I should post a warning here, so I will.
Warning:This post is picture heavy, and deals with the Victorian era’s way of coping with death and loss, touches on the relationship between slaves and their owners, and some people may find these photos difficult to view.
Stars know I find them deeply disturbing and incredibly sad. Onward in any case.
A WAR FOR PHILADELPHIA takes place in 1865, in a south that never fell, in a United States that never existed. But even though the history is different, and a king rules from Philadelphia, I made the decision that things like clothing, furniture, and the basic trappings of life would be the same.
Different time period means looking at a different set of photographs to get the details right. Mixed with the photos of women in high necked dresses and full skirts, or men in waistcoats and top hats, were lessons about grief and the complex emotions generated when dealing with the death of those you love.
The Victorians were better friends with death than we are today, even if “friend” isn’t precisely the right word. While they didn’t embrace the experience of loss, they couldn’t shy away from it either, or pretend death only visited others.
The infant mortality rate in the 19th and early 20th century was appalling, which is saying a lot given current US statistics. Women really and truly risked an agonizing death from child-bed fever, or bleeding to death, each time they had a baby. Vaccines and antibiotics didn’t exist. Children died of measles, chickenpox, whooping cough, and even ear infections. Diphtheria, typhoid, and cholera could sweep away entire families.
Not publicly acknowledging the depth of emotion and not dwelling on loss would be a totally understandable reaction, especially given how often death was an unwelcome visitor. But the Victorians didn’t shun the impact death had on their lives. Instead, they went in front of the camera to record their grief, and remember.
Posing with the photograph of another person signified that you were in mourning for them. All those thousands of photographs of civil war soldiers, both Union and Confederate, were taken so that their wives, mothers, children, and family would have something to remember them by if the worst happened.
And when the worst did happen, and the person you loved never came home, Victorians took more photos to document the loss. I keep trying to understand the psychology of this. Who were these photos for?
Sometime in the 1860s “mourning brooches” and pendents containing photos of dead soldiers came into fashion. The woman in this photograph is wearing a mourning brooch as well as holding a photo of the dead soldier. There are thousands of these photos too, most of them showing women with their outward emotions in check. I suspect that posing for these photos signifies that the attachment was deeper and the emotion stronger, than the calm faces let on.
The most difficult to understand Victorian practice, and the most macabre, was postmortem photography.
Postmortem photography seems so strange–so wrong–to the modern eye, but it was extremely common in the 19th century. From what I’ve seen and read, taking photographs of deceased relatives approached the level of ritual. Photographs were taken of deceased husbands and wives, sisters and brothers, grandparents, and saddest of all, children.
One site I visited called these children and infants “ghost babies”.
I can’t imagine holding my dead child and posing for a photographer. There is so much grief in this woman’s face, so much sadness and devastation. Don’t ever believe anything you hear, or read, about people in the past not mourning their children because death was common. It’s a lie.
There are a thousand possible stories behind this photograph from the 1850s, and a million questions raised by a black woman holding a tiny white baby. This woman must have been important in this child’s short life. That the photo exists at all is a testament to the tie between the two of them.
And the picture is a comment on the twisted relationship between slaves and their owners. I can’t help wondering if the woman cradling the dead infant on her lap was a nursemaid, a nanny–or the child’s mother.
It could go either way.