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Among my tiny books is this little album from the nineteenth century. It’s filled with over twenty portraits of the members of a very large family. Among collectors, these are called “Gem Albums” or “Fairy Gems.”


I enjoy owning things that other people have used and loved, but something as intimate as a photo album is different. One almost feels an intruder. And yet, if I had been the owner of this little volume, I would have liked the idea of some person in the distant future keeping it safe and pondering the faces within from time to time. Every single person in the album is long dead, and yet their images remain.


This might be my favorite image. The little girl looks very forthright and gazes directly into the camera. Who knew that little girls in the late nineteenth century were allowed to wear earring?

Whoever owned this album filled every single page. Each image is less than one inch high, and they are very difficult to photograph with an iPhone!


I’m sure this belonged to a woman. It’s the perfect size for carrying in a handbag.

There is something ghostly about many of the images. I think they are tintypes, made on thin sheets of metal. Tintypes were most popular in the 1860s and 70s, which fits the costumes and hairstyles in these photos.


The dark background on this one is different from the others. It looks funereal and mysterious.

Back then people did not smile when having their portrait taken. I read that this was because in the early days of photography, one had to sit still for several minutes, and it was difficult to hold a smile. Furthermore, many people had bad teeth. And finally, having a photograph taken was a formal occasion that called for a serious expression. Smiling did not become common until the twentieth century.


My heart goes out to this unsmiling girl with her curly, out-of-control hair!

The girls wear dresses in plaid fabrics with the high necklines of the period. The oldest woman wears what looks like a mourning dress with matching headgear. Perhaps this was her album.


The mama of all these children?


The patriarch of the family? Look at that face!

The collection includes two relatively youthful but full-grown men, including this fellow with beard but no mustache–an unattractive but popular style.


The photographer added color to several of the tintypes, giving the subjects pink cheeks.


The title page. Interestingly there is no ownership inscription. The album has a brass clasp, which is a nice touch.

Two more boys, both handsome fellows who look like brothers, yet brothers with very different personalities.


The mischievous one…


And the serious one?

Another favorite is this young girl with a Mona Lisa smile. I hope she had a happy life. And I’m glad I was not born in the nineteenth century.


Looking up the publisher of these albums, I discovered a similar example for sale online at $479. No, I didn’t pay that much!!


It really is a little gem.