Sorrowful Soiree Preview: Post-Mortem Photographs from the Homestead’s Collection, 1850s-1870s

by Paul R. Spitzzeri

After years of holding our “Beyond the Grave” program at this time of year, with tours that discussed how Americans (and the Workman and Temple families) dealt with and commemorated death, we are switching gears this year with a new offering called “Sorrowful Soiree.”

Held tomorrow from 3 to 7 p.m., the free event looks at how much changed in the the way people handled death in the 1830-1930 time period the Homestead interprets.  Special tours and activities on this topic will also be supplemented by trick-or-treating and making costumes for the Halloween holiday, which happens to come the day before the traditional “Day of the Dead.”

One of the ways in which death was commemorated in Victorian-era America and which is no longer done was the taking and keeping of post-mortem photographs of the deceased.  This blog shared an example last year in the form of a daguerreotype, taken about 1859, that shows one of the three Temple children who died in childhood between 1856 and 1863.

This circa 1850s daguerreotype from the Homestead’s collection is an early post-mortem photograph, in which a deceased baby is held in its mother’s arms.  Note that a ring on the woman’s right hand has been touched up with gold.

Today’s post shares three other examples of this form of photography which are not family-related, but are from the latter half of the nineteenth century.  They show vividly and dramatically how Victorians in America, who only very infrequently had their pictures taken, used post-mortem images as a way to preserve the memories of loved ones, including adults.

The earliest is another daguerreotype, probably very close in age to the one of the Temple child mentioned above; that is, perhaps the 1850s.  In a leather case with a very dark purple lining and a gold frame around the image, the view shows much of the figure of the mother wearing a dark dress, but focuses on an infant, dressed in a white gown, lying in its mother’s arms.  This is an especially poignant scene, reflecting the deep loss of a child by the woman who brought it into the world only to see the baby quickly taken away, likely by disease.

Another early one is a tintype, a photo format that was inexpensive and more durable than glass.  Tintypes were used for a long period, unlike the daguerreotype, being popular from about 1860 through the 1940s.  It was common to find them being used at resorts, amusement parks, arcades and other places where a quick, cheap photo could be obtained.  This one shows an unidentified man looking a lot like Abraham Lincoln, including the mustachless-beard and pronounced ears, wearing a white suit (with two black fabric corsages) and black bow-tie and lying in his coffin.  This one, taken by a T.S. Whitney (but with no location given) is hard to date, but it may be from the 1860s or 1870s.

Post Mortem Tintype 2008.388.1.1
This post-mortem image, from the museum’s holdings, of a man who looks strikingly like Abraham Lincoln is a tintype, a durable and inexpensive photo developed a thin sheet of iron, and looks to be from the 1860s or 1870s.

Finally, there is a third format in this sampling of post-mortem images.  This one is a carte de visite, a photo on a small paper card that served much like a calling card would in the latter part of the 19th century.  It shows a boy, perhaps about age 10 to 12, wearing a gray suit and with his right arm resting across his torso while the head is slightly turned toward the camera.  The young man was not identified, but the photographer was J.A. Todd of Sacramento and the date could be the 1870s or so.

The triptych of post-mortem photographs shown here represent the evolving format of photography from daguerreotypes to tintypes and carte de visites as well as different aged subjects from an infant to a young boy to a man likely in his 30s.  In each case, however, there were family members who took the time (and expense) to have these compelling images taken so that they could have a visual representation of their deceased loved ones.

It’s inconceivable these days to even consider doing something like this, but we also have photos taken ourselves so routinely, that it’s hard to imagine an era in which people generally only had a few photographs taken of them during their lives (or a substantial portion of them.)

CDV Post Mortem Young Boy 2015.284.1.1
Another Homestead image is this carte de visite, which is a small format paper mount similar to the calling cards that were widely used, and shows a boy, who’d lived in or near Sacramento, of perhaps ten to twelve years old and dates to about the 1870s or perhaps not long after.

Moreover, rituals and rights change in many areas of life, including mourning for the dead and what was desirable and acceptable 150 years or so ago no longer was even by the turn of the 20th century, much less now.

So, we hope to see you at the Homestead tomorrow afternoon and early evening for “Sorrowful Soiree.”



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