A Snapshot of the Past – Historic Photo Albums

Created by former intern, Sarah Bosch.

When Louis Daguerre announced his revolutionary photo developing process in 1837, the nature of photography changed forever.  Less time consuming than previous processes, Daguerreotyping made photography available to the masses.  The popularity of portrait photography exploded among the growing middle class.  Photographers, seeking to capitalize on consumers’ desire for a sophisticated way to display portraits, began to sell photo albums in their studios.

The earliest photo albums were produced in the 1860s and initially were designed with thick leather covers and gilded gold pages.

Early Photo Albums

On the opening page, the family would often record a genealogy tree.  Pictures were mounted on pages with openings cut in an oval shape at the top and in a square shape at the bottom.

These albums generally held 48 photographs.  These included not only photographs of oneself but also those exchanged with family and friends.

Today a family owns many photo albums, but in the 1800s, photo albums could take decades to fill.  An average person added, at most, a few portraits per year.  This meant photo albums made momentous gifts.  Many included inscriptions.

Photo Album Inscription

Through time, the size, designs and materials of photo albums have changed.  Photo albums grew in size from 5”x 6” to 11”x 9”.

Various Photo Albums

Velvet, various metals, glass and mirrors, coupled with embossing, were used to create more elaborate designs, including these examples below:

Elaborate Photo Albums

Produced between 1892 and 1915, celluloid covers would often depict picturesque scenes of the countryside or lovers.

Celluloid Photo Album Covers

Accompanying stands were also developed for optimum display.

Photo Album Stand

Display was the true function of photo albums. They created a more organized and enjoyable way to exhibit photographs.  As the amount of designs grew, the album became more than simply a means of presentation. The photo album became a reflection of its owner, a piece of art and an heirloom in itself.