The case of the patent leather photograph: a Library and Archives Canada pannotype mystery

By Tania Passafiume, with assistance from Shannon Perry

While working on a census of over 300 cased objects in Library and Archives Canada’s photographic holdings, I discovered a hidden treasure. I noticed that one of the cased images looked a bit odd, as it did not resemble a daguerreotype, an ambrotype or a tintype, which you would typically find as the photograph in one of these small leather, paper or plastic cases.

A colour image of a paper case with red velvet. On the right-hand side, a black-and-white photograph in a brass mat of a man wearing a dark jacket.

A pannotype of an unknown sitter, in a paper case (MIKAN 325561)

The questions began: What is this? What photographic process was used to create this object? The first clue that I was dealing with something different came when I noticed that the item was unsealed, meaning that there was no original sealing tape. Historically, paper tape was used to seal the package found within the cased object, for various reasons. But there was no indication of any original tape, so with no tape to disturb, I decided to open the package.

The findings

Immediately after removing the package from the paper case, I noticed a piece of thick card attached to the back of the package. This card appeared to be a leftover piece of paper. Handwritten in pencil in the top-left quadrant were some words that were partially cut off: “hol” and “acid.” There was also some sort of damage along the top. From the discolouration, it had to be a liquid stain. At first, I did not think much about the card. Since there was no longer any original sealing tape, someone might have previously removed the tape and placed a piece of paper behind the photograph. This finding was not unexpected, as photographic plates were often taken out of cases and the cases switched. Only later did I realize that the text was indeed vital to understanding the nature of the photograph.

After I removed the card, I saw a piece of leather. I knew immediately what I was holding in my hands! The leather was not another layer that had been added behind the photographic plate. This was an actual photograph on leather! This photographic process is called pannotype (the prefix comes from the Latin pannos, which means cloth). I had read about pannotypes and seen modern recreations; however, it is very rare to find originals, let alone for them to be in good condition. I turned the object over and removed the brass mat with its cover glass. And there, under the deteriorated and soiled glass, was a glossy leather surface with, in excellent condition, the image of a man. The deteriorated glass had distracted me and made me question the type of photographic process. Now, through my careful analysis and with an added dash of serendipity, Library and Archives Canada has an identified 19th-century pannotype in its holdings!

The history behind the process

Pannotypes were a bit of a trend between 1853 and the early 1880s. They were made by a method similar to that for ambrotypes. But instead of glass, a piece of cloth or leather was used as a support. What is interesting is that pannotypes were made by placing drops of a dilute solution of nitric acid in alcohol onto an existing ambrotype. This was done to allow the photographer to remove the emulsion (which contained the actual image) from the glass support and place this emulsion onto a new support, such as a piece of leather. This brings me back to the handwritten partial words on the piece of paper that I found on the back of the leather, “hol” and “acid.” Could the words be alcohol and nitric acid: the very ingredients required to make a pannotype?

A colour image of a stained piece of paper with partial text “hol” and “acid” written on it.

The paper found at the back of the photograph, with the text “hol” and “acid” written in pencil.

A colour image of gloved hands holding a piece of leather that has been stained along the top and sides.

The leather back of the photograph. Photo credit: Carla Klück

A colour image of gloved hands holding a black-and-white portrait of a man, which is being peeled away from a brass mat with its cover glass.

The photograph (patent leather with emulsion) and the brass mat with its cover glass. Photo credit: Carla Klück

This pannotype photographic process was presented for the first time in 1853, to the French Academy of Sciences by the firm of Wulff & Co. Instructions for the process were made available for sale by that firm for 100 francs. Pannotypes soon became generally known, with many professional photographers making commercial use of them, as evidenced in surviving advertisements and journal articles. Customers were interested in the process at the time because pannotypes were believed to be more stable, since they could not break because they were not printed on glass like ambrotypes, nor could they be easily scratched like daguerreotypes or bent like tintypes. We know very little about how the pannotype process was developed and practiced here in Canada, but we do know that there were several prominent photographers using this process, including George Robinson Fardon (1807–1886) from Victoria, British Columbia. His images of “Portrait and Views on patent leather” were sent to the London International Exhibition, 1862, and they eventually became part of the Victoria and Albert Museum’s holdings.

Here and now

Today, discovering a pannotype is rare, as their durability was very limited because of their inherently fragile qualities. However, the newly discovered pannotype is on patent leather and is in excellent condition. The only difficulty here is that the original glass in the brass mat had begun to deteriorate; however, following some conservation work, the problem has been fixed. Our next step is to share this information with the public, and perhaps to try and solve the next mystery: who is the man in the photograph, and who was the photographer? Stay tuned!


Tania Passafiume is the Head Conservator of Photographic Materials in the Care of Collection Division of the Digital Operations and Preservation Branch at Library and Archives Canada.

Shannon Perry is a Photo Archivist in the Government Archives Division of the Archives Branch at Library and Archives Canada.

Images of Tartans and Kilts now on Flickr

A colour photograph of a smiling girl wearing a tam and tartan shoulder accessory.

Betty Chan at Scottish games, Winnipeg, Manitoba. [MIKAN 4302026]

Tartan is a multicoloured cloth pattern of criss-crossed horizontal and vertical bands. Traditionally, tartan is made with wool, but other kinds of materials may be used. Scotland and kilts in particular are associated with tartan patterns; however, the steady immigration of Scots to Canada created a special environment for tartan in this country. Cultural events, such as Highland games across Canada, showcase the various patterns seen in kilts, jackets, blankets and clothing accessories. For less traditional clothing, these patterns are often referred to as plaid. There are unique Canadian tartans, such as the provincial and territorial patterns, most of which are registered with the Court of the Lord Lyon. This court regulates Scottish heraldry, including tartan patterns. Canada’s green, gold, red and brown tartan, known as the “maple leaf,” became an official national symbol in 2011.

A black-and-white photograph of two women at a loom. The woman sitting on the left holds a shuttle. The woman standing on the right inspects the tartan pattern and weave.

Tartan being woven, St. Ann’s, Cape Breton Island, Nova Scotia. [MIKAN 4948510]

A black-and-white photograph of two girls who are standing and wearing tams, matching jackets and kilts.

Two girls dressed in kilts at Highland games, Antigonish, Nova Scotia. [MIKAN 4315223]

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Images of Tintype Photographs now on Flickr

Dates of major use: 1855-1860s

A framed black-and-white photograph of five women, a baby, a man and a dog on a porch posing for a family portrait.

Group of five women, a baby, a man and a dog on a porch. (MIKAN 4955139)

Inventor: Adolphe-Alexandre Martin (1853), Hamilton A. Smith (1856)

A black-and-white photograph of three women sitting on the ground posing for a portrait. The women are wearing long dresses, short coats, hats, and are holding books.

Portrait of three women sitting on the floor. (MIKAN 4958586)

A tintype is a monochromatic direct positive image that is formed on a thin metal plate covered with a black varnish. They were often hand-coloured. Tintypes can be presented in paper mounts to be slid into albums or protected in American cases under glass.

A black-and-white photograph of a man sitting, wearing a band uniform and cap with feathers. The man is holding a flugelhorn resting on his left knee.

Portrait of a man wearing a municipal band uniform and holding his flugelhorn. (MIKAN 3511014)

A black-and-white photograph of a mother, three daughters, a son and a dog posing for a family portrait.

Family portrait of a mother, three daughters, a son, and a dog. (MIKAN 3262041)

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Images of Cheese now on Flickr

Cheese making in Canada can trace its origins to the early 1600s with the introduction of European, milk-producing cattle at settlements like Quebec City. Over time, as more settlers arrived, so too did more cattle and family cheese recipes. Today Canadians benefit from two types of recipes introduced in the 17th century—the soft-ripened cheeses from France, and the harder types, such as Cheddar, from the United Kingdom.

A black-and-white photograph of a man using a hoist to lift cheese from a vat. Two other men, a girl and a boy watch from behind the vat.

Drawing cheese from vats at the Gruyer cheese factory, La Malbaie, Quebec (MIKAN 3518025)

The production of cheese stayed mainly on the family farm and saw only a few exports during the early 19th century. However, an American named Harvey Farrington convinced local farmers to sell their milk stocks to his factory, allowing him to open the first Canadian cheese factory in Norwich, Ontario, in 1864. Since Confederation, a number of small and large cheese producers and cheese-making schools have made their mark on Canadian food production.

A black-and-white photograph of two men checking the temperature of milk at a cheese factory.

Taking temperature in cheese factory, Prince Edward County, Ontario (MIKAN 3371580)

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Images of Bird’s-Eye Views now on Flickr

 The expression “a bird’s-eye view” indicates the perspective of an area or object in relation to other things, such as a map, blueprint, or cityscape. Often depicted in drawings or photographs, a bird’s-eye view offers a reference point from high overhead.
A black-and-white photograph of Niagara Falls from a bird’s-eye perspective. There are various buildings on either side of the border and roads leading up to and alongside the riverbanks.

Bird’s-eye view of Niagara Falls with the various power plants on the Canadian side, Ontario (MIKAN 3318089)

A black-and-white photograph of Calgary, Alberta, from a bird’s-eye perspective. The Bow River and a bridge are in the foreground with a number of homes and larger buildings in the background.

Bird’s-eye view of Calgary, Alberta (MIKAN 3302621)

Some synonyms for bird’s-eye view include aerial view, aerial viewpoint, overhead view, bird’s-eye shot, and bird’s-flight view. There are slight differences in perspective, but all appear to depict the area from up above.

A black-and-white photograph of Cabri, Saskatchewan, from a bird’s-eye perspective. It shows a main dirt road with neighbouring houses and buildings. Some people, horses and wagons gather throughout the town.

Bird’s-eye view of Cabri, Saskatchewan (MIKAN 3259496)

A black-and-white map of Winnipeg, Manitoba, from a bird’s-eye perspective. The Red River is central, showing steamboats navigating it and settlements and main roads established along its banks.

Bird’s-eye view of Winnipeg, Manitoba (MIKAN 4146329)

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Radio Technology

I heard it on my radio—

The technology behind the radio allows for mass communication without using wires. Nikolai Tesla lectured on wireless communication in 1893 in St. Louis, Missouri at the World’s Fair. His theories laid the scientific groundwork for the development of the radio as we know it today.

A black-and-white photograph of Guglielmo Marconi posing on the steps of a building with 12 members of the administration of Newfoundland, Signal Hill, St. John's.

Marconi (with light hat) and members of the administration of Newfoundland, Signal Hill, St. John’s (MIKAN 3380817)

Guglielmo Marconi is the person most associated with the radio and he has ties to Canada. He tested his transmission equipment on Signal Hill, St. John’s in Newfoundland, 1901. His early successes spurred the use of radio for long distance messaging using Morse code. The technology was not able to transmit speech at the time. However, advances during and after the First World War provided both the military and civilians with access to radios that sent transmissions as recognizable speech.

A black-and-white photograph of Donald Manson, an employee of the Marconi Company sitting at a table, wearing headphones and writing on paper while listening to a radio transmission.

Donald Manson, an employee of the Marconi Company (MIKAN 3193105)

A black-and-white photograph of two women and three men, members of the R. A. Radio Acting Group, reading from a script into a microphone.

Members of the R. A. Radio Acting Group (MIKAN 4297976)

Local stations and federal agencies were created such as the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation, and broke into the news, music, and entertainment realms from the 1920s to the 1940s. Mass media was here to stay. Radio gave way to television, and then to the internet. Despite these leaps and bounds of its technological siblings, radio technology is widely used today due to its easy access and reliability.

A black-and-white photograph of a two women listening to a radio. One woman sits in a chair, the second women stands and adjusts the station settings.

Female workers at the Dominion Arsenals plant relax and listen to a radio in their apartment, Québec, Quebec (MIKAN 3193885)

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Images of Nancy Greene now on Flickr

A black-and-white photograph of Nancy Greene, winner of a gold medal in giant slalom.

Nancy Greene, winner of gold medal in giant slalom, Winter Olympics (MIKAN 5029732)

Ms. Greene Raine is an Officer of the Order of Canada and the Order of British Columbia and a member of both Sports Halls of Fame. She was named Canada’s female athlete of the 20th century by the Canadian Press and Broadcast News. She won gold and silver medals in alpine skiing at the 1968 Grenoble Olympics and overall World Cup titles in 1967 and 1968. Her total of 14 World Cup victories (including the Olympics) is still a Canadian record. During her nine-year career she won a total of 17 Canadian Championship titles.

A black-and-white photograph of a group shot of the Canadian ski team at the Winter Olympics.

Group shot of the Canadian ski team at the Winter Olympics (MIKAN 5029774)

A black-and-white photograph of Nancy Greene during her gold medal run in giant slalom.

Nancy Greene during her gold medal run in giant slalom at the 1968 Winter Olympics (MIKAN 5029785)

A black-and-white photograph of Nancy Greene during her silver medal run in slalom.

Nancy Greene during her silver medal run in slalom at the Winter Olympics (MIKAN 5029788)

See also:

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Images of Gilmour & Hughson Forestry now on Flickr

Allan Gilmour (1775–1849) was a senior partner in the firm of Pollok, Gilmour & Co. from which numerous co-partnerships and offshoots evolved, and played a prominent part in the Scottish and Canadian lumber and shipbuilding businesses. Allan Gilmour’s brothers and nephews opened numerous branches in Canada—at Miramichi, Quebec, Montréal and elsewhere. The Bytown operation began after the opening of a Montréal partnership in 1828, which dealt in supplies for the square timber trade on the Ottawa River. In 1841, his nephew Allan Gilmour Jr. took over this operation with James Gilmour, named it Gilmour & Co., and opened the Bytown branch to procure timber and sawn lumber for the Quebec market. Eventually, lumber operations grew significantly.

A black-and-white photograph of the Gilmour and Hughson mill on the river. The mill is in the foreground with timber floating on the river and along the bank.

View of the Gilmour and Hughson mill from the water (MIKAN 5006499)

A black-and-white photograph of a man loading milled lumber onto a horse-drawn wagon. A second, full wagon is leaving the area with its driver and horses.

Men loading lumber at the Gilmour and Hughson mill (MIKAN 5006500)

In the 1870s, the branches at Miramichi, Quebec and Montréal closed, leaving the Ottawa lumber operation in the control of John Gilmour’s sons. In 1891, the company Gilmour & Hughson was formed by John Gilmour Jr. and Ward Hughson, an Albany lumberman. In 1895, the concern was incorporated (58-59 Vic., Cap. 89). In the mid-1920s, it was announced that Gilmour & Hughson Ltd. was being sold to the firm of Riordon & Co. However, Riordon & Co. went into bankruptcy and the properties owned by Gilmour & Hughson and its operations were taken over by the Gatineau Company Limited, a subsidiary of the Canadian International Paper Co.

A black-and-white photograph of the Gilmour and Hughson mill on the river. The mill is in the foreground with timber floating on the river and along the bank.

View of the Gilmour and Hughson mill from the water (MIKAN 5006499)

A black-and-white photograph of a Gilmour and Hughson logging camp during the winter. Log shelters are in the background along a line of trees. Fresh cut timber is stacked and chained in the foreground.

Gilmour and Hughson Logging Camp (MIKAN 5006507)

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Images of Boxing now on Flickr

Boxing is the sport of fighting with padded, gloved fists in a square, roped-off ring under a set number of rounds and rules.

A black-and-white photograph of two boxers fighting on the deck of the SS Justicia, surrounded by the ship’s complement of soldiers.

Canadian troops aboard the SS Justicia, en route to Liverpool, England, watch a boxing match (MIKAN 3384735)

However, the first boxers in Canada did not use gloves. Bareknuckle fisticuffs were the norm during the early 19th century, with some bouts lasting 40 rounds. Outside of the military and a few men’s clubs, boxing was not sanctioned in the provinces of Canada, as the sport did not have a great reputation for fair play or honest promotion. Respectability for the sport came slowly, and views changed during the 1890s. The popularity of the sport grew steadily during the early 20th century.

A black-and-white photograph of two soldiers boxing. One wears black trunks and the other wears white trunks. Soldiers outside the ring watch the match.

Soldiers boxing in the exhibition grounds (MIKAN 3384740)

A black-and-white photograph of middleweight boxer Edwin A. Harris (Canada) in his trunks and gloves, posing with another soldier.

Edwin A. Harris (Canada), middleweight finalist in boxing, at the Inter-Allied Games, Pershing Stadium, Paris, France (MIKAN 3384730)

Today, the Canadian Amateur Boxing Association oversees the sport in coordination with 10 provincial and three territorial boxing associations. Some athletes eventually turn to professional boxing, while others retain their amateur status with the intent to represent Canada in international events, such as the Olympics or Commonwealth Games.

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Images of Japanese-Canadians from the Second World War now on Flickr

Timeline:

December 7, 1941—Japan attacks Pearl Harbour, Hawaii, United States of America. Japanese forces also invade Hong Kong, Malaysia and surrounding areas, opening up the Pacific Front of the Second World War.

December 8, 1941—Canada invokes the War Measures Act and declares Japanese-Canadians and recent immigrants as enemy aliens to strip them of individual and property rights. Over 1,200 fishing boats owned by Japanese-Canadian fishermen are confiscated off the coast of British Columbia as a defensive measure against Japan’s war efforts on the Pacific Front.

A black-and-white photograph of six Japanese-Canadian fishing boats confiscated three days after Pearl Harbor and tied to a larger vessel.

Fishermen’s Reserve rounding up six Japanese-Canadian fishing vessels, British Columbia (MIKAN 3191747)

January 14, 1942—Canada orders the round up of Japanese-Canadian males aged 18–45 for relocation to the interior of British Columbia. Personal property, such as homes and cars are seized and sold to help pay for the camps. No one can have radios, buy gasoline, or fish during the war. People detained after the 14th are sent to internment camps in Alberta.

black-and-white photograph of three Japanese-Canadian men loading a rail car destined for an internment camp in the British Columbia interior.

Japanese-Canadian men load a train travelling to camps in the interior of British Columbia (MIKAN 3193863)

February 24, 1942—Whole-scale internment of people of Japanese descent starts. In total, 21,000 Japanese-Canadians and recent immigrants become internees at camps. Restrictions on rights and freedoms increase as the war drags on.

A black-and-white photograph of many Japanese-Canadian families at a staging area being loaded on the backs of trucks for relocation to an internment camp in the British Columbia interior.

Japanese-Canadians load into the back of trucks for relocation to camps in the interior of British Columbia (MIKAN 3193859)

September 2, 1945 to April 1, 1949—After the end of the Second World War in 1945, Japanese-Canadians are forced to remain at internment camps, or areas away from Canada’s coastal regions until 1949. There are some offers by the Canadian Government to repatriate individuals and families back to Japan, along with some exemptions on movement. Eventually all restrictions on movement are lifted. Japanese-Canadians can return to the coastal areas of British Columbia. No compensation is available for property seized or for forced internment.

A black-and-white photograph of Japanese-Canadian families buying supplies in an internment camp store in Slocan City, British Columbia, observed by a Caucasian man wearing an armband.

Japanese-Canadians buy supplies at the internment camp store, Slocan City, British Columbia (MIKAN 3193855)

September 22, 1988—Thirty-nine years of lobbying by Japanese-Canadians affected by the actions enforced under the War Measures Act during the Second World War result in an official apology and compensation package for families from the Canadian Government.

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