Photography History Portrait Photography

Early Photography and the Elderly

The invention of photography leads indirectly to the modern world of genealogy, starting with getting photos done of older relatives. Here are the details.

Photography has only been around for about 175 years. In the grand scheme of the human race, that makes it a relatively recent invention. We don’t have any photographs from before 1839, and photos remained relatively rare throughout the 1840s. This rarity was mainly due to the expense of having a photo taken back then, and the relative scarcity of photography studios. As it was a new technology, only a small number of people knew how to do it at first, and they tended to set up their studios in large cities, where they could get the most number of customers. Early photography wasn’t really available to the poor or rural population. On the rare occasion, someone from either of these demographics got their photo taken during this period, it was because they’d saved up for it for a special occasion and/or made a rare trip into the nearest big city to visit relatives or get supplies.

Still, those who had access to photography embraced it… if they were of the younger generation. It was people in their teens through ’40s who showed the most interest in photography when it was first invented, and they used it with gusto. First, it was an interesting technological novelty. Then, it became a way of preserving images of the family without the expense and lesser accuracy of getting a painted portrait done. The older generation didn’t show much interest in photography at first. They grew up without it and had no photographs of their parents, grandparents, or older ancestors, so they didn’t see the point of it. Older people rarely went to photography studios on their own in those days.

However, their younger relatives often brought them to get their photographs done, whether the older people really wanted to do it or not. This was because the younger generation realized an opportunity to get images of their older relatives while they were still alive and preserve the real-life likenesses of a diminishing generation. This was the generation who participated in the American Revolution. Younger Americans, understandably, believed images of people who lived through the Revolution or participated in it in some way, were worth preserving, both for their historical and familial importance. This started a trend of photographs of elderly people wearing the traditional clothes of their younger days, or even their old war uniforms, and it was their younger family members who got them into the early photography studios to get these pictures made.

If you’ve ever seen a photograph of an elderly person from the 1840s or 1850s, chances are they don’t look too interested in the proceedings. Photographs of younger people of this time were a bit more lively. While smiling in photographs for anyone was still a while away, due to the amount of time a person had to sit still to get a clear photographic image, there is a noticeable difference between the attitude of older people and younger people in these early photographs.

Those who could afford it and were near a photography studio recognized the importance of bringing in their elderly relatives, so an image of them could be preserved for their family’s genealogical record. It’s usually the younger generation who embraces a new technology first, and the same thing was true with later inventions like the telephone, electricity in the home, and television. With the trend of younger family members getting images of older relatives from a generation gone by preserved for posterity, it is no wonder that the modern interest in genealogy seemed to begin around that time, too. Deeply researched books on the genealogy of certain families were published during this time, county histories that allowed people to pay to preserve the story of their lives and their ancestry became popular, and lineage and genealogy societies were formed. The oldest genealogy society in the United States, The New England Historic Genealogical Society was founded in 1845, right during the early era of photography.

It isn’t a coincidence. Photography started a new interest in genealogy that continues to this day. If it wasn’t for the magic of photographs, and the realization of the younger generation of the importance of preserving the images of their elders, the world of genealogy may look quite different today.

About the author

Will Moneymaker

Will has been creating photographs and exploring his surroundings through his lens since 2000. Follow along as he shares his thoughts and adventures in photography.