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Category Archives: Victorian Period

Augusta “Ada” Byron King, Countess of Lovelace

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Did you know that the world’s first computer programmer was an English woman?

Ada Byron Lovelace 2Augusta Byron was born 10 December 1815, the daughter of George Gordon and Anne Isabella Milbanke.  The father had more influence in her life by his absence than he probably would have had by his presence:  Otherwise known as Lord Byron, the poet, he abandoned his wife and only legitimate daughter one month after Ada was born, and left England forever four months later.  Likely because he wasn’t there to shatter a child’s romantic notions of a father, she remained fascinated with him, and even requested being buried by his side before she passed away in 1852.  Her embittered mother wasn’t much help, either:  Often leaving Ada in the care of her maternal grandmother, she would write letters to “it” to prove her motherly care to Victorian society, but in truth had little relationship to her daughter; fortunately for Ada, her grandmother Judith, Hon. Lady Milbanke, doted on her, and that care allowed Ada to develop her curious mind.  Her mother attempted to blot out any trace of Lord Byron’s “insanity” in his daughter by ensuring that she was well-trained in mathematics.  At the age of 12 she decided that she wanted to fly, and pursued the project with methodical passion, even writing a book about the experience, called, “Flyology”.  Her interest in mathematics dominated much of her adult life, though she seems to have made poor relationship choices:  She created a syndicate with several male friends, and at one point she was massively in debt when a scheme of hers to combine maths with her love of gambling backfired; she had to confess it all to her husband, which may have been a strain that led to him leaving her to her mother’s control in the final months of her life.

In 1833 she was introduced by a friend to Charles Babbage (known as “the father of computers”), and they corresponded for many years in a working relationship, particularly on his development of the Analytical Machine.  She translated an Italian article by Luigi Menabrea about his engine, adding her own elaborate notes; these supplementary notes contain what is essentially the first computer program – an algorithm to be carried out by a machine.  While Babbage himself only focused on the capabilities of a computer, Ada envisioned far more possibilities than merely calculations.

Little did she know how right she would be.

Information source:  Wikipedia

A Glimpse of Victorian Photography

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Victorian photography was bizarre.  I’ll say it.  Seen through the eyes of a modern person, their sense of humour, their fascination with oddities, their budding scientific theories (and lack thereof), and their increasing access to photography that made everyone able to capture their own sense of weirdness… well, it all adds up to a bunch of freakishness.

They were fascinated with what they considered oddities; the rich collected such things, whether they were butterflies pinned to a display board, or porcelain figures, or live animals or human beings.  I’ve already discussed the practise of Memento Mori – it’s been an on-going discussion ever since.  But there were other practices, just as weird, and ones which our sensibilities today revolt at just as much as propping up dead loved ones for a photo op:  Our sense of dignity for the individual, be they human or animal, is at times repulsed by their lack of it – people born with deformities were displayed in travelling circuses as freaks.  I try to see it from different perspectives, and while it exposed those unfortunate individuals to public ridicule, it may have sometimes also given them a purpose in life with an income and a home (rather than, say, being locked away or experimented on), and a family that was the close-knit circus crew; they looked after their own.  Nevertheless, they were bought and sold as commodities; one case in point was the tragic story of Julia Pastrana, also known as The Ape Woman.  Another well known figure in history is Joseph Merrick, also known as “The Elephant Man”.

Human Oddities 4

Julia Pastrana

In the slideshow below, I have only included two examples of deformities that would have been displayed – the girl with the deformed legs, and the bearded woman; both would likely have been circus performers, or freak show exhibitions.  Thank God for modern medicine.

One fad seems to have been manipulating photos through double exposure, thus creating “ghosts” in photos or making the subject headless; another seems to be something akin to making macabre Halloween cards by defacing a photograph to make the person look like a zombie (there are two examples in the slide show of the “before” and “after” photos).  Others are simply weird; why would someone photograph a toddler with a saw?  Or someone with antlers, or a bear, or a skeleton?  There was a practice of what’s been called “hidden mothers” in photographs of children – the mother was hidden beneath a cover, or behind a chair, to help hold the child still for the long exposures of the photograph; but when some of them are so badly hidden, why didn’t they just take the opportunity to photograph the mother as well?

Below are a few random photographs found around cyberspace; I don’t know who owns any of them, but if you know of credit that should be given to a museum or collector, please do let me know and I’ll be glad to give it.  Enjoy a look into the past.

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Victorian Post-Mortem Photography

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Victorian Postmortem PhotoThe Victorian period of history had a few customs that today are considered, in most western cultures, to be downright creepy.  One of those practices had to do with remembering their dead through post-mortem photography, also known as memento mori or memorial portraiture.

Sometimes the photographer couldn’t arrive straight away, however.  Especially in the heat of summer, the body, which was laid out on a bed somewhere in the house (with flowers to mask the smell of decay), may have already started to decompose before the photograph could be taken.  Some of the photos I’ve found online are very disturbing.  Why  anyone would want to capture an image of a loved one who had already lost skin and eyelids is a mystery to me.  I cannot even begin to imagine the gruesome task it must have been for the photographer; rigor mortis sets in

Victorian Postmortem Photo 5

Photograph © Burns Archive, used with permission.

after 3-4 hours, and by 12 hours the body is officially a “stiff” though if it took the photographer longer than a day to arrive, the muscles had already begun to break down and soften, making the body more pliable for poses, but also more tricky to pose in a natural way; strings were used to keep hands or arms in more lively positions, or someone held the body either in-shot or hidden behind a drape near the chair.

For a 3-minute video on this topic, click here.



It is probable that both the mother and the child are deceased (her hands are in an unnatural pose).

It is probable that both the mother and the child are deceased (her hands are in an unnatural pose).

Victorian Postmortem Photo Stand


Update, January 2016:

There has been a lot of discussion in the comments about the photo below;  in doing the research for this article, I came across it in the context of post-mortem photography on several sites.  No matter how much I try to get it right, sometimes things do slip through; it’s one of the woes of cyberspace leisure piracy, a bit like buying a cheap knock-off watch in Asia – you might just get what you pay for, even though you’re trying to buy the real thing.   I try to give proper credit where I can locate original source material for images (and most of my articles have external links or state the source for the sake of information veracity), and so I gladly give the Burns Archive credit for two of their images used in this article.

The photo below is, in fact, not post-mortem.  The photo can be found in the Burns Archive’s Disease and Pathology collection, and their creative and operations director, Elizabeth Burns, has been kind enough to correspond with me on the matter. This woman’s story is worth telling, because it’s a thread in the tapestry of humanity, but unfortunately, not that much is known about her expect for the medical diagnosis:  She was a sufferer of Lupus with Corneal Leukoma.  The photo was taken by Alexandre Lacassagne, MD., circa 1895. It is included in their 4-volume publication Photographic History of Dermatology.

The image remains in this article as reference, because many of the comments below are related to it specifically.  Based on the updated information however, it is not related to the topic of post-mortem photography, nor should her photo be used in that context by anyone using this blog as a source.

Post-mortem; quite some time elapsed between her death and the arrival of the photographer.

Photograph © Burns Archive , used with permission.

For a further look at Victorian Photography, click here.

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