1860s – History of Pin-Up

The 1860s have arrived. And we are in stark contrast to the freedom and flexibility of the unregulated 1850s. Victorian morals are everywhere; technology is changing; and the overall purpose of the pin-up is starting to develop. Politically, we have the American Civic War, Lincoln and the Emancipation Proclamation, the Pony Express (ok, for just 1 year), and railroads are starting to get built to unify the US. Let’s take a peak at what this early pin-up started.


Example of 1860s Pin-Up “Actress” posing for a “Carte De Viste” souvenir card.  By Chris Wooley

Perhaps the largest influence in this period was the strict code of ethics and morals thrust onto us by then English in their Victorian run society. It was no longer deemed acceptable to show nudity. In contrast, even a bare ankle was considered to be to risque. This lead directly to a huge change in the pin-up girl of the era. They now needed to be covered from head to toe. Tights, high necklines, and full coverage was required.

Like most rules, we might follow it publicly – but, there was still a need for the bit more revealing needs of the period gentleman. To get around the harsh dress codes, pink tights became the solution. A woman could now wear tight fitting tights (think yoga pants) in a pink color. The legs were now technically covered, but left little to the imagination. Crowds would come in great force to see shows with women and their pink tights – first introduced to America by the scandalous French “Can-Can” dance. This soon lead to New York doing the musical Burlesque performance “The Black Crook” – which was the basis for the modern Burlesque show . Socially acceptable sexy was now here! You just had to play by the rules. There was still a social stigma attached to anyone performing one of these shows – but the performer took all the judgment – not the attendees.

Right along with the social development of dress and behavior was a huge technological change in the photographic industry. Previous photographs were hard to reproduce. But a new wet-plate process changed everything. Now photographic prints could be made from a single exposure. Printing technology was still a ways behind, so posters, newspapers, and advertising couldn’t feature a photograph yet. This meant that actual photograph prints were the only way to see a picture of your pin-up girl.

Let’s combine these two new ideas: Burlesque “Actresses” (as they were called) and the ability to produce several photographs from a single exposure. Some smart marketing manger saw these two things and came up with a great money maker – selling photographs of the actresses as a souvenir. When this was introduced, the crowds loved it. They wanted the pictures and began collecting them of their favorite performers. It seemed like a win-win situation.

This now meant an actress actually needed to have photographs taken to be able to sell to patrons. Flash photography wasn’t here yet, so the same skylight procedures from the 1850s came out. However, with the new subjects, each performer needed to have something a bit unique to make people want to collect her photos. Thus, the simple set was created. The actress would select a painted background from the photographer – usually a simple setting, and incorporate a few props to make a new collectible image. The clothing and make-up were selected to complete the scene. Exposures were down to about 10 seconds, with braces holding the model in place. The actress would usually do 3-4 different “scenes” in the several hour long shoot.

Everyone loved these new photographs. The process was still really slow for creating the quantity that the burlesque patrons demanded. This high demand directly led to the invention of the “carte de viste” – a small photograph about the size of a business card (2.25 x 3.5 inchs) that was created in a unique way. A series of lenses were attached to the camera, allowing a single “exposure” to create a dozen smaller images instead of one large image on the film. This meant that once developed, a print could be cut to create 12 copies of the images – for the same amount of work. The smaller cards became highly collectible, too. The only downside was that it required vertical images – so the days of the lounging nude was out. But, perhaps more notably, we have the first “official” pin-ups in history.

We can see in this sample image the combination of these influences. Our pin-up girls are now being mass produced. They are on simple backgrounds (in this case a dock scene) and use simple props (like the barrels and the swords) to help set the scene. The legs are covered with pink tights and the whole body is covered, with the exception of a conservatively high neckline. The lighting is still from the soft and diffused window light, and the models were in poses that flaunted figures while still being able to hold steady for seconds at a time.

<< 1850s                                        1870s >>