Throughout its development my latest novel has been called Heretics. I had the title before I started writing because one of the central ideas was that the Victorian characters were all heretics in one way or another, non-believers in a Christian God in a supposedly pious time. Equally the characters in 1959 were all unconventional, thinking and acting differently to the rest of their contemporaries. In my own mind the book is still called Heretics but when it came to publishing I had to ask if it was a meaningful title. It sounded too much like a historical non-fiction and gave no flavour of genre or content.
After much discussion with my wife we eventually settled on Alchemists of Time, a title which had the virtue of including two major themes of the book – alchemy and time travel. It was my idea to have a strapline “A novel of the occult.” This strapline together with the title covered a lot of the bases and I think will appeal to the audience I am trying to attract. After all it’s difficult when your novel is a historical time-travel fantasy occult social history novel spanning a hundred years. It’s hard to classify and to market with all these aspects but Alchemists of Time and A novel of the Occult are the nearest I can get.
It’s worth saying something about the cover design for which I am also responsible. I wanted it to be eye-catching and give a flavour of the story. The final design is made up of three images licensed from Getty Images and one image from my personal collection of old photographs. I blended the woman’s face on the front of the book with a backdrop of clouds. In the original photo the woman has blue eyes but I changed them to black using Photoshop. On the back cover I blended more clouds with a drawing of esoteric circles and overlaid a photograph of four Victorian people who bear a similarity to some of the characters in the book. In fact their clothing isn’t quite right for the time period but it does the job.
So, Heretics is now Alchemists of Time, a novel of the occult which should not be read late at night or when you are alone!
Although many people now find post mortem photographs rather uncomfortable viewing there was a distinct period in Victorian times when they were not unusual. Whatever our view of them today it is perhaps understandable that in an era when families were large and child mortality common there was a desire to have a photographic memorial of a lost child or other relative.
There is a distinct interest amongst some collectors of cabinet cards and old photographs in general in this genre, so much so that a photograph claiming to be taken post mortem will usually sell for a high price, often well in excess of £100. Given the perceived values of these items it seems reasonable to expect to have a high level of confidence in their authenticity yet this is very hard to achieve. If you see a PM photo of Jessie James you can be pretty sure it’s real and it’s easy to find copies on the internet together with details of how and why it was taken. Similarly if a body is photographed in a coffin then it’s likely to be real.
More difficult are examples were a child (and it is normally a child) has been posed in a manner that imitates life. So they may be posed alongside living relatives in their everyday clothes. These photographs may be altered to paint in open eyes and make them look more lifelike. It is even claimed that bodies were propped up on stands to make them appear to be upright although such stands were commonly used for living subjects due to the long exposure times used in early photography. The internet is, of course, awash with articles on this subject and many of them are exaggerated or wrong. So viralnova.com has several examples of PM photographs, some probably real, some doubtful and some wrongly classified. A good counter to viralnova’s page is the essay to be found at incredulous on “Myths of Victorian Post-Mortem Photography.”
If you want to collect PM photographs you will often come across examples on ebay and elsewhere advertised as PM photographs or often as “probably post mortem” or “possibly post mortem.” A clear case of caveat emptor. The photograph at the head of this article is one that I bought (relatively cheaply) that was advertised as “possibly post mortem.” So how likely is really that this is a PM photograph?
There are several elements that might suggest a PM photograph, the most obvious being her eyes which appear to be painted on to the photograph. She’s posed in an everyday dress and clutching her doll so it fits the practice of posing a dead person this way. Her left hand looks very limp and her right hand supports her head in an awkward manner. You can easily see how her body could be propped up in this way (whether alive or dead).
On the other hand a closer inspection shows that this is a real photographic postcard and there are elements on both sides of the card which help us narrow down the time it was published and whether it fits the profile of a PM photograph. Kodak introduced photographic post cards, i.e. blank postcards onto which a personal photograph could be printed, in 1903. Divided backs to postcards, with one side for the address and the other for comments didn’t appear until 1907 and using a white border around the main subject to save on printing costs first began to be used in 1915. We can see that the stamp box tells us that the cost for inland postage is one halfpenny and the Great Britain Philatelic Society shows that the cost of sending a postcard was increased to one penny in 1918. These clues allow us to date the card with a fair degree of accuracy to being produced between 1915 and 1918. Most PM photographs were produced in the late nineteenth century so the time period makes it unlikely that this is a PM photograph.
There is certainly something odd about this photograph but I doubt that it is a genuine PM photograph. It’s much more likely that the photographic studio decided to paint the girl’s eyes this way to make it look better or possibly her eyes really did look like that!
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.
At some point most collectors of old photographs develop one or more specialist interests. In my case one of my specialist interests is “vintage dancing girls.” This came about because whenever I sorted through lots of photographs I began to notice that there was nearly always one or two photographs of girls in dance costumes, either solo or in groups. You might expect that these dancers would mostly be small girls appearing in some local production but it turns out that there are also large numbers of older dancers (think professional or semi-professional dancers) and even men in drag as this photograph illustrates!
The three girls in this photograph are typical of this category of Vintage Dancing Girls and they appear to be performing at some open air event with proud parents looking on in the background.
Groups seem to fall into different types. Some are obviously tap dancing groups whilst others clearly favour more impressionistic styles!
Some groups of young dancers were clearly more commercially successful. The Dinky Dots (sometimes spelled Dinkie Dots) were around in the 1930s. Apparently they were active in Bolton for quite a long time. Reminiscences from another young dancer at the Bolton Revisited site notes that ” The Dinky Dots all wore very frilly knickers under their costumes and I was tempted to join them just because I wanted to wear frilly underwear! ”
Another class of “dancer” seems likely to be just young women who like to dress in dance costume or pose like a dancer as this photograph shows.
Here are two more professional or semi-professional groups. The Opal Girls were clearly a successful cabaret act. Their agent was based in Ruislip. The girls in the weird hats were from Egham.
One thing I’ve noticed is that many dancers and dance troupes came from quite unlikely places like Barrow In Furness, like this group. It is likely that these dancers were based at local dance schools.
You can see my complete collection of Vintage Dancing Girls on Flickr. The photographs have been gradually accumulated over more than five years. Once you start a specialised collection such as this it is remarkable how often you come across other photographs which fit the category. The cost of acquiring these photographs can be as little as a few pence each especially when found in larger collections and seldom cost more than a pound or two. Of course, like any other collecting hobby prices are dictated by how many other collectors there are and the supply of “new” items over time. Fortunately there are so many old photographs that the supply is unlikely to exhausted any time soon.
[It’s worth pointing out that there are other specialist subjects that are very expensive to pursue. For instance if you wanted to collect Victorian post mortem photographs you would be lucky to find a good example for less than £100. ]
For years I sporadically collected topographical postcards of the area I live in, like many people do. Then I found this photograph at a table-top sale in Cromford, where I live, and bought it for 50p. It was the beginning of my obsession for collecting real old photographs and it grabbed my attention because it was so intriguing.
What’s going on here? When was it taken? Does it have any real meaning? The man looks like he’s a Native American although it could just be someone dressing up for a tourist photograph. Maybe he appears in hundreds of photos with many different people shaking his hand. Was it taken somewhere in the USA or in a studio in Basingstoke? When I acquired it there was no way of telling. As time went by and I learnt more about old photos and real photographic postcards, the mystery only deepened.
Photographic postcards were produced by the million and they weren’t all of famous landscapes or people. Anyone could go to a studio, have pictures taken and then have them printed on postcards to send to their friends. However, this isn’t a photo postcard. A postcard has specific dimensions, markings on the back such as a divider and a stamp box and almost always the name and address of a photographer and/or the studio he or she worked for. This photograph is bigger than a postcard, has nothing on the back and is clearly a real photograph (as opposed to a real photographic postcard). Even if the man was hired out to appear with anyone who would like to be seen with him there would likely be, at the very least, a studio stamp on the reverse. There isn’t.
It’s probable that I’ll never know who these people were or the circumstances that led up to the photograph being taken but that’s what makes it so intriguing. It would be great to one day know the full story but it’s also fun to speculate what’s going on and keep searching for an answer. The only trouble now is that I have hundreds of photographs, every one of them with a mystery to solve.
And that’s how my obsession with collecting old photographs began.