Have you heard of hidden mothers in family photos? Photography collectors prize these 19th-century photos. But I haven’t encountered this in connection with genealogy.

Hidden Mother Photos

Babies were held by disguised mothers to help the photographer take a focussed image. In an article in the Atlantic, “Victorian Mothers Hid Themselves in Their Babies’ Photos,” writers Alicia Yin Cheng and Erin Barnett write:


Courtesy Professor Laura Larson, Ohio University

Nearly 200 years before the selfie, women went to imaginative lengths to stay invisible.In the resulting images, children float uncannily within textiles that hide a human form, phantom limbs appear with no bodily attachment, and mothers hide their face under weirdly placed curtains or even directly behind their baby. Nearly 200 years before the selfie, mothers were perfecting the selfless.

The Guardian, in an article entitled “The Lady Vanishes: Victorian Photography’s Hidden Mothers,” by Bella Bathurst, notes:

The main problem was the length of the exposure. However bright the photographer’s studio, it took up to half a minute for an image to register on wet collodion. Getting an adult to sit completely still for half a minute is a challenge, but getting a wakeful baby to do so is near-impossible.

The photographer could position anyone old enough to sit on a chair by placing an electric chair-style head clamp behind them, but the only way of photographing a baby was for the mother to hold it (or dope it with enough laudanum to keep a grown man rigid for a week).

Hidden Mothers in Family Photos

Hidden Mothers in Family Photos

Courtesy Hidden Mothers: Tintypes and Cabinets Flickr Group

The Accidental Mysteries blog suggests that “most infants during that time were photographed with their mothers holding them. The intended picture was ultimately headed for a frame or mat, so the child would sit in the mothers lap for the photo. When the picture was taken, the mother simply was cropped out to serve as the backdrop.”

There are many fascinating examples of this photographic phenomenon, dating from tintypes up to the turn-of-the-century at the Flickr group and at the Retronaut blog.

Do you have hidden mothers in your family photos? Take another look!