Girls in the museum – 19th century

A young Maori woman or girl, Cambridge, circa 1882, William Henry Neal. Purchased 2005. Te Papa

A selection of photographs of girls taken in New Zealand during the nineteenth century from Te Papa’s photography collection in honour of International Girl Day. Most of the photographs featured are carte-de-visite cards and are not much bigger than they appear in this blog. All the girls in these photographs were born over 120 years ago.

Two girls, 1883, Wellington. Phillips & Pollard. Purchased 1999 with New Zealand Lottery Grants Board funds. Te Papa

The girls in the next photograph are the only ones whose names we know – the Misses Swanson taken in Auckland in the 1860s or 1870s. For the rest we only know the photographers and the towns they worked in: Cambridge, Milton, Napier, Wellington, Auckland, Dunedin, Thames and Christchurch.

Two Maori girls (The Misses Swanson?), 1869-76, New Zealand. American Photographic Company (Auckland). Purchased 1999 with New Zealand Lottery Grants Board funds. Te Papa

Girl with lilies, circa 1890, Wellington. New Zealand Photographic Company. Te Papa

While none of these photographs are snapshots (they took time to set up and make), most of them seem to capture a spirit of simple involvement in the art of photography by the girls. Their postures are casual and they generally stare straight back at the camera. Any fussy clothing and props seem to fulfil the needs of adults outside the image.

Two little girls, 1870s, Milton. Colan Nicholas. Purchased 1999 with New Zealand Lottery Grants Board funds. Te Papa

Girl with parasol, cloak and crown, 1880s, Napier. Charles Sorrell. Purchased 2011. Te Papa

Girl with blue headband, 1860s, Dunedin. Burton Brothers. Purchased 1999 with New Zealand Lottery Grants Board funds. Te Papa

In many ways these girls were lucky to be in front of the camera. These photographs were made at a time when photographic negatives and papers were made by hand and many studios employed girls to work in their back rooms. Girls were favoured for the job of coating papers with the chemicals that enabled the development of images because their work was considered more light handed than men so their coatings were more successful. One description of a 19th century British studio describes their back rooms in factory-like terms with whole families employed in the production of photographic materials for the studio to use. The stories and personalities of those who worked in the back rooms of studios forms an invisible part of the history of photography.

Two girls, circa 1880, Thames. Foy Brothers. Te Papa

Girl with book, 1865-70, Milton. Colan Nicholas. Purchased 1999 with New Zealand Lottery Grants Board funds. Te Papa

The photograph below, a group portrait, appears to be of an all girl primary school group. However with no information, other than that it was taken by a Wellington photographer, it is hard to know for certain what kind of group it was, although the man in the photograph appears to be a teacher. Little has changed about how people are arranged and posed for class photographs since the 1880s.

Class photo, 1879-1884, Wellington. Charles Sorrell. Purchased 1999 with New Zealand Lottery Grants Board funds. Te Papa

The photographs of the European girls were taken by professional photographers for people who wanted them for personal reasons (the motives behind the photographs of the Maori girls are less clear). They were taken before a time when everybody could have their own camera and make pictures. Who the girls were would have been so obvious to the owners of the photographs that they never wrote names and dates on them. These photographs were made as a way of remembering the childhoods of these girls. Ironically, the outcome of this familiarity of the subjects has meant who they were is now lost.

Little girl, Christchurch, 1880s, John Spiller. Purchased 1999 with New Zealand Lottery Grants Board funds. Te Papa

The last photograph is the most lost. The lack of information about where it was taken, who it was taken by or who it is of – combined with the fading of the print makes the girl more of a mystery and her presence start to seem ghostly. How we identify the people in our digital photos so that the names and dates will remain attached to the files into the future is our challenge.

Small child, 1870s, New Zealand. Maker unknown. Purchased 1999 with New Zealand Lottery Grants Board funds. Te Papa

There are many more photographs of girls in Te Papa’s photography collection.

Girls in the Museum events take place on Saturday 12th October from 1-4.30pm at Te Papa.

2 Responses

  1. Lynley

    Sorry, it **looks ** to me…

    Reply
  2. Lynley

    Fascinating! With regard to the class photo, it los to me like there is one boy and possibly two – second from right in row 2, and centre back row. They have shorter haircuts and also different collars. It might also be a sunday school photo, perhaps. Hope someone can shed some light on it.
    Excellent point about digital photos, too. Print is a more permanent medium. I wonder if we will leave any books or photos for later generations to puzzle over.

    Reply

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