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/

Blog Rewind: Easter Greetings

Happy Easter from the Oshawa Museum!  Here’s a glimpse at Easter in our collection.

From the Oshawa Museum Collection

Postcards in the Archival Collection

An Easter display at Eaton’s in the Oshawa Centre, from the Oshawa Museum photography collection (A999.19.654-658)


This post was originally published on March 30, 2018

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.

Weddings, Bridal Style, and the Oshawa Museum

By Savannah Sewell, Registrar

Regardless of whether you got married last weekend or last century (applies to this context…I promise), I’m sure you remember a variety of dramas and joys surrounding your wedding. If you have upcoming nuptials in mind, be prepared, from what I hear; there is lots of confusion, drama, and stress associated with the planning and preparation for a wedding. Regardless of how much work or loss of sleep is involved in planning your wedding, they are incredibly important days in our lives and symbolize the union of two people who love each other very much. The history of western weddings are often a lot more complicated that most think; from wedding fashions to the decision making process of picking a date, every decision was made for a reason.

Visitor Experience Coordinator, Jill, in front of Henry House on her wedding day.

Down at the Oshawa Museum, we have the pleasure of being the backdrop for weddings year-round. The Oshawa Museum rests on the shore of Lake Ontario, and our three historic houses each hold a unique colour scheme and aesthetic. The museum is also located conveniently beside the Jubilee Pavilion, a hall and event space that has existed in Oshawa since 1927! All of this combined with the picturesque views, mature trees, and beautiful gardens, Lakeview Park and the museum continue to be the perfect background for a romantic day of love and the institutional norm of marriage.

Curator, Melissa, on the front steps of Henry House, on her wedding day.

Wedding photography is a complex academic conversation, intrinsically linked with the controversial conversation surrounding marriage itself, the ownership of others, and the traditional patriarchal contract of marriage. However, when observed from a historical perspective, I find that a more appropriate conversation surrounding its evolution, is actually of the desire to capture such a monumental moment in one’s life. As Walsh and Wade explain “wedding photographs and albums symbolically demonstrate the enduring centrality of ritual in contemporary America while addressing complex issues such as social change, gender, and economics.1 Photography for weddings is a long and complicated story, growing from staged and set photos, that were often taken on separate days to the wedding, to the lifestyle aesthetic that we see most often now.

Queen Elizabeth’s wedding day was fraught with complications and restrictions, including having to request extra clothing coupons from the British government for her dress, as World War II rationing was still in effect. However, one of the most interesting stories was the loss of her wedding bouquet. Interested individuals will notice that family photos taken on November 20, 1947 do not show Her Majesty holding her bouquet, as it was misplaced sometime after the departure from Westminster Abbey. Therefore, the bride and groom’s wedding portraits were completed on their honeymoon, days later, after another bouquet could be created. Photography at the time also lent only to posed photos in a space where light could be monitored and controlled. As the cameras changed and lent to transportation, so too did wedding photos. The first wedding daguerreotypes of the 1840s evolved into wedding albums and studio portraits. The “Wedding Boom” after the Second World War also influenced photographers to make the leap from military photography to weddings, and some would show up, take photos, and then attempt to sell them to the bride and groom without a prior contract. These events forced wedding photographers to leave their studios and create their memories with the couple at their wedding location.2

Mom and Dad on their wedding day, October 19, 1991. Oshawa This Week Collection, Oshawa Museum archival collection, A997.7.124

The Oshawa Museum is in possession of the Oshawa This Week Wedding announcement photo collection and, therefore, a representation of a large variety of wedding photographs from the past century that were published in the paper. To my surprise, while writing this blog, I clicked across my own parents’ wedding, as well as an assortment of other parents and community members that I have known my entire life.

A couple on their wedding day. Oshawa This Week Collection, Oshawa Museum archival collection, A997.37.3

Within the museum’s collection, we also have a large variety of wedding items, anywhere from wedding dresses, shoes, to certificates and photos. I have a particular interest in the wedding dresses within the collection, as they represent a variety of styles throughout the years. One of the most iconic symbols of the western wedding is the bridal gown. Typically, they are white or ivory, long, and somehow elaborate, depending on the style at the time. Queen Victoria, who was married on February 10, 1840, set a trend in wedding outfits for women. Prior to her wedding, women either wore their best dress, regardless of the colour, or designed and wore new dresses of colour depending on the fashion of the season. Queen Victoria’s large and extravagant white wedding dress led to a surge in the wearing of white dresses today. Coupled with the industrial revolution and the availability of such impractical materials, the full-skirted, white, or ivory look for brides is now the norm.3

Samantha Hill’s Australien, wedding dress. C. 1875 Oshawa Museum collection.

However, some brides chose to continue with fashionable colours. One of the most extravagant examples of that is a dress which belonged to Samantha Hill. She was married in 1875 in this rusty, orange dress, the colour at the time was called Australien. The colour was inspired by the colour and landscape of the Australian outback and used in dresses-making and fashion houses through late Victorian England.

Clarissa (Henry) Stone

One of the museum’s best-known families, the Henrys of our Henry House, had several weddings held within the home. The parlour would have been host to Henry House weddings, as it was the most lavishly decorated and designed for entertaining. One of the most interesting facts concerning the weddings of Henry family children and grandchildren is the timing of the weddings within the calendar year. Many were married around the Christmas holiday, either before or after. One marriage, that of Clarissa Henry, Thomas and Lurenda’s third youngest child, was married to Cassius Stone on December 22, 1868. Clarissa and Cassius are said to have wanted to be wed on Christmas Day itself, however, the church and priest were not available, so alternative plans were made. Some reasons for these Christmas season celebrations could have been the proximity to each other during the holiday season or that the crops were tended and the harvest chores were finished, so the family was available to enjoy celebration and merriment.

The Oshawa Museum is thrilled to have a variety of representations of both modern and historical weddings, the images and collection items provide an interesting context for weddings in Oshawa and Lakeview Park. Whether it is announcing your wedding in the newspaper, using the museum’s beauty as a photography backdrop, or having your wedding gown end up in our permanent collection, we love to love and are happy to be a part of anyone’s Big Day.


Citations

  1. Walsh, Michael James and Wade, Matthew. Soundtrack for love: wedding videography, music and romantic memory. Continuum 34:1, pages 14-31, 2020.
  2. “The History of Wedding Photography.” San Francisco Wedding Photographer. Accessed November 29, 2021. https://www.iqphoto.com/history.
  3. Ehrman, Edwina. The Wedding Dress. London: V & A Publishing, 2011.

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.

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