How anonymous or little-known portrait sitters tell the Canadian story

No names are recorded on this 1913 photograph of an Ontario boys’ band.

Boy’s Brass Band Community Movement Pembroke, circa 1913.

Boy’s Brass Band Community Movement Pembroke, circa 1913. Source

Although the leader, “Bandmaster Wheeler,” is identified in a second photograph of this same group, we have found little information about him or the group of boys that he taught.

Bandmaster Wheeler and Boy’s Brass Band Community Movement Pembroke, circa 1913

Bandmaster Wheeler and Boy’s Brass Band Community Movement Pembroke, circa 1913 Source

A surprising number of portraits in Library and Archives Canada’s (LAC) collection are anonymous or little–known men, women and children. We may never know the identity of these people or discover more about their lives, yet these portraits are as important to LAC’s collection as portraits of well-known people.

These boys’ band photographs document an interesting social movement at the beginning of the 20th century. Community organizations concerned about the morals and manners of their children sponsored bands for young boys. Participation in these bands was seen as a way of learning community service and developing local and national pride.

Viewed together, these photographs illustrate this idea. We know that the first photograph was taken slightly earlier because the boys wear suits rather than band uniforms. Local records of the time show that they were still raising money through performances to earn their uniforms. The second photograph shows the group in uniform — the reward for learning this lesson in personal responsibility and hard work.

These group photographs probably helped to cement the band’s unity and team spirit. Membership in this band looks as though it might have been a lot of fun too, judging by Bandmaster Wheeler’s slightly loosened tie in one photograph, and the jaunty angle of his hat in the other. Wheeler is an interesting figure, being an early Black bandmaster in small-town Ontario. LAC holds few portraits of Black Canadians from this period. Wheeler’s presence in these photographs provides us with an important record.

We continue to research the identity of unknown portrait sitters. If you can help, please contact us.

To view other examples of anonymous or little-known sitters in LAC’s portrait collection, visit our Flickr Album.