Grumpy children with toys, 1860s

These 1860s vintage photos of children posing with their toys (from the collection of Musee McCord Museum) hints at a mid-19th century in which children were a lot more serious about everything.

Children With Toys, 1860s


  1. It may be apocryphal, but I’ve always heard that the serious expressions in old photos are due to the very long – sometimes minutes long – exposure times that were required.  Far too long to hold a smile. 

    1. You are correct jenjen, smiley photographs started at about 1905 with Kodak insta-film (well almost instant) snap shots. Prior to as jenjen surmised, the length of time for exposure limited facial expressions.

    2. It’s true that the very earliest photographs required very long exposures. By the 1860s, though, the technology used was glass-plate collodian photography, and exposure time had been reduced to a few seconds. Although these aren’t snapshots by any means (a view camera with a tripod was required), we’re not talking about minutes. Considerable time and some expense was still required to set up the pose and prepare the photographic plate and camera, though, which does in part explain their formality.

  2. Having to be wired into position for the exposures, especially when you’re wanting to do anything BUT just stand there for minutes on end, would give you a pissed off look too.

    1. Coal heated homes back in 1800’s, no doubt many children tried to be ready bad all year in hopes of getting coal in the stockings during christmas/winter. 

  3. I wonder how they got the kids to sit still long enough to take a photo of them, if it took over a minute to get enough exposure. Perhaps they dosed them up with that patent medicine that contained opium?

    1. Maybe that too, but what they did was to use iron bars and such to immobilize the children completely. Look at the pictures, you can often see evidence of it, like heavy stones on the ground just behind the kids, or artificial foliage to hide the mechanics of the immobilization systems. It would have been nearly impossible to take pictures of kids otherwise as the exposure process took minutes, not the fraction of a second we now are used to. Even adults often needed “support” to stand that rigid for so long.

      1. That stuff was great. Opium and alcohol in one little bottle for children too small to hold a martini glass and a Vicodin bottle.

  4. You realize of course that those aren’t their toys but the prop toys in the studio and that that thing the kid is standing in front of is the base for an iron exoskeleton thing that holds them still for a minute or so. 

    They are probably wondering if the guncotton dissolved in ether is going make the photographer pass out or explode

  5. He’s just thinking, “Well shit – I’m going to be _dead_ a hundred years before you can download porn off the Intarwebz!”

  6. I think it would be fun to re-create some of these pictures without the immobilization techniques, of course.

        1. As it happens, they did frequently take pictures of the deceased for use as a memento mori.  You can see some photos of dead (at the time) Victorian children here, along with some adults:


  7. I guess you ended up looking pretty serious if thrashing to unconsciousness was a normal way of controlling children, not to mention the fact that most of your brothers and sisters died of an unpleasant disease. Happy days eh?

Comments are closed.