Our ancestors were quite proud of their chique winter attire and welcomed the opportunity to have a portrait made wearing expensive new coats and headwear. The indoor “winter” portrait was something of a craze between 1870 and the end of the 19th century, when it became easier to photograph subjects outside, in real snow. But before this became common, photographers offered artifical settings consisting of a painted winter backdrop and falling “snow” which was shaken from an overhead basket by an assistant. The artificial “snow” was usually made from tiny puffs of cotton which would float down realistically. In some cases, epsom salts were used giving the effect of a heavier, icier blizzard. Unfortunately, occasionally asbestos crystals were employed, but thankfully not often. (There were enough hazardous chemicals around photographic studios without the addition of this lethal material.)
In this example, a young couple of the Thornton / Jolley family have been photographed in the J.H. Lemaitre & Company on Yonge Street in Toronto. Lemaitre began using “& Company” in his trade name in about 1877. The subjects are dressed in winter clothing which would have been high fashion from 1885 to 1887, and but less stylish in 1888 and 1889. The woman is wearing a stiff, shelf-like bustle as part of a floating walking dress ensemble (a shorter dress which did not trail on the dirty sidewalks). Her husband is wearing the up-to-date taller derby hat favoured at the time by the urban middle-class and a good quality melton jacket. Wonderful, deep colours were in fashion at the time, and the lady’s winter coat may have been deep red, blue, purple or green. The dark Canadian winter streets were considerably brightened by these brilliant costumes. It is not easy to see, but she is also wearing a fur scarf or “tippet” and carrying an expensive fur muff. Her hat was sometimes called a “Rembrandt” because it was supposed to ressemble the plumed hats from the days of the cavaliers. It would have been anchored to her hair by long pins.
In the 21st century, we are sadly accustomed to Victorian photographs which have deteriorated over time or been damaged by inappropriate storing and/or handling. So often otherwise lovely “cabinets” are pock-marked by leaching of salts or topical contact with chemicals. At a glance, snowy photographs can look like they have been damaged too. If we are not careful, we may overlook these delightful Victorian studio products.