This is His Orphan: What it Shows and What it Doesn’t

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Widow and Orphan, Albumen Carte de Visite, Circa 1868. Ann Longmore-Etheridge Collection.

This English carte de visite (CDV) is one of the most popular in my collection, if Flickr views and Pinterest re-pins equate to evidence, that is. It shows a young British widow—identifiable as such by the white ruching on her black bonnet—squatting in the background, having just propelled her black-clad daughter toward the photographer. The widow stares forward forlornly, her hand over her mouth, indicating without words her shock and concern for their future. It is a candid, painfully honest pose, and one rarely seen in types of images. She is no “Hidden Mother,” but a vital element of a tableau meant to convey the message, “This is his orphan.”

The reverse stamp on the CDV reads “T. Bennett, Photographer, 46 Foregate Street and Church Street, Malvern.” According to research conducted by the creator of Photographers of Great Britain and Ireland, 1840-1940, Thomas Bennett “opened his first studio in Worcester in 1856. At different times, he operated at five studios in Worcester and three in Malvern under his own name and the business continued under the name of Bennett & Son and Bennett & Sons until at least 1916.”

“The 1861 census records the [Bennett] family living at his shop at 46 Foregate, Worcester, where he is described as a Lay Clerk (of the church) and photographer. His firm Thomas Bennett and Son is thought to have been established about 1856. His branch in Great Malvern was possibly the second photographic studio” in that town—this information gleaned from the Malvern Records Office. Bennett threw open the doors of his Malvern studio in 1868 and the CDV of mother and daughter could not have been taken long afterward.

Helpful Flickr historians pellethepoet and EastMarple1 spotted one of Thomas Bennett’s studios in the foreground the CDV below. The building at bottom righthand corner, with the word “photos” just visible above the door, was almost certainly where this Worcestershire widow brought her daughter to mark their terrible loss in a fixed image that could never be denied.

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CDV of Malvern, Worcestershire, Circa 1870. Courtesy Collection of pellethepoet.

My CDV appears on many Pinterest pages, and in particular, one where in the comments it is suggested that this little girl is dead, held up by props, or suspended with wires.

This is not a deceased child. In the photo, her eyes were caught while tracking the photographer, and she supported herself to a degree through her hand, wrist, and arm. One of her feet was slightly lifted as she prepared to take a step.

Bodies were not embalmed at the time this image was taken. That preservation process came into practice during the American Civil War as a way of returning bodies of dead Union soldiers to their families. It was not widely used in the United States or Great Britain for another 40 to 50 years.

Dead bodies that are not embalmed do not stand on their own, even during rigor mortis, without some sort of brace or rigging. There is no evidence in the historic record that these types of devices were used during regular postmortem photography. Sometimes unidentified bodies or murder victims such as Katherine Eddows, a victim of Jack the Ripper, were propped up to be forensically photographed.

Further, it should be asked why a mother would chose to allow the corpse of her dead daughter to be held up by wires or clamped in some sort of brace when she herself could have cradled the body—as is seen in so many other postmortem images?

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A mother from Philadelphia dressed in full mourning, which differs from a widow’s full mourning, cradling her dead infant. Albumen CDV, Circa 1870. Ann Longmore-Etheridge Collection.

The props that photographers did use were to keep people still, not to hold them up, as is clearly seen in the photograph below. Ω

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A young boy is photographed while held still by a posing stand. Circa 1890. Unknown provenance.

Say “Cheese”

The photographer may have told the children to hold hands and grab the waist belts to keep their arms still during the exposure.

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Siblings, 6th-plate ambrotype, circa 1855. Ann Longmore-Etheridge Collection.

This ambrotype is not only endearing, but raises several points of interest: First, both children were stood atop chairs and with that placement came the possibility that either could topple—especially the younger child who looks about age two or three. The belts around the siblings’ waists were not part of their costumes—it is likely they were both strapped to metal stands that photographers used to provide stability for their subjects, as well as to keep young sitters like these from wandering out of the frame. (That this was sometimes necessary is illustrated the adorable image below. How refreshing it is to see a mother cracking up at the antics of her toddler whilst Daddy or a studio assistant tries to keep the child from escaping.) The photographer may also have told the siblings to hold hands and grab the waist belts to keep their arms still during the exposure.

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Smiling mother and fleeing toddler, albumen cart de visite, circa 1860. Photograph by Whipple, 96 Washington Street, Boston, Massachussetts. Ann Longmore-Etheridge Collection.

Both children may also have been head clamped, as can be seen in the Victorian cartoon below. Contrary to what duplicitous eBay sellers and 14-year-old goth bloggers might propose, these metal stands were not used to hold up dead bodies. The cartoon below clearly shows how posing stands worked to help keep sitters still.

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Secondly, it is unclear whether the child on the right of the ambrotype is a boy or a girl. The center-parted hair argues female, but the rest of the outfit says boy despite the floral top and long cotton bloomers under a buoyant checked skirt.

Also tantalizing are the partial words visible at the edges of the image. At one point, the sticky back of the ambrotype was covered by newspaper. If still intact, this may have yielded a clue about this image’s precise date and location of origin. Ω