Old Victorian Photos

Old Victorian photos don’t exactly make their subjects look like they are high on life…

Having your photo taken was a status symbol of the era. Only wealthy families and the upper class got the opportunity to have their portrait’s captured for the rest of eternity. So why does everyone look so pissed in old Victorian photos?

Well first you have to think about what equipment photographers were using in those days.

The first cameras in the 1800’s took hours to expose an image. Which meant subjects had to stay perfectly still for the entire time if they didn’t want their image to come out all blurry.

Try to keep a convincing smile on your face whilst staying perfectly still for hours on end and see how you feel afterwards, well there’s your answer!

Another reason for people not smiling in old Victorian photos, that was put forward by the author of a research essay, is that smiling was interpreted differently in those days. Instead of it being seen as a sign of joy and happiness like it is today, it was considered to be something commonly associated with the lower classes.

By the 17th century in Europe it was a well-established fact that the only people who smiled broadly, in life and in art, were the poor, the lewd, the drunk, the innocent, and the entertainment.

Victorian mothers with blankets over their heads

Another strange quirk of Victorian photography is the hidden (or not so hidden) mothers with their children.

Victorian mothers with blankets over their head

The reason for this oddity appears to be that children were just as wiggly 150 years ago as they are today.

If you wanted a picture of your children they would need some “encouragement” to stay still for such a long period of time. Mothers would hold them still whilst trying their hardest to blend in with the background. Someone should have told them about Photoshop…

That’s not all when it comes to creepy old Victorian photos

Post-mortem photography is maybe one of the most shocking jobs a photographer could have been landed with in the 19th-century. Taking photos of children who had passed away was a common way for parents to get over their loss and deal with the grief.

The bodies would be dressed up in old clothes and parents would sit with their child holding them so their photo could be taken as a way of keeping their memory alive.

If you want to see some examples click here, but be warned some photos are quite graphic.

Perhaps the most unsettling part of the whole thing is the effort put into making them look alive. Propping them up so they were standing and making sure the eyes were open were common tactics employed by photographers.


An already accomplished travel writer from the UK, Jack is now a fully fledged part of the WTP in-house contributor team. Based out of the digital nomad hotspot of Chiang Mai in Thailand he shares his knowledge of years living the digital nomad lifestyle from his point of view.


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