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  • Writer's pictureKati Murphy

Mourning Becomes Them

A look into child loss in the nineteenth century


Photograph of a young boy among the flowers, photograph was taken through a window from outside.

Location unknown c.1910


In the 19th century, infant loss was a common occurrence due to high rates of infant mortality. Many babies died from preventable causes such as infection, malnutrition, and poor sanitation. At the time, there was also a lack of understanding about the causes of infant death and how to prevent it. During this time, the cultural and societal expectations for dealing with infant loss were very different from today. Grief and mourning were often seen as private and personal matters, and there was a lack of support and resources available for families who had experienced infant loss. Many families would simply bury their babies in unmarked graves or in potter's fields, without any formal ceremony or acknowledgement of their loss. It was not uncommon for families to have multiple children who died in infancy or childhood, and many parents were not able to grieve their loss or receive support for their grief.


The infant mortality rate (IMR) in the 19th century was high, with estimates ranging from around 100 to 200 deaths per 1,000 live births. This means that anywhere from 10% to 20% of infants born during this time period did not survive their first year of life. The IMR varied depending on the location and socioeconomic status of the population, with urban areas and lower-income populations experiencing higher rates of infant mortality.

Some of the main causes of infant death in the 19th century were infectious diseases such as tuberculosis, pneumonia, and diarrhea, as well as malnutrition and poor sanitation. Many babies also died from complications during childbirth. At the time, there was a lack of understanding about the causes of infant death and how to prevent it, and many deaths were attributed to "natural causes" or "the will of God."

It was not until the late 19th century and early 20th century that some doctors and activists began to raise awareness about infant mortality and advocate for better prenatal care, nutrition, and sanitation to help prevent infant death.


Photography in the 19th century was a relatively new technology, and it was not as widely accessible or affordable as it is today. Therefore, photographs of children from this time period are relatively rare and are usually limited to the middle and upper classes. Many photographs of children from this time period were taken as memorials after the child's death, as a way for the parents to remember and honor their child, and as mentioned before, due to high infant mortality rate, many parents had never seen their babies alive, so photographs were a way of having a memory of the baby. Photography in the 19th century was a way of capturing a moment in time, and a way of preserving memories for the future. For many families, these photographs were one of the few tangible reminders of their children, and they were treasured possessions.

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