A Forgotten Genre of Photography: The Family in Front of the House in late 19th century U.S.

Get the kids, the horses, the cats and dogs, buggies, tractors, and a painting of grandpa. The photographer is here, and it’s time to gather in front of the house for a family picture.

I first encountered this genre of photograph when I was doing research for my first book, Veneklasen Brick, in 2004.  In my fieldwork research that year, I visited a few hundred Dutch-influenced brick houses in Michigan. A few of this houses had been owned by the same family since they were built, and it was in these houses in particular that I discovered the front-of-the-house family photographs still hanging on the wall.

Front-of-the-house family photographs were popular from the 1880s through the first decade of the 20th century.  In the 1860s and 1870s, Americans went to the photographer’s studio in town to get a picture, a “likeness” as they sometimes called it. But by the 1880s, the reverse was possible: the photographer sometimes came to the family house to take a picture (and yes, a single picture!).

I’m not aware of any study of this kind of photograph, but from my experience in archives, I believe it was common across the United States. I’m familiar with examples from Michigan, West Virginia, Virginia, and the Great Plains.

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A Family on the Plains, in a Sod House, shows their goods

Modern observers of these photographs are often drawn to the poverty, or at least the relative poverty of the people in the images. In reality, however, the front-of-home family photograph was a sign of wealth. It’s function was to record a moment in which a family was prosperous enough to have their own homes, their own horses or tractor. Such photographs indicate that the family had disposable income as well. The late 19th nineteenth century, unfortunately labelled “the Gilded Age”, saw great progress in home construction, rising wages, and increased consumption of goods. As these photographs show, it was an era to celebrate.

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A West Virginia family with a picture of a deceased family member

The photograph of a deceased family member – a photograph within a photograph – suggests the important role that photography had in remembering past generations and in preserving the memory of the current family.

 

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A section of a family photograph in Michigan

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Signs of Wealth in Inwood, WV.  Below the horse is a pig.

This genre of photograph, I believe, was replaced in part by photographs of the family on a picnic with their automobile, an image common to the 1910s and 1920s. Around the turn of the century, middle class Americans could start to afford their own personal cameras.

CarFamily

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