Category Archives: Archives

Surviving for Posterity

Image

Making It Into The Archives (Appraisal for Accession)

This photograph of a fellow who was young in 1975 will likely never be offered to an archive.

For materials generated over the last two hundred years there is a threat which remains largely unarticulated.  All documentary heritage, but particularly images, must survive the bias of fashion, the great purging sieve of taste.  There is a rhythm to things which is difficult to define but usually marches with human generations.  The beliefs, cause and tastes of one generation are often rejected by the next.

The day arrives when certain materials appear comic, embarrassing, sometimes politically incorrect or even offensive.  Then they are discarded.

In the world of collectables and antiques some of these images will qualify as ephemera.  Ephemera is a term used for materials which were only meant for brief use and which were expected to be thrown away, such as greeting cards and calendars. These things will go out of fashion, be purged, and then come back into vogue and be collected.   Since they were produced in numbers there are usually survivors to collect.    The problem for the archivist is that many original documents which are not ephemera will also face the bias of taste; for example, government reports on topics which do not interest the present generation. 

Some archivists are aware that the menu of materials available to inform later generations has already been edited; others are not.  How many school histories vanished long ago because they contained pictures of women in bloomers juggling wooden skittles?  How many commercial fonds have been stripped of illustrations of glass baby bottles, heavy land-line telephones and melamine tableware?

Usually, we have little trouble convincing our sponsors that collecting the roaring twenties is worthwhile.   That epoch was purged some time ago, and is now deemed interesting.  However, we will find it much more difficult to impress our sponsors by documenting the peace movement complete with ponchos, craft jewellery, long hair and bell-bottom trousers.  As things are now it is unlikely that much grassroots, eye-witness, primary source visual evidence of this period will survive.  The public is still too busy laughing.

In 1956, T.R. Schellenberg said that, when it comes to documentary heritage, age is to be respected.  This is part of a complex discussion, but his argument is based on the assumption that as time passes less is likely to have survived to enter the archives.   Thanks to theorists such as Schellenberg, archivists should be sensitized  to the impact that both changing fashion and shifts in conventions pose to the endurance of visual records.   As professionals we must resist including current fashions and mores in the template we use to adjudicate whether a record is worthy or not.  While the general public is unable to get beyond the humour of crimplene, hockey hair and pink bathtubs we should quietly go about our business, carefully selecting quality images that fit the mission for the archives.

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Filed under Archives, History, Ontario, Material culture, Photograph history, Photographica, Photography

World War Two Scrapbook, Windsor, Ontario

poppy_smOn November 11th, 2013 a wonderful biographical scrapbook about persons from Essex county who served in World War Two was published on the web. The scrapbook belongs to The R.C. Diocese Of London (Ontario), specifically to Our Lady of the Rosary in Windsor, Ontario. At this point, it is not known who created it.

The scrapbook is extremely fragile, being comprised of highly acidic papers, inks and adhesives and for the same reason, light sensitive. After careful consideration, it was decided to create a digital file which could be displayed on the internet.

I can’t say enough about the generosity of the congregation of Our Lady of the Rosary in publishing this treasure. All things considered, they did the right thing by sharing digitally, instead of the old way through an exhibition which was often so damaging and which only provided limited access anyway. Because of its nature, the scrapbook is threatened by thousands of hands turning pages to seek information. This may now be avoided.

However, the publication of the scrapbook on the web has precipitated the usual cascade of truly stupid comments. Among them are rants against archives for failing to measure up against a parish church.

These critics need to imagine a space the size of the ground floor of their home, filled top to bottom with shelving containing hundreds of boxes of papers. Many of these papers will not be organized in a roughly alphabetical order (like the Scrapbook). Nor will it be obvious what much of the papers are actually about. The records await the archivist to sort them out and make a finding aid. But wait! The archivist must spend five out of six hours a day helping the general public with enquiries and other duties.

Yes, it is true that every Ontario archive has some trusted volunteers willing to pitch in. However, these people have their own research interests and lives outside of the archives. Faced by the reality of how long it actually takes to do a good job on a foot of original records they usually finish the assignment and then say, “There you go, but no more of that please. Let me do something else.”

I for one am tired of being cast as a villain. Our archives are choc-a-bloc with wonderful collections. If Ontarians want to see these things up online like the Our Lady of the Rosary Scrapbook, then we need to lobby governments to provide help to get the professionals out of the reading room and into the storage to arrange, catalogue and digitize as they are educated to do.

The World War Two Scrapbook belonging to Our Lady of the Rosary can be viewed at http://wp.dol.ca/webportal/diocese/content/1/5/WWII%20Virtual%20Exhibit/810

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Genealogists Lukewarm About The Work of Archives

What does it matter if the Federal Government has ended the National Archival Development Program?

From June 1st to 3rd, 2012  I was present at the Ontario Genealogical Society (OGS) Annual Conference in Kingston, Ontario.  I had the opportunity to talk to delegates “one-on-one” about the impact of the loss of the National Archival Development Program (NADP).  This was a program which funded a system of grants available to archives across Canada.

The National Archival Development Program cost the taxpayers $1.7 million annually, spread out over the provinces and territories.(1)

Genealogists are not the only beneficiaries of archives, but they are one of the more interesting client constituencies because they come from many walks of life and represent the “grassroots” of Canada.  Although they are on the whole knowledgable about Canadian history, nearly all genealogiests make their livelihood from another occupation and few have post secondary education in a heritage field.

Interviewed individually, genealogists offer different opinions from the cautiously supportive noises they make as a group.  I learned that genealogists are still not convinced that it takes any education or training to organize, protect and ultimately, digitize original archival materials.  “There are many of us in every community who would be willing to come to the archives and do the work for free,” said one fellow.  He was not alone in this opinion.  (His recent work consisted of indexing every surname in a collection, a helpful thing to do but thank goodness that the archivist had already determined who created the files and their purpose.) 

Genealogists also think that computerized systems can be trusted to digitize antique printing and hand-written (holograph) materials with useful results. “You just put a stack in the hopper and away it goes,” one woman told me. She had hands-on experience digitizing recent family papers resulting in a nice little product.  However, there are severe challenges to using optical character recognition and mechanized feeders on old records which vary in colour and size.  Moreover, she seemed oblivious to the confusing porridge of digital documents which results when there is no explanation or context. Images cannot be digitized without a retrieval system. Photographs do not identify themselves and even if there is someone to turn the item over and look for an inscription, that inscription can be completely wrong.

In the course of my chats I learned that Ian Wilson is quite right when he says that many genealogists think that firms like ancestry are actually doing all the work for the archive. This is not the case. “The Federal Government has got to cut back somewhere,” several people said. “We do not believe that this will have much of an impact on our access to the records, because there is always [ancestry / google etc. – fill in the blank].”

When I turned the conversation to the Canada Census, the feed-back was quite different and often emotional. Genealogists are very envious of the Americans (who will soon be able to see their 1940 census) and angry that Canadians must wait ninety-two years. Statistics Canada will be transferring the 1921 Canada Census to the National Library and Archives of Canada on June 1, 2013 and many genealogists believe that the Census will be available almost immediately. When I told them that the cutting of the National Archival Development Program was only a small part of a 9.6 million dollar hit being taken by the National Library and Archives of Canada, and that the cuts would result in loss of staff and equipment to digitize huge fonds like the Census, there was a strong reaction. However, the loss of similar resources for university, municipal and other smaller archives did not worry many OGS delegates much. Based on my conversations at the conference, I believe that archives cannot expect much more than a tepid response to the loss of National Archival Development Program, which is a sorry thing, seeing that genealogists, indeed all Canadians, have so much to loose.

__________

(1) The NADP funded the Canadian Council of Archives, which in turn administered a system of grants which increased and extended the work on documentary heritage collections across Canada. A new batch of grants was available each year and archives competed for funding to open those boxes languishing on back shelves, get the contents sorted, tidied and rehoused in appropriate containers, prepare descriptions of the contents and publicize what they found. More and more, the NADP grants were being used to hurry up digitization to increase access. The grants permitted hiring of extra staff for short periods to get the job done as well as the purchase of supplies and services from the private sector. For instance, the City of Vancouver Archives was able to clean a significant number of acetate negatives and place them in cold storage. The program also made a huge contribution to the training of young archivists by providing short-term employment in a professional setting for young graduates.

 

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A Winter Stroll, Toronto, circa 1886.

Our ancestors were quite proud of their chique winter attire and welcomed the opportunity to have a portrait made wearing expensive new coats and headwear. The indoor “winter” portrait was something of a craze between 1870 and the end of the 19th century, when it became easier to photograph subjects outside, in real snow.   But before this became common, photographers offered artifical settings consisting of a painted winter backdrop and falling “snow” which was  shaken from an overhead basket by an assistant. The artificial “snow” was usually made from tiny puffs of cotton which would float down realistically.  In some cases, epsom salts were used giving the effect of a heavier, icier blizzard. Unfortunately, occasionally asbestos crystals were employed, but thankfully not often.  (There were enough hazardous chemicals around photographic studios without the addition of this lethal material.)Couple in Studio

In this example, a young couple of the Thornton / Jolley family have been photographed in the J.H. Lemaitre & Company on Yonge Street in Toronto. Lemaitre began using “& Company” in his trade name in about 1877. The subjects are dressed in winter clothing which would have been high fashion from 1885 to 1887, and but less stylish in 1888 and 1889.  The woman is wearing a stiff, shelf-like bustle as part of a floating walking dress ensemble (a shorter dress which did not trail on the dirty sidewalks).  Her husband is wearing the up-to-date taller derby hat favoured at the time by the urban middle-class and a good quality melton jacket.  Wonderful, deep colours were in fashion at the time, and the lady’s winter coat may have been deep red, blue, purple or green. The dark Canadian winter streets were considerably brightened by these brilliant costumes. It is not easy to see, but she is also wearing a fur scarf or “tippet” and carrying an expensive fur muff. Her hat was sometimes called a “Rembrandt” because it was supposed to ressemble the plumed hats from the days of the cavaliers. It would have been anchored to her hair by long pins.

In the 21st century, we are sadly accustomed to Victorian photographs which have deteriorated over time or been damaged by inappropriate storing and/or handling. So often otherwise lovely “cabinets” are pock-marked by leaching of salts or topical contact with chemicals.  At a glance, snowy photographs can look like they have been damaged too.   If we are not careful, we may overlook these delightful Victorian studio products.

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A Love Token from Long Ago

carte-de-visite

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

This carte-de-visite is a portrait of a young woman taken in Kingston, Ontario in about 1863.  Verso, in a spikey female hand

    If there be anything in life
               That does afford me pleasure
Twill be the very happy time
                When you [became] my treasure.

The expression “affords me pleasure” was a very common one in the 19th century.  The verse is signed only “A.P.”   Alas, we do not know who she is.

I am grateful to Mike Dufresne for sharing this photograph.

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Real Photo Postcards

(RP Postcard, RPPC)

Real Photo Postcard

Real Photo Postcard. Moscow School. Lennox and Addington County Museum.

There is considerable confusion about what is meant by a “real photo postcard”.

Unless they are made from artwork or cartoons, all postcards begin life as photographs. -But they should not all be labelled as “RP”.

The change in postal regulations which permitted cards with a picture on one side and the address on the other provided an opportunity for small town photographers. For years they had sold so-called “album fillers”. Now, when work was slow, they could produce photographic prints of the right size for mailing. Photographic supply houses were quick to offer print-out papers of the regulation postcard size (3 1/2 by 5 1/2 inches). These stock photographic papers had the usual light-sensitive emulsions on one side and a handy template for the address and postage stamp on the other. At first, no message was permitted on the address side. Soon, the regulations were altered to permit a message on the left half of the address side — the so-called “divided back”.

The negatives of the day (which still included glass negatives) were not 3 1/2 x 5 1/2 in dimension, but this was not always a problem as photographers simply cropped the image to fit the card.

Photographic historians and collectors have appropriated the term “Real Photo Postcard” (or RP Postcard or RPPC) to apply to this specific type of card.

The Kodak Company was ever alert to opportunities. In 1903, Kodak came out with a film proportioned to print out onto the postcard papers with a camera to fit, the Kodak 3A Folding Pocket Camera. The appearance of this camera tells us how quickly the interest in postcard prints had grown.

Kodak used the term “Real Photo Postcard” when promoting the new film and camera, but they were not the only company to use the phrase.

Commercial card probably from a glass negative.

Commercially produced card made for bookseller, A.E. Paul of Napanee from a negative which was not 3 1/2 x 5 1/2" and not easy to crop to fit the card. Lennox and Addington County Museum.

Amateur photographers, who did not have a shop on main street, also liked the idea of making postcards to show off their work to family and friends. They ordered postcard photographic stock for use in their home darkroom, typically set up in the tool shed or the pantry. Not everyone wanted to invest in a special camera like the Kodak 3A, but like the professionals, amateur photographers could produce postcards by cropping the negatives from the camera they already owned. If they lacked skill or judgment, the resulting image might not properly fill the card.  The church interior (above) is not a Real Photo Postcard but it shows the challenges of cropping images to fit.

Whether the product of the shop on the main street, or an amateur photographer, RPPC’s were produced in very, very limited edition. The shop on main street might print out thirty or forty, perhaps one hundred if the view proved popular. The amateur might make as few as one or two.

The photographic postcard paper has a major disadvantage. The address side (back) was generic and there was no way to identify the subject. Some professionals got around this by scratching a caption in reverse on the negative. This would show as a legible title when the negative was printed.  (See Moscow School above.)  Amateurs relied on the written (holograph) message on the back.

Because of the lack of a printed title, RPPC’s are difficult to date and identify. If the card has been postally used, the postmark can be a help. Also, the stamp provides evidence. For example, in the United States, postcards required a one cent stamp from 1898 until 1917, when the price went up to two cents. It came back down to one cent in 1919.

The manufacturer of the postcard stock usually marked the back of the card, often in the block where the stamp would cover it. In Canada, so-called “AZO” postcards first appeared in 1904. The earliest papers (1904-1918) have four triangles pointed up in the stamp box. AZO papers with diamonds in the corners of the stamp box apparently were produced almost concurrently, and date from 1907-1909.

Understanding of this kind of evidence is increasing all the time. This is the reason that it is so important to collectors to see the back of the card, and why owning the original (and not just a scan of the front) is critical for an archive.

The heyday of RPPC’s is from about 1898 until the the mid 1920’s although amateurs continued to produce them as a hobby through much of the 20th century.

chromo-lith postcard

Chromo-lith Postcard, made from a photograph taken by a local photographer. Lennox and Addington County Museum N-00284

RPPC’s are labour-intensive to produce, making the profit small. Professional photographers quickly found that they could make more money selling their rights to publishers or manufacturers to print out their products in large numbers. The resulting commercially produced cards could be purchased very cheaply wholesale and sold for as much as the old RPPC’s. Moreover, RPPC’s were black and white. Postcard publishers could use colour lithograph processes (chromo-lithography) to produce a coloured card, which was very appealing to the customers.

Photo Postcard Not Strictly an RPPC

Commercial, black and white photographic postcard made between 1950 and 1970. Not strictly an RPPC. Lennox and Addington County Museum PCN-04275.

Postcards made by printing out on a photographic stock have been produced commercially throughout the twentieth century, in black and white and in colour. After about 1970, they include very glossy colourful photographic views. However, to the collector, the term Real Photo Postcard is assumed to mean a limited-edition, locally produced card, the product of the so-called “golden age” of postcards between 1898 and the late 1920’s. A card mass-produced by a commercial publisher using a photographic process is not an “RPPC”.

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June 6th, 1944 and Operation Overlord

Station at Falaise

Canadians clear snipers from the railway station at Falaise

Each June, many of us still commemorate D-Day, June 6th, 1944, the attack which altered the course of World War Two. The Allied Offensive which they called “Operation Overlord” began with the beach landings on June 6 and continued with the advance into France. The many actions fought are known collectively as the Battle of Normandy.

One of the most desperate engagements, the battle of the Falaise Pocket also known as Falaise Gap, was fought from 12-21 August 1944, and was the decisive engagement of the Battle of Normandy. Because Hitler would not permit his forces to withdraw and regroup, a large part of the German army and the famous Fifth and Seventh Panzer Divisions were trapped at Falaise. The Germans were trying desperately to keep the route through Falaise open in order to permit the escape of their retreating soldiers. A ferocious battle followed which resulted in the destruction of most of the German forces west of the Seine. The way was then cleared for the Allies to move on to Paris, and ultimately, to Germany.

A tremendous amount of the vigorous fighting was done by the fragments of the Polish Army. They were assisted by the 4th Canadian Armoured Division, which included many men from Lennox and Addington county, Ontario. The 2nd and 3rd Canadian Infantry Divisions and 2nd Canadian Armoured Brigade were also involved. The 3rd Canadian Infantry were among the first to approach Falaise and paid with heavy casualties. The 2nd Canadian Infantry Division were the
first to actually enter the town.

It was my privilege to meet several of the gunners from Lennox and Addington who served in the 4th or other Armoured Divisions and who remembered the railway station in Falaise very well. Snipers, they said, were everywhere. The tense postures of the advancing Canadians in this press photographs show the danger.

Next year, many Canadian events will focus on the War of 1812-1814. It has occurred to me that the War of 1812 would have had a definite “presence” in the psychology of the new Canada formed in 1867. It would have been both as recent and as distant as Operation Overlord is to us today.

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