On This Day for Mothers

“Mothers, I believe, intoxicate us. We idolize them and take them for granted. We hate them and blame them and exalt them more thoroughly than anyone else in our lives. We sift through the evidence of their love, reassure ourselves of their affection and its biological genesis. We can steal and lie and leave and they will love us.”—Megan Mayhew Bergman

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From left, my grandmother, Lillian Marie Fox; my great-grandmother, Rebecca Murdock Fox; and my great aunt, Rebecca Fox, posed for this tintype in about 1901. Ann Longmore-Etheridge Collection.
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This tintype’s sitters were a beautiful turn-of-the-century mother and daughter who appear to be African-American. Courtesy Jack and Beverley Wilgus Collection.
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An American mother sat outside with her children for this ambrotype taken on a clear day in about 1880. Ann Longmore-Etheridge Collection.
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An adoring, late-Victorian mother and delighted child were the subjects of this albumen print on cardboard. Photo Courtesy Price and Zimmer Collection.
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An unknown lady tenderly holds her baby in this circa-1875 carte de visite by Hills & Saunders, Oxford, England. Courtesy James Morley Collection.

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I wish all mothers a happy day of love and peace. For all you have done and will do, you are saluted.

Alice Isn’t Dead: A Cautionary Tale, a Family History

Upon receipt of the carte, I scanned, enlarged, and enhanced the image. Immediately I became aware of motion blur caused by the child’s arms moving during the exposure.

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Mary Jane Stayman Culley holding eight-week-old Alice Maud Culley in August 1879. Albumen carte de visite. Ann Longmore-Etheridge Collection.

Within eBay’s vintage and antique photo subcategory, every slightly odd-looking baby is a dead baby. I confess that when I saw the listing for the carte de visite (CDV) above, I thought this was an infant gone, never to grow up, forever to sleep, dressed in angelic white and buried in a tiny coffin so unfairly made-to-fit, her grave topped by a small stone lamb. This was cruel fate; this was a Victorian postmortem. But those who explore the Victorian propensity to mark gut-wrenching loss via photography should take this story as a cautionary tale, not unlike the one I featured last November, “To Be, or Not to Be, a Victorian Postmortem.”

The CDV’s backstamp is that of “John Davies, Portrait & Landscape photographer, BelleVue High Street, Weston-super-Mare. Formerly with the late T. R. Williams, London, Photographer to the Queen and Royal Family.” There is also a handwritten inscription: “Alice Maud Culley, 8 weeks old, Aug. 1879.”

Upon receipt of the carte, I scanned, enlarged, and enhanced the image. Immediately, I was aware of motion blur caused by the child’s arms moving during the exposure. Alice Maud Culley wasn’t dead. I could then plow into the public records because of the fortuitous identification upon the reverse.

Continue reading “Alice Isn’t Dead: A Cautionary Tale, a Family History”

A Mother’s Mortality, A Woman’s Glory

The posing of mother and child may also deliberately highlight the loss of her long and well-cared for hair.

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Photo courtesy Jack and Beverly Wilgus Collection.

This stunning tintype, circa 1875, of an American mother and infant, is owned by collector and Your Dying Charlotte contributor Beverly Wilgus, who notes, “This little tintype is not as much a ‘hidden mother’ as a mother who chose to put the emphasis on the baby. I do wonder about her very short hair. One explanation could be that she has been very ill, maybe after a difficult birth, and her hair was cut short for comfort.”

It is possible that the woman pictured suffered from puerperal sepsis (called childbed fever) in the aftermath of delivery, which had been combatted, in part, by hair cropping. If true, this mother surely thought the tintype image celebratory—even triumphant: She had survived; her magnificent reward was the healthy infant draped over her shoulder, offered visually to posterity.

The sitter was lucky—a scarce survivor of a bitter scourge. “Childbed fever killed at the cruelest moments. It was described as a ‘desecration,’ an aspect of the natural world that felt almost deliberately evil. What caused it? Some thought ‘a failure of uterine discharge;’ others, a little later, called it ‘milk metastasis,’ noting that the internal organs of the women who died seemed covered in milk. Eventually it was accepted that the fluid was not milk at all. It was pus,” wrote Druin Burch in a Live Science article, “When Childbirth Was Natural, and Deadly.” When obstetricians and midwives talked of “delivering women,” he explained, they meant delivering them from the deadly perils of childbirth.

Puerperal sepsis from Streptococcus pyogenes is transmitted via unsanitary conditions during delivery. In an age before antibiotics, the takeover of its host was medicinally unstoppable. Between 1847 to 1876, an estimated five deaths resulted after each 1,000 live births, with puerperal sepsis causing up to half of those losses. “There was no cure available: doctors merely prescribed opium, champagne, and brandy-and-soda, trying to ease the passing, rather than making a vain attempt to cure a mortal illness,” wrote Judith Flanders in her 2003 book Inside the Victorian Home.

Yet against the odds, this mother survived.

In the Little House series, Mary Ingall’s lovely blonde hair was cropped during the throes of scarlet fever in a bid to save her life.

That hair should be cut during a high fever steamed from a long-held notion that it could drain the energy of the seriously ill; cutting it also allowed heat to escape the body thus lowering the patient’s temperature. In the popular Little House on the Prairie series by Laura Ingalls Wilder, for example, Mary Ingall’s lovely blonde hair was cropped during the throes of scarlet fever in a bid to save her life. (As an aside, JSTOR Daily points out, “Pediatric historian Beth A. Tarini believes the term was inaccurately used to describe viral meningoencephalitis in Mary Ingalls, whose disease rendered her completely blind.” The article is a fascinating read.)

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This late-19th Century teen may have had her hair shorn during a serious illness. Courtesy State Library and Archives of Florida.

Whenever a woman’s hair was cut for medical reasons, it was mourned by her family and friends as a brutal loss. Long and well-cared for tresses were considered a Victorian woman’s chiefest treasure. Writers of the age reflected the obsession in their literary works. “No other writers have lavished such attention on the physical properties of women’s hair: its length, texture, color, style, curliness. There is scarcely a female character in Victorian fiction whose hair is not described at least perfunctorily, and often the woman’s hair is described in incredible detail. The brown, neatly combed heads of virtuous governesses and industrious wives; the tangled, disorderly hair of the sexually and emotionally volatile women like Hetty Sorrel and Catherine Earnshaw; the artfully arranged curls of the girl-women like Dora Spenlow Copperfield and Isabella Linton are all familiar, even conventional elements in Victorian character description.” wrote Elizabeth G. Gitters in “The Power of Women’s Hair in the Victorian Imagination.” (PMLA Journal, October 1984).

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Lady Lilith by Dante Gabriel Rossetti. The watercolor’s model, Rossetti’s mistress Fanny Cornforth, had thick golden-red hair that hung well below her waist.

In a culture that all-but worshiped long female hair, caring for it was a rigorous process. It was an an era before shampoo and available cleansing options often contained caustic or drying elements. Women instead brushed their hair to redistribute the natural oil whilst often adding in tonics or perfumes. The brushing regimen was done daily by some women, such as the singer Aline Vallandri, for upwards of a half hour. Mrs. Walker, who published a 400-page tome in 1840 titled Female Beauty, as Preserved and Improved by Regimen, Cleanliness and Dress, recommended the use of a soft brush for at least ten minutes, twice a day, after the hair had been combed and brushed with a hard brush to remove dandruff and dust, such as soot from coal burning fires.

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A Victorian advert for hair tonic shows a maid brushing her mistress’s tresses.
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Fanny in reality: Taken in the 1860s, this carte de visite is believed to show Fanny Cornforth from behind with her hair undone.

Other cleansing tricks written about in the 19th Century include the use of baking soda and vinegar, rum, and black tea, as well as egg yolks and rosemary as conditioning agents. Ladies could powder their hair and then brush it after the excess oil was absorbed—as descendants of these women do today with dry shampoo. Ω

Mommy and Me

“Because I feel that in the heavens above
The angels, whispering one to another,
Can find among their burning tears of love,
None so devotional as that of ‘Mother,’
Therefore, by that dear name I have long called you,
You who are more than mother unto me.” — Edgar Allan Poe

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A proud mother and her adorable daughter pose in this 1/6-plate daguerreotype, circa 1850. The mother wears a fashionable “Jennie Lind” collar, made popular by the soprano Jennie Lind, the “Swedish Nightingale,” who toured North America from 1850 to 1852 under the relentless promotion of showman P. T. Barnum. Ann Longmore-Etheridge Collection.
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This mid-1870s tintype from the Jack and Beverly Wilgus Collection includes a shy “hidden mother” who is revealed with the removal of the decorative paper mat.
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A nicely dressed English mother and son photographed in about 1862. Her smoothed and center-parted hair, pagoda sleeves, full hoop, and applied decorative trim was at the height of fashion. Her boy’s checkered, belted, one-piece dress was perhaps in shades of red and tan, similar to the fabric used in this earlier example. This albumen carte de visite is from the Caroline Leech Collection, originally photographed by G. J. Tear, Clapham Road, London.
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A mother, son, and baby in a pram enjoying a sunny day in England during the late 1920s. Scanned film negative from the James Morley Collection.
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An American mother and two daughters pose for an adorable 1/6th-plate Gaudin daguerreotype, circa 1852. The plate is marked “Double, A. Gaudin, 40,” the hallmark of Antoine Gaudin & Bro., 9 Rue de la Perle, Paris, a French company whose products were widely used by daguerreians throughout America. The older daughter is wearing a “protective” coral necklace. Coral was thought to have special efficacious properties to safeguard children. Ann Longmore-Etheridge Collection.

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A quick note: I will be having surgery on Tuesday, 4 April, and will be taking at least a four- or five-day hiatus to recover. I will return as soon as possible. Promise.

Adorable Moppets 2.0

The second of an occasional series.

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Baby in a barnyard feeding chickens. Glass-plate image, circa 1900. Photo courtesy Price and Zimmer Collection.
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Boy in checkered suit. Tintype, circa 1870. Ann Longmore-Etheridge Collection.
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Boy standing on chair. Tintype, circa 1862. Courtesy Price and Zimmer Collection.
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A doll with a doll. Paper print, circa 1920. Courtesy Jack and Beverly Wilgus Collection.
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Misses Unimpressed and Fuhgetaboudit. Albumen cabinet card, circa 1875. Ann Longmore-Etheridge Collection.

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Beside the Seaside

“Oh! I do like to be beside the seaside! I do like to be beside the sea! I do like to stroll along the Prom, Prom, Prom! Where the brass bands plays tiddely-pom-pom-pom! So just let me be beside the seaside! I’ll be beside myself with glee and there’s lots of girls beside, I should like to be beside, beside the seaside, beside the sea!”

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This British ambrotype shows either a mother (right) with three daughters, or four sisters of disparate ages, posed on the exposed ground of a tidal estuary or river. Their fashions date to about 1870. The littlest girl is either carrying her bonnet or a bucket. Ann Longmore-Etheridge Collection.

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Capocci & Sons, ice cream vendor, on the beach during a sunny, happy day at Bournemouth, Dorset, in the 1890s. The 1891 census enumerated Celestine Capocci, a 51-year-old ice cream maker born in Italy, and her large family living at 5 St. Michael’s Cottages, Holdenhurst, Bournemouth. Glass-plate negative courtesy James Morley (@photosofthepast). The identification of the ice cream vendor was made by EastMarple1, who is a collector and historian at Flickr.

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Three elegant young adults on the deck of a ship or a seaside pier, circa 1900. Glass-Plate negative from the collection of James Morley.

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On the beach at Trouville, Normandy, France, in September 1926. Paper print from the collection of James Morley.

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Although posed in front of a backdrop, this girl was genuinely at the seaside, as Littlehampton, West Sussex, remains a vibrant holiday community to this day. Whilst photographers roamed the beach at Littlehampton and other resort towns, photography studios with their painted seaside scenes provided a second souvenir option. This Carte de Visite, taken circa 1900, is courtesy Caroline Leech.

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“The most easily identified and most commonly found British tintype are the seaside portraits where families pose with buckets and spades in the sand or lounge in deck chairs on pebbled beaches with wrought iron piers in the background,” writes the administrator of the site British Tintypes. “The seaside might also be the one place where middle class people could safely and easily have a tintype made—as a fun, spur-of-the-moment amusement in keeping with other beach entertainment.” Tintype, mid-1890s, Ann Longmore-Etheridge Collection.

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Lyrics to “I Do Like to Be Beside the Seaside,” written in 1907 by John A. Glover-Kind.