As the deluge of photographic portraiture, in the form of the carte de visite photographs, poured out of the studios of Victorian photographers, it soon became apparent that there was a market for a medium in which to keep and display them. Thus the photograph album was born.
Like photography itself, initially it was the well-to-do section of society that drove the demand for books or albums in which to house these small photographic treasures. As can be seen from the above image, they came in a variety of shapes and sizes and like photographs themselves , the albums also revealed something of one’s status in society. An example of this is the album at the back of the group, sold by Jennett & Co, Booksellers of Stockton on Tees. This album, measuring 300 mms by 220 mms, came in stylish tooled red leather set off by an embossed cartouche with gilded ornamentation and a sturdy clasp on the side.
Open this album and the class of the purchaser is immediately apparent. The ladies are elegantly dressed without ostentation, the menfolk often bewhiskered and always dressed in jackets, waistcoats and trousers. They present a prosperous yet anonymous face to the world as none bear any name or date that might help to identify the family. As well as these portraits there are two other c-d-vs of particular interest. One shows a small dog begging for contributions to the album, the other advertises a similar album which was probably put out by Ashford Brothers and Co, Photographic Publishers.
The album on the right is much smaller, containing only one photograph per page, whereas the red album held four images to each page. Like the other it is made from tooled leather and decorated with two ornate metal clasps This album originates from 1861, if the date inscribed within the front cover is to be believed. The portraits inside show seemingly affluent people yet without the same air of confidence of those in the larger album. Again, there is almost nothing to identify who this family is despite the three initials, L.J.S., that appear above the 1861 date.
The album to the left has seen better days. Its spine has fallen away and half its hinged clasp has vanished. However, despite its battered appearance, more is known about this little album than the other two. An impressed oval on the first leaf tells that it was made by Henry Naylor, 157& 161 Oxford Road, Manchester, who doubtless made a whole range of albums varying in both size and price. This was probably from the cheaper end of the range.
As well as this there is also a pencilled inscription that reveals the owner of the album to be Mrs L Bardill, 60 Bridge Street, Langley Mill, Notts. If the first portrait in the album is of its owner, then one can safely say that here is a woman who has seen life. She stares impassively into the camera wearing a beribboned bonnet and a heavy knitted shawl over a dark, tight-fitting dress. Her eyes are pale and piercing and she reveals a depth of character lacking in the portraits of the more elevated sitters in the other two albums.
These are just three of the thousands of photographic albums that must have been sold in the nineteenth century and it is a minor miracle that we can still open them and marvel at their contents just as the Victorians did all those years ago.