Saturday, October 09, 2010

Almost Lost Forever

Yesterday, someone at work came across a wonderful album of photos from the 1860s. They took one look and promptly threw it into a bin. Minutes later, a forklift truck was due to empty the bin's contents into a large skip, which would then be transported to a plant that pulped paper products and turned them into useful things, like lampshades and road surfacing material.

Luckily, by sheer chance, somebody else was curious enough to pull the album out of the bin and when they saw the contents, they brought it straight to me. As soon as I opened the pages, I knew that this was an exceptional find.

As with almost every album I find, there are no names or places, although judging by the stone walls and dales, I think that it comes from the north of England. There is only one date - 1863 - but even if there wasn't, the fashions are quite clearly mid-Victorian.

This is the England of Charles Dickens, George Eliot and Wilkie Collins.

I apologise in advance for posting so many photos - there are 30 - but the album contained such an embarrassment of riches, that it was very hard to produce a shortlist. I have done what I can to clean the images up on Photoshop, but some were in very poor condition. Nevertheless, even the grainiest or faintest photos have something about them that is fascinating.

Yesterday, a unique collection of historic photos was almost destroyed forever. Today, thanks to the internet (and the keen-eyed person at work), it can be seen by people all over the world. I try not to think about how many other albums and diaries must have been consigned to oblivion.

I'll let the photographs speak for themselves, except to say that the first image has the scariest-looking family I think I've ever seen:

It's a little spooky to think that the old couple might have been born in the 18th century.





























P.S - As the response to this post has been so positive, I have acted on the advice of several people and created a Flickr page with these and some other photos from the album. You can find it here.

Sam Jordison
was right about the connection with the Lake District - when I showed the album to a friend, she spotted a faint pencil inscription that said Ambleside.

It's great to see how many people have responded to these extraordinary photos. Within two days, the album has gone from near extinction to a worldwide audience and these forgotten lives have touched many people. What's so remarkable about the photographs is that although they are clearly staged, they feature a broad spectrum of subjects and give a real insight into mid-Victorian society.

84 comments:

Tom said...

This is a wonderful find. Have you scanned all of the images yet? A flickr album would be appropriate I think.

Rob Spence said...

The first one seems to feature a skeleton with clothes on... Norman Bates's dad?

CC said...

They are fabulous!
Characters from REAL Victorian novels.
The faces, hairdos, costume and accouterment details are priceless. Thanks so much for preserving these and for sharing. I am so enjoying all your old photos as well as their mysteries.

Modern Life is Rubbish said...

gosh - they are exceptional - and I love all the little dogs. They all seem to be in terror of the camera - perhaps they still suffer from the fear that the camera might somehow capture their souls.

P - if you ever come across anything really good that needs 'fixing', send it over - I find hours of intense photoshopping rather relaxing - and almost as productive as knitting.

Steerforth said...

Richard, are you volunteering? I've posted fewer than half of the available photos. Most of them are great images, but they all need cleaning up.

Tom - I'll try and set up an account to post the remianing pictures.

Rob - he reminds me of my grandfather, who also resembled a skeleton with clothes on. It was grim down south.

CC - glad you enjoyed the images. It's amazing to think that George Eliot was a "modern" writer when these photos were taken.

Anonymous said...

Phil, these are fantastic - thanks for posting them - keep on the lookout for an errant Bronte or two, will you? Also, I believe one gentleman is sporting a "faux-hawk" - how very 21st century of him

kim

Maryann said...

I think there's at least three leprechauns in that bunch.

DivaLea said...

The babies in 1 and 15 appear to be dead. Propped up nicely, but dead.

Sam Jordison said...

Wonderful! (Looks like the Lake District to me, although I don't recognise the Church. I'd love a pint in that inn. )

The Parrot said...

Another vote for the Flickr album idea.

A world where everyone wore muddy boots, all the time.

Anonymous said...

These are beautiful. I learned more about the 1860's in 20 photos than 12 years of schooling.

Well done for saving them

Steerforth said...

Yes, I liked the young man's faux-hawk and slightly moody expression - as you say, very 21st century.

When I have a spare moment, I'll create a Flickr account and post the rest of the album, then perhaps someone might be able to verify whether these people lived near the Lakes.

Juno said...

I cannot tell you how much I enjoyed looking at these remarkable photographs. Thank you.

Martin H. said...

What a find! Some really intense expressions worn here. Also, some impressive facial hair...particularly the men!

Anonymous said...

22, bilbo baggins most definitely.

Steerforth said...

Thanks for all of the positive comments - it's nice to see some new names. I never how many visitors actually read the blog, so I really appreciate it when people take the time to leave a comment.

I particularly liked the comment: "I learned more about the 1860's in 20 photos than 12 years of schooling."

I couldn't agree more.

kimbofo said...

These are absolutely fascinating -- such a wonderful glimpse of the past. Thanks so much for posting.

And yes, a Flickr album would be the best way of sharing them.

Anonymous said...

WOW... thanks for posting them I really enjoyed viewing the pictures!

I am often thankful that past generations didn't have digital cameras! Can you imagine if the "photo album" was a thumb drive laying in the trash? How would they have known to rescue such a sweet find?

Helen Smith said...

Oh wow! They're wonderful.

Thanks for posting them.

Jonathan said...

DivaLea, #15 possibly, but if you look close, the child in #1 moved her right hand during the exposure.

Anonymous said...

Some of the children may have lived long enough to see the Atom Bomb and post-WWII. In that lifespan 1860s to 1940s saw more change than most.

PearlFog said...

Great pictures, thank you. I also meant to say how much I enjoyed the national service album. I think that first picture might feature in a nightmare tonight though!

Caroline said...

Absolutely wonderful. Please show us the rest as well.

Zacaman said...

Fabulous collection! It truly is heartbreaking to know that so much history is lost so casually. My own family, emigrants to Canada from the Czech Republic in 1904, seemed to quickly lose all trace of their origins (not surprising, given the prejudice and pressure on immigrants to "be Canadian"). I've made it my personal mission to seek out every long-lost relative, dig up photos and family documents, and preserve them if possible.

Lindsay said...

These are an absolute treasure! I love how many of these people posed with their pets, but my favorite is that group of children with the roughest, toughest boys in the history of time standing in the front with their legs in the stocks. Love it!

Emily Jane said...

These are incredible! Thank you so much for sharing.

mizdarlin said...

I linked here through Boing Boing - so glad i did..
I used to seek out these sorts of old photos...they seem to be so normal and homey compared to the dramatic pneumatic disfiguring "perfection' of today's crass images..thanks for sharing...

Fee said...

Let this be a warning to us all: name and date your photographs. It's even more essential if all your digital photographs have indecipherable numbers as titles.

I too have rescued old photographs from a fate worse than pulping, and I have to be careful to label them all "not our family" lest someone see the equivalent of the odd looking bunch in the first photograph and assume they are related to us....

The Poet Laura-eate said...

Wow, what an extraordinary find! I do hope you have fired the assistant who does not seem to be able to tell the wheat from the chaff when sorting!

The father in the first image appears to be a prototype for Mary Shelley's Frankenstein. Or an early Mr Munster. SCARY!

Of course many of the expressions are so severe, not only because of the lengthy exposure of several minutes required to take a photograph and because they were so expensive in those days, no one could afford to waste a plate, but also because Victorians were so ashamed of the state of their TEETH!

The state of their teeth was apparently an even bigger taboo than sex. If you were rich you could afford 'Waterloo teeth' - made from the teeth of dead Waterloo soliders, often with bits of decaying bone marrow still embedded. But they did look more realistic and less brilliant white than any of porcelain substitutes which would break quickly in any case as the technology was not there to strengthen them.

Love the horse and trap picture in particular - very unusual to see a Victorian close up like that. I wonder if the horse moved or was startled by the flash as his head seems to have blurred a bit.

Fee said...

I meant to add that DivLea may be right about the inclusion of dead children... the Victorians did go in for post-mortem photographic portraits....
http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Post-mortem_photography

Anonymous said...

Thanks for posting, but I wonder.... why the boys on picture 3 are with locked legs? Is this some kind of punishment or....?

Anonymous said...

Fantastic, hauntingly beautiful images. What I'd like to know is which of the pictures are of the same people at different points in their life? Most of them seem to be pictures of either the same or very closely related people over a forty or fifty years. "Here I was born... and there I died." and all.

jaas torres said...

picture no 15: girl in white on the left has three nostrils.

MikeP said...

The moral of this story - don't work with morons. How, in an operation like yours (although i confess I'm hazy bout exactly what sort of operation it is), can such stupidity happen? Apart from anything else, this album must be worth serious money to a collector of old photographs or a museum, particularly if anybody can nail down the location. Wonderful, wonderful stuff!

Steerforth said...

Many thanks for the fascinating comments (I had no idea about the teeth).

In response to popular demand, I have created a Flickr page: http://www.flickr.com/photos/ageofuncertainty/sets/72157625134713598/

mommadona said...

I'd be happy to help w/the 'cleanup' if U need an extra hand. I'm researching for a book on Charley Parkhurst~a woman who lived as a man in the U.S. from 1812-1878 & the faces..... just remarkable.... thank U for sharing!

email: mommadona@gmail

Anonymous said...

These (amazing) pictures remind me of nothing so much as the amazing book "Wisconsin Death Trip", a study of rural Wisconsin 1890-1910 (approximately) through images and documents from the Wisconsin Historical Society. Utterly fascinating, and I think you would like it.

Cristiane

Anonymous said...

what a strangely wide variety of subjects, and am I the first to comment on what a fantastic collection of beards and mustaches this is!

Philipb said...

Looking closely at the landscape (which shows some hand retouching), there are a number of mills in the background. The church might be identifiable by it's rather unique tower.

Obviously the dry stone walling puts it in the North Country and the height of the surrounding peaks does suggest the West.

Checking Google Earth for Ambleside, I came across this picture of St. Marys -

http://www.panoramio.com/photo/1904345

Whose tower looks very similar to your photo. If this is Ambleside then the original exposure would appear to have been taken facing South East (top left to bottom right on this map) -

http://tinyurl.com/2eqnv8y

I may be completely off base here though. I'm researching this from a Chicago hotel room! Anyone with more local knowledge care to chime in?

Emma Lauri said...

Great pictures, I'm in the US, not much different from the ones here depicting the same era.

Janice said...

is it possible that the couple in the first picture are an older version of the couple in the third to last picture?

Anonymous said...

Marvelous pictures - and such a high standard. If these are indeed taken in the Lake District of North West England then it would make sense to point them out to the local museum and public records offices. I'm sure you have already done that.
These are an amazing find. Both locally and nationally. These people are how we would have been if we were born 100 years or more earlier. - but for the grace of God go I ...
I wouldn't trade their life style for mine. In some of the photos people look scared, haunted. It was a scary time with disease ready to take you or your child at any moment. No antibiotics and dreadful sanitation. I have great respect for these people in the images.

Josh said...

Hi Steerforth,
I've been subscribed to your blog for a few months and was the one who submitted this post to boingboing. Hope you don't mind. There's a decent discussion going on over there too.

http://www.boingboing.net/2010/10/09/found-photo-odd-gent.html?utm_source=feedburner&utm_medium=feed&utm_campaign=Feed%3A+boingboing%2FiBag+%28Boing+Boing%29

Josh

PS I mentioned to them when i submitted the link that you were from Sussex, not the photos.

mistermac said...

Many appear to have been done in the same photo studio, it makes you wonder if they were rejects/copies of maybe the clients never came to collect them.

Steerforth said...

Hi Josh, I certainly don't mind - my hits have gone to a daily average of 4-500 to over 15,000, so many thanks for linking me on Boing.

Are some of the photos of the same people at different ages? I don't know - I need to do some detective work on the fashions of the time.

Thank you Philipb for the links.

Another clue to the location might be the predominantly dark hair of the sujects. Travel writers of the 18th and 19th centuries used to observe that the Celtic or native Briton element in the population increased as you moved further west.

Anonymous said...

Nice work!
Greeting from Japan.

micha

The Poet Laura-eate said...

I found the reference to post-mortem photography fascinating and am wondering now if the man in the first photograph - the really scary looking one is deceased too. Certainly he looks the complete opposite of alive, and it would explain why he looks as scary as he does, if he's been tied to a chair to prop him up.

Anonymous said...

It's awfully touching, how many people wanted their dogs in the photos with them.


Catherine

Janna said...

you, sir, need to come with a warning label that says HIGHLY ADDICTIVE. here i was, minding my own business, and then i somehow ended up on your blog and now i CAN'T LEAVE.

(i think you should enlarge and frame the first one, and modify it with MOVING EYES. it would be a great way to scare away burglars.)

Matroskin said...

These photos are great. I also collect found photographs:

http://honeyedlight.blogspot.com/

yeah said...

uhmm, guys? these are post-mortem photos. a lot of the people in the pictures are dead. if you take a close look you can find that some of them have their eyes drawn onto their pupils. the pictures are good, but they're creepy as hell. fascinating though.

Dan said...

Abslutely INCREDIBLE stuff.

By the way, about the Larkin reference, Thomas Sutcliffe said this - interesting thought!

http://www.independent.co.uk/arts-entertainment/tv/reviews/last-nights-tv--kids-in-care-bbc1-wedding-house-channel-4-dont-tell-the-bride-bbc3-2098597.html

Lindsey said...

Wow! Thanks so much for posting this amazing treasure-trove of beards, dogs, and children with unfeasibly large pigs!

I'm also VERY pleased that your wonderful blog is getting a well-deserved rush of readers - I've been quietly enjoying you for several months now and am quite happy to share you with the throng, as long as I can say I read you before you were famous...

Gabiotta said...

I suspect the old chap in the first picture is dead. There was a vogue for posed family portraits with corpses at the time and his eyes look rather painted on. With that in mind, look at his hands! Creeeeeepy!!!

Steerforth said...

Thank you for the kind words about the blog.

I shall scan the bins and skips at work with extra vigilance from now on, in search of new material!

Marty said...

Awesome find!

Did the guy who assigned them to the trash get a swift kick in the pants? And another kick for clearly not thinking?

S.N.Jacobson said...

WOW.. Thank you for posting these


S.N.Jacobson

Elizabethjunean said...

Wonderful Photos. Thank you for saving and sharing the photos.

kuni_san said...

Thanks for sharing. I am looking at the photos on a monitor located at a office in Nara, an ancient capital of Japan.

Anonymous said...

Good save!

Unlike today there were not millions of photos being taken at that time, making each photo from that period precious.

seema said...

A flickr album would be appropriate I think.

Steerforth said...

I've set up a Flickr album. There's a link in the paragraph following the final photo.

Anonymous said...

The reason for so many post-mortem family photographs is because, as someone mentioned earlier, photographs were very expensive. Many families could not afford to have them taken. Often these photos with deceased were the only full family photos that existed. It wasn't done for macbre reasons, but for the practical reason of having at least one family photo.

Remember, as well, that most people died at home and their final preparations were tended to by family members prior to a home funeral. A funeral would have provided an rare occasion for distant relatives to come together, thus providing the opportunity for the "full family" portrait.

Clare said...

What a fantastic find, thank you for sharing!

Anonymous said...

While some of these may indeed be post-mortum, it can be difficult to tell.
The fact that pupils are burned in is NOT a clue--exposure times were very long and living people blink.
Being propped is not a clue either. Living people were often propped too.
People ALSO frequently arranged photo shoots when family members were very close to death.

Anonymous said...

I'm pretty sure #12 is an ancestor of Paul Giamati

Anonymous said...

Thank you for sharing the past, if you can somehow have student's use them for research. Thank you once again.
Ana Maria

Sam Jordison said...

I'm delighted to have been right! I agree that it may be a good idea to try to send them to a local museum. You might also try The Westmorland Gazette if you want a bit of fame for the pictures. My mum for one would be delighted to see such things in there...

dovegreyreader said...

Fascinating pictures Steerforth, I love finds like this and spend hours looking at old albums in the old junk shops down here in Devon. Having a gamekeeper in the house ourselves I was particularly interested in that shot. Zooming in I notice he has the most amazing squint in his left eye, incredible the tiny details you can see on these.

Steerforth said...

I think each photo could inspire a whole novel. I hadn't noticed the squint, but yes, you're right.

Sam, thanks for the suggestion. That's an excellent idea.

Anonymous said...

Fantastic collection! I just checked out the photos on flickr and was amazed at the casual poses rather than the usual setpiece studio family portraits of that era. The girl at the gate - is that a slate in her hands? The lady with her knitting - could be making a pair of socks perhaps. She's obviously rather attached to her knitting. And I love the young boy with the huge pig.
This is the first time I have read your blog and shall bookmark it to pop back and find out how the search is going to find out more about this family. If they did live in Ambleside then does that house still exist? Is it the same house we see being built in one of the photos? Does the Manor Inn still stand? I'm sure some local history society would be overjoyed to discover these photos and who knows what more will be revealed.

trixie-bacon said...

What a find; wonderful to see. Thanks for sharing.

Steerforth said...

I've spent half of today researching these photos and I will post the results within the next couple of days.

Does the Manor Inn still exist? Yes and no.

All will be revealed.

Papo said...

Does anybody else suspect that the guy in the 11th picture is the Frankenstein-ish monster in the first one?

Art by Julie H. said...

These are so wonderful and thank you for sharing with all of us. I love old photos, I am often just mesmerized and wonder who they were and what there life was like...great find!

music-books-steve said...

Me again. I stumbled on a picture very similar to the boat above while shelving a book at work today. It reminded me of this posting. On coming home, I did a little checking online. I wonder if this folks could help you identify this? http://www.steamboats.org.uk/windermere-historic-boat-collection

Tecumseh said...

Incredible...they remind me of what Peter Weir said when looking for background extras to dress the set on Master and Commander...he wanted that look in their faces and eyes...the pre-mass media look. In their faces you can see wonder and slight trepidation. To see an image of themselves and another person. I know what Weir meant now.

Michelle said...

I wonder how it is that so many of the indoor posed images feature the same uniquely carved chair... they must all be from one photographer, do ya think? Wonderful batch of characters. Quite understandable to pose with a recently deceased loved one, but can you imagine the will power to sit for a length of time with them all dressed and propped up? And, I have to say it, the, um, 'odor'??? quite an interesting custom, that.

Chuck Rathfelder said...

So awesome.

jk said...

Cracked.com thanks you.

Anonymous said...

The woman in the black dress, 10th picture from the last one, is absolutely captivating.

Freetimer said...

So pleased that you saved these; thanks for your presence of mind. The sixth picture is indeed Ambleside and I'd guess it was taken from the track that goes up to Lily Tarn on the side of Loughrigg Fell GR SD367044

Photo repair said...

Old man on the first photo looks creepy... Excellent collection!

Anonymous said...

Love These! Yes, First Pic Is A Classic