Category Archives: Material culture

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.

Leave a comment

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

The Sons of St. Crispin

Image

A cobbler at work in his shop, May, 1907.

In the 19th century, every Ontario village had a shoemaker, sometimes more than one.  These men were also known as cordwainers, although some sources say that only men who made more luxurious footwear out of softest leather truly deserved the name.  In contrast, cobblers were men who repaired boots and shoes, but did not make them.  As time passed, the distinction between shoemaker and cobbler became blurred as one man often performed both functions.

It does not take much imagination to perceive the autonomy which shoemakers enjoyed.  They were masters of their own small shops and could decide their own hours.  They could take on apprentices and get paid for the privilege.  They knew everyone in their village and most of the farmers thereabouts.   Conversation during a visit to the shoemaker was not limited to shoes, so they understood much about the politics and economy of the community.

In the 1860’s all this began to change.  Better transportation, in particular, the railways, permitted centralized manufacture of footwear on a large scale in cities such as Toronto, Hamilton and Montreal.  Newly patented machines made it possible to mechanize most of the process.  Village shoemakers could not compete with mass manufacturer.  At first, many of the employees in the factories were men who had been village shoemakers but had moved to the city.  The regular wages offered seemed appealing in contrast to the struggle to survive in a village shop with a declining number of customers.  However, city workers experienced a sense of loss — loss of autonomy and loss of control of their working days as well as loss of respect.  Moreover, it was not long before manufacturers found that they could hire semi-skilled labourers to operate the machines.  These were known as “green hands” to the older shoemakers and much resented by men raised in the apprentice-journeyman system.  Manufacturers also hired women, because they would work for lower wages.

In the northeastern United States in the 1870’s, the Knights of St. Crispin became one of the first large scale labour unions.  (St. Crispin is the patron saint of shoemakers.)   Although they described their occupation as a quiet and gentle craft, the shoemakers believed that strong opposition was required if they were not to be pushed out of their own trade.  Among other demands, the Knights of St. Crispin argued that shoemakers should be permitted to remain in the villages and work and not forced to move into cities although it was not clear how this could be accompished.   After the rise and fall of the Knights, other organizations representing shoe workers appeared, including the Boot and Shoe Makers Union which was very vigorous in Ontario.  In Toronto, female shoe workers lead their male colleagues into a mass strike in the 1880’s.  The issue was the right of female workers to unionize and the right of equal pay.  When the Toronto shoe industry began to loose out to factories in Montreal, of course the union was blamed, although the reasons were actually not quite so simple.

The elderly cobbler in the photograph is still working in his own shop.  At  right a window provides a glimpse of an unpaved road and the business across the street.  However, on the wall a prominent card (shield-shaped, upper right) announces that he is a member of the Boot and Shoe Makers Union.  The movement born on the factory floor has moved beyond the city and been embraced by local entrepreneurs.

Photograph from the collections of the Lennox and Addington Historical Society, Lennox and Addington County Museum and Archives.

Leave a comment

Filed under Edwardian Era, History, Ontario, Material culture

The Lives of Ordinary Folks

Judith Salkeld Robinson

Judith with her camera.

Sometimes during my archival or appraisal work, I stumble on something which seems worthy of a better fate than a cupboard. Such a find was a ‘disbound’ scrapbook which once belonged to Judith Salkeld Robinson. Assembled during the years 1905 to 1914, the book contains Judith’s snapshots of summer rambles and family visits, including a Mediterranean cruise on the new P&O Line. The last two pages concern her marriage to Lieutenant C.A.K. Matterson of the Cheshire Regiment. This took her from Cheshire to Fivehead on the Somerset levels.

With the help of some researchers in the United Kingdom, I have been able to fill in some names and information which take us beyond the few notes left to us in Judith’s careful hand.

Judith Robinson was not a professional photographer. Acidic paper and the passage of a century have also been less than kind to her album. The photographs were sometimes challenging to reproduce.

Do all these intimate survivors of a vanished time really deserve publication? It is never an easy decision. Anyway, it is done. I have chosen to make it available “on-demand” as I expect it will be of special interest to the few, rather than the many. Below, a link to on-demand printing site:

The Edwardian Summers of Judith Salkeld Robinson by Jennifer L. Bunting. Cranberry Hill Enterprises

Leave a comment

Filed under Edwardian Era, Material culture, Photography

Automobile Touring – Knight’s Kamp Dining Hall, Ontario

PhotoSince the late 19th century, what we now call cottages or cabins were known in Eastern Ontario as “camps”. As the affordability of automobiles made family touring possible thousands of commercial, privately operated holiday “camps” sprung up to serve tourists who could not afford (or did not wish) to own a cottage of their own. These rustic resorts usually consisted of a cluster of brightly painted wooden cabins located convenient to a sparkling lake. Some were able to offer a sand or pebble beach. In the centre of the camp was the dining hall which might also serve as a restaurant for day-trippers.

Knight’s Kosy Kabins and Kamp was located on the north shore of Lake Ontario east of Toronto, possibly in the Oshawa/Whitby area. This snapshot appears to have been taken in the early 1950’s. The flag (a Union Jack) tells us that we are not on “the American side”, as does the Bell sign which informed travellers of those days that there was a pay telephone available. The Telegram sign would be promoting the Toronto Telegram, one of the two newspapers. The old “Telly” is now nearly forgotten. Tin signs advertising 7-Up and Orange Crush encouraged thirsty travellers to come in. As well as cold soft drinks, such dining halls offered postcards as well as penny candies, gum and peanuts to tempt the children. Many sold cigarettes as well.

Most holiday camps derived most of their business from the excellent sport fishing in eastern Ontario. However, with the danger of the vast open water of Lake Ontario, it is likely that Knight’s Kabins catered more to travellers who stopped overnight on the way to another destination. There was probably also local business from beach-seekers on hot weekends. If a camp was lucky enough to have a good cook, it sometimes evolved into a destination for the delicious Sunday lunches which tempted restless families in the 1950’s.

If anyone knows more about Knight’s Kosy Kabins I would be interested to know.

Leave a comment

Filed under Buildings - Ontario, History, Ontario, Material culture, Ontario Architecture

Self-Guided Tours and Heritage

Is this the Answer?

Everyone employed in heritage knows that government grants have been shrinking for years. Private donations just don’t fill the gap. Everywhere museums and their friends are forced to compete with deeply rooted public concerns such as hospitals, children’s charities and animal welfare. Faced with choosing between such heart-breaking needs and heritage even staunch supporters hesitate. History and culture are inevitably the loosers.

The big day-to-day operating costs for small museums are staffing, utilities/security and insurance/book-keeping, usually in that order. Staffing is by far the biggest cost. Even if volunteers do much of the work at the museum, a paid person is usually required to organize and anchor the operation as well as research and design the tours. So the idea of the “self-guided tour”, which promises to considerably reduce the need for staff, seems worthy of consideration. After all, the White House uses them!

–But, can one really compare tourism operations at the White House to tourism operations elsewhere? First of all, the self-guided tours (those which go inside the White House) must be booked months in advance either through one’s member of congress or senator. If one is not an American, bookings are made through your embassy in Washington. One has to be approved for a tour. They let you know. So groups of unrecorded individuals are not showing up at the gate at any time of the day and marching inside the White House. Second, security officers make sure that visitors show identification which confirms that they are on the booking list. They also make sure that visitors take nothing inside except car keys, wallets and umbrellas. You can carry a cellphone, but if you use it inside, it will be confiscated. –And third, some ask are the White House self-guided tours really self-guided? Evidently there are secret service agents every step of the way to answer the hundreds of questions which tourists inevitably have, but also to keep a strict eye on the visitors.

There is plenty of feed-back on the internet, which is interesting. Many visitors said that the tours are not really “self-guided” as the secret service personnel often accompany parties through the House. These guides garnered lots of really positive comments. Although heritage staff must have agonized over the written materials to guide the tourists many visitors said that the exhibit labels were insufficient and that the really “good stuff” came out while questioning the guides. Some respondents said that all one sees are “a bunch of paintings, photographs and old furniture”. They missed the significance, despite all the efforts to enable visitors to take the tour unescorted.

The basic function and significance of the White House are widely known, so visitors should arrive with at least an elementary understanding of the site. Can this be compared to (say) Laurier House in Ottawa? If the china selected by Martha Washington or Jacqueline Kennedy is not instantly significant to the audience without the intermediary of an interpreter, then what does the desk of Mackenzie-King mean? How is the significance of the “lobby” at Motherwell Homestead (Saskatchewan) to be appreciated? Exhibit designers know that there is a limit to what visitors will read and that tourists have short attention spans when using tape recorders and computer screens. Decline in visitor excitement (and hence, visitor satisfaction) in our world is a dangerous thing.

Heritage professionals also worry about security. Most historic homes are chock full of interesting artifacts, many quite small. It is difficult to believe that one administrator and a batch of security cameras will deter even a determined amateur with sticky fingers. One might be more optimistic about the durability of gardens, vistas, ruins and monuments. However, in 2008 visitors damaged Stonehenge using hammers and chisels and in 2012 dossents at Machu Picchu have been unable to cope with the avalanche of garbage slung down the hillsides by tourists.

In Britain, there appears to have been an alarming increase in thefts and attempted thefts from British museums during 2012. Although some people have suggested that the actual number of thefts has not increased but that they are merely getting more press attention, the Art Loss Register (a very credible source) has stated that 2012 was a record-breaking year for art losses. Many in Britain are blaming the trend on austerity measures which have forced nearly all museums to significantly reduce staff. In February, the Norwich Castle Museum lost some important artifacts associated with Admiral Nelson.  

Mourning Ring worn by Member of Admiral Nelson’s family. Stolen from Norwich Castle Museum.

The Museum had formerly employed interpreters in each room. The interpreters had been replaced with self-guided visits. The Norwich Castle Museum believes that although the interpreters were not primarily employed for security, their presence was an important deterrent to theft.

Parks Canada, a major player in the move away from interpreters and guides, claims that Canadians have voted with their feet when it comes to heritage. Gregory Thomas of Parks Canada is quoted as saying that it is difficult to justify spending tax dollars on museums when Canadians aren’t interested. However, Parks Canada’s own statistics show that visits to some of their sites have increased steadily over the past few years. Besides, many would argue that investment in an understanding of Canada — of our culture, history and the origins of our modern society, is of huge importance. It should not be left to a popularity contest. It is a question of leadership.

Children experience dress-up and tea time at Macpherson House, Napanee, during a Programme implemented by interpreters. (Photo Robert Hammond.)

It should also be pointed out that, due to the loss of interpretation staff, avail-ability of Parks Canada sites for use by schools is about to undergo a huge change.

Heritage professionals view self-guided templates with caution. We know that virtual tours offer exciting possibilities to entertain and educate but they also permit thieves, vandals and crazy folk to “case the joint”. Introducing self-guided tours may indeed help struggling museums to reduce operating costs. Reducing operating costs may allow the museum to continue for another year. But if self-guided tours also result in bored visitors, declining attendance, less integration with educational programmes — in wear and tear and loss from the collection — is the change worth it? Is the bottom line to be our only criterion for success? While it is true that clever use of a mixture of old and new communication technlogies enhance museum visits and can be used with great success for outreach, they may still be most useful when used with living interpreters and guides.

1 Comment

Filed under Historical Societies, Material culture, Museums

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.

1 Comment

Filed under Archives, Material culture, Photograph history, Photography

Photograph Albums: What you don’t see…

Front of Album.

First page, with cabinets removed.

Photograph albums created between 1869, when paper photographic prints really took off in popularity in Ontario and January, 1901 may be accurately called Victorian. The earliest albums were made for the small prints known as cartes-de-visites, but within a few years albums were being manufactured with slots for larger cabinet prints. Unfortunately, the owners of photograph albums often did not identify the portraits. After all they knew their own relatives and friends, and like we in the 21st century imagined they would always be on hand to explain. Sadly, no one is exempt from the Great Reckoning.

It is heartbreaking to find oneself the custodian of a truly lovely album with little or no identification. However, creators of photograph albums seldom inserted the pictures in random sequence. This is the reason that it is important to keep the album contents in original order. If they are removed to better protect the images, then they should be numbered to perpetuate the sequence.

Pictures in the album are often arranged in family groups: husband opposite wife; brothers and sisters in proximity; a couple and their children close by. If this is suspected, then the place where the photograph was taken (provided mercifully by the byline of the photographer) can confirm relationships. If there are several photographs of the same individual which were not taken on the same day but on different days, wearing different clothing and perhaps aging over time, then it is likely (but of course not absolutely certain) that you are looking at the first owner of the album.

Nearly always, the first photograph or first two photographs in the album are persons of great importance, usually parents (mother often first, then father) or the owner of the album and her spouse, usually at the time of marriage. The identities of these individuals is often the last to fade from family memory, and so these pictures are usually removed before the luckless album is sold off with the rest of its contents.

When I acquire a photograph album in which the contents are still tightly in their sleeves (and thus likely still in original order) but the photographs at the beginning have been pulled away, then I believe that the album was ‘picked’ from the family as they kept the portraits which they could identify. Often, the flyleaf is also missing as it usually carries a presentation message written when it was empty and new and a gift. It is so frustrating to be the custodian of a super piece of Victoriana with the last link to the family torn away.

1 Comment

Filed under Archives, Material culture, Photograph history, Photographica