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7 Photographic Tricks, Hoaxes, and Fads Before Photoshop

This is the second installment in a short series of articles on photo manipulation in the days before computers. The first explained how photo retouching worked before Photoshop.

You know the old cliché: The camera doesn’t lie. But that wasn’t true even before computers made it possible to alter reality with the click of a mouse. As soon as photography came onto the scene—offering an unprecedented opportunity to record the world—people figured out how to use this new technology to distort the world for fun and profit. Read on to discover some favorite photographic tricks from the 19th and early 20th centuries.

1. SPIRIT PHOTOGRAPHY

“John K. Hallowell and fifteen other faces” by S.W. Fallis (1901) // Image credit: Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division

 
In 1862, a jewelry engraver in Boston named William H. Mumler “discovered” his ability to photograph the spirits of dead people. Thanks to the rise of Spiritualism—a religious movement premised on the belief that the dead communicate with the living—and the high death toll of the Civil War, Mumler soon found his “talent” in high demand. Clients would come to his studio to be photographed, and when the portrait was developed, alongside the client would be the spirit of a deceased relative, friend, or other person with whom the sitter felt a strong affinity. Even the spirits of deceased famous people, like Beethoven, were known to be captured on film. A number of prominent living people also sat for Mumler, including Mary Todd Lincoln, Henry Wilson (Ulysses S. Grant’s vice president), and the abolitionist William Lloyd Garrison.

Bronson Murray by William H. Mumler (1862-1875) // Image credit: Getty Open Content Program

 
Mumler was accused of fraud by the State of New York in 1869. His trial was covered on the front page of Harper’s Weekly and in newspapers and magazines around the country, largely ruining his reputation, though he was ultimately acquitted. But by the time of Mumler’s trial, a host of other “spirit photographers” had taken up the trade in the United States and Europe, and the practice retained its believers through the 1920s, experiencing a resurgence in popularity following World War I. Meanwhile, books and magazines about photography offered instructions for non-believers on how to produce their own “ghost” photographs.

“Room Shot with Ghost Photography.” Image credit: A. Parzer-Mühlbacher via Photographisches Unterhaltungsbuch (1905)

 

2. DOUBLING (OR TRIPLING, OR QUADRUPLING …)

 

Little girl taking her own picture. Image credit: R.H. Anthony via Trick Photography: A Handbook (1906)

 
One of the simplest and most popular photographic tricks from the 19th century was the doppelgänger portrait. Photographers could splice together multiple negatives to show the same person several times in a single photograph, but that was a rather crude method. Most photographers used a duplicator—a device that allowed for one section of a negative to be exposed while the rest remained unexposed. Popular Mechanics explained, “The principle of the duplicator is this: Placed over the lens, with the straight edge of the opening perpendicular, it cuts off from use the greater part of the lens. The part that is left throws an image on the sensitive plate which is just about half of what is actually in front of the camera, within the field of view. As the duplicator can be reversed by revolving it, it is obvious that both halves of the view can be taken, one at a time, and that during the exposure of one half, nothing is being taken in the other half.” This technique often left a telltale vertical line along the center of the image—a fuzzy stripe separating the two exposures.

The possibilities offered by the duplicator were endless. Camera Magazine enthused, “Men can be shown boxing, fencing, arguing, etc.; and, if careful note were taken of the subject in the two poses, it would be possible to give a view of a man actually stabbing himself, with the knife apparently buried in his chest.”

Magic: Stage Illusions and Scientific Diversions, Including Trick Photography (1897) 

Victor Bracq via Photographischer Zeitvertreib (1903)

 
“Those who object—as the ladies probably will—to such realistic pictures, may find entertainment in portraying games of chess or cards in duplicate,” Camera Magazine suggested.

“Playing chess with himself, and looking on at the game." Image credit: Col. A.C.M. Pennington via Anthony’s Photographic Bulletin (1887)

 
For whatever reason, a popular setup for doppelgänger portraits involved the subject pulling him- or herself in a wheelbarrow. 

“Frank Bonds wheeling himself in wheelbarrow." Image credit: Ford Hand (1909) via University of Washington Libraries on Flickr

 
Mirrors also offered an incredibly simple means of repeating the same person’s image within a picture. Two mirrors set at a 75-degree angle produced five views of the sitter in a single portrait—without any retouching necessary. 

 Mirror portrait of young girl. Image credit: V. Whitbeck via oakenroad on Flickr // CC BY 2.0

 

3. DECAPITATION

Trick photo, decapitated man with bloody knife holding his head, circa 1875. Image credit: George Eastman House via Flickr

 
According to Mia Fineman, an assistant curator of photography at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, the Victorian and Edwardian enthusiasm for faux decapitation was likely inspired by stage magic. During her research for a 2012 exhibit on photo manipulation before computers, Fineman told PBS, “I discovered a connection between trick photography and stage magic, which was the most popular form of mass entertainment in the late 19th century. Stage magicians often performed illusions featuring decapitation and ‘talking heads,’ and this motif was quickly picked up by photographers, both professional and amateur. Fake decapitation was the LOLcats of the 19th century.”

“Dr. H.S. Lynn, magician” by Davies & Co., Melbourne, Victoria, Australia (1863). Image credit: State Library of Victoria, Australia 

 
Performing in Australia in 1863, the British magician Dr. H.S. Lynn—then going by the name Professor Washington Simmons—used the above photograph to advertise his illusion the “Lost Head.” He accomplished this illusion by performing in front of a black background and covering with black cloth whatever he wanted to appear invisible to the audience. Called Black Art, this stage magic technique worked the same way as black background photography, which in the 1890s became the favored method for producing many photographic tricks, including decapitations.

“The Head in the Hat” by A. Parzer-Mühlbacher via Photographisches Unterhaltungsbuch (1905)

 

4. TWO-HEADED PORTRAITS

Trick photograph of man with two heads (1901). Image credit: Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division

 
Like a photograph showing a man playing cards with himself, a double-headed portrait could be easily created with the use of a duplicator. W. Butcher and Sons even sold a camera with a built-in duplicator, which they advertised with the image of a two-headed woman.

Ad for "Craven" camera featuring two-headed woman. Image credit:Trick Photography: A Handbook, 1906

 

5. PERSON IN A BOTTLE

Man in bottle. Image credit: Trick Photography: A Handbook (1906)

 
“One of the most amusing tricks is to produce the photograph of a bottle in which stands a human being,” columnist Richard Penlake wrote in the February 1909 issue of Photographic Topics. Penlake was not alone in thinking so. In 1897, a book about stage magic and photographic illusions instructed readers how to achieve what the author called “the most curious illusion of all” by masking a negative for double exposure, with the person and the bottle photographed in sequence front of a black background.

“How did the boy get into the bottle!” Image credit: Frank Grafton, The Guide to Nature (1914)

 

6. TURN A PERSON INTO A STATUE

“Cabinet card of a bust of a young woman, c.1895” by Bond & Co. Image credit: State Library of South Australia on Flickr // CC BY 2.0

 
One odd trend involved transforming a person into a statue by etching and retouching the portrait negative. To capture the most stone-like photo, The Year-Book of Photography and Photographic News Almanac advised in 1885, “The hair must of course be powdered, and doubtless a powder puff applied to the face is advantageous to give the portrait its alabaster appearance.” The subject would then be photographed posing behind a pedestal or a piece of cardboard painted to look like a pedestal. Alternately, the photographer could layer a negative of a pedestal over the negative of the person to achieve a similar effect before scraping off the undesirable parts of the image.

Woman into statue, before and after. Image credit: Trick Photography: A Handbook (1906)

 
While women are the subjects in most examples I’ve found of this trend, the occasional man was also game to see himself in statue form. 

 

7. PORTRAIT AS A MUMMY

Strommeyer & Heymann cabinet card (circa 1885). Image credit: josefnovak33’s Flickr

 
In the late 19th century, European expatriate photographers in Cairo began to offer novelty portraits with the subject posed in a sarcophagus with only his or her face showing. New York World reported in 1899 that every “enterprising” Cairo photographer produced these portraits “for his American patrons,” as “The mummy pictures are considered graceful and appropriate souvenirs of a trip to Egypt to present on returning to the friends at home.” But Americans weren’t the only ones eager for these souvenirs: The Archduke Franz Ferdinand (yes, that Archduke Franz Ferdinand) posed as a mummy during his 1896 trip to Egypt. 

Portrait of Archduke Franz Ferdinand seemingly by Heymann & Co. (1896) // Image credit: Courtesy Artstetten Castle, Lower Austria

 
According to British and American media coverage of the trend, photographers in Cairo used actual sarcophagi to create the portraits, “a hole sufficiently large for the face to show through having previously been cut in the richly-decorated monumental case,” reported the Yorkshire Telegraph and Star in 1899. The paper noted, however, that “Ingenious photographers vary the picture by obtaining a photograph of a mummy,” and some likely used prop versions of the cases. Once the trend reached New York—thanks to the influence of a wealthy society lady named Mrs. James P. Kernochan, who popularized the idea in 1899 after a trip to Cairo—photographers would either superimpose the subject’s face onto a photo of the mummy, or pose sitters inside a life-size cutout of a sarcophagus. Models of the sphinx were also popular. 

James Deering and Abby Deering Howe, c.1880s, taken in Cairo, seemingly by Heymann & Co. // Image credit: Courtesy Vizcaya Museum and Gardens Archives, Miami, Florida

 
Mummy pictures trended in two waves, one in the 1890s and one around 1908. The first wave popularized sarcophagus pictures in both Paris and New York, with the New York World reporting that young women were “finding amusement in replying to requests from amorous swains for their photographs by presenting them with a mummy picture. […] The feelings of the lover may be imagined when he is unexpectedly confronted with the features of his beloved enshrouded in the antique habiliments of death.” In 1908, the trend experienced a resurgence in Egypt and London, with young women supporting the fad in Britain as they had in New York a decade earlier. After all, according to The Philadelphia Enquirer, “[T]he coarse lines of the mummy case and the crude hieroglyphics thereon, serve to accentuate the pretty lines of the girl’s face.” 

 

 

 

 

 

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Big Questions
Why Do the Lions and Cowboys Always Play on Thanksgiving?
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Because it's tradition! But how did this tradition begin?

Every year since 1934, the Detroit Lions have taken the field for a Thanksgiving game, no matter how bad their record has been. It all goes back to when the Lions were still a fairly young franchise. The team started in 1929 in Portsmouth, Ohio, as the Spartans. Portsmouth, while surely a lovely town, wasn't quite big enough to support a pro team in the young NFL. Detroit radio station owner George A. Richards bought the Spartans and moved the team to Detroit in 1934.

Although Richards's new squad was a solid team, they were playing second fiddle in Detroit to the Hank Greenberg-led Tigers, who had gone 101-53 to win the 1934 American League Pennant. In the early weeks of the 1934 season, the biggest crowd the Lions could draw for a game was a relatively paltry 15,000. Desperate for a marketing trick to get Detroit excited about its fledgling football franchise, Richards hit on the idea of playing a game on Thanksgiving. Since Richards's WJR was one of the bigger radio stations in the country, he had considerable clout with his network and convinced NBC to broadcast a Thanksgiving game on 94 stations nationwide.

The move worked brilliantly. The undefeated Chicago Bears rolled into town as defending NFL champions, and since the Lions had only one loss, the winner of the first Thanksgiving game would take the NFL's Western Division. The Lions not only sold out their 26,000-seat stadium, they also had to turn fans away at the gate. Even though the juggernaut Bears won that game, the tradition took hold, and the Lions have been playing on Thanksgiving ever since.

This year, the Lions host the Minnesota Vikings.

HOW 'BOUT THEM COWBOYS?


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The Cowboys, too, jumped on the opportunity to play on Thanksgiving as an extra little bump for their popularity. When the chance to take the field on Thanksgiving arose in 1966, it might not have been a huge benefit for the Cowboys. Sure, the Lions had filled their stadium for their Thanksgiving games, but that was no assurance that Texans would warm to holiday football so quickly.

Cowboys general manager Tex Schramm, though, was something of a marketing genius; among his other achievements was the creation of the Dallas Cowboys Cheerleaders.

Schramm saw the Thanksgiving Day game as a great way to get the team some national publicity even as it struggled under young head coach Tom Landry. Schramm signed the Cowboys up for the game even though the NFL was worried that the fans might just not show up—the league guaranteed the team a certain gate revenue in case nobody bought tickets. But the fans showed up in droves, and the team broke its attendance record as 80,259 crammed into the Cotton Bowl. The Cowboys beat the Cleveland Browns 26-14 that day, and a second Thanksgiving pigskin tradition caught hold. Since 1966, the Cowboys have missed having Thanksgiving games only twice.

Dallas will take on the Los Angeles Chargers on Thursday.

WHAT'S WITH THE NIGHT GAME?


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In 2006, because 6-plus hours of holiday football was not sufficient, the NFL added a third game to the Thanksgiving lineup. This game is not assigned to a specific franchise—this year, the Washington Redskins will welcome the New York Giants.

Re-running this 2008 article a few days before the games is our Thanksgiving tradition.

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Why Your Traditional Thanksgiving Should Include Oysters
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If you want to throw a really traditional Thanksgiving dinner, you’ll need oysters. The mollusks would have been featured prominently on the holiday tables of the earliest American settlers—even if that beloved Thanksgiving turkey probably wasn’t. At the time, oysters were supremely popular additions to the table for coastal colonial settlements, though in some cases, they were seen as a hardship food more than a delicacy.

For one thing, oysters were an easy food source. In the Chesapeake Bay, they were so plentiful in the 17th and 18th centuries that ships had to be careful not to run aground on oyster beds, and one visitor in 1702 wrote that they could be pulled up with only a pair of tongs. Native Americans, too, ate plenty of oysters, occasionally harvesting them and feasting for days.

Early colonists ate so many oysters that the population of the mollusks dwindled to dangerously low levels by the 19th century, according to curriculum prepared by a Gettysburg University history professor. In these years, scarcity turned oysters into a luxury item for the wealthy, a situation that prevailed until the 1880s, when oyster production skyrocketed and prices dropped again [PDF]. If you lived on the coast, though, you were probably still downing the bivalves.

Beginning in the 1840s, canning and railroads brought the mollusks to inland regions. According to 1985's The Celebrated Oysterhouse Cookbook, the middle of the 19th century found America in a “great oyster craze,” where “no evening of pleasure was complete without oysters; no host worthy of the name failed to serve 'the luscious bivalves,' as they were actually called, to his guests.”

At the turn of the century, oysters were still a Thanksgiving standard. They were on Thanksgiving menus everywhere from New York City's Plaza Hotel to train dining cars, in the form of soup, cocktails, and stuffing.

In 1954, the Fish and Wildlife Service tried to promote Thanksgiving oysters to widespread use once again. They sent out a press release [PDF], entitled “Oysters—a Thanksgiving Tradition,” which included the agency’s own recipes for cocktail sauce, oyster bisque, and oyster stuffing.

In the modern era, Thanksgiving oysters have remained most popular in the South. Oyster stuffing is a classic dish in New Orleans, and chefs like Emeril Lagasse have their own signature recipes. If you’re not looking for a celebrity chef’s recipe, perhaps you want to try the Fish and Wildlife Service’s? Check it out below.

Oyster Stuffing

INGREDIENTS

1 pint oysters
1/2 cup chopped celery
1/2 cup chopped onion
1/4 cup butter
4 cups day-old bread cubes
1 tablespoon chopped parsley
1 teaspoon salt
Dash poultry seasoning
Dash pepper

Drain oysters, saving liquor, and chop. Cook celery and onion in butter until tender. Combine oysters, cooked vegetables, bread cubes, and seasonings, and mix thoroughly. If stuffing seems dry, moisten with oyster liquor. Makes enough for a four-pound chicken.

If you’re using a turkey, the FWS advises that the recipe above provides enough for about every five pounds of bird, so multiply accordingly.

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