Thursday, May 15, 2014

An unfortunate oversight by me

I have become a cautionary tale.

This is why ephemera bloggers should be wary of trying to inject humor into their writing.

Earlier this week, I authored the seemingly witty post "Authentic vintage postcard of Chewbacca holding a York baby."

These parts were true:
  • The AZO real photo postcard dates to between 1904 and 1918
  • The postcard was produced by Simon & Murnane of York, Pennsylvania
  • The photo shows an infant in a long, white gown

This part was not true:
  • Chewbacca appears in the photo

Also, while amusing myself with my hip Star Wars humor, I missed one fairly important detail about the photo postcard: The baby pictured is not alive.

It is, in fact, deceased.

Which instantly makes everything about my blog post not very funny at all.

My mom, a longtime reader and insightful commenter, was the first to point out this grim fact. In the comments section, she wrote:
"Not to spoil your fun with the York Chewbacca baby, but this might actually be a post-mortem photograph ... aka 'dead baby picture.' It was something some grieving parents did during this era."
A bit later, after further analysis, she sent me this email:
"Sorry, but this is definitely a post-mortem photo. If you look closely at the eyes in the closeup ... you can see the irises are artificial and the baby's real eyes are looking up and you can only see the bottoms of them. Plus, a baby would never have stayed still long enough for a photograph."
Here is a decisive closeup of the "eyes" and the evidence to which Mom is referring...

And so we are left with this poignant memento mori from about a century ago. Sadly, there is no name or identifying information on the back of the postcard (beyond the mention of the York photography studio). Wouldn't it be nice if we could put a name to this sweet face?

Post-mortem photography was at its peak from the mid 19th century through the early 20th century. In Photography: A Cultural History, Mary Warner Marien writes "post-mortem photography flourished in photography's early decades, among clients who preferred to capture an image of a deceased loved one rather than have no photograph at all."

Here are some links if you are interested in learning more about post-mortem photography and viewing some galleries:

Post-mortem portraits are still taken today. In some cultures and parts of the world, they are quite prevalent. They are less common in the United States, although there exists a non-profit organization called Now I Lay Me Down to Sleep. Its mission to "to introduce remembrance photography to parents suffering the loss of a baby with a free gift of professional portraiture. ... We hope the gift we provide will bring some peace and comfort during this very difficult time."

Which is really all that grieving relatives wanted in the 19th and early 20th centuries, too.

1 comment:

  1. Sometimes it is hard to tell but I personally don't think it's post-mortem-- retouching around eyes is very common in this period, especially on lighter coloured eyes. Babies absolutely could and did sit still long enough for clear photographs, there are millions of examples-- in fact I have a very similar looking photograph of my great-grandmother ca. 1890, and she most definitely lived beyond that! Also the "Chewbacca" cloth makes it more likely the baby is alive, as it is almost certainly there to conceal the mother holding the baby and keeping it quiet enough to stay still. With a deceased baby there is no need to hide the mother, you can simply pose the baby. Post-mortem photography was of course fairly common, as you say, but it isn't a conclusion you can leap to on the basis of retouching and staying still.