Late nineteenth-century photography required that subjects remain still for around 30 seconds. This is a brief instant for an adult, an agonizing eon for a child, and generally impossible for a baby who doesn’t yet know about time.
In order to make their babies sit still, parents would sit alongside them. But because they didn’t want their parent-y faces to ruin the pictures, they would cover themselves with rugs and drapes and general Grim Reaper garb. The resulting effect is terrifying.
Linda Fregni Nagler has a book about the subject, called The Hidden Mother. She writes that the 1,002 photographs speak to “women’s place in a patriarchal society, where she is figured without an identity of her own.” So sure, in addition to being scary-funny, these photos present a serious reflection of gender roles through history. (A similar theme appears in photographer Patty Carroll’s recent series.)
The Guardian and Twenty Two Words have collected sets of these creepin’ mom pix, as I like to think of them.