeping, some photographers would fix the eyes open, pose them in action, or even paint the pupils in later.

children post mortem photography

And while grieving children was common, of course, many people were grieving the loss of their spouse, siblings, or other adult figures as well. In comparison to the technology today, early cameras may seem rudimentary to many. At this time, however, cameras were mysteries of science to most people, and of course, this fascination led to an industry taking advantage of grieving families.

Ghost Photography by Mumler

Photographer William Mumler paired up with his medium wife to sell photos of deceased family member’s spirits throughout the 1860s. Likely using a combination of double exposure and painting, he would insert the “ghost” of people’s children, wives, or husbands into the photos.

William Mumler Spirit Photography

John J. Glover with “ghost” of an old lady by William Mumler

People had very little reference for judging what a real photograph should look like, making them easy prey for this new technique.

A Mother’s Game of Hide-And-Seek

As years passed, the exposure time for photos was certainly shorter than eight hours, but it was still a difficult task getting people to sit still for a while the camera did its work—especially children. Instead of distracting the child with a squeaky toy and baby talk, mothers actually sat in the photos with their children but were often “disguised” or hidden.

There were a few reasons why mothers chose to cover themselves this way. The first is the most obvious: mothers needed their children to sit still for the long exposure times so they held the babies in their laps to produce as little movement as possible. Another belief is that the trend started because parents wanted to create “an intimate bond between the child and the viewer,” thus, leaving the mother out of the equation. One last theory stems from the fact that, in the Victorian era, photographing a loved one was such a rarity. Parents wanted images of their children alone that they could use to send to family members.

hidden mother photography

Everything from the spooky to the morbid to the somewhat clever—photography has certainly evolved over the past 200 years. We hope you enjoyed this little snapshot of history. For more topics like this one, and many others, be sure to like and subscribe to our channel, and follow along with us on Twitch!