Category Archives: Archives

A Woodstock lady, with her pug, circa 1888


This cabinet photograph taken by George Kirton of Woodstock, Ontario, surfaced down in Michigan.  Nothing keeps the ego a reasonable size like being confronted with a face from long ago, now without a name.  So shall it be for most of us, one day.

The photograph is damaged, probably from exposure to humidity, but we can see that the lady wears the soft, feathered bonnet supposed to resemble the hats in Rembrandt paintings.  These were introduced to the fashionable in the early 1880’s  and lasted only until about 1888 in Canada.  This photograph could be as early as 1882, but is much more likely to be 1887-8. 

Pugs were very popular dogs in Ontario in the 19th century.  Although they were frequently the choice of young families, they also had the reputation of being good companions for single ladies.   Lord Frederick Hamilton (1856-1928), remembering the 1880’s later in life, wrote:

“One ought never to be astonished at misplaced affections I have seen old ladies lavish a wealth of tenderness on fat, asthmatical and wholly repellent pugs.”  (The Vanished Pomps of Yesterday)

However, this bright little pug is certainly not fat and wheezy.

Lord Frederick Hamilton, who disliked pugs,  is credited with introducing the sport of skiing to Canada — but that is another story.

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Filed under Archives, Material culture, Photograph history

Where is a Les Callan when you need him?

A Saskatchewan soldier under fire awaits his chance to vote.

A Saskatchewan soldier under fire awaits his chance to vote.

Once upon a time, Canadians were able to find humour in war.  Nothing could demonstrate better how much the world has changed in sixty years then the astonishment which greets me today when I show the young the wonderful cartoons of the late Les Callan (1905-1986).

“I don’t understand the drawing,” said one young woman, “But I can see it is supposed to be funny.  But it must have offended a lot of soldiers.”

The cartoons did not offend our soldiers, who were glad to find coping techniques to help them survive the unspeakable, which was Western Europe in 1944-45.  Mr. Callan was with our artillery, including the men I knew from Lennox and Addington county, during the invasion called  D-Day which began on June 6th, 1944.     He remained with them during the advance through France and Belgium.  Life for the soldiers was usually pretty nasty and often a nightmare, but they were able to find comedy and continued to laugh at certain episodes fifty years later — like the time that a French farmer begged them for help.  From his hysteria, they thought that the Gestapo were in his parlour, but it turned out that a cow was stuck on the farmhouse staircase.  A light moment during dark days.

On June 15th, 1944, the Province of Saskatchewan had an election.  Every effort was made to bring in the votes from the men serving in Europe.  The RCA had, by then, just reached the Leopold Canal, where they met very forceful resistence from seasoned German troops.    The above cartoon was Mr. Callan’s report.

Our troops are enduring horror and danger at present in Afghanistan, but I see no evidence that there is any humour to lighten the load.   In fact, I suspect that it is politically incorrect to laugh about any aspect of the present conflict, which is a pity.


Filed under Archives, Canada at war., Material culture

Heritage is a High Stress Vocation


If we do not support our heritage institutions, will anyone remember the path we came by?

Most Canadians believe that those employed in the heritage field enjoy one of the most pleasant work environments in Canada. This is not the case for most of us — I mean the majority of us — the staffs of medium museums, local historic sites and archives, as well as those who labour in archaeological teams or heritage planning departments.  I think, but don’t know for sure, that the climate may be different for employees of our National Institutions. I hope to hear their experiences.

It is true that we heritage professionals have the privilege of access to a trove of historical treasures.  If it is really one’s thing, then the delight provoked by delicate, translucent Meissen is never stale, and the breath-stopping moment when a fresh find connects a site with Hopewell culture is never diminished.  This is fact.  But in order to have responsibility for custody of our treasures and to interpret and explain a tiny piece of mica a very great deal of education is required and years of patient work once the structured halls of academe are far behind.

In reality, those sweet moments of discovery are a minority. Working with the collection is mostly a never-ending struggle to make sure that everything is inventoried, retrievable and protected.  The work experience generally feels nothing like Antiques Roadshow, but rather like spending one’s days cleaning and reorganizing the basement.   We strain to make ridiculously insufficient space adequate.   We are starved for appropriate containers, shelving, climate controls and conservation help.   We are pressured to abandon half-completed microfilming projects and jump into digitization while our documents crumble on the shelves.   We endure long hours and weekend work, mostly for time in lieu which we know we will never be able to take.

Many heritage workers spend their days struggling to keep the doors open. In Canada, there is always money for celebrations; that is, for short-term projects which are primarily entertainment.   There is sometimes money for infrastructure, which usually means new-build, or handicap upgrades.   In my experience this funding seldom includes specialty furnishings such as high-density shelving.    In Canada, there is never any new operating money.  The Ontario Museum Operating Grants were a rare and wonderful exception which have been neglected and allowed to shrink to almost comic size in proportion to the paperwork involved.   Don’t misunderstand, I am not against asking museums to fund-raise.    I am against curators being forced to spend far too much time doing it.   They are needed to do other things.  Sometimes, the quest for lucre is inspired: more often it drags the staff into a crazy world of teddy bear tea parties, fashion shows and seances. Occasionally we are forced by powers that be to do things against our professional standards — things that actually threaten the things we are sworn to protect.

If we are not chasing money, we are chasing statistics.   While local government assumes that the voters want another hockey arena they cannot believe that the voters want a museum unless one proves it over and over.     But, hey!   Avoid like hot coals any public outcry.   It is not likely to bring help and more likely to make fickle sponsors abandon commitment.  This balancing act is another source of stress for staff.

For, in Canada, culture and heritage are considered “nice” but not a priority.  Canadians remain unconvinced that heritage is worth any investment.  The dark secret is that most politicians privately believe that heritage employees are not worth paying.  For forty long years I have endured elected officials who think that a museum may be saved by having high school students do the work, or that archaeological permits are some kind of plot hatched by the intelligentsia.   Otherwise reasonable people (who would not think of taking grandmother’s pearls to the retired-librarian-next-door for an estate appraisal) somehow think that a team of senior citizens can decide whether a Krieghoff is genuine or assign a value to a daguerreotype for a tax receipt.  Some even believe that when there is no researcher, an archivist has nothing to do!

If an heritage worker is one of the lucky few to escape the world of endless contracts and no benefits, and actually win a full-time job, the relief is short-lived.  In my experience, he or she will spend the rest of their working days in accute terror of being terminated.   Because of the recession, many unfortunate Canadians have been recently put in this situtation.   Welcome to our world.   Small museums have been living on the edge for the last forty years.

All of this is remarkably short-sighted.   Heritage employees are some of the cheapest employees in the country, many working for only a little above minimum wage despite all that post-secondary education.   Heritage generates economic pay-back in a hefty way, including education, tourism, publishing, film / television and sustainable communities.   Our history is the source for expression of our Canadian shared values.   It is how we learn who we are.   It is how we plan where we are going.   Information from our collections exceeds nostalgia. Information supports sound policy development and independent research.

In the twenty-first century world we are told that workers must expect career changes.  If we are unhappy as heritage employees, “Well then re-train and move on.”   I don’t think that this template should or can be applied to the heritage community, where a significant investment in education and experience are required even for entry.   Would we tell our nurses to leave their field, re-train and move on?   Which brings me back to the beginning.  We in heritage are neither respected nor valued, for credentials, experience or loyalty.   Until we change this, Canada will remain a unenlightened society, a one-diminsional country driven by resource extraction economics unable to articulate itself and make a presence on the world stage.

For the Olympics, we are told that Canada needs to attract and sustain the best.   It should be no different for those whom we trust with our heritage.

In the meantime, “Mothers, don’t let your sons grow up to be curators or cowboys.”


Filed under Archaeology, Archives, Historical Societies, Material culture, Museums

An Acrobatic Troupe from Palmerston, Ontario


More than a quaint picture!

Four male performers pose for the camera. Three men wear the uniforms of acrobats: the fourth wears the costume of a clown. These are the Aberdeen Minstrels of Palmerston, Ontario in 1898, and today the group is unknown. This is an interesting photograph. Obviously, the picture records the preferred dress of circus or side-show performers of the 1890’s, but there is much more here.

The Governor-General of Canada from 1893-1898 was John Campbell Gordon, Marquis of Aberdeen and Temair, known as the Earl of Aberdeen. Aberdeen was wildly popular with most Canadians. Even today, when there is a list of exceptional men and women who have succeded him to the office, he is remembered as the man who changed the role of the G-G from representative of Royalty to an agent for the best interests of common Canadians. His term ended in 1898. The name of this group might have been chosen in his honour.

The Earl took a great interest in sports. He spoke out strongly for school athletic programs to improve the fitness of young Canadians. The name of the group probably reflects the profound influence of the Governor-General during the time these young men attended High School.

Moreover, this Governor-General was Scottish and the Palmerston neighbourhood included many Scottish immigrant families. The minstrel on the far left is David A. Cox of Palmerston, born November 6, 1879 of Scottish descent, son of David D. and Mary Cox. The minstrel third from left (the shortest) is believed to be John A. McCombe of Palmerston, born 9 April, 1979 of Scottish descent, son of Samuel F. and Janet McCombe. The man second from left has not been fully identified but is believed to be one “C. Morrison”, and may also be of Scottish background. The clown is identified only as “J. Marshal [sic]”. The little troupe in its own way communicates the pride in Scottish ancestry current in the Palmerston community of the 1890’s.

At first, I wondered if this was a professional team from a travelling circus, but it was not so. Both David Cox and John McCombe were employed as railway brakeman. Palmerston owed its existence to the establishment of railway barns and a junction there in the 1870’s, and it seems that at the turn of the last century, the railway was still an important employer. Cox and McCombe likely knew each other at High School and continued as friends on the railway. Morrison and Marshall may also have been co-workers, but this has yet to be proven.

This all tells us that these are amateur performers. Also, they are not sons of the upper class with independent means, amusing themselves but rather working class men who probably had limited leisure time. The fact that they chose to spend it training and rehearsing tells us that the men certainly believed in the personal benefit of the activity. It is not outrageous to suggest that the publicity must have conferred rewards in the form of popularity or even status in their community.

Perhaps, at the turn of the last century, everybody in Palmerson and perhaps all of Wellington county had heard of the Aberdeen Minstrels.

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

Why Does the Archive Not Want My .jpgs ?

A local researcher was perplexed.  She “digitized” some letters and photographs and shared them with an historian.  He was grateful and delighted.  -But when she offered the same electronic records to an archive, the response was a polite, “Thanks but no thanks.”

“I want to keep the original letters and photographs to give to my granddaughter,” she said,  “but the historian thought they should be shared with other Canadians.  So it seemed that offering the scans to the archive was a good solution.”

I can’t  be certain that every professional archive in Canada would have declined these electronic images; however, I am sure that many would have done so.  Why?

Archives are expected to take good custodial care of every accession “forever”, which means as long as it is reasonably possible to care for and maintain the document.  Caring for an electronic record will require “migrating” the data every time there is a leap forward in hardware and software, which in turn requires rigorous watchfulness, staff time and up-to-date understanding of technogy.   This investment is not without financial cost to the institution.

If a zealous donor presents the same electronic copies to (say) three archives, then multiply this cost by three within an heritage community with is hardly rich in resources.

Public funds will pay for this custodial care.  Many archivists feel that public funds are best deployed in caring for original materials where there is the justification of intrinsic value (“cool” and “antique”), and perhaps also monetary value.

Moreover, no matter what the industry hopes, it is likely that electronic records will deteriorate (“become corrupted”) over time, and with no original, the archive cannot replace them.

Add to this the legal concept of evidence.  It is possible to tamper with an electronic record, and this is likely to get easier with time, not more difficult.  Without an original, there is no way of knowing for certain that the electronic file in fifty years is not different from the original.

Most archivists are now challenged with the care of records which have always been electronic and have never been fully available on paper, such as large databanks.  There is much debate in the profession as to how best to do this.  At the moment, many archivists see this as challenge enough, without adding the care of a digital copy of something which does have a physical entity.

Scans and digital photographs are super ways to share collections, but at present expect the archive to want the original.

My answer was, “How do you know that your granddaughter will always have a lifestyle sympathetic to care of old, original records?”  I  recommended that the client make good copies for her granddaughter and present the originals to an archive.  In years to come, the original letters and photographs can be accessed there by the family and fresh copies made, if needed.


Filed under Archives, Material culture, Museums

William DeWindt: a soldier’s story

n2009-010smFrom California I acquired a Canadian postcard from the time of the First World War.  A laughing soldier, laden down by his kit, poses in the winter snow outside the Quartermaster’s Store.  The photograph was taken in Hamilton, Ontario.  His name is recorded on the back, probably in his own hand.  Wm. DeWindt. 

I wanted to know more about Mr. DeWindt, so I invested a couple of hours and this is what I now know.

William DeWindt was born in Ingelmunster, Belgium on April 26th, 1879.   He said that his mother-tongue was French, so he may have come from a Walloon family.  This is significant, because  there was conflict between the Flemish and Walloon ethnic groups. 

As a young man with limited prospects, William enlisted in the Belgian Army, likely at the age of 16 in April, 1895.  This was a dangerous time to enlist, as the notorious Leopold II, King of the Belgians, was intent on expanding his influence, in particular in Africa.  Having grabbed the Belgian Congo, he insisted on giving it to the Belgian people in 1890, even though most of his government did not want it. 

There was great turmoil in Belgium as landed and industrial elites were trying to squeeze gains from industrial expansion by exluding most of the population.  Since Belgium had become a sovereign state, it had lost access to the sea, and this together with other changes had precipitated economic hard times, which increased internal friction.   Frightening disturbances occurred in Belgium with major unrest betweent 1899 and 1902 over who could and could not vote.  Flemish people battled Walloons for influence and workers took  on factory owners and the government for more rights.  (Even after the extension of the franchise, less than 22% of Belgians could vote.)  Troops were used to put down violent protests particularly in 1893.

I do not know whether William DeWindt was one of the soldiers turned on the citizens.  He may have avoided danger as he was talanted musically, and had been sent to one of the Beligian military bands.  He served in the army for about eight years so he could scarcely avoid seeing some of the violence.   He left active service in about 1903.

At about that time, he married Rachel, daughter of Orchid Remie of Ghent.  A son, Polidor DeWindt, was born in about 1905.  With a new family dependent upon him, William looked overseas and decided to go the United States.  His destination was Chicago, where another appearance of the unusual name DeWindt suggests to me that he had at least one relation.

The U.S. Census says that the whole family emigrated in 1905, but in fact only William left Belgium.    Rachel and Polidor followed later, arriving at New York on October 20th, 1908 on the Kroonland, out of Antwerp.  The little family appear on the 1910 census, living in the Flat Building in Chicago where William was the janitor.

Life expectancy for women in Belgium at the turn of the last century was less than 40 years, but Rachel did not gain much through emigration.  Sometime between 1910 and 1917, Rachel died.  As she was born in about 1879, she was not yet 40.  I do not know what happened to the little boy, Polidor. 

In the autumn of 1917, British and Canadian officers were in Chicago recruiting.   Heavy losses prompted the need for more men.  William enlisted on Dec. 5th, 1917, in Chicago, and was sent across the border to Canada to join the First Depot Battalion of the 2nd Central Ontario Regiment (Serial No. 3105913).  He gave his next-of-kin as his sister back in Belgium.  He was sent to Toronto, and then probably to Hamilton, where this picture was taken, likely in January, 1918. 

William was only 5′ 1″ tall.  Although to his generation this was not as short as it appears to us today it was less than desirable and combined with his age (39) and relatively non-combative background (bandsman) one would expect that he would have been deployed in one of the support activities.  -But I can’t be sure, being reluctant to pay for copies of his file from the National Library and Archives of Canada.  Perhaps he was sent to the Western Front and saw Flanders once more under very different circumstances.

I found William after the War back in Chicago, at the Washington Park Hospital.  He was still single.  At first, I thought he was a patient, but upon examining the census I concluded that he was on staff and living on the grounds.  This was confirmed by the 1930 census which shows William DeWindt, now age 51, occupation “orderly employed by hospital”.

At the hospital, William probably met his second wife, Nettie, an American from New York State who worked at the same place as a nurse’s aid.  Nettie was seven years younger than William, and he married her in late in 1920 or early in 1921.

The couple was living comfortably in a small house in Ward 7 of Chicago in 1930, and that is the last I found of them.  Perhaps there is someone else who knows the end of the story.   William DeWindt lived through a period of great changes, some of them terribly violent.  Imagine the adventures that he likely experienced.

I am indebted to Sandra Halperin, whose interesting book, “War and Social Change in Europe, 1789-1945” was a great help in understanding William’s times.  The book is published by Cambridge University Press.

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Filed under Archives, Material culture, Photographica

Will our grandchildren be able to read our letters?

During a visit to my local archive last week, I noticed a guide tacked beside the computer — the machine that  is used for access to the Ontario Vital Statistics.    cursif2Shelley (the archivist) explained that clients are unable to read the original records which are presented as “pdf” files or “jpg’s”.  The original records are in cursive script, or what we always called long-hand

I am constantly annoyed with folks who claim that all the recent indexing has made those hand-written  originals obsolete.  The index to the Vital Stats is (in a word) horrible.  In a rush to finish, the sponsor accepted any moron to do the transcription.  The index is riddled with mistakes, many of which were completely avoidable.  For instance, I have seen the phrase “Canada West”, which appears in the index frequently, transcribed as “Cweste”  and “Canwe”.   Surnames are often horribly mangled.  

It seems that researchers are beginning to agree with me, and are coming to the archives to gain access to the pictures of the originals. 

An over-whelming number of this archives’ clients are over fifty years of age, so I was astonished to learn that they are mostly unable to read anything written in pen and ink.  What’s with that?  We are all pre-keyboard and set down anything and everything by hand right through high school.

However, it does explain why the indices to the Vital Stats, and to Canada Census for that matter, are so dratted awful.

If  older folks who learned penmanship can no longer read the writings from our recent past, how are our children and grandchildren going to cope?  The Kingston Whig-Standard (Wed. March 18, 2009) recently contained two articles: “Saving the lost art of handwriting,” and another, “Parents concerned…”  which questions whether keyboarding is preventing children from learning to write with a pen or pencil.  As our local Whiggy (alas) is no longer independent, but syndicated, you may have seen the same articles in your own local paper.

What a shame.  For the sake of a few weeks of training in primary school, our descendants will be denied the pleasure of reading an actual letter in Lord Byron’s hand not to mention great-grandma’s account of the Halifax explosion or the rich details of the 19th century data just as the clerk set them down. 

Presumably, everyone will be basing their understanding on a transcription made by someone else, a transcription which might be good, fair or downright misleading.   How very sad.

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Filed under Archives, History, Ontario, Material culture

Who was the lady with the sad eyes?

She looks into your eyes across time — sad and far away, the lovely woman in the photograph.  She was no elegant lady of fashion.  Her beautiful bonnet would have been the acme of style in the 1840’s when she was married, but by the time she posed for the daguerreotypist in the 1850’s it was just a little too fussy and too large.  We know that she was a hard worker.  Her linens and printed gown are spotlessly clean and pressed.  She is not old, but there are already lines etched on her pretty face.  


So, who was she?  We will never know.  Almost certainly, she was a farmer’s wife from northern New York State, where her photograph surfaced a century and a half later. 

I wonder what family cast out her picture, consigning it to the flotsam and jetsam of the antique trade?  Obviously, there was no one left alive among her descendants who remembered her name.  -But did no one in the family resemble her?  Was an accruel of $50 more important then keeping her where she belonged?

It is an humbling thought.  We all feel so needed, so connected while we live, but who will keep our life and times alive, after we are gone?

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Filed under Archives, Material culture, Photography

150 Years of Visual Democracy may be Coming to an End.

What glimpses into the late twentieth century will survive?

Since paper photographs became affordable in the 1860’s we have been supplied with a wealth of images of folk, remarkable and unremarkable, and a supply of views of day-to-day life. Of course, historians and journalists might argue that is never quite the right particular photograph available when you need it, but in reality never has so much been documented to such an extent, by so many.

Those of us who work with historic images like to complain about our ancestors most of whom seem had a mighty aversion to labelling snaps. If only they had given us a clue as to who, when and where! However, archivists are not totally lacking in tools. Old photographs are physical entitites. Photographic technique, size of the print, and membership in a body of related materials (“context”) are all of help in identification, not to mention history of ownership (“provenance”). So the farmer’s wife may have known nothing about durability of her photograph, or of the tapes, glues, mounts and fingers with which it would have contact, but despite this, something which we can use remains.

Today’s amateur shutterbugs are now almost completely converted to digital photography. They are confused, challenged and seduced by a range of options for storing pictures. Many of the options use the words “archive” or “archival”. The word suggests survival for the future. The truth is that most early 21st century processes and products are so new that we do not know if or how they will endure.

Even if the best case is true, and floppy disks, cd-roms, hard drives and memory devices do not deteriorate, will the hardware and software still be around to read them in fifty years, or will data retrieval be the domain of specialists?

Printing out is not the answer either, as home printing devices produce snapshots that are light sensitive, or with a tendency to become sticky or powdery.

These scary thoughts have prompted exploration of other possibilities. One idea which has gained in popularity is to store digital images far away, on a site run by a reputable company. The photographer is supposed to have complete access and to relax, assured that the visual information is ultimately safe. The picture archive is responsible for providing the tools to enable translation from one format to another, offering the best of new formats to replace obsolete ones.

Experienced photograph archivists worry about usefulness of these photo banks to posterity. Amateur photographers who label their work are rare. Uploaded photographs frequently are accompanied by very little data. At least one firm has suggested a software to record the GPS locator and time taken as part of the digital image, as well as the date. I suppose that this might help, but it will still not tell us that the occasion was the Millenneum Parade and that the person in costume is cousin Susie.

Off-site photograph banks which were initially enthusiastic about playing a role in historical preservation are now getting cold feet as the size of memory resource which must be offered to clients for free (or for very little) becomes apparent. The most recent cause celebre was the death of AOL Pictures Service on January 8th, 2009. AOL turned the function over to a commercial partner, PhotoWorks, and clients are asked to register for a PhotoWorks account by June 30th, 2009, in order to continue to access their images.

The idea that the photograph bank would one day be a resource for millions of wonderful images is revealed as not credible. The need to clear intellectual property considerations (copyright) requires knowledge about the date of creation. Even setting copyright aside, there is the need to know just what the subject matter of the image might be and cryptic codes don’t explain. Then there is the matter of retrieval. In order to make the pictures useful, people have to be able to search the image bank. Unlike genuine archives, large commercial companies are not interested in the investment of manpower to carefully arrange and tag, image by image. The financial return for amateur photographs is just not juicy enough. As the size of the photograph bank grows, private interests sometimes group the images in virtual boxes under themes: “ships”, “lighthouses”, “sailors”, leaving the researchers to hunt for themselves through the boxes.

There is no doubt that carefully tended digital banks of commercial images, such as those maintained by Associated Press, have a good chance of surviving a long time. The AP image bank contains celebrities, stirring events and evocative views taken mostly by skilled professionals. AP presently charges $40 for an 8″ x 10″ reproduction for personal enjoyment and more than three times that for commercial use. The revenue potential alone of these top end photographs would be an indicator for preservation.

The question is how much about the grassroots will have the same privilege. Will the snapshots of the opening ceremony at the new public school be available in one hundred years? Will future researchers be able to find photographs of small-town mayors and returning veterans? While we would probably all agree that it is unnecessary to keep an image of every Hallowe’en costume worn by every Canadian child, it is troubling to think that very little of our day-to-day lives and times may survive.


Filed under Archives, History, Ontario, Material culture, Photography