Who Were They?

Lost and forgotten photos from the past

I’ve been away from Sepia Saturday for quite some time, but after looking at the prompt for this weekend, I felt I could jump back into the fray quite easily! The prompt is a photo of a couple just about to kiss, it seems, leading me to love and romance. Well, you know the Victorians would have never been caught dead kissing so their portraits were, um, rather stiff. Here are a variety of wedding photos through the years.

Early 1860s

This first photo is a CdV with no borders and no props for the subjects. The corners are also square and the paper is a bit flimsy. This all points to the photo being made in the early 1860s. A general rule is the absence of borders puts in in the 1860-1862 range. Her dress is a gathered front bodice, which was a popular style at the end of the 1850s and lasted through the early 1860s. One thing I find interesting is that her under sleeves appear to be dark, suggesting that she is in mourning. I suppose it is possible the couple were married while she was still in morning for a father or brother, but it doesn’t seem to fit with the mourning customs of the time. The photographer was Ewing & M’Laughlin in Cumberland, MD.

UPDATED 4/2014: Since I originally wrote this, I have discovered that colors photographed differently on wet plate images than our modern black & white. This dress could be anywhere from blue to yellow and still show up dark!


Our second couple was photographed in the mid-1860s. Her dress style is from a bit later than the previous subject and the V shape trimming of her bodice is consistent with the mid-decade. Also, the presence of the lines on the border put the photo in that range. The corners of the card were cut to make putting the photo into an album easier. After 1870 the corners became rounded. The gentleman is sitting on a nice padded chair, which became more popular in that time frame. Don’t they look delighted? The photographer was Hill & Benson in Troy, NY.

Natural Form

Here is a gorgeous example of the “natural form” costume which was popular from 1877-1885. The woman’s dress is straight and there is not a bustle behind her. I’d guess this is from the beginning of the period as the elaborate decorations were symmetrical, while toward the end the asymmetrical trimmings became more popular. The natural form gown was designed to show a woman’s “true form” although modified with corsetry, of course. It was the anti-bustle dress. The photographer was Stone’s Great Northern Photograph and Copying House in Potsdam, NY. The CdV is edged with gold.

Allie & Wm Busse 1885

Next we have a cabinet card on a lovely maroon card with gold imprinting. On the back was written “wedding picture of Mother and Dad about 1885, March 4th. Allie Florence Jenkins & Wm Henry Busse.” This dress is consistent with the bustle dresses which returned in 1885. Also she has a ribbon or bow tied at her bosom, which was one method of dressing up for a wedding portrait. Remember, women wore their best dresses for their wedding, not the modern white dress. Most women of the middle class either had a dress they could wear and decorate with additional frills and bows, or they had a good dress made which later became a church or social dress. The photographer who made the Busse’s portrait was Sherraden in Council Bluffs, IA.

About 1887

Our final image of wedded bliss has the added bonus of the lady’s headgear. You can see that her dress is velvet (probably silk velvet as that was the standard of the day) with much trimming, consistent with a bit later in the second bustle period. You can see the edge of her bodice pointing out of frame which suggests to me that she has quite a bustle behind her! Her hair is coiffed under a fancy and feathered hat, and on her left hand you can just see quite a large ring. Our gentleman has his coat buttoned at the top. I read somewhere – but have now lost track of exactly where – that it is possible to date men’s clothing by the way they buttoned their coat. Buttoned at the top means one era, buttoned all the way means another. While men are almost universally unshakable in terms of fashion during the 19th century, their coat buttoning preferences say something. The CdV is mounted on a maroon card and the photographer was Sawtelle.

I hope you will click through to Sepia Saturday and make the jump to love and romance around the world!

17 thoughts on “Love, Victorian Style

  1. Winston says:

    “Well, you know the Victorians would have never been caught dead kissing so their portraits were, um, rather stiff.”

    What you said made me laugh! Especially when I think of how many Victorians were photographed very stiff– as in dead!


  2. Bob Scotney says:

    Interesting that in all but the first photo it’s the man that’s sitting down.


  3. Little Nell says:

    These are lovely. In the second picture the young man is almost smiling; there’s definitely a twinke in his eye.


  4. Karen S. says:

    Glad you’re back! These couples are all lovely…but even more interesting to me are the backgrounds in so many of these photos…and what they really looked like for the people in the photos…..! Thanks!


  5. postcardy says:

    Knowing something about fashions certainly adds to the interest of the photos. I noticed that all except the first one showed the woman standing. I wonder if they usually stood so the details of the dress would show. Or maybe the dresses were uncomfortable for sitting.


  6. The dresses look horribly uncomfortable, no wonder they are so stiff!


  7. Rosie says:

    My son and his wife must be very Victorian then, they dated for 7 years before they married, I had never seen them kiss until their wedding day, and not since, they have been married for going on 14 years!!


  8. This old photos never let us know how they really felt about each other. Lovely mannequins. We have to hope that after the shot was taken they showed some affection.


  9. IntenseGuy says:

    Sawtelle, was likely E. E. Sawtelle of Biddeford, Maine as he was one of the most prolific CdV dudes…


  10. Hey! This was a great bunch of photos. I did research mens coats and that top button. It is a rule of thumb that the top button was the only button fastened in the late 1870’s to the early 1880’s. Obviously some men chose to button that button before then as is shown in your first photo.

    I enjoyed all the dresses..all so different:)


  11. IntenseGuy says:

    United States Census, 1910 for William Henry Busse
    Birthplace: Germany
    Relationship to Head of Household: Self
    Residence: Council Bluffs Ward 3, Pottawattamie, Iowa
    Marital Status: Married
    Race : White
    Gender: Male
    Immigration Year: 1856
    Father’s Birthplace: Germany
    Mother’s Birthplace: Germany
    Household Gender Age
    William Busse M (1853-1927)
    Spouse Allie Busse F (1868-1926)

    -Mabel (February 1, 1886-April 22, 1952 in Los Angeles) married Joseph Bixler
    —Joseph Oliver Bixler Jr. (January 29, 1909-April 14, 1999 in Mission Viejo) married Gertrude “Ruby” Bixler
    —– Suzanne Bixler (August 9, 1939)

    -Ruby Jane Busse F (September 4, 1889-January 26, 1973) married on February 1, 1923 John Matthew Anglim (September 5, 1884-November 1, 1954)

    -Dolly C Busse F (January 11, 1892-June 21, 1982 in CA) married on September 28, 1914 William Mark Duncan (October 13, 1884-September 4, 1954)
    —William Murray Duncan (December 19, 1916-Feb, 26, 1993 in Fountain Valley, CA) married in July 21, 1945 to Anita June Duncan

    -Raymond Busse M (December 19, 1894-November 15, 1936)


    1. Mrs Marvel says:

      Hold onto this until after the Mearns album is finished. I have some other Busse photos that I found in the same shop.


  12. Martin Lower says:

    The fact that these are so formal makes them seem much older than they really are. The couples in the photo aren’t even looking at each other! I suppose the process of taking the picture led to this sort of style; it’s difficult to hold a smile for long!
    Very informative, thank you.


  13. TICKLEBEAR says:

    enjoyed this informative post!! i always winder if there was any meaning, when the woman is standing and the man is sitting down, if it was a reflection on the couple’s dynamic…


  14. Yes I had the same thought as T-bear. Is there any pattern between the style of pose (seated man+ standing woman vs. the opposite) and the decade? And what was driving the change in photo fashion? I know there were early magazines/journals for photographers but I don’t think many early photographers would bother with these. Perhaps the style of images in catalogs?


  15. Not all their photos are stiff. There is a web site with an unfortunate name….http://fuckyeahvictorians.tumblr.com
    It has photos that range from museum artifacts to stiff portraits to unusual to raunchy. (A few photos make me want to wash my brain). The average victorian was stiff and formal in their everyday photos but there were segments of society that was artistic, or devil may care, or simply removed from the average persons morals…..just like today.


  16. Photo fashions were driven by commerce I think. Do you go to the guy who does the same thing every time for 20 years or do you go to the guy with new backgrounds and colors and props? The photographer is buying his stuff from a supplier who would tell him “this is all the rage and you want your customers to go to you not your competition.”

    Possibly, in the lay out of the photograph, the man standing signifies his higher station. Only one chair so the boss gets it. The wife looks ready to serve. But, I think in reality, a photo with different heights to the subjects is more interesting and usually the ladies dress is more interesting than the mans and it shows up better with her standing. Also, the man is usually taller than the wife, if he stands and she sits there is to much difference in the height.


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