Once upon a bygone century, any Victorian home above a certain level of prosperity possessed a parlor. The parlor served as a place to entertain guests, and was sometimes completely locked away from the rest of the family on non-guest days. The parlor was not just a spot for entertainment and refreshment, see: it was a showcase. Photographs of parlors at the height of the Victorian era shows them chock full of STUFF: embroidered pillows from your last vacation out of town, the piano, framed samplers, lace antimacassars, expensive and uncomfortable horsehair sofas: it was a way of reinforcing to the guests how well you were doing.
As an adjunct to this, you had a certain number of what we might now call advertising brochures, but which the family called “albums”. You had your autograph album, showing what famous people had stopped by, your phonograph album (no joke: Thomas Edison thought his invention would take the place of the autograph album as you replaced written mementos with home-recorded ones), and, of course, the family photo album. To a great extent, y’see, the phrase “family business” was redundant: a family WAS a business. The album was a chance to show off expensive wedding pictures (successful mergers), your extensive network of in-laws and cousins (branch offices), and your darling children (new products, available to good home with references and the right price.) This is why people who brought disgrace to the family were removed from the family album. (“Never heard of him; he must be related to that family down in Ryan that’s got a similar last name.”)
Like many other Victorian customs, these albums were a joy for humorists of that era and the decades which followed it. Here are two cards from a series that showed the family photos entirely too much as they actually were, with the narration by the proud parent turning the pages of the album.
A wildly popular theme in postcards was the sort of family montage, putting the whole family’s worth pf photos into one shot without the necessity of turning pages to see each picture. Here you could show your whole Damm Family.
Or, if you came from the downstate branch, your whole Dam Family.
Part of the fun in this series, exercised to differing degrees by cartoonists of differing ingenuity, was making up the names of your kinfolk, always suitable to the last name thereof.
This could extend to mocking other people’s families, of course, as in this widely-copied gag (the number of sisters in the picture depends on how many pseudo-Asian names the cartoonist could think up to fit the pictures.)
As time went by, other sorts of family pictures needed to be taken into account. This later tale mocks the family vacation photo, with names suitable to a theme once again.
One would like to know what one of these artists would make of today’s family albums, which may include thousands of pictures, but which are contained on a phone or in a file on the Cloud. Perhaps it would not have made a difference, since, in whatever form your album takes, you must in some manner turn from the picture before your eye to the next one.
Yeah, some things have change, but we’re still making asses of ourselves over family photos.