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The ‘hidden mothers’ in old photographs

Nannies, servants, and enslaved women often tried to make themselves invisible so that other women’s kids could be seen.

A caregiver’s presence is obscured, kind of, behind the seat of a stroller.
A caregiver’s presence is obscured, kind of, behind the seat of a stroller.Collection of Lee Marks and John C. DePrez Jr.
The face of this caregiver has been scratched away, exposing the black enamel tintype surface beneath it.
The face of this caregiver has been scratched away, exposing the black enamel tintype surface beneath it.Collection of Lee Marks and John C. DePrez Jr.

Shrouded beneath the folds of a curtain. Tucked behind an overstuffed chair. Blotted out with black paint. In the tintype portraits of babies that rose to popularity in the 19th century, there was no shortage of ways to hide a woman.

Had photographic techniques been more advanced at the time, there would be no adults in these portraits at all. But lengthy exposure periods required subjects to remain totally still. Without a caregiver to soothe and steady children’s fidgeting bodies, these mementos would be unfeasible.

This common but little-known practice — which often involved the labor of nannies or enslaved women rather than the children’s own mothers — has long been a source of fascination to photography insiders, such as Laura Larson, author of the 2016 book “Hidden Mother,” and Lee Marks, a gallery owner in Indiana who has collected around 600 “hidden mothers” photos.

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Marks first encountered one of the uncanny tintypes several decades ago, while visiting an antique shop during a road trip. This one featured a baby — and a woman whose head had been cropped away. “I gravitate toward unusual compositions,” says Marks, whose discovery of this “eerie and ghostly” photograph sent her searching for more.

Fabrics such as drapes, tablecloths, and veils were often used to conceal caregivers.
Fabrics such as drapes, tablecloths, and veils were often used to conceal caregivers.Collection of Lee Marks and John C. DePrez Jr.

Several of the photographs Marks owns will appear in the forthcoming book “Designing Motherhood: Things That Make and Break Our Births,” by Michelle Millar Fisher, a curator at the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, and Amber Winick, a design historian. The book examines more than 80 maternity-related objects and what they say about the experience of motherhood in our culture. At a time when the messy details of caregiving are still largely invisible, these images resonate.

“So often attention is given to the cult of childhood without really valuing that labor that underpins it,” says Millar Fisher, who sees a parallel between “Hidden Mother” photographs and the sort of baby snapshot now common on Instagram, where “very rarely does a mom appear, apart from as a balancing hand or knee or arm feeding a spoonful of food.”

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Untitled (Hidden Mother). Unidentified Artist, 1860s.
Untitled (Hidden Mother). Unidentified Artist, 1860s.Saravuth Neou/Photograph © Museum of Fine Arts, Boston

Tintype photographs such as these were the era’s less expensive alternative to paper photographs, so they were not souvenirs for the affluent only. Nevertheless, the authors point out in “Designing Motherhood” that the images often concealed the important truth that the “mothers” doing the soothing were women who were “themselves denied the opportunity to mother their own children in the same way.”

These layers of obfuscation call to mind caregiving structures that still persist in the United States, where parents’ freedom to work outside the home often depends on someone else’s undervalued labor.

Nicole Graev Lipson is a writer in Brookline.