Family photos: the family photo album
Welcome to the ninth in our series of blogs about how to understand and interpret your old family photos. In this series, Jayne Shrimpton, internationally recognised dress historian, portrait specialist, photo detective and regular contributor to Family Tree, Your Family History and Family History Monthly magazines, dates and analyses different types of photographs and helps you to add context to your old family pictures.
Some family historians are fortunate enough to possess not only old photographs, but the original 19th and 20th century photograph albums in which they were stored and displayed. This blog focuses on these special family heirlooms, explaining their origins, describing their changing styles and suggesting how best to investigate inherited albums and their contents.
Early photograph albums
Before the introduction of cartes de visite – the first mass-produced, printed photographs (see blog one) – early photographic prints had sometimes been pasted into general scrapbooks. It was the new craze for collecting standard visiting-card sized card-mounted cartes, however, that inspired the production of the purpose-designed photograph albums that were the precursors of today’s family albums.
The first albums were produced in France in 1857/8, by which time the carte de visite (patented there in 1854) was becoming fashionable. Entrepreneurs across the English Channel were quick to seize this new business opportunity and photograph albums were being advertised in the British trade press by 1861. This was the year that witnessed an explosion in carte de visite sales, the phenomenon known as ‘cartomania’. The active promotion of and growing interest in the novel albums in turn encouraged the taking and collecting of more photographs. During the early 1860s, cartes were known as ‘album portraits’, demonstrating the close connection between these new photographs and the fashion for displaying them in albums.
The public enjoyed collecting ‘celebrity’ cartes – images of famous and influential figures of the day, including royalty, aristocrats, politician, statesmen, singers and actors and writers. Souvenir cartes depicting picturesque views from around the country were also popular, for example, the much-publicised photographs of the Wigan broo wenches and pitgirls wearing their distinctive outfits. The main interest, however, was in personal family photographs – studio portraits of members of the household and other relatives, which were given, exchanged and collected on an unprecedented scale.
The first photograph albums were made with heavy leather bindings and sturdy metal clasps, looking externally much like the traditional family bible or hymn book – see fig.1. Inside it was usual to include a ‘page one’ carte de visite – a frontispiece with a message or (often humorous) verses addressed to the family members and friends who were about to view the album (fig.2). The main album pages featured pre-cut carte-sized apertures for the convenient arrangement and display of photographs, larger albums offering space for four cartes de visite per page and those of the smallest dimensions just one carte per page.
A respectable and fashionable ornament
Substantial and handsomely-presented albums were recognised as ideal gifts at Christmas and for birthdays, especially coming of age, particularly for ladies, who were generally the keepers of the family records. Many surviving examples, like fig.1, are helpfully inscribed with the date, occasion and name of the recipient. Because of their clever design, albums commanded a sense of almost religious respect and before long it was suggested that they might replace the existing practice of noting family births, marriages and deaths inside the family bible.
The repository of much that the family held dear, photograph albums also became desirable material possessions – attractive ornaments for the home. By the end of 1861, elegantly-bound albums were said to have become ‘one of the indispensable ornaments of every lady’s table.’ As with any novelty, the more prosperous classes were the first to acquire the new photograph albums, but over time, as portrait photography became more widespread and prices came down, even some ordinary working families could boast a treasured family album.
Late 19th century albums
Later albums produced from the 1880s onwards often contained pages with two sizes of apertures for the display of both cartes de visite and cabinet prints – a feature that helps with identifying late-Victorian albums. The larger cabinet card had been introduced in 1866 but take-up was slow and the format only became popular in the 1880s, going on to rival the carte during the 1890s and at the turn of the century.
The styles of album bindings also changed over the years, as seen by comparing fig.1 with fig.4: sometimes velvet or plush (cotton velvet) – both fashionable materials in the late 19th century – was used for the covers, while the pages inside grew ever more elaborate as fashionable taste veered increasingly towards the ornate. In many late-Victorian albums, the frontispiece and sometimes additional pages were embellished with coloured illustrations (fig.5) and the photographs themselves might be decoratively framed with a painted border of flowers or other themed motifs (fig.6).
As the fashion grew for keeping and displaying family photographs in albums, special albums were developed for particular types of photograph. Some commercial photographers, for example, astutely produced ‘Baby’s Album,’ encouraging doting parents to commission annual photographs of their offspring throughout their childhood and adolescence, to record and proudly demonstrate their growth and development. Some albums were designed to hold portraits of the dead – macabre images known as post mortem photographs. Wedding albums were said to be much in vogue in 1889 and a number survive from around this time onwards. Purchased by the bride and filled with photographs of members of the bridal party, the autograph of each person might be written beneath their respective portrait.
Studying Victorian photo albums
Album collections were generally started by one ancestor then passed down the family, later generations sometimes adding new photographs to those already within. Surviving Victorian albums may, then, contain an assortment of photographs potentially spanning four or more decades, although surviving evidence suggests that often the majority of photographs inside were taken within a decade or so of the year of the album’s acquisition. If the date was recorded inside the cover, this gives a useful starting point for dating and identifying the photos inside.
An inherited photograph album, heavy and fragile, can seem a mixed blessing: where on earth do you start with investigating the contents? The positioning of photographs within the album may at first appear random, but there was usually a purpose to their initial arrangement on the pages. Portraits of husbands and wives, in particular, were typically displayed alongside each other, and on the same or adjacent pages were often inserted pictures of any children, while photographs of other family members branched out further throughout the album. There was no fixed method, however, and family relationships and connections expressed in the different photographs may take some time to unravel, but since their organisation can often offer important historical evidence, it is important to respect and preserve the original order within the album.
Usually the cartes de visite or cabinet prints inside an album are tightly fitted into their apertures, so any printed details at the foot or on the reverse of the mounts is concealed. As we saw in blogs two and three, investigating the photographer and studying the design of the mount can help with dating and identifying unlabelled photographs, while the studio location gives a useful clue as to where the subject(s) probably lived. Sometimes albums span different continents, especially in cases where family members emigrated and sent photographs back to those remaining at home, so it is important to know exactly where each photograph within an album was taken to locate their geographical origins and understand more about their purpose.
Sometimes the owners of old Victorian albums were worried about taking photographs out of their apertures in case they tear the delicate paper. This is a difficult issue: a conservator would probably advise not to remove them, yet in the interests of accurate research, photographs need to be studied properly, front and back, to collect all their nuggets of information. If the aperture edges and album pages in general are already damaged, it is unlikely that you can do a great deal more harm. If you do decide to take the plunge, remove each photograph carefully one at a time, using a pair of tweezers, scan the photograph front and back so that the original doesn’t have to be handled again, then replace it in its original position within the album.
Family snapshot albums
As we saw in blog eight, by the early 20th century amateur photography was becoming popular, with many families acquiring a ‘modern’ roll-film camera, and this gave rise to a new type of snapshot album. Generally these albums were plainer and slimmer than the solid and ornate Victorian bible-like volumes and sometimes the front cover bore the name of the manufacturer, such as Kodak or Ogden’s (fig.s 7-9). Naturally many more of these snapshot albums survive in today’s family collections.
Albums dating from the 1900s to the 1920s may be relatively small, their pages typically formed of thick card with pre-cut apertures designed to take the neat contact prints of the era. By the 1930s and 1940s, albums of larger dimensions were becoming more usual, the pages often thinner and left plain so that printed snapshots of various sizes could be arranged inside.
As in the Victorian period, snapshot albums were frequently given as Christmas or birthday presents, so there may be a helpful inscription and date inside the front cover. Many of the photographs inside are likely to date from soon after the year that the album was acquired, although there was more of a tendency to add extra snaps for some years afterwards. It was also quite common for the photographer or the relative compiling the album to write details of the date, occasion and names of the people in the scene on the back of the print, or directly onto the album page (fig.8).
Little has been published about old photograph albums but there is some information in these books:
The Victorians: Photographic Portraits, Audrey Linkman (Tauris Parke, 1993)
How to get the most from Family Pictures, Jayne Shrimpton (Society of Genealogists, 2011)