Photographs of Victorian children are many and varied. Newborn babies and toddlers are recorded, usually anonymously. Swathed in christening robes, posed on furry rugs, their mother’s knee, or in one instance in a basket, they glance out at us from that one moment frozen in time.
However, these photographs are sometimes more than a record of one day in a child’s life. They also tell us something about childcare and the place of children in society. The first image shows a Scottish baby all dressed up for the most important ritual of its young life, its christening or baptism. Infant mortality ran at high rates during the 19th century, so having the child baptised as soon as possible was of vital importance. The young parents, in their Sunday best, almost glow with pride as they share this important day with the viewer.
The second image shows a more prosaic side of baby care. A mother sits with her infant lying in her lap. Her dress is protected by a waterproof oilskin covering to protect her dress from being splashed by bath water or ‘little leakages’ from her child. The third image, below, hints at an alternative source of nourishment for a young child, besides the usual mother’s milk. This carte from Pope & Co. of Bury bears the inscription “My grandson aged 8 weeks, fed on oil cake”. It is hard to believe that a newborn could digest this type of nourishment, generally oil cake was something fed to livestock rather than tiny babies. (It has since been suggested that milk may have been added to the oil cake to make it more palatable).
Away from the realm of domesticity, a baby’s image was often captured in a rather more ‘artistic’ setting. From the looks on the children’s faces, they found the photographic process somewhat bewildering. In the case of Nora, on the right, her eyes seem almost ready to pop out with astonishment. At least she had a fancy chair to sit in, rather than a rug or a basket. All that fur and straw must have been rather irritating to tender skins.
Below are the trade cards of the studios where each photograph was taken.