Hidden mothers, post-mortem, and 1940s Italian-Americans

(Now there’s a weird blog title for ya; how the heck do those things fit together? Well, read on, my friend, and I’ll tell you what I’m getting at…)

A day or two ago, a friend of mine posted a link to a blog post she’d found about “Hidden mothers in Victorian portraits” (and its follow-up, “More hidden mothers in Victorian photography: post-mortem photographs or not?”) by Chelsea Nichols.

I found these posts ridiculously interesting (ha, play on words of the blog title) for a variety of reasons.

For one thing, they are quite visually interesting, as they include a lot of photographs to illustrate the subject of the posts: mothers (or whoever) hiding under blankets, curtains, etc., to hold children steady in Victorian-era portraits. Remember, back in Ye Olde Dayes, the process of capturing a photograph was not instantaneous; so you had to hold still until the exposure was finished. Not so easy to get little ones to do this; hence, the mothers in the pictures.

Another reason the subject piqued my interest is that it reminded me of a couple of similar photographs that I have seen before. (Oh, that archivist brain : always pulling things up from the back-files of my mind…)

One of the photos I thought of actually fits the description of what’s being discussed — well, sans blanket:

PEIRCE, Howard Forrer 13 from Oversize Photo #1924 by Dayton Metro Library Local History, on Flickr

Howard Forrer Peirce (and his mother?), from Oversize Photo #1924 by Dayton Metro Library Local History, on Flickr

That’s Howard Forrer Peirce (born 1865) and, presumably, his mother. If it was meant to be a photo of the two of them, it’s not very good, since mom is mostly hidden (much to my chagrin, as an archivist, since that’s the only pic we have of her! –if it is indeed his mother, which I’m pretty sure it is, based on what her sisters looked like!–). So I suppose it is probably a situation of trying to get the boy to cooperate and/or hold him still while the photo was exposed.

The other photo that came to mind is actually a lot more similar to the photos in the posts. But it is not from the Victorian era; it’s from the early 1940s:

Baby and hidden mother, ca. 1941

Baby and hidden mother, ca. 1941

The baby in this photo is one of my aunts, and the person under the sheet is, more than likely, my grandmother. At first I wasn’t totally sure if therewassomeone under the sheet, or if they just draped it over a chair as a backdrop, but then I noticed how the sheet seems to be “holding” the baby, under the arms…so there must be a person under there.

But why? Why in the 1940s? Presumably, they were using a camera that was capable of taking an instantaneous photograph. So I guess they must have just thought it would be a fun thing to do, stylistically. (Unfortunately, anyone who would have been around — and old enough to know what was going on — the day the photo was taken…is now deceased, so I can’t ask them.)

Then, there’s one more thing I want to mention. When I was first thinking about writing this post, all I was thinking about was the “hidden mother” pictures I had seen.

But then I got to thinking: This is the second Victorian photography trend I have seen duplicated by my Italian-American ancestors in the 1940s. That’s…interesting.

Remember the post-mortem photographs I found in my grandfather’s photographs?

Now, before I go any further with my thoughts and wonderments, let me just say that I realize it would be bad science, and bad history, and just bad in general, to pretend like I could make any gross generalizations about an entire group of people or a practice, based on a handful of isolated examples.

But…it’s not going to stop me from wondering if this could, in fact, illustrate some sort of a legitimate historical trend.

Sometimes, we see something that looks cool — e.g., in photography — and we seek to replicate it, simply for the sake of “art”, without regard for the rhyme or reason behind why the thing we are replicating may have happened or been done out of necessity in the original work.

For instance, why is everyone obsessed with Instagram? Don’t they know that the original “retro” photos they are seeking to replicate look all yellow and weird because of the subpar photographic processes of the 1970s? No, they just think it looks cool, so they take a perfectly good (new) digital photo and intentionally make it look degraded…for the sake of “art”.

Similarly, I wonder if my grandparents saw older photographs of babies being held by mothers under sheets and thought, “Hey, that is a neat way to photograph a baby; let’s replicate that.” Maybe they didn’t realize why the mothers had to hold the babies (although I’m still not sure why they had to hide); or maybe it didn’t matter either way, but they just wanted to create something “retro” (before “retro” was cool — or even a term!).

Same thing with the post-mortem photos my grandfather took of his parents. People used to do that (especially in the Victorian era) because taking photogrpahs was less common then, and the deceased person might never have been photographed before, thus making the post-mortem photo your “last chance” to capture their likeness in photographic form. I wonder if my grandpa had seen some of those type of photographs and just thought, “Hey, I should do that,” when his parents died. I have seen several photographs of my grandfather’s parents — when they were alive — so I know such photos existed and were in his possession; it’s not like he had no others.

And here’s where my stab at bad history comes in:  If they were taking those pictures because they wanted to replicate others they had seen, I wonder if socio-economics had anything to do with it all.

Now, just stick with me a minute here.

The Italian immigrants of the early 1900s (like my ancestors) tended to be poorer (at least initially) than many other Americans. Being not-so-well-off (which in many cases is a great understatement) is probably why most of them left all they’d even known and came to great Land of Opportunity in the first place.

And okay, so, people (and dare I say “civilizations”) that are lagging a bit behind in a variety of areas, like technology, might tend not to have the latest-and-greatest advancements — especially since a lot of those were being churned out in the United States back then, not in backhills of northern Italy, where my relatives were from.

I wonder: did the photographers in rural Tuscany still use photographic processes that required holding still for a long time, later than most American photographers? Might my grandfather, who lived in Italy until the mid-1930s, have seen a lot more of those “hidden mother” photographs than most young men in the 1940s had?

And, as for the post-mortem photos : if things were “worse” in Italy in the early 1900s than they were in America — after all, Italians came to the USA to find work and a “better life,” not vice versa — wouldn’t that likely include people being generally poorer? And when you’re poor, what can you not afford? Well, probably “luxuries” like owning a camera or visiting a professional photographer more than every great once in a while. So it makes me wonder if those “last chance” post-mortem photographs might have been more common, up through a later date (year), in places with a greater concentration of poor people.

We typically associate these styles of photographs — the “hidden mother” and the post-mortem – with the Victorian era in America. But consider that poorer communities (such as, in my example, early-1900s rural Italy) might have still had some of the same issues (older technology that required standing still for photos; greater likelihood that the deceased had never been photographed because it was too expensive to take photos willy-nilly like we do today) that were the root causes of those “odd” styles of Victorian photos.

And if we sometimes mimic what we know, what we’ve seen, what our friends and relatives are doing or have done or did in the pretty recent past, I can imagine how it might have happened that my Italian-American grandparents ended up essentially duplicating some things that were popular (in America) decades before they themselves were even actually born. (Meanwhile, I’ve never seen such things in the collections of American-born people from the same era.)

Like I said, this is completely unscientific and not good history either. But it was a thing that made me go, “Huh, that’s weird.” So I thought I’d just wonder out loud.

Has anyone else seen any “hidden mother” or post-mortem photos from the 1940s?

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2 responses to “Hidden mothers, post-mortem, and 1940s Italian-Americans

  1. Any thoughts, or fact-based information if post-mortem photos were still taken in the late 1910s or early 20s in the USA? Planning a docu film about 1918 flu pandemic. Thanks!

    • Hi, Paul, there are a few sources on post-mortem photography listed in a previous post of mine : http://lisarickey.wordpress.com/2011/09/15/post-mortem-photography/. You might also try posting on the Society of American Archivists’ listserv to see if any archivists know of collections containing early 20th century American post-mortem photographs. I know that my grandfather took some post-mortem photos in the United States in the ’40s and ’50s, but that is just one example, and it obviously may not constitute a trend. Thanks for your comment/question!

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