Moon Memes and Fashion Themes: Social Media at the Turn of the 20th Century
The invention of the camera provided individuals with a chance to see a great deal of the world outside of their microcosm, allowed them to share updates of their lives with their family, and provided a visual source of entertainment and activity through the act of collecting portraits of beautiful women, celebrities and pets. While we still rely on photographs to display our world, these aforementioned themes also consumed the lives of Americans during the turn of the 20th century.
Prior to E!, People and Instagram, the favorite pastime of the celebrity-obsessed during the 1860s through the early 1900s was via the carte de visite (Shields). Consumers would frequent large metropolitan photography studios where these photographs were shot and could peruse a large selection of 2.5″ x 4″ card offerings containing images of stage celebrities, prominent political figures, and attractive — albeit untalented — women (“A Brief History”). Accouterments included photo albums in which to display these photos, but another popular form a display was simply attaching to a wall. An 1887 issue of New York’s The Sun reported the account of a welfare worker’s witnessing of this phenomena during her visits to thousands of tenement homes:
“She says the portraits on the bedroom walls and on the bureaus of young working girls are all photographs of pretty actresses… A picture of a pretty actress represents the same of female charms in beauty… fashionable attire, success and popularity…This worship…leads some of these girls to spend hours of their spare time in trying to look like the pictures (9).”
Other women wanted photos taken of themselves in costume similar to their favorite actresses in order to live out a fantasy and further share their moment of fame with friends. In an 1886 issue of the Omaha Daily Bee, a New York photographer commented, “Nearly every one knows how women like to have their pictures taken over and over dozens of times, and when they see a novel style they have to try it. (2).” Similar to today’s Instagram, photographs of actresses and models provided women with fashion and makeup inspiration. Furthermore, women sharing photographs of themselves in costume provided their friends with sartorial desire and further promoted actresses’ fashion trends.
While urbanites fussed over the photographs of the elite, rural citizens of America were just gaining access to the US postal service in 1898 (Morgan, xii). Traveling photographers and carnivals provided isolated people the opportunity to be photographed is exotic “locales” for an affordable price. These photographers took great pains to create popular scenic backdrops of genres spurred by travel and space. Jules Verne’s novels, Georges Méliès’ 1901 film A Trip to the Moon, and multiple moon-themed songs begat crescent moon imagery that became the early photographic meme of the 20th century (Morgan, 3). The analog of Instagram, Goofy photographic postcards of pets, groups of friends and individuals infiltrated the US postal system spreading this imagery across the country.
In an age where we constantly follow celebrities’ mundane musings and friends’ activities 24/7, and where we’re visually submerged, in fashion, celebrity and lifestyle ephemera, it’s easy to forget a time when people were new to each other. The carte de visite gave viewers a glimpse into other areas of life, conveyed messages of friendship, and brought joy to purchasers and recipients around the country.
“A Brief History of the Carte De Visite.” The American Museum of Photography, The American Photography Museum, Inc. 2004, www.photographymuseum.com/histsw.htm.
“A Rather Singular Craze.” Omaha daily bee, 26 May 1886. Chronicling America: Historic American Newspapers. Lib. of Congress. chroniclingamerica.loc.gov/lccn/sn99021999/1886-05-26/ed-1/seq-2 2.
Advertisement for Charles L Ritzman Studio. Broadway Weekly, 11, Feb. 1904, Vol II, No. LIL. Broadcast Weekly Publishing Company.
Morgan, Hal. Prairie Fires and Paper Moons: the American Photographic Postcard, 1900 – 1920. Godine, 1981.
“News of the Theaters.” The Sun [New York], 18 Dec.1887, Chronicling America: Historic American Newspapers. Lib. of Congress. chroniclingamerica.loc.gov/lccn/sn83030272/1887-12-18/ed-1/seq-9p. 9.
Drawing of the Interior of Meade Brothers Photography Gallery. Folder: Photography: Studios, #21583. The Picture Collection. New York Public Library, New York, NY.
Drawing of a Moving Photography Studio. Folder: Photography: Studios. The Picture Collection. New York Public Library, New York, NY.
Photograph of Ann Murdock. The Day Book. (Chicago, Ill.), 05 Oct. 1914, p. 10. Chronicling America: Historic American Newspapers. Lib. of Congress. chroniclingamerica.loc.gov/lccn/sn83045487/1914-10-05/ed-1/seq-10.