Order, Assembly, and Display: Photographs in the Victorian Parlor

Standing tall and peering solemnly into the camera, a woman positions herself in a parlor filled with images: framed, unframed, hung, posed on a side table, and most curiously, suspended in a large, collage-like assemblage directly on the wall. This untitled photograph from the Joseph Downs Collection (below) was likely captured around 1890, at a point when photography had been commonplace for nearly fifty years. As novelty gave way to ubiquity, the middle class American household became flooded with images in a variety of formats.

Lady in a Parlor, c. 1890.  Photograph mounted on board.  Winterthur Library, Joseph Downs Collection Col. 182, 98×126-15.

Though it is unclear exactly how the assemblage is mounted, a thin bar at its base suggests the only support, upon which each photograph is tucked into the one before it. Filled with a variety of subjects and compositions, the assemblage reflects the Victorian trend of collecting images of individuals within one’s social circle, as well as of popular figures and famous vistas. With the rise of commercial photography studios, middle class consumers could not only afford to envision themselves through portraiture, but to have their likeness captured often and reliably. During the 1860s, the 2 x 4” carte de visite became a wildly popular format for ordering durable prints in multiple. At a price of approximately $1.50 – 3.50 per dozen, customers could afford to purchase multiples to distribute to friends and family.[1] The later 6 ½ x 4 ½” cabinet card, likely what we see in this assemblage, employed the same concept, with the added feature of utilizing more “artful” photographic effects. Capitalizing on this phenomenon, printers also profited by selling images of notable individuals and landmarks. In this sense, the photograph card was a democratizing force, using the same medium for both the celebrity and the everyman.[2]

Photograph Album, c. 1860-1890.  Wood pulp paper with embossed leather cover.  Winterthur Library, Joseph Downs Collection, Doc. 488.

As more photographic images came into circulation, naturally, the question of how to display them arose. One solution was the photo album, much like one belonging to Ms. Louisa Scherffius also found in the Downs Collection (above). It contains pre-cut slots for both small and large format images, thus, it was likely produced to accommodate the transitioning popularity of the carte de visite to the cabinet card. At the time of its assemblage, the owner had enough carte de visites to populate the allotted slots, but not nearly enough cabinet cards. Instead, she purchased mass-produced cards featuring historical figures such as Napoleon and James Garfield. The concept of visual order became a key concept in managing one’s collection. Like Ms. Scherffius, collectors could create a narrative by bookending their family photos with uplifting or religious images.[3]

This same process of collecting, sorting and grouping photographs can be seen in the Downs Collection photograph. Photograph assemblage was as much an act of recording genealogy as it was to express a sense of the order and hierarchy within one’s social circle. It reinforced the stories a family wished to tell about themselves through visual taxonomy, while also delineating the parameters of the family unit. By the end of the century, the family album had become an essential component to the proper middle class parlor, acting as the force which would visually and figuratively inform guests about the household they had stepped into.[4] The assemblage of photographs in the Downs’ Collection photograph embodies this same practice of ordering and displaying a web of personal relationships within the semi-public sphere, in a manner that was both controlled and edited by the collector.


By Lan Morgan, WPAMC Class of 2017


This post is part of a series written in the fall of 2016 for a Historic Interiors class at Winterthur.  Students explored photographs housed in the miscellaneous photograph collection (Collection 182) in the Winterthur Library’s Joseph Downs Collection. These scenes each reveal a treasure trove of objects that invite further examination, speculation, and connections to other Winterthur collections.



[1] Susan Ruth Finkel, “Victorian Photography and Carte De Visite Albums, 1860-1880” (Master’s thesis, Winterthur, University of Delaware, 1984), 13.

[2] Peter Hamilton and Roger Hargreaves, The Beautiful and the Damned: The Creation of Identity in Nineteenth Century Photography (Aldershot, Hampshire: Lund Humphries, 2001), 47.

[3] Finkel, 63.

[4] Elizabeth Siegel, Galleries of Friendship and Fame: A History of Nineteenth-century American Photograph Albums (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2010), 87.


Further Reading:

Carline, Richard. Pictures in the Post: The Story of the Picture Postcard. Bedford: Gordon Fraser, 1959.

Finkel, Susan Ruth. “Victorian Photography and Carte De Visite Albums, 1860-1880.” Master’s thesis, Winterthur, University of Delaware, 1984.

Hamilton, Peter, and Roger Hargreaves. The Beautiful and the Damned: The Creation of Identity in Nineteenth Century Photography. Aldershot, Hampshire: Lund Humphries, 2001.

Hannavy, John. Case Histories: The Packaging and Presentation of the Photographic Portrait in Victorian Britain 1840-1875. Woodbridge, Suffolk: Antique Collectors’ Club, 2005.

Siegel, Elizabeth. Galleries of Friendship and Fame: A History of Nineteenth-century American Photograph Albums. New Haven: Yale University Press, 2010.

Stewart, Susan. On Longing: Narratives of the Miniature, the Gigantic, the Souvenir, the Collection. Durham: Duke University Press, 1993.

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