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As our little homestead winters beside the Coldwater River flowing under a magical glaze of ice, I tramp through feet of snow to gather up some old photo albums. Rummaging through the archives I am astonished at how large our collection is. My goal is to identify some of the people in these pictures, many of whom appear to have originated in England and Scotland, not surprisingly as many Scottish and English immigrants settled in Simcoe County during the mid to late 1800s. Too many of these photographs have nothing written on them to identify the subjects.
It would seem logical that our photographs were donated to Coldwater Canadiana Heritage Museum (CCHM) by descendants of the people in the pictures. Over the last few years, we have even made a “montage” of these unidentifiable folks and asked our visitors if they recognized anyone. But we have had little success at identifying anyone.
As my sorting begins, I am haunted by one recurring characteristic. Few of the pictured men, women or children are smiling. So, I googled this phenomenon and found that this is “Time” researcher’s rationale. Apparently smiling for the camera did not become the norm until the 1920s. Since the first known photograph was taken by a French scientist names Joseph Nicephore in 1826 that is 100 Years of some pretty sober faces!
One reason for not smiling was concern about dental issues. Bed teeth led to closed-mouth grins.
Additionally, because it would often take so long to set the pose and to take the picture, the subjects often found it difficult to hold a smile.
One humorous anecdote suggested that smiling with a wide toothy grin was associated with madness, rudeness or drunkenness. So, many photographers would encourage their subjects to look formal and refined, as if they were posing for a painting.
One farmer was quoted as explaining, “I can’t smile; life is just too damn hard!”
One visitor to (CCHM) suggested a unique and unexpected reason for an expressionless stare. Drawing attention to a photo of a young girl that hangs in our sewing room, the gentleman quietly informed us that she was actually dead when her photo was taken. Here was a picture of one of the Woodrow family granddaughters. Her name was Catherine and she died at age 12. We are fortunate to have that information written on the back of the frame.
Apparently, it was common practice to put a picture of a deceased on the death announcement and funeral card. If no picture existed, the local photographer was called upon to pose the deceased and capture their image. This would clearly explain why Catherine was not smiling!
While searching about CCHM for old photos, I discovered that, among our substantial collection, there are surprisingly quite a number on funeral cards, primarily within the Robinson Funeral Home display which includes an old pump organ, embalming tools and a wicker body basket. The rich history of this memorabilia will be covered in a future article.
Upon examining another small stack of pictures, I was impressed by the lovely clothing that many of the people were wearing. However, many of the men were photographed in tattered and torn shoes. Again, with a little research, I discovered many people did not have the type of attire suitable for picture taking. So, an accommodating photographer would keep on hand a small collection of suits, collars, shirts, vests and jewellery to dress the subjects. Just don’t look at the shoes!
As time went on, advancements in the field of photography showed no limits. Having one’s picture taken became increasingly popular even though few people owned a camera. Our collection reflects the craze. We have boxes of photos and albums covering everything from babies to Ballerinas.
Our daguerreotypes (metal plate images) are quite interesting. This unique photographic process was prominent in 1840s and 1850s. Each image is one of kind and is produced one a silver copper plate. These small pictures were very fragile and survived best when framed. We have some excellent examples in our vintage camera display.
So, back to the task at hand. Although, I have found some pictures of the same people, I have not yet been able to identify any of hem. If you have roots in this community, perhaps I am looking at one of your ancestors. A trip to the museum may be in order for you to help us put names to these lost souls.
By Patricia Turnour, Curator