Who Are Those Ghostly Figures Behind Babies In Victorian Photos?

Victorian photos are inherently creepy, with peoples’ stoic expressions and poor picture quality. But some people noticed a peculiar trend among Victorian baby photos. Behind the baby, a mysterious figure– usually cloaked in some cloth– would hover ominously. Who is that figure, and why are they there? Like many eerie photos, these have an unexpectedly simple explanation.

Something Is Off With Victorian Baby Photos

Victorian photography is equally morbid and fascinating. Because of the long exposure times, people did not smile. They maintained grim, stone-faced expressions that appear eerie.

Babies do not remain straight-faced in these photos. But if you look closely at the background, you will see something unusual that is not in other child photography.

There Is A Mysterious Figure Behind The Baby

Behind the baby, there is a mysterious figure. Some are human-shaped outlines made with blankets and curtains. Others are far less obvious.

Some of the more disturbing baby photos feature arms that come out of nowhere and even headless people! Who are these background figures, and why were they there?

To Understand, We Need To Explore Victorian Photography

An early Victorian photograph shows a woman staring at the camera.
Heritage Art/Heritage Images via Getty Images
Heritage Art/Heritage Images via Getty Images

The first photograph was snapped by Joseph Nicéphore Niépce in 1826. However, these early cameras were reserved for political figures and celebrities.

In 1839, Louis Daguerre invented the daguerreotype. This was the first widely available photography that the everyday person could access. However, getting your picture taken was not an easy process.

The Daguerreotype Was Not Like Modern-Day Cameras

A Daguerreotype camera is in front of two pictures, 1839.
Alain LE TOQUIN/Gamma-Rapho via Getty Images
Alain LE TOQUIN/Gamma-Rapho via Getty Images

Victorian photographs were not on paper. The photographer used a silver or copper plate that they shined to a mirror finish. They covered it in fumes to make it light-sensitive and then exposed it to the camera.

The camera’s light would imprint an image onto the plate. However, the photographer had to use their judgment to determine when the picture was done.

Each Photograph Required Several Minutes To Take

In this artwork, Louis Jacques Mande Daguerre and the nephew of Joseph Niepce take a photo on a daguerrotype, 1839.
SSPL/Getty Images
SSPL/Getty Images

Victorian photographs were not instantaneous like modern-day cameras. A daguerreotype would take between three and 15 minutes to create an image. Not seconds– minutes.

That was why many people appeared solemn in Victorian photographs. They had to continue the same pose for 15 minutes, and smiling is difficult to maintain for long.

Despite This, Photographs Were Popular

Several lawyers are photographed in 1850.
Heritage Art/Heritage Images via Getty Images
Heritage Art/Heritage Images via Getty Images

Despite this lengthy, uncomfortable process, the photography business was booming. By 1850, 70 photography studies popped up in New York alone.

Photographs were taken seriously. Hans Kraus Jr., a collector of 19th and 20th-century photography, said that people kept the photos in mantles and albums, and they sent copies to relatives.

Initially, Photos Were Too Long For Babies

A young man is photographed in the 1850s.
Heritage Art/Heritage Images via Getty Images
Heritage Art/Heritage Images via Getty Images

Sitting completely still for 15 minutes is not easy, especially for children. Families and photographers managed to snap photos of some children, but babies were not often pictured.

Most babies would squirm too much during the exposure time to photograph. However, a later change to the daguerreotype made it possible.

But Then The Exposure Time Decreased

A man's reflection is in a daguerrotype camera.
Bruce Milton Miller/Fairfax Media via Getty Images
Bruce Milton Miller/Fairfax Media via Getty Images

Fortunately, the 15-minute exposure time did not last long. In 1851, Frederick Scott Archer invented the “wet-collodion process.” He tipped a glass plate into a mixture of soluble iodide and collodion.

The result was a lower exposure time: a minimum of 30 seconds, instead of three minutes. This made photography more widely available.

Why Were Babies Photographed?

A baby is sitting on a floral chair in this 1850s photograph.
Heritage Art/Heritage Images via Getty Images
Heritage Art/Heritage Images via Getty Images

Nowadays, parents take dozens of photos of their babies. But it was not so easy in the Victorian Era. Babies, young children, and even the elderly could not sit still for a full 15 minutes.

So why didn’t parents wait until the babies grew up? In short, they worried that their children wouldn’t have the chance.

Sadly, Mortality Rates Were High

A young girl is photographed between the 1840s and 1850s.
Heritage Art/Heritage Images via Getty Images
Heritage Art/Heritage Images via Getty Images

During the Victorian Era, infant mortality was incredibly high. According to an 1849 Report of the Medical Officer of Health for the City of London, children had a 33% chance of passing away before the age of five.

Because of this, many parents wanted to photograph their infants as soon as possible. But how could they keep them still?

But Photographing A Baby Was Still Difficult

A baby is held up for a photograph in the 1850s.
Penny D. Photo/Pinterest
Penny D. Photo/Pinterest

If you’ve ever tried to photograph an infant or toddler, you know how fidgety they can be. A one-second picture can result in a blurry image. So how could photographers keep a baby still?

Photographers and their families had to come up with creative ways to hold the baby still–and it ended up looking eerie.

The Figure Is Usually The Baby’s Mother

In this baby portrait, a mother's head is hidden behind a dark curtain.
Mrkhlopov/Wikipedia Commons
Mrkhlopov/Wikipedia Commons

Because of the long exposure times, the baby’s mother holds the baby still. Usually, they disguise themselves– under a cloth, curtain, or behind a chair.

The haunting figure is none other than the child’s mother, which is why people call these “Hidden Mother Photos.” Sometimes, though, the figure would be the father, nanny, or even the photographer’s assistant.

Toddlers Were Not Held In Place

A young woman is photographed with two girls, 1850s.
Universal History Archive/Universal Images Group via Getty Images
Universal History Archive/Universal Images Group via Getty Images

If you look at Victorian photos of toddlers, you won’t see a hidden mother. That’s because young children were held in place with a clamp on the back of the chair (which clamped their clothes, not the kids).

But babies were too young to even sit up in a chair. Because of this, photographers got creative.

Hidden Mothers Got Creative

A baby's mother hides behind the baby's chair.
Candice E./Pinterest
Candice E./Pinterest

Since the parents wanted the baby to be the center of attention, mothers hid themselves in creative ways. Some covered themselves with curtains, while others crouched behind chairs.

In some photos, the mother’s arms are visible. In others, their bodies are visible but their head is cropped out. Then, there were the edited pictures.

Some Mothers Were Edited Out

In this Victorian photo, a mother's head is edited out.
Julie Brown/Pinterest
Julie Brown/Pinterest

Not all parents hid underneath a burqa or cloth. Some were blatantly photographed, but they still did not want to be the center of attention.

When this was the case, photographers would edit the mother out of the picture. Yes, you read that right– the Victorians had a rudimentary version of photoshop.

How Could Photographers Edit Photos?

Fox Talbot, British photography pioneer, is pictured with a daguerrotype.
The Print Collector/Getty Images
The Print Collector/Getty Images

Photographers could touch up photos after they were taken. Before the ink set, they would use a fine-pointed pencil to apply highlights or add rosy cheeks.

In the case of hidden mothers, the photographer might blacken the mother out or crop the photo strategically to remove the adult’s head or body.

The Editing Resulted In Headless Mothers

A mother's head is edited out, resulting in a black blob.
Chubie/Pinterest
Chubie/Pinterest

This editing process resulted in creepy photographs by today’s standards. In some, the photographer blackened out the mother’s head– leaving a headless body holding onto a baby.

Other mothers would hide behind a chair with their head peeking out. In some cases, photographers would crop out the mother’s face, which is no less creepy.

…And Floating Hands

Since a mother hides behind a chair, the only visible part of her is her hands.
Christina Briggs/Pinterest
Christina Briggs/Pinterest

In some cases, mothers had to wrap their hands around their babies to keep them in place. Since they still wanted to be mostly concealed, this would result in floating hands.

Some remained beneath a cloth with only their hands sticking out. Others were cropped or blurred out, leaving ghastly hands to hold the baby.

…And Blackened Out Figures

A blackened out mother holds her three babies.
maya/Pinterest
maya/Pinterest

Since photographers couldn’t replace the mother’s silhouette, they blackened it out. If you see a Victorian photo with a demon-like black figure, that’s why.

In some images, the parent is entirely concealed in darkness. This results in a dark void right next to a child. Even creepier, a mother’s head might be blackened out, which looks like their head exploded.

Most Photographers Were Women

A woman works with a daguerrotype camera.
L. Blandford/Topical Press Agency/Getty Images
L. Blandford/Topical Press Agency/Getty Images

Contrary to popular belief, many Victorian photographers were women. Photography was considered to be one of the more ‘appropriate’ careers for middle-class women.

Between 1861 and 1871, the number of female photographers and photography assistants quadrupled. Since many were mothers themselves, they knew how to handle and distract young children.

Sometimes, Live Animals Were In The Studio

GettyImages-1304446357
Heritage Art/Heritage Images via Getty Images
Heritage Art/Heritage Images via Getty Images

According to The Guardian, photographers came up with creative ways to keep children looking forward. One method included live animals in the studio.

Yes, live animals–such as caged monkeys and birds–would distract the children long enough for the photographer to snap a picture. If only photographers offered a live zoo today.

Sometimes, Mothers Photographed Their Sleeping Babies

A mother holds her sleeping baby in this 1849 photograph.
Heritage Art/Heritage Images via Getty Images
Heritage Art/Heritage Images via Getty Images

Some parents captured photographs of sleeping babies. In these, the mother would cradle the baby during the exposure time.

This method was much easier to get a clear photo of the baby. However, many families were paying too much money to settle for a sleeping photo. They wanted to capture the baby’s eyes and expression, too.

These Photos Were Expensive

A hidden mom holds a baby with her two kids on the sides.
Clémence Ferrer/Pinterest
Clémence Ferrer/Pinterest

Despite (or perhaps because of) their popularity, photographers were expensive. The average photo costed between 50 cents and $2.

Today, that’s not a lot. But that back then, those costs were equal to $16 and $67, respectively. Middle-class people had to save up for a single photo, and they took them very seriously.

Photographs Were A Formal Event

A middle-aged woman is well dressed for an 1854 picture.
Heritage Art/Heritage Images via Getty Images
Heritage Art/Heritage Images via Getty Images

In the Victorian era, photography was a formal, serious event. Babies were dressed in their fanciest clothes, and the pictures often featured their favorite toys.

Other photographs included jewelry, flowers, and trinkets that showcased the family’s wealth. Since photography was not widely available, some families traveled for miles to take one picture.

Recently, Hidden Mother Photos Skyrocketed In Popularity

A mother behind a curtain holds her baby discreetly.
Mrkhlopov/Wikipedia Commons
Mrkhlopov/Wikipedia Commons

Hidden mother photos remained under the radar until 2013. Then, Italian-Swedish artist Linda Fregni Nagler discovered the phenomenon and began collecting Victorian pictures.

Nagler ended up collecting 997 photographs and put them in a collection called The Hidden Mother. She also released a book by the same name, which explained the trend.

You Can See Them In Museums

A mother hides behind a chair during a baby photograph.
Elena Foppiani/Pinterest
Elena Foppiani/Pinterest

If you want to see some of these hidden mother portraits in person, several museums have put them in exhibitions. Nagler’s own collection was displayed at the Venetian Arsenal in northern Italy.

The Palmer Museum of Art at Pennsylvania State University has a section for hidden mother photos. Even a Flickr pool has collected them over the years.

The Bond Between Baby And Viewer

A hidden mother is disguised as a large chair.
Mrkhlopov/Pinterest
Mrkhlopov/Pinterest

Many have wondered why mothers insisted on remaining hidden. After all, would seeing a person’s lap really distract that much from the baby?

Nagler had a theory to explain that. “The mothers seem to have been aiming to create an intimate bond between the child and the viewer, rather than between themselves and the child,” she proposed.

Hidden Mother Pictures Could Make A Lot Of Money

A mother's head is edited out, and only her arms are visible to hold the baby.
Karen Eaddy Warfield/Pinterest
Karen Eaddy Warfield/Pinterest

If you have a hidden mother photo, you could make some money off of it. Victorian photos–or copies of them– frequently sell on sites like eBay.

Depending on the picture’s quality and age, a hidden mother portrait might be valued between $40 and $125. Nagler herself became inspired by finding a Victorian photo on eBay.

Parents Could Send Copies To Other Family Members

A hidden mother holds two babies.
Nana Nancy/Pinterest
Nana Nancy/Pinterest

Sadly, early death was commonplace in the Victorian era, and many parents prepared for it. Families would rush to capture a photo of their child in case they passed away.

If the worst happened, parents would send copies of the photos to family members– a common aspect of the Victorian mourning process, explained collector Hans Kraus Jr.

Is Some Of It Post-Mortem Photography?

A photo depicts a hypnotist and patients, 1845.
Heritage Art/Heritage Images via Getty Images
Heritage Art/Heritage Images via Getty Images

It is impossible to discuss Victorian pictures without mentioning post-mortem photography. These photos, nicknamed “mirrors with memories,” depicted dead people to keep their memories alive.

Many have speculated whether certain Victorian photos of children were post-mortem, but it can be difficult to tell. Perhaps some parents simply wanted to photograph their child while asleep, or maybe it was more morbid.