Category Archives: Photograph history

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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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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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.

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A Woodstock lady, with her pug, circa 1888

KirtonPhoto

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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An Acrobatic Troupe from Palmerston, Ontario

minstrels

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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