Tuesday, October 19, 2010

Photographing the Recently Deceased

In preparation for a teen writing class around Halloween, Kate did a little research on Victorian post-mortem photography.

The 2001 Nicole Kidman movie "The Others" was Kate's first introduction to post-mortem photos. Since then, she's read a few books on the subject, and thought it was a sufficiently macabre subject to hold the interest of blasé teenagers.

One website called it "almost cliché" to find photographs or daguerreotypes of dead relatives when paging through old family albums, but it wasn't a cliché that Kate had ever stumbled upon before.

Until this past month when she popped into her computer a CD that was distributed at a family reunion over the summer. Several funeral photos featuring the recently deceased were among the wedding and baby shots, including the one accompanying this article.

Post-mortem photography became popular and then faded away just before and just after the year 1900, due mainly to the refinement of photography itself. The daguerreotype process was patented in 1839, but capturing a person's likeness remained an expensive and exclusive luxury for decades. Sitting for a photo was a rare splurge.

Still, a photo was a precious reminder of a loved one more personal and evocative than a lock of hair or an amateur sketch. And if your last chance to photograph your loved one occurred just before they were buried, what other choice did you have?

Memento mori photographers tried to make the deceased look as lifelike as possible, as if the subject had just fallen asleep in a chair or on the bed. But some photos clearly show a figure in rigor mortis with their eyes open standing fixed to a frame or leaning at a desk. Another common practice was to paint eyes into the photo over the subject's eyelids to make them look more life-like.

Family groupings where one child in the group has obviously passed on were also common, however creepy it seems to us today. Many photos also exist of parents holding their dead babies for their only portraits, which actually has become common practice once again in hospital settings for still-born or terminally ill infants.

Once photography became cheaper and more wide-spread, people began to take lots of photos on lots of occasions and the need for memorial photography "died away."

Rest in Peace, Museum of Funeral Customs

The Museum of Funeral Customs used to be right outside the entrance to Oak Ridge Cemetery in Springfield where Abraham Lincoln is buried. Interesting more to history lovers than those seeking sensationalism, it was a nifty little treasure trove of funeral lore.

The Victorians were particularly adept at celebrating death-in-life, perhaps due to Queen Victoria's forty years of mourning for her beloved husband Albert. Funeral clothes, hearses, flowers, embalmers - all were explained in the museum for visitors who have become less and less involved in the mourning process. Not so long ago, families prepared and waked their loved ones at home, often burying them on their own acreage, but today a whole industry takes care of the tasks involved.

Unfortunately, the Museum of Funeral Customs closed in the spring of 2009 due to lack of funds. Perhaps one day, it will be resurrected for a new generation of history buffs.

Where History Is Happening

All Hallows Eve at Naper Settlement
Friday and Saturday, October 22 and 23
6:30 - 10:00 pm
During Naper Settlement's All Hallows Eve, the usually calm and quaint 12-acre museum village is haunted by a diabolical menagerie of spirits, vampires, werewolves, witches and otherworldly creatures of the night. Joining them are some of the most sinister characters and criminals of the 19th century including Lizzie Borden, Count Dracula and others who roam the grounds or take up residence in the historic houses and businesses.
Not recommended for children under 8 or those who might scare easily.

Terror on the Railroad at the Illinois Railway Museum
Fridays and Saturdays October 22 - 30
7:00 pm - 11:00 pm
Experience our new demented attractions in our fourth year... Trespass on the abandoned Train of Chills and attempt to reach your destination on the possessed Screamliner. Terror on the Railroad will stop you dead in your tracks...
Tickets $12 each.

Tuesday, October 5, 2010

Picture-Perfect History

During research for Ruth by Lake and Prairie, Kate pored over paintings, engravings and sketches from the 1830's to try picking up clues about the era. Photographs from that time simply don't exist. A patent for the daguerreotype process would be granted in France in 1839, but it would be some years before it was widely used. Abraham Lincoln had his first daguerreotype taken in 1846.

Since so much of Ruth's story takes place during a schooner voyage, Kate was particularly interested in descriptions and images of towns along the coasts of the Great Lakes where the Telegraph may have docked. That's why it caught her eye when a report came out recently about restored daguerreotypes of the Cincinnati waterfront.

Taken in 1848 by Charles Fontayne and William Porter, the multiple images create a panorama of almost two miles of shoreline with incredible details including signage on the shops.

Alas, all of the ships at anchor are side-wheel steamers with not a schooner in the bunch, even though sailing ships would continue to be used for many more years. Two history buffs in 1947 used the ship names visible in the image to pinpoint the date on which they were all anchored in Cincinnati at the same time: September 24, 1848. Then they analyzed the shadows of the image to determine at what time the daguerreotype was taken. Their guess was a little before 2:00 pm.

There is a clock face on the image, but at just one millimeter in diameter, the two gentlemen couldn't make out the time, even with a magnifying glass. After this recent restoration, however, and using a microscope scanner, the clock face became visible. The time is 1:55!

Experience this remarkable daguerreotype for yourself. You can view each of the images and zoom in on the one with the clock tower.

The History of the Daguerreotype

People were experimenting with photosensitivity as early as the 1400's, but it was French artist Louis Daguerre who worked out the kinks in the nineteenth century.

Daguerre and his partner Nicéphore Niépce took the experimentation farther from the silver nitrate and bitumen-based methods already known. Niépce died in 1833, but Daguerre continued to tinker.

An accident involving a mercury thermometer in 1835 led Daguerre to advances in his method and he produced the first image with his process of exposure, development and fixation in 1837.

Daguerre secured a patent for his process in Britain on August 14, 1839. He attempted to secure a patent in France as well, but on August 19, 1839, the French government offered the secrets of the daguerreotype "as a free gift to the world." France did, however, award Daguerre a pension for his discovery.

Where History Is Happening

Shadows of the Blue and Gray
Saturday, October 9
9:30 am - 9:00 pm
Sunday, October 10
9:00 am - 3:30 pm
Events at City County Park in Princeton, Ill.
include the 33rd Illinois Volunteer Regiment Band, Civil War Fashion Show, President and Mrs. Lincoln, a period dance and night cannon firing,

Battle Demonstrations occur on Saturday and Sunday, with Union and Confederate troops meeting on the field of battle as infantry, cavalry, and artillery.

Admission is $7 for ages 12 and older, $3 ages 4 to 11, and free for children under 4 accompanied by an adult. Wagon tours of camps are $1. Bleacher seating for battle is $2, or bring your own lawn chair.

Scarecrow Harvest Festival at Midway Village Museum

Saturday and Sunday , October 9-10
12:00 am - 5:00 pm
Lots of fun fall activities for the entire family, including demonstrations of rare antique threshing and bailing machinery, square dancing in our 1905 barn, old fashioned games by our 1902 one room school house and horse drawn wagon rides around the Village.
Food and fall treats will be available in Burritt's Town Hall Cafe.
Admission cost: $6 adults; $4 students and children (3 to 17). Members are always free.