Hidden Mother tintypes

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The "Hidden Mother" is a type of 19th century photo where a child is photographed sitting in his or her mother's lap. Later, the photo is matted or framed to hide the mother, leaving just the calm child in view. To make the cropping less obvious, the mother was sometimes wrapped up in fabric. Remove the frame or matte though and you're left with a delightfully creepy photo.

Hidden Mother: Tintype and Cabinets pool (Flickr)
"The Hidden Mother" (Accidental Mysteries via Neatorama)



  1. many hidden mother photos are post-mortem shots of children. look closely at the eyes for an indication if they have been drawn in or are not focused. double creepy.

    1. Huh… but if the child’s deceased, why do they need to have it on the mother’s lap to keep it calm, as was suggested the purpose here. Wouldn’t it make more sense to either just have it posed as desired, or, if the mother in the shot was desired, to have her uncovered?

      1. because the infant’s photo was often the only thing the parents had to remember the child holding a child was best to give the illusion of life. it was another source of income for the funeral industry & not family snapshots. photographers specialized in post-mortem photography and retouching to paint in eyes and eventually tinting.

      1. Nope, don’t think so. You can see the kid is looking to the right, so I guess it’s very much alive and interested in something to the side.

      2. yep, you got it! you can tell because the head is being supported under the drape and there is a black ribbon tacked on the child’s left shoulder. some subject are posed with hands in specific positions, holding or having particular objects placed on or near them to indicate their deceased state.

  2. Fascinating! I knew that post-mortem photos were popular but not that many were taken using “hidden mothers.” Thanks!

  3. Tremendously eerie. It reminds me of people going into the death chamber. None of the children look all that happy about it either. So I don’t know if they achieved the “comfort” that they were aiming for.

    1. Well, if you take into account the length of time these early exposures took, you’d understand that few people looked comfortable. Stand stark still for a few minutes. As for the hidden mother thing, this isn’t just back then. It’s still done in photo studios today with less than cooperative children. They just crop her out.

  4. You’d often have to support living people too, so they stay still long enough for the pic. Don’t forget the long exposure times. I guess it’s even more true with kids, most kids suck at keeping still for more than a few seconds. Also, the eyes of that kid don’t look dead to me… but you might have a point about the ribbon… hmm…

  5. We had to do this a few years ago when taking a biometric passport photo of our newborn. Do you know how difficult it is to get a baby to face the camera with eyes open, mouth closed and neutral expression against a plain white background? My wife draped herself with a white blanket and held our son’s head upright and facing the camera while the picture was taken (or more accurately: while we took dozens of photos before finally getting one right).

    Ironically, not even the Australian government could manage to get this right and had resorted to horrendously photoshopping the sample baby passport photo they were giving out to applicants.

  6. My daughter’s first passport photo was taken using this method. She was too young (2 and a half months) to sit up, so they draped fabric over me and I held her in my lap so they could take her picture. You could just barely see my hands supporting her in the final crop of the photo.

  7. It always seemed odd to me that the mother’s face is covered since the object was to crop the image to expose only the child. It also seems possible that a small child might look up or back for reassurance and get just the opposite (“What happened to Mommy?!”)

  8. Perhaps the mother was really ugly and the child requested the covering out of sheer embarrassment, or because the photographer insisted on it. Or the mother was wanted for crimes. Or the mother had been given a new identity after giving evidence in a high profile case. Or the mother figure is a manniken or a standin because the child was an ophan. Or the mother is the dead one and has been covered out of respect. There are other equally absurd possibilities.

  9. “Burkarific!” was what I thought of before the Klan… That or an execution hood. *heebie jeebies*

  10. “It always seemed odd to me that the mother’s face is covered since the object was to crop the image to expose only the child.”

    It’s because the mother’s face was right behind the child’s face. Unless you cropped the child’s face extremely tightly, you’d still see the mother, because she’s right behind him. The shroud over the mother gives you a generic fabric backdrop behind the child’s head with plenty of clearance for a loose crop.

    The real oddity is why people were so intent on getting a picture of ONLY the child. What’s the problem with having a photograph of mother and child together? The only reason I can think of is that the photographers get more money the more individual photos there are.

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