Tales from the Archives: the Ambrotype

By Kes Murray, Registrar

Sometimes, working in an archive brings you new objects you would never encounter in your everyday life. In my case, it was the Ambrotype. I, of course, had heard of and seen glass plate photographs. However, I had never seen one in person, or even handle one.

In a recent collection, which we called the French House Collection, was an Ambrotype. Our archivist knew exactly what it was the moment she saw it. I, on the other hand, had never heard of an Ambrotype.

Image of a Caucasian woman, sitting in a chair. She is wearing a black dress and has rosy cheeks. The photograph is enclosed in a gold frame
An Ambrotype of an unknown woman, from the French House Collection, Oshawa Museum archival collection (A021.12.21)

So, what is an Ambrotype?

Ambrotype is a type of glass-plate photography popular during the 1850s-1880s. It followed the Daguerreotype, the first publicly available type of photography.

The Ambrotype is created using the Wet Collodion process. This process was invented in 1851 by British inventor Frederick Scott Archer, but the Ambrotype was patented in the United States by James Ambrose Cutting.

The Wet Collodion process involves coating a glass plate with chemicals that makes it sensitive to light. As the glass plate sits within the chemicals, the photographer will focus the camera and position the subject. When the glass plate is allowed the proper amount of time in the chemicals, it is then placed within a camera (see our Korona View Camera!). These steps are done in a dark room since when the chemicals set on the glass plate, it will become sensitive to light.

A large wooden camera. It has an accordian style bellows, and the lens slides along the bottom
Korona View Camera, circa 1900-1903 (008.1.1). This is the type of camera that would have taken an Ambrotype. This particular one does use glass plate negatives, but is from thirty years after the Ambrotype went out of use.

Once in the camera, the photographer will remove the lens cap and expose the glass plate to the subject and light. This exposure is done for about twenty seconds. Then the lens cap is placed back on the camera and the glass plate is removed. The glass plate is then finished in a developing solution and allowed to dry.

Back view of a wooden camera, showing where the negative gets inserted
Back view of the Korona View Camera. The glass plate fits into the grey compartment. 008.1.1

To finish, sometimes a photographer would add pigment to an Ambrotype, such as rosy cheeks or even colour for their clothing or jewelry. Our French House Collection Ambrotype has such pigment, with rosy cheeks.

Close up image of a Caucasian woman, sitting in a chair. She is wearing a black dress and has rosy cheeks
A close up of the French House Ambrotype. You can see their rosy cheeks, an added detail after the photograph was taken. A021.12.21.

The glass plate was then put into a protective case with a black backing. This black backing is crucial, as this makes the photograph visible (see the National Museums Scotland photograph for a great example of this crucial step!).

A photo of a Caucasian woman, encased in a gold frame. The left half of the photo appears to be negative while the right half is positive
An example of an Ambrotype without the black backing. As you can see, it is nearly impossible to see the person without the black backing. From the Howarth-Loomes Collection at National Museums Scotland,

By the late 1800s, the Tintype replaced the Ambrotype as the dominant photographic method.

Though the Ambrotype was only used for around thirty years, it is a fascinating type of photography and an interesting example of the development of early photography.


Sources consulted

https://asc.ucalgary.ca/photohistory/ambrotypes/#:~:text=The%20ambrotype%20was%20introduced%20in,cheaper%20and%20easier%20to%20produce.

https://blog.scienceandmediamuseum.org.uk/find-out-when-a-photo-was-taken-identify-collodion-positive-ambrotype/

https://www.britannica.com/biography/Frederick-Scott-Archer

https://www.loc.gov/collections/liljenquist-civil-war-photographs/articles-and-essays/ambrotypes-and-tintypes/

Archives Awareness Week – The David Dowsley Collection

By Jennifer Weymark, Archivist, and Savannah Sewell, Registrar

Along with the exciting promise of summer and warmer weather, the beginning of April also brings an exciting week for the field of archives and the Oshawa Museum. Archives Awareness Week is from April 4-10, a week dedicated to the consciousness and understanding of the archival process and the importance of archival work.

A022.6.164 – Durham Regional Courthouse, Oshawa Ontario, February 3, 2009. (Dowsley collection, Oshawa Museum archival collection)

Let’s do a quick breakdown of the archival process and the difference between collections and archival work. Here at the Oshawa Museum, we collect both physical and archival collections. The easiest way to separate the collections is that the physical collection is comprised of items and artefacts and the archives are committed to curating information. For example, the collection will have accessions of dresses, while the archives would acquire documents that detail the prices and origination of patterns or fabric sales.

Archival work, in turn, can be separated into two main sections – real-time research and safeguarding for the future. Our archivist, Jennifer, spends most of her day researching through the archival collection to respond to research requests from the community and other institutions. She is also, in conjunction with other museum staff, writing a book about the comprehensive history of Oshawa. On the other hand, collections are coming into the museum consistently and they need to be processed, accessioned, and appropriately homed. The collections, information, and artefacts that come to the museum will experience both the safeguarding process and the research process and a collection that we are most excited about right now is the David Dowsley Photograph Collection.

Inside a large grocery store, looking down upon the aisles.
A016.10.286 – Superstore near Taunton and Harmony, July 2013. (Dowsley collection, Oshawa Museum archival collection)

The Dowsley Collection presents the opportunity to plan for future research by contributing images of Oshawa, taken by Mr. Dowsley, that include captions describing the content and the date the photo was taken. This collection is expansive and includes images dating from the 1980s to this month. Mr. Dowsley continues to contribute to the collection, and the new images are actively being accessioned.

Two women, wearing winter jackets, standing in front of a yellow house, with the windows boarded up. There is yellow caution tape in front of the house. There is snow on the ground
A022.6.167 – “Dec. 19/03 Lakeview Park Oshawa Fire at Guy House Historical Bldg. December 17/03 Historical Soc. Employees L-R Angela Siebarth & Melissa Cole (Dowsley collection, Oshawa Museum archival collection).

The David Dowsley Photograph Collection will address some current gaps in the archives. Many of the most common research requests are individuals asking for photos of their historic homes or of buildings or businesses that no longer exist. Unfortunately, we do not currently possess many of these images and do not have many options to offer community members; however, Mr. Dowsley’s attention to detail, construction, and change in the community will provide solutions for requests like these. Mr. Dowsley takes images of houses and streetscapes including street signs, like image A022.6.13 which shows a view of Cherrydown Street at Grandview Street South on April 6, 1994.

A snowcovered streetscape with several houses and two cars on the road.
A022.6.13 – Cherrydown St., Oshawa, Ontario, Canada. April 6, 1994. (Dowsley collection, Oshawa Museum archival collection

Mr. Dowsley also includes photos of events such as image A022.6.38, the groundbreaking ceremony for the new Durham Trust Garage on November 24, 2015. Each of the individuals in this image is named and subsequent photos continue to monitor the construction of the garage until completion. These images will be simple to locate and use as they are being collected on the internal data system and digitized. Each image is given an accession number and a subsection under the collection which will make them easier to find based on the content. The subsections include houses, construction, businesses, schools, sports facilities, transportation, and waterfront, among others.

Seven people wearing hardhats, each with a shovel in hand, for a sod turning ceremony.
A022.6.38 – “Groundbreaking for the new Durham Transit Garage, Farewell Avenue Oshawa, ON, November 24, 2015; included in picture: Roger Anderson, Regional Chair and CEO Durham Region; John Henry, Mayor of Oshawa; Granville Anderson, MPP Durham. (Dowsley collection, Oshawa Museum archival collection

Archives serve as a repository of information and a means to access it. The David Dowsley Photography Collection demonstrates how modern efforts can provide invaluable context and insight into historic events. Archives Awareness Week encourages us to reflect on how archives have influenced historical accuracy and community nostalgia around us. Fortunately,  community members and the Oshawa Museum’s archives have a wealth of information available.

The Importance of Context When Examining Photographs

By Jennifer Weymark, Archivist

When leading our primary source workshop, I often pose the question to students “Are photographs accurate depictions of the events they are showing?”  Typically, students respond with “yes, of course.”  I prompt them to reconsider that response and ask what tools do we have available that may make that answer incorrect. This leads into a discussion of photo manipulation with tools such as Photoshop and staged or propaganda photographs and how we must use our cognitive thinking skills when examining photographs to use as evidence of events.

I was fortunate to attend the 2021 Archives Association of Ontario virtual conference in May.  The focus of the conference was doing the work to move our archival collections from their colonial roots into a more inclusive future.  The opening keynote address was entitled “Reimagining Our Futures: Photographs of Sports at Indian Residential Schools” and was delivered by Janice Forsyth.  Dr. Forsyth is an Associate Professor at Western University who specializes in exploring sport’s relationship to Indigenous and Canadian culture.

During her talk, Dr. Forsyth shared an image of a hockey team comprised of students from a residential school.  This image, along with hundreds of others, was an integral part of her research. The image was a typical hockey team pose.  Two rows of children, the ones in the front seated, those in the back standing, all wearing their equipment and smiling for the camera. If you just looked at the image without digging any further, it could be used to support those who argue that residential schools weren’t all bad. However, Dr. Forsyth wanted to know more about the image and the students in the photograph and was connected with one of the students.

Upon speaking with a gentleman who had been one of the students in the photograph, Dr. Forsyth was provided with a great deal of context that altered the information the photograph provided. In the photograph, the students are shown wearing new equipment; however, according to the former student, that equipment was brought in to be worn only for the photograph. In reality, the equipment they were provided with was very old and offered very little protection. He sat with Dr. Forsyth and provided context for more images from the school, all of which highlighted how the photographs were not accurate representations of what sports were like at that school but were stylized to provide a palatable representation of residential schools.

When looking at any photograph, it is always beneficial to include as much context as possible as it is context that allows us to better understand the image we are looking at.

Passive Collecting vs. Active Collecting

By Jennifer Weymark, Archivist

Recently, I attended the Archives Association of Ontario conference.  This fantastic professional development opportunity never fails to inspire and highlight steps I can take to celebrate our community through the archival collection.  The conferences also provide me an opportunity to discuss issues we are facing and troubleshoot with other professionals in the field.

One of the sessions, a session that I was pleased to chair, examined the shift from passive collecting to active collecting.  Traditionally, many archives have waited for donations of collections to come to them – passive collecting.  This is how the archival collection here at the Oshawa Museum has developed. Beyond the very early days of the Oshawa Historical Society, when the members were working to gather a collection to fill a new museum, we have typically not been out in the community asking the public to donate their historic documents and photographs to the archives.

This passive approach to collecting has resulted in some very noticeable gaps in our collection.  It is only through a more active collecting approach will we correct these gaps, as well as prevent a future archival collection that does not accurately represent our community.

The first step in a more active collecting approach is to determine what the gaps in the collection are and begin approaching people or groups that may have items that fit that topic. We noticed that there was a lack archival holdings focused on the diverse population of Oshawa.  In order to address this issue, we first began with researching these communities and developing articles and media to share the information.  The sharing of the information helped us to develop connections with members of the communities that had been underrepresented in our holdings.  These connections have brought in new donations, donations that work to fill in the gaps. For example, our research into early Black history in Oshawa has led to a connection with Club Carib and a donation of items related to the history of the club.

A018081
A018.27.8 – May 1972 – Oshawa Caribs at Midtown Mall

The second step is changing our collecting focus.  For quite a while, the focus was on collecting items that belonged to “prominent” members of the community. By shifting the focus to include collecting on simply members of the community, not just those who have been deemed “prominent,” we create a collection that preserves a more complete and accurate history of our community. We have recently accessioned a new collection of postcards related to a young woman who grew up in Oshawa.  The postcards, and accompanying photographs, were sent to Mary James (nee Riley) from family and friends and speak to the life of a young girl growing up in early 20th century Oshawa. It is a most interesting collection and one that helps fill in a gap related to the female experience.

a019123
A019.1.23 – Mary Riley riding a bicycle. Date and location unknown

Finally, active collecting results an archival collection growing at a far faster rate than one that relies solely in passive collecting.  This growing collection is straining the already cramped storage space for the archival collection. This is just one of the many reasons the Oshawa Historical Society is pursuing a new, purpose built visitor and collections centre. The proposed building will have a larger space for the archival collection and will permit future growth of this important asset to our community’s history.

 

Flashback Friday – Henry House Through the Years

By Lisa Terech, Community Engagement

One of our commonly asked questions is about our houses and whether or not they were moved to Lakeview Park.  Visitors are often surprised to learn that the three museum buildings, Robinson House, Henry House, and Guy House, are still standing on their original foundations, or, simply put, they are standing where they were built over 150 years ago.  The three homes were built close together, close to the lot lines; the reason for this is unclear, but one could imagine it would have been handy having neighbours close by.

The documentary evidence for the houses not being moved is overwhelming.  Take Henry House: in our archival collection, we have the land deed which shows Thomas buying the land from his father in 1830.  The 1852 Census of Canada East/West, New Brunswick and Nova Scotia records the Henry family residing in a stone house on Lot 7 Broken Front East Whitby Township, and the 1871 Atlas of Ontario County is dotted throughout, representing building locations.  The Thomas Henry Memoirs also makes mention of the family living in a stone house by the lake.

We also have photographic evidence, and really, who doesn’t like a good, vintage photograph.

One of the earliest photographs that we have are from the Mackie family, who lived in the house from 1917 to the early 1920s.  In the photo below, Doug Mackie is pictured, sitting by the back door.

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This photo, as interesting as it is, does not provide any indication that house was located in Lakeview Park.

This panoramic photograph, however, does.

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Click on the photo to have it open in a new window.  It’s simply overwhelming the width of it and the amount of people being photographed! This is the General Motors Annual Picnic, August 1926, taken in Lakeview Park.  When you take a closer look:

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Henry House is unmistakable!

In the 1930s, Lakeview Park was the place to be, as evidenced by a fantastic photograph collection we have in the archives. Nicknamed the Lowry Lakeview Park collection, it is a series of photographs documenting summers at Lakeview Park, staff who worked at the pavilions, bands who played, and life at the time.  The Jubilee Pavilion opened in 1927, and this photograph of the south facade was taken only a few years later; look to the right of the pavilion, and Henry House is again unmistakable.

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This image of Henry House was captured in the Oshawa Telegram in 1937.

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The caption reads: Built from ballast of Kingston limestone, this house of Elder Thomas Henry, early harbormaster and president of the Oshawa Harbor Company, still stands in old Port Oshawa.  In the great days of the grain trade, schooners landing at Oshawa used to come back light from Kingston, or ballasted with the local limestone to be had there for the loading.  They would throw their ballast overboard to make room for the grain. Elder Henry thriftfully acquired enough of it to build the walls of his second home.

It was in the 1930s that Henry House was inhabited by Ned and Lina Smith; Ned helped care for the buffalo that lived in Lakeview Park for a short time and helped plant many trees in Lakeview Park.

By the 1950s, there was growing concern over the state of Henry House.  The Oshawa and District Historical Society was founded with the intention of creating a historical museum in the City.  Henry House was well suited to accomplish this task; permission was granted in March 1959 to use the home, and it opened to the public in May 1960.

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