“Hidden Mothers”: Hiding in Plain Sight in Victorian Photography

A while back, I posted on the solemn subject of Victorian postmortem photography. Here’s a more lighthearted aspect of nineteenth-century photography: the phenomenon of what collectors have nicknamed the “hidden mother.”

Contrary to legend, having a picture taken didn’t mean that the subject had to stand still for minutes at a time, except in the earliest days of photography. Yet even with comparatively short exposure times, a wiggly subject could mar a photograph, and what subjects were squirmier than infants and young children? So if a parent wanted an image of his or her little darling by himself or herself, and the child was either too young, too nervous, or just plain too ornery to cooperate, an adult–such as a parent, a servant, or a photographer’s assistant–would be called to duty.

Cartoon from the May 5, 1888, Harper’s Bazar (spelled then without the extra “a”)

The photograph below is the epitome of the “hidden mother” genre, with the adult obscured by a drape of some sort. As they are the strangest-looking to our eyes, they are the most popular among collectors. It’s likely, though, that the parent who received this would mentally screen out the covered figure and focus only on the child.

Other photographers and clients chose a less suffocating approach by simply obscuring the adult as much as possible through the matte.

And then there were those who didn’t do much hiding at all, leaving stray hands, feet, and other vestiges of the adult in the photograph.

Why, some have asked, didn’t the Victorians simply photograph parent and child together, eliminating the need for subterfuge? Well, of course, they did–there are numerous nineteenth-century photos showing parents with their babies or toddlers, such as this lovely couple with their slightly blurry child.

But just as is the case now, there were proud mamas and papas who insisted on a separate photo of their offspring–and in an imperfect world, the “hidden mother” was the most practical solution. As the caption on back indicates, “The best that could be done with such a fidgety young gentleman.”

(All photos from my collection. Thanks to Beverly Wilgus for calling my attention to the cartoon.)

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