Victorian Post-Mortem Photography

Iron Bean has a new killer mug coming out later this month for Halloween. Nori is rocking a Victorian get-up and posing for a portrait with her a little viking Dylan plushie. Nori definitely pulls off the old creepy Victorian portrait vibe.

Why were Victorian photos so creepy anyway? One main reason is that in the mid 1800s photos had a much longer exposure time, about 20 seconds or so and sometimes longer. Subjects had to stand as still as possible to avoid motion blur which made for some awkward looking postures. People back then also didn't have the selfie practice time that we get in the modern age. Other Victorian photos looked creepy because they actually were. In the Victorian Age taking photos of diseased relatives was extremely common. Wait, what?

 

Nori Victorian Portrait

 

  It may seem odd and somewhat barbaric to us in modern times to take photos with our dead family members but once it's put into perspective it makes more sense. Back in the mid 1800s the mortality rate was extremely high. Average life expectancy was about 40 years old. This figure was largely driven by the high rate of child mortality. About half of all children under 5 perished back in those days. It would be very rare in those times to meet someone who had never experienced death and dying close up. The mortician / embalming industry was also not a thing during that time period so it was up to the family to prepare the deceased for burial. In all, people of the time period had a much more intimate relationship with death.

 

(See how the living subjects have slight motion blur, but that's not a problem with the deceased subject)

 

  That's where photos come in, during this time period photography was finally getting cheap enough for the average joe to participate. When a family member passed the popularity of the photos was two-fold. For one the funeral would often bring the entire family together making it a great opportunity to capture a photo of everyone and most importantly the photo served as a way to remember and honor the deceased relative. Before this time a loved one only lived on in memories, photography gave a new way to be able to remember and honor relatives.

 

 

  The post-mortem photos were part of the grieving process. Mourning for the dead was a very big thing because it was just sadly so common but it was also popularized by Queen Victoria, the age's very own namesake. Queen Victoria mourned for her late Prince Albert for the rest of her life and only wore black and mimicked his daily routines for the remainder of her life. This somewhat romanticized mourning became popular. Funerals became a big to-do.

 

 

  Post-mortem photography remained popular for quite a while. In the early photos the photographers often tried to make their subjects appear alive but later photos tended to show the subject with their eyes closed and looking peaceful. By the early 1900s as modern medicine advanced and photography became more commercialized the practice ended. Mortality rates declined and death became something that tended to happen in hospitals rather than the home. 

  Modern medicine is definitely something I am extremely grateful for! Thanks to these advances we can avoid a resurgence in the popularity of these old style creepy photographs. I bet the next time you see an old Victorian photo you'll look at it a bit different. The traditions and practices of the past sure can be fascinating and our Halloween Nori mug pays homage to the ways of old.

Luckily modern technology allows us to keep on raging against the dying of the light. Our longer life span = more mornings to wake up to a delicious mug of Iron Bean coffee :)


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