Over the years I’ve grown to be a very sentimental person. I linger in the past and I linger over other people’s past. Which might not be the healthiest way to live one’s life because upward and onward and all that. But have you ever thought about all the people that are no longer here and literally no one remember them? All that’s left are nameless vintage photographs. Or a thing they once used to use and love. Or absolutely nothing. Those people might have been pretty cool and lovely, or outright horrid. And no one knows anything about them, no one even remembers their names. Often not even their own families.
NOTE: Don’t forget to follow my Instagram account >>Find My Ancestors<< where I regularly post vintage photos from my collection in search of their families.
Why are vintage photographs real treasures?
Vintage photos are a true work of art
Vintage photographs, especially the very early ones from the 1850’s and the following 50 or so years, were made with a lot of intent and a lot of care. The first photographs were made on cameras that used glass panes to capture the image. Alternatively they used metal panes and a mixture of very intense chemicals to develop the image. The shutter was extremely slow and you had to stay put for minutes on end without an eye blink to get a proper focus capture. Just imagine the pain of taking photos of babies and children! The photo studios were oh so fancy too. They had special backdrops that looked like expensive parlours and furniture to match them. People dressed up beautifully in their Sunday best, women wore their best jewellery and curled their hair. Men wore their most expensive pocket watch and polished their shoes. Your hands, the direction where you were looking, even your smile were scrutinised for the best possible shot.
CDV (carte de visite) had a purpose
CDV’s are the most common photographs from the 1850’s-1910’s. They were officially patented in 1954 in France by André Adolphe Eugène Disdéri. They are smaller than a cabinet card and you can usually recognise them by being around the size of today’s business card. And that’s exactly what they were for. They served as a business card of a sort that people used to exchange when they wanted to remember who such and such person was. Be it family, business or simply someone you met on the train and really wanted them to remember you – you gave them your CDV. For obvious reasons you can expect CDV’s to have more copies in existence than a cabinet card would have. Those were more for families, weddings, school photos and such.
They capture moments in time long passed
You can read so much from vintage photos. Look at the beautiful clothes the people used to wear. The jewellery that adorned those dresses. Their shoes. But also the state of their hands – you can totally tell who was living comfortably and who worked very hard. Their facial expressions are also telling. When you see a photo of a young married couple at their wedding you can sometimes proper tell whether that was a marriage based on true love or a business matter. Sometimes the photos were taken in people’s homes or in their orchard, in front of their farm house. Sometimes they are reading a book or playing the piano. There is so much written in those photos about the olden times, the culture, the traditions.
Photos make for great souvenirs
A slightly less sentimental point to make but vintage photographs make for beautiful souvenirs from foreign countries. You can display them on your wall, put them in your photo album together with the rest of your holiday photos or you can simply used them as a bookmark and be constantly reminded of the adventure your brought the photo from. Way more magical and meaningful than a tacky magnet, isn’t it!
Some vintage photographs are very valuable
From a collector’s point of view, some vintage photographs are very valuable. You can find vintage photos signed by famous people – writers, painters, politicians. There are a lot of valuable photographs of Benjamin Franklin for example. Some are valuable for the method that was used to create them. That’s usually the case of daguerrotypes – photos made on metal plates.
And sometimes the photos are valuable for what they depict. That could be an animal (those were very difficult to capture), an unusual set of people (a bunch of chaps with curly moustaches having a fag), a baby being held by a person in a black cape (they used to put a black veil on a person holding a baby when they wanted to take a photo of a baby alone but the baby wouldn’t obviously stay put for so long so they made an “invisible living human chair”) or photos called “post mortem”. These were photographs of people who have passed but the family decided they wanted to remember them and since there was no other photo of the person, they took their last opportunity and had a photograph made. They used to take photos like that of babies a lot, which is heart-breaking but also very touching at the same time. Prices of these photographs can go up to thousands of pounds!
Photos make for great decor pieces
Another slightly less sentimental approach to vintage photos is to use them as decor pieces. For example I collect these photos and I archive them carefully in dust jackets. But I also have a selected few on display around the apartment because they are truly artful. I think it’s a nice way to remind yourself of memento mori and honour the people who put foundations to the world we now live in.
People to remember, stories to tell
To continue on that note – we must not forget that these people had actual lives like we do. They were born, they were children. They had their own families. Believed in religions. Built houses. Fought in wars. Fell in love. In certain day and age in history they were as alive as we are now. Maybe we should really not forget everyone who’s already passed and maybe, just maybe, not throwing away those old photographs is the least we can do to show, perhaps just to ourselves, that we do care.