1880s – History of Pin-up

The 1880s were a pretty calm period in the evolution of pin-up. However, it did have two very notable points that helped shape the genre of pin-up.

The model would have been hung by wires to create the flying effect. This would be a sample of a "cigarette card" - Photo by Chris Wooley

The model would have been hung by wires to create the flying effect. This would be a sample of a “cigarette card” – Photo by Chris Wooley

On the smaller, but more casual side, we now see that nude models are now allowed in art classes. You might think that nudes have always been allowed in the artist’s den as artwork of the nude form (including full muscle detail) have been around ever since man first picked up a paintbrush. But up until this point, plaster casts and statues were used for drawing and painting the human form in the public art classes. But this decade relaxed those rules just enough that serious art students could use an actual unclothed human to reference for their illustrations.

Photographs still weren’t allowed to have nudity in them. Well, the pin-up kind weren’t – but it was a start towards the forward movement of the genre.

A larger checkpoint in the history of pin-up involved cigarettes. Its not just smoking hot babes (pun intended) that we’re looking at – but the actual rolled cigarettes full of tobacco. They had one huge problem – the cigarettes would bend a break in the pack; something was needed to keep the packs rigid. The answer came in the form of a piece of hard cardboard inserted into the pack. It worked perfect! Cigarettes didn’t bend and the product stayed unbroken. The next part mixed a bit of clever marketing in with the practical solution – print pictures on these “collectible” cardboard pieces. People would then buy the cigarettes to collect the cards, thus increasing sales and brand loyalty. So the cigarette companies started releasing hundreds of different cigarette card sets – from sports and animals, to celebrities and beauties. Each set featured several different cards for a given subject. And yes, the pin-up girl – or Beauty – as the cards were called were a hot seller.

The cards were relatively tame, and featured women in a variety of poses and outfits. The skin rules still applied, so each girl was sure to have on tights and coverings as not to allow too much skin to be exposed. The sets, pretty girls, and unique imagery helped make these cards a huge success. The peak of popularity of these types of cards hit in the mid 1890s.

For the first time in history, we have huge mass production of these girls. The burlesque dancers of the previous decades had a large quantity of images, but no major distribution. The cigarettes changed this by tapping into their massive distribution and sales outlets The “sets” also helped add a collectible aspect to the genre, which aided in the casual collections of pretty girls pictures.

The nude models and cigarette cards took some time to affect the mindset of the people. It wasn’t an overnight success, nor did it come without criticism. But it did set the stage for some big changes in the not so distant future.


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1870s – History of Pin-up

We have now reached the 1870s in our journey through history.  This decade, again, featured a dramatic change to the previous decade (which we will see as a theme throughout this project). The strict social codes we saw in the 1860s were just a bit too strict. People wanted nudity, but didn’t want to seem obscene while viewing it. They needed a solution, and it came in the form of fine art.

A fine art nude study of a woman. Note the flowers in her hair and the wood floor. By Chris Wooley

A fine art nude study of a woman. Note the flowers in her hair and the wood floor. By Chris Wooley

By emulating classical works of art and producing photographs with a fine painterly quality, complete with a sophisticated title, nudity was now socially acceptable.  It was considered a fine art and lost some of the stigma.  Interestingly, Queen Victoria even purchased “The Two Ways of Life” – a naughty painting featuring two separate group images in identical poses – one clothed and the other not.  This was given as a gift to Prince Albert.

In a parallel line to pin-up photography, we are now seeing the development of other, non-socially acceptable types of photography. Vulgar erotic photographs are being taken and kept in private collections. The largest raided private collection contained 130,248 obscene photographs and 5,000 stereoscopic slides – although this was from London.

Also notable during this time period was the development of a new dry plate process for photography. Previously, a wet plate process required a new plate constructed for each photo session.  This new process allowed you to have premade plates that you could have ready to go or store for future use. Think of it like our modern film, only much larger and more awkward to handle. You could now do so much more than the old process.   This also led to cameras being notably smaller than they previously were.  The mechanical shutter was also introduced, greatly increasing the ability for quick images. For the first time, a camera could now be handheld and exposures were quick enough to stop motion.

With the new process, a new branch of photography started for the first time – the figure study.  It originated when photographer Eadweard Muybridge created a series of images of a horse running – showing a horse without legs on the ground for the first time ever.  The uses for this type of photograph were amazing – as one could now see what the animal looked like at all stages of the run, with high detail, which was perfect for painters and other artists.  It wasn’t long before painters of the time requested similar images of females.   A nude student or model would pose in a natural position while a photograph was taken. This image was then used as a reference for doing paintings and sculptures.  It is important to note that this is the decade when this images originated – as this type of photography has an influence on the development of  pin-up photography. Although it originated with good intentions, it was still seen as taboo. It was to such a degree that a famous painter, photographer, and teacher – Thomas Eakins – lost his teaching position and credibility for creating over 800 of these figure studies.  His poses weren’t vulgar, nor different than many of the other images created in that time period. What varied was his purpose in them. If he had used a strategic cloth drape and a fancy title, his work would have been fine art. Instead, he did studies on forms and muscles for his paintings with appropriate titles.

The 1870s produced some gorgeous works of art – previously seen in images created by the painting masters – but in photographic form. And towards the end of the period, the technology advances with camera size and plates, helped push the genre forward.

<< 1860s                1880s>>

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 >> 

1850s – History of Pin-Up Photography

1850s Pin-Up model by Chris Wooley

1850s Pin-Up Model using a Daguerreotype process (emulated) for the History of Pin-Up project.  Model Kala H.  Hair and Make-up by Abbey Crawford.

Welcome to the 1850s in America. This is the start of our journey as it is the first time in history when photography becomes possible for more than a select few individuals. The process is still time intensive, taking between several hours to several minutes to create a single photograph. But it is possible to photograph people now, provided they can sit still long enough. A new type of photographic process has arrived, the Daguerreotype.

As with any great technological feat, we set out to photograph what is most important to us. Yup, you guessed it – early photographers started taking pictures of boobs, and lots of them. The female form has always been an alluring subject for artists, from early sculptures to fine art paintings, we love the look of the naked female body. It seems only natural that once photography reached the hands of the public, that boob pics were to follow.

Now, nude photography isn’t legal in the United States. Yikes! It’s also illegal in England and France, too. This might seem like a hindrance, but some unique factors helped start the groundwork for the pin-up genre. We are in the Modern age at this point in America. The Victorian period has just started in Europe. We’ve been free of British rule for quite a while, but are still heavily influenced by their laws, society, fashions, and styles. America is also rapidly expanding as we increase our borders both towards Mexico and California. This mix of new influences, increased land, and uncharted laws allows for photography and styles to spread to new areas.

Most notably was a lack of enforcement of the no-nudie law (not the actual law name). With a large area, new technology, and a whole bunch of people who like boobs more than the law, it’s generally deemed OK to create this type of picture. The hard part was actually taking the picture.

This is where things get interesting. To create one of these Daguerreotype images, the model needed to be really well lit. We didn’t have fancy flashes or cool light modifiers like we do today. Instead we had one really big light source that was about 93 million miles away: the sun. So early photographers had top-floor photo studio with some nice natural skylights. They’d use the sun shining in through the window to illuminate the subject. But as bright as the sun was, it still wasn’t enough to get a quick snapshot. The model would have to sit – often for several minutes – without moving to get a single image. That’s pretty hard to do. Even the slightest movement would make the picture blurry. So we’ll often see models from this time period in “lounging” positions, sometimes even looking like they are asleep. Free standing just wasn’t an option as there was too much movement. If they wanted to try and stand up, be seated upright, or do anything other than lounging, it required putting their head in a make-shift brace to keep it from moving about.

So after a minute or two of posing for a picture, the photographer now had a single image. It was a one of a kind. There just wasn’t another way to get a duplicate of that image. So if he wanted to share the image with one of his buddies, he had to take two separate pictures. There was a couple of other options, like doing a Talbotype picture – but that just looked like a really bad photocopy of a black and white picture, had horrible grain in the image, and didn’t show off the subtle tones of the boobies very well. You could also try and photograph a photograph, but that also produced less than desirable results. So long exposures of “one-of” images became the norm.

To help reduce the amount of time needed to create the proper exposure of these pics, the models were often coated in a fine white powder so that their skin would reflect light better and thus expose the image quicker.
At this point in time, professional models didn’t exist. So photographers found the next best thing: whores. They were usually pretty and were very willing to get naked. The term Artist Model and whore were pretty much interchangeable at this point. This also helps set the bodytype we see in these early images. As the whores were the models, the plump voluptuous, Rubenesque women were the ones being photographed. That was generally considered the “sexy” body type of the time period.

A couple of other factors helped shape the early stages of the first pin-ups. Painters quickly discovered that a photograph worked really well for a reference image for paintings. Instead of having a model pose for hours in every changing light, a photograph could be created in a fraction of time and provide for greater consistency. The photographic influences on painting is a whole other subject though. But from this point, we see painters influencing how the girls are posed. A painter/photographer relationship is formed – allowing classical posing to be combined with the newly developed (pun intended) photography industry.

The second huge factor to spark this revolution was the Queen of England. In the mid-1850s, Queen Victoria saw a stereoscope 3D image and absolutely loved it. Now, it wasn’t of a nude woman, but her comments and public approval of the photograph was enough to launch some mass production of photographic equipment and viewers. Hundred of thousands of stereoscopic viewers went into the homes of the public, increasing the awareness of photographs and the camera technology. So naturally boob pictures were close to follow.

The images we have from this time period give us some pretty good insight into the consistency of the situation. Almost all of the nude pictures features a full figured woman lounging or resting to support themselves and hold still for the long photograph. They are mostly “studio” shots lit from top light or sidelight from a window. They are grainy from the Daguerreotype process. There is a nice gradation on the skin tones, but some of the shadowed areas, like in the hair and the background, get blocked out into solid dark areas. There might be some attempt to add some artistic merit to the images by having some simple props, drapes, or other setting in the image. As photography technology improved throughout the decade, long exposures and support were required less frequently to create the images.

1860s Pin-Up Photography  >>

1850s History Of Pin-Up Censored

1850s History Of Pin-Up Censored



History of Pin-Up Photography in America

Most people are familiar with the term pin-up. We’ve seen them on old bomber nose art from World War II, in old Playboy magazines that belong to our fathers, tattooed on the forearm of a veteran, and plastered on novelty items. They feature beautiful women with a cute and innocent expression that reminds us of the American Dream.

The term pin-up first originated in 1941. There was a huge surge of popularity once WWII broke out from the US wanting to send images to the G.I.s, so they know what they were fighting for – that wholesome American girl. Calendars and magazines flooded the troops and our guys would tear out the pages and “pin-up” the girls everywhere they could, from the barracks to tanks, and paint them on fighter planes. Thus a tradition was started.

But pin-ups didn’t always start out that way. And they have continued to evolve in the modern era.

There are countless books, blogs, articles on the history of pin-ups. Each one takes a new approach to describing our fascination with this niche of the female beauty. Likewise, there are just as many different types of pin-ups; from painted illustrations, elaborate digital art, line drawings, and photographs, there are endless ways to show off the pin-up form. This series of blog posts is a little bit different. Instead of looking at the pin-up genre as a whole, we’ll be focusing on the photography portion of the pin-up world. Specifically, we’ll be looking at how pin-up photography originated and evolved over the last 150+ years in America. To do this we’ll look at the social, political, and technological advances and restrictions that helped shape the pin-ups we see every day.

My name is Chris Wooley, and I’m a professional photographer that specializes in recreating vintage pin-up and Hollywood glamour images. The idea for this project started with me wanting to know as much as I could about the pin-up genre and starting some research. With lots of help from my friends, a talented make-up artist, and tons of models, it spawned an idea of re-creating a pin-up from every decade as accurately as possible, complete with clothing, dress, hair, make-up, and style of the period. Each shot from the following sequence was taken in Spokane, Wash., in digital format with the final goal of producing an image that appeared to come from the corresponding decade.

Please join me on this journey into the History of Pin-Up.

Chris Wooley

1850s Pin-Up The Beginning