Rare old Photos Show how People Lived in the 1850s

The year that marked the middle of the 19th century was a turning point for most of the world ― just two years before, Europe was tangled in a series of revolutions that announced the age of absolute monarchs was over, and the age of national states was coming. Besides political turmoil, the economy was also transitioning between the First and the Second Industrial Revolution.

With the end of the 18th century came the radical improvement of manufacture in countries such as England and France. Following this breakthrough, by the mid-19th century, Germany and Italy, as well as the United States, were quickly catching up and becoming the economic power-houses in their own right.

Candle seller in front of the cathedral, Chartres, France. Photograph taken by Charles Nègre, 1851.

Le joueur d’orgue de barbarie et deux enfants (The Barrel Organ Player With Two Children Listening). Photograph taken by Charles Nègre in the backyard of his workshop at 21 Quai de Bourbon, on the Île Saint-Louis in Paris, circa 1853.

G. Roman, Self Portrait, 1851.

Three Chimney Sweeps on the Quai de Bourbon, Paris, circa 1851.

The Chimney Sweeps by Charles Nègre, circa 1851-2.

Captain Hawkes and his Daughters, circa 1850. Salted paper print from a Calotype negative reimagined. Attributed to Scottish photographer Thomas Rodger (1832 – 1883).

Carriage and team of two horses at Beaulieu, country house of Jean-Gabriel Eynard. Daguerreotype, circa 1850.

‘The Vampire’ – Painter/photographer Henri Le Secq poses behind a gargoyle of Notre-Dame de Paris. Photograph taken by Charles Nègre, 1853.

The Chattar Manzil Palace and the Royal Boat of Oude on the Gomti River in Lucknow, India. Photograph taken by Felice Beato, 1858. Albumen silver print.

The Geography Lesson, 1851. Image from stereoscopic daguerreotype by Jean Francois Antoine Claudet.

Sculpture gallery in the “Crystal Palace”, London World’s Fair, 1851.

Machines became ever-present in manufacturing processes and millions of people took to working in factories for a living. Steamships and telegraph companies connected the New World with the Old. Migrations were taking hold from Europe to America ― many of them involving the political refugees who were forced to flee after the wave of European national revolutions of 1848.

However, while the world was rapidly changing, one invention, of no less revolutionary significance, would finally enable this transgression to be documented in the most realistic of ways. Photography came just in time to provide a fast and efficient tool for capturing the spirit of the era in images that would echo through eternity.


Soon after the first cameras came into use, professional photographers started traveling the world, in search of interesting and relevant portraits, breathtaking landscapes and events of historic significance.

These photographers emphasized the importance of capturing everyday life and ordinary people, leaving an invaluable trace on the cultural heritage of the world.

Thomas Martin Easterly’s Daguerreotype Gallery, St. Louis, Missouri, 1851.

Daguerrotype of four children from the 1850s.

Empress Eugénie’s Poodle, 1850s. Salted paper print from collodion glass negative, from the studio of André-Adolphe-Eugène Disdéri.

Group portrait by Franz Antoine, dated 1850s-60s.

Isambard Kingdom Brunel and others observing the SS Great Eastern launch attempt, November 1857.

Italian Street Musicians

Lynch’s Slave Market by Thomas Easterly, circa 1852. St. Louis. Missouri.

Mortar batteries in front of Picquet House, Light Division, 1855. Island of Guernsey. Image taken by Roger Fenton (English, 1819 – 1869).

Mounted Calotype depicting a scene from the Great Exhibition of 1851. Hyde Park, London. Attributed to William Henry Fox Talbot.

Paris, circa 1851.

High Street – Oxford, Ohio. On the left is a store owned by Elias Kumler and R. E. Hills. The large building in the center of the photograph is the Mansion House hotel.


Portrait of the writer Victor Hugo (1802-1885)

Pyramids of El-Geezeh (From The Southwest) by Francis Frith, circa 1862.

Quartermaster Fabry of the 1st Hussars. One of the last surviving veterans of Napoleon’s army. He is shown here in full dress uniform, wearing the Saint Helene medal (issued August 12 1857, to all veterans of the wars of the French Revolution and the Napoleonic Empire). Date believed to be May 5, 1858.

Roadside scene, 1850s.

San Francisco, 1851.

San Francisco harbor, 1850 or 1851.

Shew’s Daguerreian Saloon, San Francisco, 1851.

From family portraits, suspicious of the devilish contraption that captures their image, to political figures such as Napoleon III and the eighth president of the United States, Martin Van Buren, this collection offers an excellent overview of the 1850s.