1800s: The Invisible Mother

‘This was a practice where the mother, often disguised or hiding, often under a spread, holds her baby tightly for the photographer to insure a sharply focused image.’

The Hidden Mother

70 Responses

  1. Audra Hedger

    These are seriously creepy, like the Grim Reaper stopped for a snapshot prior to carrying the toddler(s) away…

  2. CatM

    I agree with Audra. This is still done, though. I had to hide under a drape and hold my baby upright for a portrait when she was a few months old. The resulting picture would have looked a lot like this if it hadn’t been cropped.

    • warren

      yes, we had this recently done in Germany for our baby’s passport photo. the past is not over yet! ;o)

  3. Debi

    I’ve seen the old photos in family albums but they are cropped so you never see the “hidden mother” kinda cool to know.

  4. Melinda Barlow

    Hi All–I published an essay that is the lead story on FLOW out of UT-Austin on 10/16/11 on the subject of the “hidden mother tintype”, and its relationship to other mother/daughter iterations in amateur and Hollywood films, memoirs, and the work of Alabama artist Laura Shill. It opens with a real grim reaper version, similar to the ones above. Here’s the link, in case you would like to post a response:


    Also wrote a “One Picture/One Paragraph” for Mark Durant’s photography website Saint Lucy on the same image in September. Here’s the link for that one:


    I am not on twitter but you can reach me at [email protected] to continue the conversation as well. Great assortment of hidden mothers here! I have about 20 myself!

    • Ann Skowronski

      Indeed. I suppose the majority of the pictures were with the mothers, but there isn’t really a way to know. Except when there are pants! These were low-end photos. I wonder if the photographers weren’t charging per subject at the county fair. In any event, exposure times were LONG with those tintypes. Someone had to hold the kid. I found a series of them in some family pictures. The baby was quite squirmy.


  5. Owen Flanagan

    Ah, the insouciant wonders of patriarchy. Did no one think to question the absence of female influence in the trinity concept? Apparently our progenitors prefered a nebulous, ambiguous ghost to a mother figure. I fear many are still mesmerized by this somewhat outmoded paradigm.

    • Brandon

      Agreed. Owen is a pretentious asshole who probably has a “career” in higher education. And he misspelled “preferred.”

    • John

      Wow, I guess the “moderators” of these comments will allow pretty much anything?

  6. Martha Sherwood

    If they had not draped the mother she would have had to hold absolutely still to get a decent image – she could not, for example, have talked to the baby during an exposure time of a minute or so for a tintype.

    Since the photographer was making positives rather than negatives all the framing and cropping had to be done when the image was exposed. These examples are particularly poorly framed.

  7. Leananshae

    I thought the comments on this site were moderated… in any case, may I request that someone please remove the extremely inappropriate comment made by eltnames just a few comments above this one? You can’t miss it… it contains the ‘F’ word. Thanks.

    Happy New Year All!

      • John

        That’s not “talking”. It’s mindless abuse of another website participant.

  8. joy118

    I find these creepy, as if someone is disguising themselves as they kidnap kids. Especially in the second from the last picture, the kid doesn’t appear to like what’s going on.

  9. Cecilia

    Not that creepy really. The old pictcures still in existance of dead people, even babies, are much more disturbing. Atleast by modern standards.

  10. Sam

    Uh, yeah, they do spookily suggest burkhas, as well as some feminist lit crit I’ve been reading, about the ABSENCE of the mother’s point of view in literature until fairly recently. One bell just starts all the others ringing too, doesn’t it.

  11. Yalonda

    I responded to this post elsewhere, but wanted to contribute here, too. Yes, it’s certainly creepy; I feel (oddly) comforted, too. I think about my mother being dead almost 11 years now, and sometimes when I want to cry and wrestle, feeling her under me, nearby, holding me firmly in place.

    Just like mothers may have to chew their baby’s food before placing it into the infant or toddler’s mouth, the requirements of motherhood can be rather unsettling at a remove.

  12. LynneSkysong

    Like Martha Sherwood already suggested, I believe these are supposed to be pictures of the children. The only reason an adult (mostly mothers I would guess at the cloths sticking out) is there is to hold younger, wiggle children still for the exposure time. Pictures were time consuming and more expensive back then, so I understand why they would want to do everything they can to ensure a good picture. If properly cropped, the curtain looks like a backdrop, not a grim reaper wearing dated drapes.

  13. Hartley

    I wonder how many of these were black nannies? (slaves) These parents would not have wanted their pictures in the family album.
    Although, I have seen old daguerreotypes with nannies included it may not have suited all families. Or if they were taken to the photographers by a white nanny maybe this way there would be no confusion over who was the woman holding the baby. After all it was the rich and upper middle class who could afford to have these pictures taken.

    • H Stuebe

      I was thinking the same exact thing. I would assume that most mothers would want a picture of themselves with their children. But many parents back then wouldn’t want servants/slaves in the picture. I have a book about Charleston, SC with a picture of three children and the mammy under a tablecloth.

  14. chris

    I used to work as a portrait photographer, we used to do this sort of thing, for the babies they probably didnt have a custom posing chair, and a human covered with a cloth makes a good posing chair.

    For the older children who could sit on a chair, it would have also have done if the child was scared and refusing to sit for a portrait, sitting the older child on the mother was usually a way to placte the child and get the photo done.

  15. Michelle

    Not to further creep everyone out but I have seen the odd photo where children were posed beside (not necessarily on) a seated figure that was ‘hidden’ as in the above photos. It was suggested that due to their mourning attire and uncomfortable expressions that it was a momento mori, a common Victorian practice to take a final photograph with the deceased.

    • JG

      I don’t doubt that photos of the deceased were often taken, especially of babies, but I don’t think the covered people in these are deceased. That would serve no purpose at all would it?

  16. John Q Public

    So here was I mistaken that slavery died before the age of photography. Or is simply working in service for a wealthy white person regarded similarly, Hartley?

    • Kristi

      There are photographs of the civil war so photography was around during slavery. I think photography is quite a bit older than people would guess.

  17. Chris

    Holy crap, some of these images are amazing. Just visually stunning. The first five where mom (or dad) is acting as the chair and curtain are really nice. Numbers 11 and 14 really stood out to me also. It’s amazing what people went through to document these things we see as mundane and simple. Great photos.

  18. Renee

    Well being a photographer myself, I can honestly say..yes we still kind of use the same practice only mum or dad hides below and holds bub up and we can photoshop the arms out.
    What a great collection of images. Photography was so much harder back then, with the long exposures often there would be movement in the images.

  19. john luckett

    Is this a photography portrait service for unwed mothers? No, I think not…Photography in those days did require prolonged exposure…I had my own picture taken in Managua in ’87 and the photographer exposed the glass plate (silver nitrate) for at least 5 seconds while I of course sat perfectly still (such was the progress of photography in the 3rd world even then!).

  20. Libby

    I understand why it was done, and that the same kind of technique is done today, but some of these pictures are just creeptastic!!

  21. mr. mike

    The photos sort of resemble the spirit photography of the 1870s, because you have a normal subject in the foreground and the odd “thing” in the back.

    I’ve seen photos of adults from that period; many of them were in head braces to keep them perfectly still. Photography was interesting then.

  22. Mary

    Owen, that is mindless psycho-babble, and you know it! One could just as easily posit that it was a clever, resourceful woman who said, “I know! I’ll hold the baby for his portrait, so that he won’t wriggle and blur the picture!”

  23. Ellen Green

    My fanaticism for these images has no bounds. What gives us that “creepy” feeling is the metaphor of “invisible” shown to us in physical form- something we instinctive know about motherhood within our culture. I know that feeling of invisibility within that role. The photographs had their purpose, their function within the technology. But they touch us deeper because we know at some level that is exactly how it feels to be the mother at times….

    Here is a link to some art work/tattoo flash that I made on this subject- enjoy and feel free to repost it to others….(warning I do depict nudity – people easily offended should look away- no cry babies….)


  24. Caroline

    Shame the mothers’s were not included in the pictures with the children in the first place, why not?

    • Shazam!

      I dunno…probably for the same reason that the fathers aren’t in the pictures?

  25. Geoff

    Wow … every day I learn something new. I honestly had no idea such a photographic practice existed … though it does make sense in the days of long exposures.

    Viewing through modern eyes we ‘see’ the absence of the mother … I guess having such absence declared so sharply to uis makes us reassess our thoughts and this leads to the creepiness factor … great photographs though :-)

  26. Celtic

    Ho!!!! that’s the first time I see that !!! This is not a use in France, never seen that !!

    What a shame ! poor mom !!


    Kinds regards

    french genealogist

  27. Mr.Loto

    It is the first time I see this thing, in Italy this practice has never existed.


    I found you stumbling :-)

  28. Henry B.

    Here comes Owen ‘n’ his thesaurus

    He knows a whole lot more’n us

  29. Carolyn

    When you think about it, the Invisible Mother is a fairly disturbing concept. Because so many mothers in the Victorian era died in childbirth or of puerperal infection or from other causes, a child or father looking at these images later must have felt quite a pang looking at the ghostly presence of the missing mother.

  30. Trinishka

    It may look creepy but I actually think it’s adorable. There’s nothing wrong with these people. Times were just different. Photos were not as instant as they are today, it was a much longer process.

  31. Gypsy

    What a strange thing to do. I wonder why they didn’t try to obscure the mama more. In some of them it looks downright creepy. Intriguing, though.

    I also wonder why there is no correction done on most of the images i see on this site. As a student of graphic design, I have become fascinated with photoshop and and correction of images in specific, so it is a little difficult to look at all those mars and scratches knowing i could quickly spruce them up a bit.

  32. irishwhistle

    Sure, some of them look creepy because you can see the human form beneath the cloth, especially those that were draped in black with the fabric actually shaped around the head and such. But it all seems rather human and ordinary to me. You can imagine them discussing how to arrange things and maybe even bringing along a favorite quilt because they know they’ll have to hold the baby for the photo, then chuckling over the results together. The photographer probably had different rates for those who wanted it cropped and framed, inserted into a paper sleeve (as seen above) to make it appear cropped, or who just wanted the photo and planned to frame it themselves. Goodness knows they still play that angle… added goodies to get more money. But I don’t doubt for a minute that all the obvious human traits of the supporting parent were obscured in the displayed photo. How many old photos of babies laying on draperies have each of us seen? And they’re always cropped pretty close around the kid. Now we know why!

  33. Pelican

    Gypsy, while Photoshop may be a wonderful tool, not everything needs to be ‘corrected’. Many older photos are ruined by someone being over zealous with correcting tools and ruining what would otherwise be a charming example of an authentic photo. Some pictures simply look much better complete with their tiny flaws, which show they have been loved for years.
    Just because you can fix something doesn’t mean you should.

  34. Marguerite Maldonado

    some of these kids look really creepy! like children of the corn creepy

  35. Fiuza

    I find these old photos relly scary! It reminds me of those photos of dead people…

  36. Michelle

    Fourth down, wearing pants; father? Assistant? (I doubt any women were *allowed* to -or would dare to- wear pants in this era). And yes, this practice is serious creepers jeepers.

  37. Feli

    Being Muslim for almost 15 years now I can say it does look similar, in that a lot of my friends’ clothes drapes that way and they can wear dark or patterned headscarves that are quite long, so the draping, covering of the arms part does appear familiar to me :)

  38. Melynda

    Some of those ladies were a bit more stealthy than the others. It’s kind of creepy. If the kid has to be held, why not just have the mother in the photo too?


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