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Hidden Mothers: 17 Bizarrely Fascinating 19th Century Baby Portraits

By Meredith Carroll |

Hidden Mother

Can you spot the invisible mom?

Do you struggle to get the perfect shot of your baby? Unless you’re Anne Geddes or can afford a professional photographer, then you already know it’s not easy to get a little baby to pose perfectly or cleverly for a photo.

Way before PhotoShopping and sticking babies in baskets of cabbage were en vogue, moms used to use themselves as props—literally—to get portrait shots of their babies. It was a 19th century practice known as “hidden mothers,” in which moms covered themselves up and then held their babies on their laps. The photos were then cropped or matted, but the uncropped versions have, uh, cropped up in recent times and they’re f-a-s-c-i-n-a-t-i-n-g.

Take a look at the kind of creepy yet seriously cool photos (courtesy of Retronaut.co) and see how baby photography has come a long way, baby:

 

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Can you spot the invisible mothers in these photos?

Blanket Issues

Um, could they not have secured a longer blanket for the occasion? Awkward!

 

All images courtesy of Retronaut.co

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About Meredith Carroll

meredith-carroll

Meredith Carroll

Meredith C. Carroll is an award-winning columnist and writer based in Aspen, Colorado. She can be found regularly on the Op-Ed page of The Denver Post. From 2005-2012 her other column, "Meredith Pro Tem" ran in several newspapers, as well as occasionally on The Huffington Post since 2009. Read more about her (or don’t, whatever) at her website. Read bio and latest posts → Read Meredith's latest posts →

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78 thoughts on “Hidden Mothers: 17 Bizarrely Fascinating 19th Century Baby Portraits

  1. Proud mom says:

    Wow….I don’t know what to think….

    1. Moriyah says:

      Did anyone think there were black nanny slaves under the blankets, it makes more since

    2. Moriyah says:

      Did anyone think there were black nanny slaves under the blankets it makes more since

    3. Moriyah says:

      Did anyone think there were black nanny slaves under the blankets it makes more since.

  2. fawn areddia says:

    weird…but i kinda want to do one.

  3. Andrea says:

    I trust you and your doing the research and such, but I wonder if at least a couple of these weren’t nannies? Some of these pictures the woman is so obvious, I wonder if they went to great lengths to stay out of the photo because they weren’t family? Just a thought. Very interesting series!

  4. amy says:

    That is so retarded…like u cant tell theres the mom under the blanket holding her baby…lol

  5. Audie M. says:

    Crazy – spooky pics (reminds me of American Horror Story opening credits)

  6. kim thomas says:

    the child standing up is probably a boy back then they dressed girls and boys in dresses

  7. Ana says:

    These are pretty funny and interesting. I’m glad you showed the last pic, because that’s what I was thinking they probably did and it’s pretty ingenious . No photoshop back then and at least that gave them a nice background and for the most part babies would be content since there mom was holding them. BTW that :”long skirt” is most likely a baptism gown. They are still very much used even today when welcoming a new member to the Catholic church.

  8. nikki says:

    i cant understand why the mom didnt want to be in the photo

  9. Carrie says:

    Most likely these babies have past on. During the Victorian era, it was not uncommon for family member to take pictures of themselves with their deceased relatives before burial. They would even paint eyes and such, to make them appear alive. They also had a specific “stand” that they would attach the deceased to, thus making them look like they’re standing. There are some examples on flickr and information available online if you search.

  10. Bumbo no mo says:

    As a photographer, this is sometimes the easiest way for the child to sit nicely. I have used this technique since I started and still use it today. Sometimes even dad goes under the cover….

  11. Robin says:

    For some reason these are making me think of women in Saudi Arabia, wearing Burkhas…

    1. Jennifer says:

      Glad I’m not the only one thinking burkas….lol ;0 )

  12. lea says:

    These pics are really spooky looking. Especially the 6th one. What I find really sad about them all is that not one child is smiling! To me that’s very sad.

  13. OMG those are freaking scary! I never knew they did that to take kids photos, it’s too creepy. You’re right about the mattes, thank goodness.

  14. Darcie says:

    How hysterical! We actually have a photo of my grandmother as a toddler where she was holding her mother’s hand. The photographer kept the mother (except her hand) out of the frame, then painted a bunch of violets over it so it looked like the baby was holding a bouquet. 1920s Photoshop.

  15. Halley says:

    Old cameras took a longggggg time to capture a photo. That’s why there are very few pictures of people smiling. Plus the mom is holding the baby- so who could make her smile!?
    Also—These are NOT deceased kids. We’ve all seen the movie with Nicole Kidman, this is not the same type of photograph!

  16. waterbrghtasDskyy says:

    haha i loved this. this past weekend we did our holiday photo shoot and at one point Aerie was in a sled with a blanket under her, i had my arm under part of the blanket to hide my arm and then to hide my body my husband was holding a fake christmas tree up against my body. I was like scrunched back in this corner with christmas tree poking my face and catching in my hair. It was incredibly awkward, but at least darth vader wasn’t in our photos ( ;

  17. Liz says:

    i remember doing something similar when i worked for a portrait studio. sometimes its the only way to get a baby to sit for a picture.

  18. Alicia says:

    No one smiled in these photos because the photos take so long – it’s impossible to hold a posed smile for that long. We just had a family tintype photo taken (which is what most of these look like) and it takes FOREVER! They weren’t grumpy or sad, just holding still too long.

  19. heather says:

    the kids look creepy

  20. Pammy says:

    The judgmental nature of this article astounds me. These kids were all so well loved, and they are now somebody’s grandparents. Mocking these sweet families seems cruel. I am only glad that they were blessed enough to take any photos so that remaining generations of their families can now look back on them.

  21. Sue says:

    Not understanding why this is so creepy. We take portraits of children alone today just as they did in the past. The difference is that modern technology allows us to take dozens of pictures in a few seconds, where as back then one shot could take several minutes. So having mama behind a decorative blanket to hold the kiddo calm and happy makes sense. Looking back at the past with a spirit of superiority only reveals our own ignorance and pride.

    1. lara jane says:

      Well said, Sue.

  22. Sarah says:

    I have to admit I laughed out loud when I saw some of these! I think that we can both appreciate the hard work it took for these parents to take the photo and the fact that it is kind of funny! It remind me of all of the silly things I have done for my own kids to make them laugh or to have them behave in photo shoot.

  23. maggiemoo says:

    Now I want to go and look at all of my old photos and search for the hidden mom:) This really is neat – I had no idea!

  24. Anya says:

    When I saw this article I was excited to look at the old photographs. I would have enjoyed this a lot more if the childish comments were left out. We can all see that the Moms, Nannies, or whoever are in the photo. Some do look creepy (only because we are not used to seeing photos like this). But why are you being so rude as to insult these people? That was how they did it back then (and often still do now, but just more hidden). And making fun of their clothes? Babies are still dressed in similar attire for church ceremonies. I am sure getting your photo taken was quite expensive and they went to a lot of hassle to get it the way they wanted. Who cares if you see their shape or their legs? They matted the photos and they looked real nice after that. Your comments were unprofessional. It almost seems as if you went out of your way to ruin this glance into the past. Did it make you feel good to mock them? It makes you sound like a snob who looks down on everyone else. However your ignorance shines through your snide remarks and only you look bad.

  25. ASHLEY T says:

    These were great!

  26. wiseowl says:

    I also found it odd that a very interesting historical slideshow was negatively impacted by mocking comments from the author. Was she resentful that she was assigned to this piece? The pictures themselves are fascinating, and show that kids are kids through the ages! I don’t think these are memento mori photos of the deceased, though- those are usually relatively easy to spot.

  27. HelenaHanbaskett says:

    Was mom really bad looking? WHY would she wanna hide? Bizarro!

  28. HelenaHanbaskett says:

    I thought that the captions were funny. Some people need to just chill and be VERY GLAD I was not captioning. It would be much “worse” and offensive I suppose. Good job, MEREDITH CARROLL.

  29. Kie says:

    @Wiseowl – agreed! I really liked the photos and found the comments very distracting.

  30. MS says:

    Anyone else notice the mom in the first picture was wearing very modern-looking pants?

    1. rizzo says:

      Yes and even if the pants aren’t modern they aren’t Victorian Era woman’s apparel. Maybe two dad family.

    2. rizzo says:

      Yes and even if the pants aren’t modern they aren’t Victorian Era woman’s apparel.

  31. Kelly says:

    When we had our son’s baptism pics done they had me hold him in a bunch of the shots because he wasn’t quite old enough to hold himself up AND steady for long enough. They didn’t photoshop me out either, they covered my hands/arms with the satin material! I don’t think I’d like to be all the way covered though… Creepy.

  32. Michelle says:

    I have studied antique photos for years. Yes, some of them are awkward, but I don’t think they are as ridiculous as you are making them seem. Things were different back then. We didn’t have the camera capabilities as we have today–it took a long time for that shutter to capture the photo without it being blurry.

    I also do not believe these are dead children as the painted eyes that were common do not look so much like eyes.

    For me it was enjoyable to take a glimpse into the past and not focus on the ignorance that some of you are displaying eagerly.

    Oh, and the Darth Vader captions are just plain stupid.

  33. Hyman says:

    I always wondered why nobody is ever smiling in these old pictures!

    First thing that came to mind is a woman from Saudi Arabia too :) lol

  34. Meghan says:

    Wow these remind of that death book in the movie, The Others. So creepy…

  35. Christy says:

    FYI–the “Bad Hair Day” baby is a girl. That is why her hair is parted in the center. At this time, when babies were dressed the same no matter the gender, side part meant boy, center part meant boy. The same went for adult hairstyles.

  36. Sylvia says:

    My grandmother had one of those pictures, where the mother was hidden. The pictures look awkward, but I don’t think they were creepy, they were just trying to get a good picture of the baby. There was also a picture of my grandfathers’ baby sister who was deceased, early 1880s. There were no painted eyes, she just looked asleep.
    Remember, the Kodak Box Camera didn’t even exist then, all photography was by professionals, most people had very few photographs taken.

  37. Heather says:

    I loved these old pics. And your comments. I understand that’s just how they did things but it was quite bizarre. And it is creepy because of the blank stares from the children (which again I understand why) and also because it’s like some creeper trying to be sneaky behind a curtain and you can see their feet and they don’t know you can see them. Heehee

  38. Abby says:

    These were interesting to see! In my father’s first professional photograph, he has a tear going down his cheek and his arm was bent at the elbow. My grandfather moved at the last moment to capture just my dad. I love that photograph and the story behind it!

  39. Marissa says:

    I also could have done without the dumb captions. I’m not offended by them but they’re not funny and they’re anachronistic. Slightly annoying, really. But very cool pictures and thanks for sharing.

  40. Marissa says:

    I also could have done without the silly captions. I’m not offended by them but they’re not funny and they’re anachronistic. Slightly annoying, really. But very cool pictures aind thanks for sharing.

  41. Marissa says:

    I also could have done without the silly captions. I’m not offended by them but they’re not funny and they’re anachronistic. Slightly annoying, really. But very cool pictures and thanks for sharing.

  42. Sarah says:

    These are really creepy!! Ha.

  43. Rihanna says:

    This is Billy, Becky Ann, and that there is little Johnny in the middle! who’s that under the sheet holding Johnny? oh that’s Mom lol lol!

  44. marilyn oakley says:

    i really have enjoyed all of this ! Great subject matter ! I work in a museum and explain photos like this alot ! all comments were interesting and i even learned a few things. we do have a wire brace that was put on a young child back and neck to hold them straight. CREEPY YES !! Happy Halloween !!

  45. Kelly says:

    I just read that some of these children are actually dead… the older girl, you can see the stand behind her feet holding her up. See here for more information: http://ridiculouslyinteresting.com/2012/07/05/more-hidden-mothers-in-victorian-photography-post-mortem-photographs-or-not/

  46. kristen haren says:

    At least some of these are post mortem pics. Check out number three carefully, there’s a stand behind her legs and a triangular base, the type of brace used to hold up the dead. Also, all the hands looked curled up and rigid and lazy postures in most the pics, blushed cheeks in more than one and obviously painted eyes in a couple. Research the topic and you’ll agree if you observe very closely.

  47. Lisa says:

    Okay, not to sound mean (but im sure many will take it that way) but why are all these babies so different looking than babies now. I mean, none of these.babies are, lets say “gerber baby” material. Whats changed? Smiling or not, they just arent very cute kids. Just me?

  48. Cranky Cat Studio says:

    Pictures at this time could take an hour or more to develop that is why most people do not smile in old pictures. They had to sit there for an hour holding that pose. And that is probably also why the mothers or nannies were holding the children – to keep the pose and not blur the picture.

  49. Heather W says:

    I get this was trying to be funny, & show photos people think may be funny due to the way they took photos then. I just wish there would have been more research into these before some of the comments were used under some of these.. Back then to have a photo done was a bid deal, it took a long time and a lot of money. And a lot of these photos of children are death photos, the only photo that was ever taken so these moms could remember their loved ones and have a much cherished photo of them. Yes the moms had to help hold the children up, if they was alive then they had to be held still for a long time. As you pointed out these are normally matted and you don’t see the “mistakes” .

    #3 is not “chipper” because she is deceased, she has armature behind her, her mother is holding her arm on the chair to give her a more life like pose, her eyes are painted on to the photo itself.
    #5 photo of a child who past away
    #6 same, eyes painted onto photo after
    #8 past away, not “frightened”
    #10 the youngest is not alive either, that is why the mom is there like that, the other children most likely would not have wanted to hold him. And the other in her lap looks tired and needed to be laying in her lap.
    #14 & 17 also look like they have past. I have not seen info on these 2 though.

    They had color to cheeks to give a life like appearance, but some photographers did a and job and it looks odd.
    Again these are more than likely the only photos these mothers had of their children.
    Even when it is of alive children this was the only way they knew to do it..

    Im not trying to be rude, i just wish more research had been done before the comments where made under each photo. Someones loved one may see this one day.
    And i know from personnel experience what it is like to have only one photo of my son alive and the others of that day are of him after he past away in our arms. I would never want to see comments like those under his photo, it would break my heart.

  50. Megan says:

    Photoshop has actually been around since the early 1840′s.

  51. Shelly says:

    I believe these are post mortem photos…. That was likely the ONLY photos people took back then. It was very expensive and cameras were not in abundance. Death photos were very common back then. It was the only way to remember the loved one. The captions on the pictures are ignorant. Not that I would expect more from a site like this.

    1. Jill says:

      I would have to disagree. Other than the baby who had its eyes closed, the babies have eyes open. Not the case in post-mortem pics I have seen.

    2. odessa says:

      Not all of them, the ones with the three children are clearly alive. There standing up and outside, none of these children look to be dead.

  52. sariah says:

    These are not post mortem their eyes are open and several of them are standing? Post mortem would never have included siblings who were still living.

    1. misty says:

      I think one of them is pm…but only one. It was also common to paint on open eyes in pm pics.

  53. Brandie says:

    I don’t understand why the mom couldn’t just be in the picture as well. Why hide her

  54. Brandie says:

    I don’t understand why the mom couldn’t just be in the picture as well. Why hide her?

  55. misty says:

    Since both male and female babies wore gowns, parting the hair in the middle told you this was a girl child. The side part was for boys.

  56. misty says:

    Oh and since both sexes wore gowns, the hair part told you if it was a girl or boy. Middle part was a girl…side part was a boy.

  57. Chris says:

    My son is 24 and when he was 3 months old the photographer had me cover up in lambs wool to hold him for a couple of shots. It provided full support for him, and it was a close up shot that you would never guess I was holding him. I didn’t think it was odd at all. I didn’t want my picture taken, and my baby was supported and safe while he got his picture taken. I guess it would have looked funny if it wasn’t a close up. My son laughed when I pointed out that I was under the lambs wool.

  58. RGuTz says:

    The photos with the black blankets remind me of the movie that came out not to long ago… Something along the lines of The woman in Black…. CReEptastic…at least these kids were alive for their pictures :D

  59. RGuTz says:

    The photos with the black blankets remind me of the movie that came out not to long ago… Something along the lines of The woman in Black…. CReEptastic…at least these kids were alive for their pictures

  60. Melissa says:

    Yes most of these are post mortem photos…back then if a child or family member died all of a sudden they would get a picture even if the person was dead. You’d be surprised, they used to have stands to hold up the dead bodies to make them look like they were standing.

  61. Andrea says:

    Yes, a few of these most definitely are post mortem photos. Back then, many PM pics were the only way that someone may get a photo of their lost loved one. Quite a bit was involved to get these pictures as “life like” as possible too! Photographers/family members would go as far to glue the eyes open, or paint them on! They would even pose the decesed. I’ve seen a few PM photos of the person posed to play piano or reading the Bible! The Victorians also constructed lifesize doll stands to prop the decesed up (as shown behind the little girl in photo #3, you can see the bottom of the stand behind her). Plus, post mortem care wasnt like it was today. When person died (usually in bed), the family would leave them there for a few days. Embalming was not a regular practice until after the Civil War and then it was only done by the eliete. The body was left in the house until after the wake (which is why flowers at a viewing is practiced today). So there was time (about 3-5 days) to prepare for these types of photos. Also, you have to remember the way of thinking was very different back then. People did not cry in public or show extreme emotion, especially women (it was very improper). This is why men and women in morning would we black (for women: solid black for the 1st year, then slowly adding colors the following six months. Men: black for six months). The woman in the photos are mothers who lost their baby/child, they are in the photo to show their child was loved and lost, but the blanket is to cover their emotions. Seriously, google Victorian mourning if you don’t believe me. I am been active in my cities historical society, given historical tours at our local cemetery (write brothers are there along with a few other bigwigs) and collect Victorian/Edwardian photos for a hobby (however I do not own any PM pics, I find them too sad).

  62. kim says:

    I have an old pic from this era that we found in an old trunk in an attic..i’ll have to post it..the child was dressed VERY fancy

  63. Cathy says:

    I really don’t believe these are mostly PM. I love then regardless though, I am sure that they were top of the line back then. It is amazing what Photoshop brings to the table for photographers now.

  64. Katie says:

    These are NOT post mortem photos. Even though they were popular during this time period.

  65. Heather says:

    Yes, these are pm photos. Thee subjects in pm photos could be standing or laying down.they built special stands for them. And many times, eyes were painted on the eyelids. Also, siblings were often forced to pose with the deceased because people used the opportunity to get family pictures because they could not afford multiple photographs.

  66. Kathy says:

    I dont know what your looking at, but none of these kids look deseased. I dont see one picture that has their eyes painted on and the expressions on some of their faces cannot be faked. Clearly the children are indeed alive!

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