The First Glimpse of History

PhotographsThe following Roots to the Past column was published in the fall of 2011.

Private citizens are not the only packrats who put things away and don’t look at them again for decades. The public archives does this, too. Recently, the Nova Scotia Archives opened a box containing fragile nitrate negatives that were created in the early part the 1900s. The negatives hadn’t been developed by the archives, so in essence, these photographs have never before been seen by the public.

The negatives didn’t come with detailed records, so just like a person who finds a box of pictures in their late grandmother’s closet, the archives needs help identifying specific information about the images. They’re asking for the public’s help, but you don’t have to actually visit the archives to view the photographs. The negatives have been digitized and 150 have been uploaded to the Nova Scotia Archives site on Flickr.

The black and white photographs are in excellent condition, revealing the details of the subjects and the skill of the photographer. There’s a wide range of subject matter. Photographs of great ships, elaborate bridges and ancient buildings share the spotlight with images of men painting a dory, boys playing games and women ice skating. You’ll find men in suits in exotic places and men in hunting gear in the backwoods with moose heads propped up on barrels. They may even have a picture of the original Winnie – the bear cub adopted by the Canadian soldier Harry Colebourn in Canada and taken to England where it eventually inspired the famous bedtime stories.

Headstones also pop up in the photo library. Ben Church Hicks photographed the headstones of Priscilla (died 1820, age 50) and Weston Hicks, died 1840, age 80 1/2 years. I wonder if the stones still stand.

The pictures were taken throughout Canada, Italy, Japan, possibly Russia and other unidentified locations. The photographers were from Nova Scotia or spent time in the province. They include Arthur Bloomfield Dawson, George Walker MacKay, Frank McNutt, James Fraser PaigeReg Blakley and William Ringsleben.

Regardless of where you live, the archives wants your help with gathering information. Because the pictures were taken in various locations in Canada and around the world, individuals familiar with a particular area may be able to identify it. They’re looking for names of those in the photographs, locations, descriptions and years (even if just a decade).

Visitors can leave comments about the photographs on the website as well as read those left by other. Members of Flickr can join in on the discussion of who, what and where. Images can be viewed in various sizes and downloaded to your computer.

Although you may not discover a family member among the photographs, the images are very interesting. They’re a snapshot of life in general in a time where photography was still in its infancy. Unlike professional prints of that era, these are more casual and show the general population as they enjoy a day at the beach, a picnic in the forest or just horsing around.

The virtual exhibit of these wonderful images will find a permanent home on the NS Archives website in the coming months.


Diane Lynn Tibert is a writer based in central Nova Scotia. Her alter-ego is Diane Lynn McGyver. Her short story collection Nova Scotia – Life Near Water is available as an eBook at Amazon. It will soon be available in paperback.


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