Images on Ice: Frost Portraits

Find the Frost Spider, from Water Wonders Every Child Should Know: Little Studies of Dew, Frost, Snow, Ice and Rain, Jean May Thompson 1907

Find the Frost Spider, from Water Wonders Every Child Should Know: Little Studies of Dew, Frost, Snow, Ice and Rain, Jean May Thompson 1907

The frost fairies have been at work with their brushes until the front windows look like they are etched with gossamer lace. Or—let’s face reality—Hell has frozen over. We’ve previously looked at things frozen in Arctic ice, Mrs Guppy, the Snow Queen, a snow-giant, and the Hideous Ice Worm. Today let us skate on over to the subject of frost portraits–images in ice seen as significant or prophetic by their viewers.

In my work on the mysterious faces, sometimes called lightning daguerreotypes, which appeared by the score in late 19th and early 20th century window glass, I’ve run across only a few cases of frost portraits. As with many mystic images: Jesus-in-a-taco or the Virgin-in-a-tree-stump, meaning seemed very much in the eye of the beholder. The Spiritualists had their theories:

“The Boston Scientist says:—Each and every one of our readers have probably noticed the curious and always attractive shapes and forms in which moisture crystallizes on the window panes in a cold winter day or night.  Tall forests, snowy mountains, the outlines of an irregular island or rocky shores, with an occasional approach to Chinese characters or Egyptian hieroglyphics, are familiar pictures, more or less discernible in proportion to the fertility of the imagination.  This we may claim as a common experience; but when we transcend from imaginary pictures to positive portraits, when in place of an indescribable mixture of forms and figures we have a face clearly outlined and with features strongly defined, we present a statement which may seem incredible, but, nevertheless, is within the bounds of truth.  At the residence of one of our physical mediums, the window panes were as beautifully ornamented in this manner as though the tools of the engraver had labored to bring forth the result, and were witnessed by a number of neighbors and visitors.”  “The Mediumship of ‘Jack Frost.’  How He Crystallized Moisture into the Semblance of the Departed,” Religio-Philosophical Journal, February 13, 1875.

Andrew Jackson Davis in his Great Harmonia cited nature elementals as the source of frost pictures:

J.D.O. Gravesville, Wis., “Friend Davis: Allow one who has passed seventy winters to ask you a child’s question. What makes the curious pictures I see on window glass on frosty mornings? Trees, shrubbery, tall grasses, bunches of flags, &c., are perfectly represented.”

Answer: If our venerable reader had studied Harmonia, Vol. 5, his mind would contain the explanation. It is this: The principle of Vegetation, like every other principle, is omnipresent. And it, like every other principle, awaits opportunities to make a manifestation. The frost pictures are the pencilings of the Vegetable Principle. In the garden and fields the pencilings take on more substantial forms. At length they take on “flesh and dwell among men.” Read the volume referred to. The Herald of Progress, vol. 3, no. 6 29 March 1862, p. 1

We humans seem wired to read meaning into shower mold and find patterns in clouds. This story about an etching made by Jack Frost neatly illustrates the process of making sense of these kinds of images.

An Etching by “Jack Frost”

That “Jack Frost” is an artist of old and high renown is too well known to reiterate here, but we think his work is seldom if ever caught for reproduction. By the kindness of Mr. John H. Kahler. forman painter, Erie E. R. shops, Meadville, Pa., we are enabled to give our readers a sample of “Jack’s” work in these columns. Mr. Kahler describes this freak of nature as follows: “I will tell you how it was produced. On the 22d of January we had 14 inches of water in our shops, caused by the near-by stream becoming gorged with ice 2 ft. thick. While the water was at this height the temperature took a sudden drop below zero and froze an inch of ice over the entire shop’s inside. Four cab sash with glass in them, 24×30 were found on the floor under the ice, after the water went down three days afterward. They were lying flat, or in a horizontal position when found. I noticed they were all frozen together and very frosty between the panes. After awhile I pulled them apart, and as the warmth from the stove got to them this frost evaporated, instead of running down as we would expect it to do, and left plainly visible the muddy settlings of the water. All this time I looked for nothing out of the ordinary, but after the thin layer of mud became dry I looked with surprise when I beheld the design worked out on the glass which is most beautiful to all who have beheld the strange work of Nature. After the water had left the glass the mud remaining; then the freezing took place, and as the minute frost needles crept along over the surface in working out the design, the mud was shoved to either side down the glass, leaving the clear glass to represent the outlining of the design, as it represents a negative just as a photograph negative is produced. The design represents feathers in all positions, and ending in perfect scrolls at the ends. Again, you see fine ostrich plumes, lace work and ferns. Many figures can be picked out. Among several is an Indian head in full-feathered head-gear; also a small oval about three inches long with a decorative frame around it and within is a three-masted vessel riding on the water. Another is a large spider on his web. The design is one that no mortal could conceive, much less execute, as many lines (and all are one graceful sweep, or curve) are fine as a hair and of soft feathery appearance. It is not permanent, but I have protected it by placing another light of glass back of it and painted the back of this a coat of black paint, which throws out the design very bold and plain to see. The thin layer of mud is yellowish grey in color, and with black on the reverse side gives it a pleasing effect. I have two panes with this decorative work on them, the two upper sash. The two lower sash, having too thick mud, the frost did not penetrate to the glass. I believe that if a vitreous pigment in different colorings composed this thin layer of mud, and was put into an oven and annealed it would become permanent and a thing of beauty. Perhaps a lost art. What say you?” Railway Master Mechanic, 1895

Here is the illustration that accompanied the article:

An Etching by Jack Frost from Railway Master Mechanic, 1895

An Etching by Jack Frost from Railway Master Mechanic, 1895

Can you see an Indian? Or a three-masted vessel? To me it has the feel of “outsider art,” but I have to admit that I’m completely useless at picking out anything more than random swirls of ice. (I’m no good at those find-the-hidden-picture puzzles either. )

Frost images seemed to send the nature writers of the late 19th and early-20th century into rhapsodies about “perfect fern fronds,” “Jack Frost’s oak-leaf etchings,” and “exquisite lace patterns.”

The book referenced in the caption of the illustration heading this post goes on for several chapters about the crystalline productions of the “Hoar-frost Spirit.” I don’t know if this was just a flight of fancy for a children’s nature book, or if the nature elemental ideas of the Theosophists were finding expression on a nation’s window-panes.  I do know that the Spiritualists were the source of most of the reports of frost portraits.

This revelation came from the medium Maud Lord Drake, who, mystifyingly refers to herself in the third person.  Mrs Daffodil has shared some of Drake’s anecdotes and we can do worse than quote her accessment of the lady:

“The much-married medium, Maud Lord-Drake [1852-1924] was a star of the séance circuit for over 65 years. She was said to have twice given readings for Queen Victoria at Buckingham Palace.  A young Maud was christened “Daughter of the Orient” by the spirits who compared her favourably to the medium at the Temple of Delphi 4,000 years ago. We know this because Mrs Drake tells us in her 600-page autobiography called Psychic Light. The book is packed with thrilling psychic incidents, including her much-publicised disappearance:  drugged and hauled onto a ship bound for Glasgow by enemies who told the stewardess that she was mildly insane and had been prescribed a sea voyage for her health. The book also offers tales of astonishing predictions, full-body materialisations, music played by levitating guitars, and Mrs Drake’s discreetly elided anecdotes about her consistently execrable taste in men.”


The frost is at work on the pane tonight.

Tracing his fancies—the Artist Sprite!

His fancies so exquisite, dainty and rare,

They might be the dreams of the sleeping air.


In the winter of 1869 a new and marvelous development came to Maud. We first noticed faces apparently etched in the frost on the window panes. My attention was principally attracted to the details. These manifestations continued for some two weeks or more. Sometimes there were pictures of soldiers carrying guns; sometimes landscapes were worked out in detail. Some of the faces were recognized by friends. There was one very notable case where a woman who had become separated from her mother when quite young, was told by Mrs. Lord that the face on the glass was that of her mother, still living. Later on she found her mother from her remembrance of the face on the window.

People came from all parts of the city to see these spirit pictures. Photographers came to take and preserve them as rare curiosities of art and skill. These faces were often perfect, even to the details of beard, moustache, eyebrows and features. Sometimes they would appear on the margin of newspapers, three, four or a half dozen at a time. Sometimes they would fade and others come in their place while we were watching them.

I knew then that behind the scene were invisible artists, whose well defined lines of taste and beauty had marked an era. I knew that God had sent His angels to dot the crystal canvas to induce thought. These beautiful frost sketches appeared from time to time at my husband’s place of business, and sometimes in our home, when Maud had scarcely graced the room with her presence through the day. Psychic Light, the Continuity of Law and Life, Mrs. Maud Eugenia Barrock Lord Drake, 1904

Frost portraits are sometimes prophetic, such as this one.


The Religio-Philosophical Journal, of Chicago, prints the following strange account from the Boston Courier: “One of the strangest exhibitions, or coincidences, or revelations, or whatever it may be named, that we have ever heard or read of—very closely bordering upon the marvelous and supernatural—occurred, not long since, in the house of a Philadelphia gentleman. Its truth is vouched for by the gentleman, his wife, and family, all of whom are credible witnesses, whose testimony would not be doubted by anybody, but whose names we do not feel at liberty to make known. The facts, as stated to us, are as follows: One of those frosty mornings, of which we had such superabundance, while the children of the family in which this strange revelation was made were amusing themselves in the sitting room, they observed a figure in the frosting on the window pane. It appeared to be the picture of a female, holding in her hand a paper. The outlines were so plain that even the stripes on the dress were plainly observable. The children at once called the attention of the mother to the strange picture, and finally the father was called, who recognized in it an exact representation of his mother. Having a correct photograph of her, he brought it out and placed the pictures side by side, and they corresponded even to the stripes on the dress, except the picture in frost was holding the paper document in her hand. This picture remained upon the window pane for an hour or two, till dissipated by the warmth of the room, or perhaps of the sun outside. But now comes the strangest part of the story. The next day after this appearance, the gentleman received, by mail, a paper package exactly corresponding with the one in the hand of the image, which, on being opened, proved to be a notice that he had become the heir to a large legacy from his deceased mother in a foreign land.” The Spiritual Magazine, July 1875: pp. 334-5

And in this case, a woman saw a chilling future in a frozen bucket of water:


Barberton Woman Who Feared Husband’s Death Gets Tip from Frozen Design

Akron, O., Jan. 8 Mrs. Richard Calvert of Barberton told her husband 13 years ago that he would meet death in a violent manner. New Year’s Eve she placed a bucket of water on the front porch of their hut in which the couple lived on the canal, her purpose being to see what would form on the ice. The next morning she found there the outline of a coffin and a lone woman.

“I know that the coffin stood for my husband and that the woman meant me, and I knew my husband would be brought home dead within two months. I warned him against the trains because he walked so often on the track.” Two nights ago Calvert was on his way to his daughter’s when a B & O passenger train killed him. The Evening Telegram [Elyria, OH] 8 January 1910: p. 4

Any other historic frost pictures? Don’t stick your tongue on a frozen window-pane, but send to Chriswoodyard8 AT

For another ominous picture in ice, see The Frost Coffin.

Chris Woodyard is the author of The Victorian Book of the Dead, The Ghost Wore Black, The Headless Horror, The Face in the Window, and the 7-volume Haunted Ohio series. She is also the chronicler of the adventures of that amiable murderess Mrs Daffodil in A Spot of Bother: Four Macabre Tales. The books are available in paperback and for Kindle. Indexes and fact sheets for all of these books may be found by searching Join her on FB at Haunted Ohio by Chris Woodyard or The Victorian Book of the Dead. And visit her newest blog, The Victorian Book of the Dead.

0.00 avg. rating (0% score) - 0 votes