Tag Archives: Victorian

Photographing History

In the first of three blog posts, we examine the use of photographs in historical research and ponders what they tell us and, importantly, what they might not tell us.

Photographs are often used to create memories, record events and enhance remembrance of those events. Common ideas about photographic images are that the camera, a mechanical device which captures an instance in time, never lies; that a photograph can speak a thousand words; and in some cultures it is believed that a photograph steals your soul – that your image is your inner essence.  Historians often use images to illustrate past conditions, to bring the past alive, create empathy and to highlight continuity and change over time. However, photographs are not undiluted images capturing past events as they actually occurred. Since the early days of photography, images have been manipulated.  Photographs can eliminate certain elements while emphasizing others. Photography does more than reflect reality; it also creates and interprets it.  For example, take the photo opportunity used by celebrities and politicians to create and enhance their public image and consider what is included and what is absent from these images.

Photographs capture a particular moment in time which is not necessarily a true representation of the subject’s past or even the event captured. They are our means of commemorating and remembering the past at a specific moment in time and like written records they are produced by individuals for a specific purpose. So we have to consider what they highlight and also what they omit. We also have to think about not only what the photograph shows, but also where and when the photograph was taken and by whom. Take for example these Cartes de Visite which are dated from the 1880s to the 1890s.



See more of our cartes de visite here.

In the Victorian and Edwardian period these images were used as visiting cards. They were fashionable and with new technology in photography reducing the cost of production they became accessible to working-class people as well as the wealthy. They were produced in large quantities by professional photographers, particularly between 1860 and 1900. They were not high art, but a provided a likeness of the sitter that could be produced inexpensively and were generally sold by the dozen. At a time when the cost of a camera and film development was out of the range of many working people, they could obtain twelve of the card images for as little as 6d. They then placed these cards on the hall tables of family and friends whom they visited or else sent them from other destinations within Britain and overseas. The images were collected and displayed publicly making these the equivalent of an early form of the social media ‘following’ used today. While people in the past did not ‘follow’ each other on Facebook or Twitter they did interact through these cartes de visite.

However these are only a snapshot as the images are all posed. They were all taken in studios with particular furniture and decor used to enhance the picture which often bore no relation to the living conditions of those they portrayed. The people being photographed were often wearing the only smart outfit that they owned and had obviously taken time to enhance their appearance for public consumption and memorabilia.  The images above are from our own scanned collection of visiting cards covering the late 19th century and early 20th. The vast majority are of working-class Scots.

Occasionally, these cartes de visite were also an amusing snapshot of time, place and personality, as in this late 19th century image sent from India to a Scottish family. Many photographs from the Victorian period are either intensely sober and, occasionally,  bizarre but the little boy on roller skates hints at mischief and a keen sense of humour.


In our next blog post we will examine photographic representations of family and masculinity.

What is in a name?

At the end of last year, the Registrar-General for Scotland published the most popular baby names in Scotland. For the ninth year in a row, Sophie topped the list for girls, and for the sixth year in a row, Jack was the most popular boys’ name. On one hand, the most popular names show a tendency to convention: the Registrar General’s Office note that the top 50 boys names account for 42% of first names for boys registered in 2013, while the top 50 names account for 40% of birth registrations for girls. On the other hand, the popularity of names tend to be historically specific. While most readers can probably think of a cute little Sophie or Jack in their circle of acquaintance, they might be hard pressed to think of little Agnes or Euphemia (popular in 1900), Dennis, Brian or Maureen (popular in 1950); Tracey, Deborah or Gary (popular in 1975).

Euphemia & Guinness?
Euphemia & Guinness?

There are also a far wider range of names used today, and not only because registrars have become more permissive. In 2013, there were over 7 400 unique first names registered, compared to 4800 in 1900. One might speculate that the internet and global culture have widened people’s horizons, just as immigration and international travel have increased the linguistic possibilities. But it is also the case that tradition plays a smaller role today: the old Scottish naming patterns have all but died out. Gone are the days when the first born son would be named after the paternal grandfather, the firstborn daughter after the maternal grandmother and so on. Parents today are far less constrained in their choices, but for the full joy of their creativity, we need to wait for the unabridged list of all 7400 first names to be published in March.

Looking at our own sample from the 1881 census, tradition played a more obvious role in the rural setting, and immigration in the urban setting. In Aberdeenshire, almost three quarters of the men (73%) had William, James, John, Alexander or George as their first given name out of a total of 65 different first names used. In Govan, there was a greater variety of first names used (114) and the top five male names listed in the 1881 census (John, James, William, Robert and Patrick) made up just over half of the sample (51%). The popularity of Patrick in Govan reflects the Irish population in the area at the time. There is also an eight year old boy of Irish parentage apparently called Guinness, which is possibly a tribute to the popularity of the beer of the same name. This Irish stout was increasingly popular in Britain from the late 1860s. In 1875, some 750,000 barrels were exported to Britain rising to 1.2 million barrels by 1886.[1]

In the female sample, there was also a greater variety of first names in the urban setting. 115 different first names were held by women in Govan in 1881 compared to 81 in Aberdeenshire. However, the tendency for a handful of these to make up a large proportion of the sample remained.  In the 1881 Govan census, the most popular five female names (Mary, Margaret, Elizabeth, Jane and Anne) accounted for just under half the female sample (49.8%). In rural Aberdeenshire, the five most popular first names (Margaret, Mary, Jane, Elizabeth and Anne) accounted for a little more than half of female first names (56%). In neither sample is a person named after the reigning monarch, Victoria. In both samples, there are examples of women holding what would be traditionally seen as male names (Erskine, Maxwell) or surnames (Brunton) as first names. There were also more unusual names in the female sample, including Thirza, which is a traditional Hebrew name, and Pheney, a name we could find no meaning or explanation for.

Obviously, the census provides a snapshot of a population across a full range of ages, whereas the published lists from the Registrar-General’s Office highlight trends in naming patterns of babies in any given year. Nonetheless, one might tentatively suggest that this quick analysis shows a fairly static pattern of names in late 19th century Scotland. A few first names accounted for a large proportion of the sample, and while there were a greater variety of given names in the urban setting, the overall number of first names was relatively small. Finally, despite the popularity of Jack and Sophie today, Jack does not feature in either the Govan or the Aberdeenshire sample, and there is only one Sophie. It would therefore be foolhardy to even guess what the most popular first names in a century’s time will be.

[1] Scottish Brewing Archive, University of Glasgow http://www.archives.gla.ac.uk/sba/sbacolls/ags.html