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#TBT: The Olden Days of Family Photography

by Hanna Brooks Olsen
photo & video

Before Anne Geddes took the industry by storm, newborn photography just wasn’t very creative. In fact, it wasn’t much of anything at all. Aside from coming up with unusual/somewhat creepy methods of concealing the mothers in photos of their children, photographers didn’t really go the distance when taking pictures of little ones, because pictures of kids were more about posterity, rather than artistry. This also explains the phenomenon of taking images of deceased children, something that seems ghastly now but was, at the time, sensible; parents could remember their children with a photo of them looking peaceful

But, outside of the strange trends of ghost-mothers and funeral photos, are some enduring images of which remind us of the early days of newborn, child, and family photography — including some that are legitimately adorable, and others that border on creepy.

vintage family photography

Photo via Florida Memory


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Children were often photographed with pets, like this little boy and his dog, circa 1920.

vintage kid photography

Photo via the Smithsonian

Why is this baby in a bag? According to the Smithsonian, “this city letter carrier posed for a humorous photograph with a young boy in his mailbag. After parcel post service was introduced in 1913, at least two children were sent by the service. With stamps attached to their clothing, the children rode with railway and city carriers to their destination. The Postmaster General quickly issued a regulation forbidding the sending of children in the mail after hearing of those examples.”

cabinet card of children

Photo via the National Media Museum

“Cabinet cards” like this one were popular in portraiture around the 1870s; they were large enough to display, but not so large they couldn’t be mailed to relatives. They were also long, so you could fit a lot of children into one image, as is done here.

As the National Media Museum points out, there’s some pre-Photoshop editing happening in the corner of this image; a woman, most likely the mother, can be seen in the bottom left, though her likeness has been scratched out.

vintage family photography

Photo via the Australian National Maritime Museum’s William Hall collection


Time to improve your own Family Portraits? Join Vicki Taufer on November 10th for Family Group Posing. Learn More >


Portraiture became very popular in the 1920s, as it became less expensive to sit for photos. Additionally, with the changing fashions of the era, many families wanted to capture their stylish clothing, like this woman in her cloche hat. Though Australian photographer William Hall focused chiefly on maritime and sailing imagery, he also occasionally took portraits of families and individuals, as well as pictures of horses.

Here’s a baby on a scale.

vintage newborn photography

Photo via the Keene Public Library

…And here’s a baby in a pram.

In the early 20th century, Westerners were fascinated with the life and culture of Native Americans. Photographers like Edward S. Curtis and Frank Albert Rinehart traveled the country, taking portraits of Native Americans — particularly mothers and children. Since then, the portraits “have been both praised and criticized. The sheer documentary value of such a huge and thorough project has been celebrated, while critics of the photography have objected to a perpetuation of the myth of the ‘noble savage’ in stage-managed portraits,” according to the Atlantic.

Before the advent of the SLR, quick snapshots and casual images were a challenge. This photo, of a toddler playing on a rocking horse, was about as close as a photographer could get — note the chickens in the yard.

Here’s an example of the aforementioned “ghost mother” photo, wherein, to hold the baby, the mother was shrouded in a blanket. This is why, for modern-day portraitures, safe, soft props like towels and pillows, which can help hold the baby securely in place, are so necessary.

vintage family photography

Photo via the Library of Congress

Of course, plenty of portrait photographers didn’t want the mother obscured; family photography, like this image, was also popular.


Time to improve your own Family Portraits? Join Vicki Taufer on November 10th for Family Group Posing. Learn More >


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Hanna Brooks Olsen

Hanna Brooks Olsen is a writer and editor for CreativeLive, longtime reporter, and the co-founder of Seattlish. Follow her on Twitter at @mshannabrooks or go to her website for more stuff.