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c.1895 Musical Photo Album Artifact Highlight #2

This photo album is a feast for the senses. It was donated to our collection in 1951. The cover, made of celluloid, depicts two cherubs in a chariot driven by three butterflies. Orange velvet, or what remains of it, covers the spine and the edges of the back board that rest on a beautifully embossed platform.

According to the donor of the album, which contains no photographs, it was purchased around 1895.

The history of photo albums dates to the origins of photography itself. The flatness of photos and the desire to preserve and share them gave way to the creation of albums that were often produced with ornate leather covers, brass clasps and locks, gilt edgings and other decorations. They became prized possessions, intended to be handed down through the family over many generations.

Before photography, the only way to preserve one’s likeness was to have a portrait painted by an artist, which was expensive. By the mid-1800s, scientists and photographers were experimenting with new and more efficient ways to take and process photographs. Emulsion plates, which replaced the daguerreotypes, were less expensive and could take as little as two seconds of exposure time. This made them very popular with portrait photography, especially since early daguerreotypes had to be exposed to light for at least 15 minutes.

In the 1870s, the invention of dry plates allowed photographers to store images and develop them later. Cameras became smaller and the exposure time decreased. By the late nineteenth century photography was no longer just for the professionals and the wealthy. The improvements in technology and processing as well as inexpensive cameras made by Kodak made photography a favorite pastime.

Today, the ornate photo album has given way to the self-published photobook or the digital album. Printed photos are still in demand, but the convenience of a computer program that organizes images is difficult to give up. Hopefully, the photo album will survive in one form or another.

The last page of this photo album presents a surprise: an insert with a Swiss made music box movement that plays two songs: “Alice, Where Art Thou” and “She May Have Seen Better Days.”