Cats and Dogs

Pets have always been a favourite subject for amateur photographers and there are many interesting example to be found in old collections and albums. Often the proud owners are seen with their pets as the first photograph shows.

Women and their pet cats are frequently found. In fact I don’t recall any of men or boys with pet cats in my collection. The same goes for dogs – from my entirely unrepresentative collection I have far more women with dogs than men with dogs.

There are also many photographs of the pets by themselves as this set shows. It is particularly difficult for an amateur photographer to get a good shot of their pets. Even with modern cameras and a lot of patience it is a challenge to get a good likeness.

There is the usual problem with these photographs of knowing who we are looking at and when the photograph was taken. This group of three all have information written on the reverse. Top left is “Annie and Brownie, St Louis Ms Aug 1945.” Top right is Daisy, Teeny and Pedro Oct 21 1925.” You might have to look closely to see Teeny. Notes on the bottom picture read “Beaty, Teddy and his cat, see all the garden we have” but no date is given.

There are of course pet photographs to be found on Cabinet Cards and CDVs though these tend to be highly collectable and more expensive than the average. The CDV above is one of my favourites not only because it is a pet photograph but also because of its excellent condition and the fact that the dog is seated on a rare Art Nouveau chair (I suspect it’s Jugendstil but I can’t be certain). I paid £20 for this card and considered it to be a bargain.

If you want to know more about animals in vintage photography then I can recommend Beauty and the Beast by Arnold Arluke and Robert Bogdan. The book sticks to RPPCs as illustrations and ranges far and wide over the subject of our relationship with animals.

Not at all obsessed but ….

In the beginning I had my small collection of vintage photographs neatly stored in albums or boxes but as time went on little piles of unsorted photographs began to pile up all over the tardis-like room I use as my study. Although I broadly knew what was in each pile (or thought I did) the chaos was not helped by my cats who often decided to mountaineer onto the highest and remotest shelves and knock said piles onto the floor.

Yesterday I decided to get the whole collection out on the large dining room table and sort them into more coherent categories. I was somewhat surprised by the number of items to say the least but I persevered with the task.

The older and most valuable of the collection, including all the CDVs, Cabinet Cards and Real Photographic Post Cards are now housed in the old card index cabinet shown here. Needless to say the drawers are mostly full and I’ll be in the market for another cabinet. (Incidentally have you noticed how crazy the prices of these card index cabinets has become recently?) I’ve housed the photographs (as opposed to CDVs, Cabinet Cards and RPPCs) in a series of IKEA boxes and the oversize photographs in larger boxes.

Now all I have to do is make sure any further acquisitions are properly sorted. Of course there is the question of how to further sub-divide subjects within the collection and I can feel a database coming on any day now. Not that I’m obsessed with collecting old photographs you understand.

Cartes-de-Visite

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(The CDV pictured above is of better quality than the average and, because the subject includes a girl with her pet, it is very collectable. For me though the real interest is the chair which is clearly decorated in the Jugendstil or Art Nouveau style. Furniture of this quality is rarely seen in old photographs of any kind.)

The carte-de-visite was the first type of photograph that was affordable to the average person. The idea was advanced by a French photographer, Louis Dodero, in 1851 and by the mid 1850s the process was established of using sliding plate holders that could take several  2.5 x 4 inch carte-size photographs on a single plate.

By the mid-1860s the format had become widely and wildly popular. The cost of a dozen CDVs was around 12s 6d (62.5p). Because they were so mass produced they all tended to look similar though for a little more you could be artfully arranged with antiques and expensive furnishings as backdrops. The more run-of-the-mill studios used painted backdrops.

In 1866 the CDV gradually began to be replaced by the larger Cabinet Card though they were still being produced well into the early twentieth century. Despite their name there is no evidence that CDVs were ever really used as visiting cards.

CDVs can be bought for a few pence still (50p is probably the norm) though prices will rise as they become scarcer. If the CDV quality is above average or if the subject is more famous or falls into a more collectable category such as pets, stage actors etc. then prices will be much higher. As with any antique collectable the very best examples can command hundreds of pounds.

One thing to look out for with CDVs (and Cabinet Cards) is that many have backs decorated with studio details which are often more interesting than the subject on the front of the card.

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Writing in Period: 1859

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(The photographs illustrating this post are both cartes-de-visite (CDVs) though clearly the one with three children is later than 1859 as you can see from the date of the “queen’s prize” of 1871 on the reverse. However, CDVs were produced from about 1854 onwards and would have been at their most popular in the 1860s.)

Many of us think that we have a good idea of what life was like in Victorian Britain. We are so used to seeing depictions on TV and in film that it is hard to not visualise the times as though they were as seen in a BBC costume drama. In setting Heretics in 1859 and 1860 it was necessary for me to research the period carefully to make sure I wasn’t wrong in my assumptions.

One of the things I realised fairly early on was that many of the things we associate with the Victorian period didn’t actually become widespread until later in the nineteenth century. I have scenes set at Christmas 1859 and was expecting to be writing about Christmas cards, presents and turkeys but the reality was different. It was too early for Christmas cards, presents if given were likely be handmade and Christmas dinner was more likely to be similar to our Sunday dinners, featuring beef or ham. The upper classes would adopt the things we think of as Victorian “traditions” first and they would only trickle down to the middle and lower classes only as the century went on.

Clothing was easier to research and there are many contemporary images that can be drawn upon. Still, I found many surprises. For instance, the wristwatch first made an appearance as something women wore and only became available for men much later. One of my main characters, Alex, has travelled back in time from 1959 and has a 1950s crew cut which would have looked quite out of place. Women’s dress went through many changes between 1859 and 1900 and I had to be careful about bustles and boots and the years they were fashionable. I have a young female character, Daisy, and when she first appears I describe her as wearing a grubby dress with bloomers poking out under the hem. Later I found that bloomers were actually a phenomena associated with women’s growing emancipation towards the end of the century and I had to settle for something similar called pantalettes.

The social conditions that existed in 1859 are heavily featured in the novel and I spent a lot of time trying to get these right. One of the most important works to document the lives of ordinary people is Henry Mayhew’s London Labour and the London Poor and is an essential reference of the times. However, my work of fiction is set in the Midlands town of Derby and there is a certain amount of extrapolation. There are of course many locally published accounts of Victorian life which can used as references. The picture I draw of Derby in 1859 is one in which utter poverty exists in contrast to the wealth enjoyed by the upper classes. There is a growing middle class but their conditions are not yet much better than their poor neighbours and there is a growing class of industialists whose wealth will soon begin to rival that of those born to riches.

In Heretics you will find many poor people reduced to sleeping in netherskens, low boarding houses where you could share a room with many other people for a small amount of money, a huge criminal underclass and a burgeoning business in prostitution. In 1859 the age of consent was thirteen but was hardly policed at all. In any case the poorest families would often share their lodgings with several other families and children and adults would also share the sleeping space. The kind of rookeries that existed in London also existed in towns and cities across the country and the sanitary conditions in them were appalling.

In the matter of language, the fact that Alex is from 1959 aids explanations of the language used in the Victorian town. When Alex first hears a nethersken mentioned he can simply ask one of the characters, who know of his origins, what the word means. Similarly there are many other expressions peculiar to the time that he can either have explained to him or he can infer the likely meaning. When he first hears the expression “dollymop” it is obvious from the word itself and the context in which he hears it that it means prostitute. The need to explain the meaning of words cuts both ways – when Alex says “OK” or uses a modern word like “psychopath,” his Victorian friends have to ask him what he means. One phrase that surprised me was the use of “scorched earth” which I assumed came from twentieth century wars but was in use in Victorian times and was used when speaking of military tactics used, for instance, in South Africa.

This post just scratches the surface of the research necessary to make life in 1859 as close to reality as possible. The one thing that stands out for me is that the 1859 I thought I knew a great deal about turned out to be different in some surprising and unexpected ways.

Victorian Photo Albums

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Victorian photo albums could be very elaborate and often had a theme – the illustrations in this post all come from “Heroines of Tennyson.”

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Exteriors were often leather and the flyleaves were works of art in themselves.

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Interior pages could take either carte de visite (CDVs – in use from the mid-1850s) or the larger cabinet cards (1870s on). On the right you can see a cabinet card of an “angel” inserted into the page. The mounts are easily damaged and it’s rare to find albums that are undamaged throughout.

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More about CDVs and Cabinet Cards in later posts.