“Mirrors With Memories”: Why Did Victorians Take Pictures of Dead People?

Emil, Mary, and Anna Keller, 1894 murder-suicide, via the Thanatos Archive
Emil, Mary, and Anna Keller, 1894 murder-suicide, via the Thanatos Archive

“Secure the shadow, ere the substance fades.” That very early photographers’ slogan—introduced not long after Louis Daguerre announced his daguerreotype process in 1839—may seem ominous, but it reflects the reality of Victorian life. In an age before antibiotics, when infant mortality soared and the Civil War raged, death was a constant presence in the United States. And one prominent part of the process of memorializing the dead was taking a postmortem photo.

Postmortem photography evolved out of posthumous portraiture, a mode of painting in which wealthy Europeans (and eventually Americans) memorialized dead family members by depicting them alongside a slew of symbols, colors, and gestures associated with death. While the people—usually children—in these images might look reasonably healthy, the presence of a dead bird, a cut cord, drooping flowers, or a three-fingered grip (a reference to the holy trinity) often signaled that the subject was deceased. These types of images, popular in the 18th and early 19th centuries, served as cherished reminders of loved ones long gone.

By the 1840s, however, the production of memorial images started moving from the artist’s studio to the photography studio—and democratized in the process. No longer were the wealthy the only ones who could afford images of loved ones, in life or death. Photography studios spread throughout the country in the 1850s, and postmortem photography reached its height a few decades later. And whereas paintings might have cost large sums, and daguerreotypes were often luxuries, the ambrotypes and tintypes that followed sometimes went for just a few cents.

For the Victorians, the postmortem photo was just one aspect of an elaborate mourning ritual that often involved covering the house and body in as much black crepe as one could afford, as well as more intimate acts like washing the corpse, watching over it, and accompanying it to the gravesite. Early photos were sometimes referred to as “mirrors with memories,” and the Victorians saw photographing the dead as one way of preserving the memory of a family member. Photos of the dead were kept as keepsakes, displayed in homes, sent to friends and relatives, worn inside lockets, or even carried as pocket mirrors.

Photographing the dead, however, was a tricky business, and required careful manipulation of the body, props, and equipment, either at the photographer’s studio or at the home of the deceased. Though the majority of postmortem images depict the dead laid out in a bed or coffin, dead children were not infrequently placed in a mother’s lap to keep them upright (echoing the Victorian fashion for “hidden mother” portraits, in which a parent or assistant was draped in fabric as a backdrop with varying degrees of success). Adults were also most frequently shown in coffins, but occasionally photographed in chairs, sometimes holding a book or other props. After the photo session, photographers manipulated the negative, too—to make the dead person’s stare look less blank, or sometimes to paint pupils over closed eyelids.

Some sense of the difficulties of postmortem photography can be gleaned from remarks by leading daguerrotype photographer Albert Southworth printed in an 1873 edition of the Philadelphia Photographer: “If a person has died, and the friends are afraid that there will be a liquid ejected from the mouth, you can carefully turn them over just as though they were under the operation of an emetic. You can do that in less than a single minute, and every single thing will pass out, and you can wipe out the mouth and wash off the face, and handle them just as well as if they were well persons.”

Today, a lot of myths about postmortem photos circulate on the internet and among the general public. One of the biggest falsehoods, says Mike Zohn, co-owner of New York’s Obscura Oddities and Antiques and a long-time postmortem photography collector and dealer, is that the world’s photo albums are filled with lively looking photos of dead people.

The Victorians “had no issue showing dead people as being dead,” Zohn tells mental_floss. “They did not try to make them look alive, that is a modern myth.” He cautions that Pinterest and other websites are full of images of living people who have been labeled as dead, sometimes with elaborate (but incorrect) explanations of the types of tools that have been used to keep them propped up. “The Victorians also did not use strings, wires, armatures, or anything else to pose the dead,” Zohn adds. “They weren’t meat puppets that were strung up and treated like meat. They were respectful and treated the dead with dignity."

Part of the problem, writes noted postmortem photography collector and scholar Stanley Burns in Sleeping Beauty II: Grief, Bereavement and the Family in Memorial Photography, American & European Traditions, is that the dead of the 19th century often looked better than the dead of today. We tend to prolong life with measures that weren’t available for the Victorians, but the epidemics of the 19th century killed quickly. “Except for children who died from dehydration or from viruses that left conspicuous skin rashes, or adults who succumbed to cancer or extreme old age,” Burns writes, “the dead would often appear to be quite healthy.”

Zohn particularly cautions against the idea that Victorians used posing stands to create upright post-mortems. "The posing stand is similar in design and strength to a modern day microphone stand," he says. "There is no way it could possibly hold up the weight of a dead body. If you see a photo with a person and a stand behind them, it’s a guarantee that the person is alive.”

Jack Mord, who runs the postmortem-focused Thanatos Archive, agrees about the posing stands. “People see the base of these stands in photos and assume it’s there to stand a dead person up … but that was never, ever the case,” Mord says. “Basically, if you see the base of a posing stand in a photo, that’s an immediate sign that the person in the photo was alive, not dead.”

Both Zohn and Mord also point out that many people have a misperception about how expensive photography was during the 19th century. Zohn says, “You could easily get a tintype taken for less than five cents—in some cases as low as one or two cents. It was well within the reach of almost all but the very poor, yet some falsely believe it was so expensive that they could only afford to have one image taken and it would have been a post mortem.” While that might have been true when the photography was first introduced—and it’s true that postmortems might have been the only photo ever made of an infant—it wasn’t a general rule.

Some books on postmortem photography mention checking the hands for signs the subject is dead, noting that swelling or discoloration can be a sign of death. But Zohn says it’s easy to misread this clue: “I’ve seen many images of clearly dead people with light-colored hands as well as clearly live people with dark hands. It’s usually caused by lighting and exposure, but could also be something such as suntanned hands that will appear darker.” A better clue, Zohn says, is the symbolism—flowers, folded hands, closed eyes. An adult lying stretched out on a bed with his or her shoes off can be a sign of a postmortem, since shoes can be hard to put on a corpse. And of course, if someone’s lying in a coffin, there’s a good chance they’re dead.

Postmortem photography more or less ended as a common practice by the 1930s in the United States, as social mores shifted away from prolonged public mourning, death became medicalized, and infant mortality rates improved. But “postmortems never truly ever ended,” Zohn says. Today, several companies specialize in taking photos of stillborn infants or newborns, and the practice of postmortem photography continues as a regular event in other parts of the world.

Today, most Americans have decided that our final image is the one we least want remembered. It’s easy for us to shut death out of our minds, and we don’t necessarily want reminders in our homes. But for the Victorians, death wasn’t weird—it was ordinary and ever-present. Burns writes that postmortems “were taken with the same lack of self-consciousness with which today’s photographer might document a party or a prom.”


Haral & Ferol Tromley, who died at home in Fremont Township, Michigan, of acute nephritis and edema of the lungs, October 1900.


Cabinet photo, circa 1905.



Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, circa 1848. Sabin W. Colton, photographer.


Silver print, ca. 1920s. On the back is written "Mrs. Conant after death."


Sixth-plate daguerreotype, circa 1845.

Sixth-plate daguerreotype, circa 1848.


"May Snyder, mother of Estell Snyder", circa 1898. Notice the photographer's reflection in the mirror.
Cabinet card; location unknown.

All photos via the Thanatos Archive, used with permission. Identifying information provided where known.

The 10 Best Memorial Day 2020 Sales

iRobot,GoWise,Funko via Wayfair, Entertainment Earth
iRobot,GoWise,Funko via Wayfair, Entertainment Earth

The Memorial Day sales have started early this year, and it's easy to find yourself drowning in offers for cheap mattresses, appliances, shoes, and grills. To help you cut through the noise and focus on the best deals around, we threw together some of our favorite Memorial Day sales going on right now. Take a look below.

1. Leesa

A Leesa Hybrid mattress.
A Leesa Hybrid mattress.
Leesa

Through May 31, you can save up to $400 on every mattress model Leesa has to offer, from the value-minded Studio by Leesa design to the premium Leesa Legend, which touts a combination of memory foam and micro-coil springs to keep you comfortable in any position you sleep in.

Find it: Leesa

2. Sur La Table

This one is labeled as simply a “summer sale,” but the deals are good only through Memorial Day, so you should get to it quickly. This sale takes up to 20 percent off outdoor grilling and dining essentials, like cast-iron shrimp pans ($32), a stainless steel burger-grilling basket ($16), and, of course, your choice of barbeque sauce to go along with it.

Find it: Sur la Table

3. Wayfair

KitchenAid Stand Mixer on Sale on Wayfair.
Wayfair/KitchenAid

Wayfair is cutting prices on all manner of appliances until May 28. Though you can pretty much find any home appliance imaginable at a low price, the sale is highlighted by $130 off a KitchenAid stand mixer and 62 percent off this eight-in-one GoWise air fryer.

And that’s only part of the brand’s multiple Memorial Day sales, which you can browse here. They’re also taking up to 40 percent off Samsung refrigerators and washing machines, up to 65 percent off living room furniture, and up to 60 percent off mattresses.

Find it: Wayfair

4. Blue Apron

If you sign up for a Blue Apron subscription before May 26, you’ll save $20 on each of your first three box deliveries, totaling $60 in savings. 

Find it: Blue Apron

5. The PBS Store

Score 20 percent off sitewide at Shop.PBS.org when you use the promo code TAKE20. This slashes prices on everything from documentaries like Ken Burns’s The Roosevelt: An Intimate History ($48) and The Civil War ($64) to a Pride & Prejudice tote bag ($27) and this precious heat-changing King Henry VIII mug ($11) that reveals the fates of his many wives when you pour your morning coffee.

Find it: The PBS Store

6. Amazon

eufy robot vacuum.
Amazon/eufy

While Amazon doesn’t have an official Memorial Day sale, the ecommerce giant still has plenty of ever-changing deals to pick from. Right now, you can take $100 off this outdoor grill from Weber, $70 off a eufy robot vacuum, and 22 percent off the ASUS gaming laptop. For more deals, just go to Amazon and have a look around.

7. Backcountry

You can save up to 50 percent on tents, hiking packs, outdoor wear, and more from brands like Patagonia, Marmot, and others during Backcountry's Memorial Day sale.

Find it: Backcountry

8. Entertainment Earth

Funko Pops on Sale on Entertainment Earth.
Entertainment Earth/Funko

From now until June 2, Entertainment Earth is having a buy one, get one half off sale on select Funko Pops. This includes stalwarts like the Star Wars and Batman lines, and more recent additions like the Schitt's Creek Funkos and the pre-orders for the upcoming X-Men movie line.

Find it: Entertainment Earth

9. Moosejaw

With the promo code SUNSCREEN, you can take 20 percent off one full-price item at Moosejaw, along with finding up to 30 percent off select items during the outdoor brand's summer sale. These deals include casual clothing, outdoor wear, trail sneakers, and more. 

Find it: Moosejaw

10. Osprey

Through May 25, you can save 25 percent on select summer items, and 40 percent off products from last season. This can include anything from hiking packs and luggage to outdoorsy socks and hats. So if you're planning on getting acquainted with the great outdoors this summer, now you can do it on the cheap.

Find it: Osprey

At Mental Floss, we only write about the products we love and want to share with our readers, so all products are chosen independently by our editors. Mental Floss has affiliate relationships with certain retailers and may receive a percentage of any sale made from the links on this page. Prices and availability are accurate as of the time of publication.

Why Do Brides Carry Bouquets?

Thanks to the ancient Romans, today's brides never have to worry about what to do with their hands in wedding photos.
Thanks to the ancient Romans, today's brides never have to worry about what to do with their hands in wedding photos.
frantic00/iStock via Getty Images

While the bridal bouquet isn’t exactly a wedding necessity—the show could technically go on without it—it’s still a pretty integral part of the ceremony. To put this in perspective, just imagine how odd it would seem for a bride to walk down the aisle empty-handed.

So where did the tradition come from? Though some have suggested wedding flowers were originally used to mask body odor before frequent bathing became the norm, that’s a misconception. In fact, the earliest bridal bouquets didn’t contain very many flowers, if any—instead, they mostly comprised herbs. According to Reader’s Digest, ancient Romans were the first to adopt the practice of sending their brides down the aisle with bundles of herbs, which symbolized things like fidelity and fertility.

Dill, already a known aphrodisiac at the time, was especially common in those bouquets, and it was also often served at wedding receptions to help the bride and groom prepare to consummate their bond. Garlic was sometimes used in the bouquets, too, since it was thought to protect the bride from bad luck or evil spirits.

Over the following centuries, people started to introduce other flora into their wedding bouquets, flowers included. As Snopes reports, marigolds gained popularity in 16th-century England as a symbol of faithfulness and endless love, because marigolds are so faithful to the Sun—blooming in daylight and closing their petals at night. And, like dill, they were considered an aphrodisiac.

Then, during the Victorian era, floriography (the language of flowers) became a prevalent fad, and people began to send each other carefully-assembled bouquets of flowers with specific meanings, which your handy floral dictionary could help you decipher. According to Atlas Obscura, pennyroyal meant “You must leave,” for example, while a pineapple would clearly convey to your lover that you think they’re perfect.

Secret flower messages fell out of fashion as the world shifted focus to World War I, but bridal bouquets never did—though you might want to make sure yours doesn’t contain any pennyroyal, just in case your soon-to-be spouse happens to be a closet floriographer.

[h/t Reader’s Digest]