Wednesday, January 5, 2011

....and a Happy New Year!

From the desk of Ann ten Cate, Reference Archivist at the Royal BC Museum

Continuing on with my festive theme, I went looking for some seasonal archival photographs which would show us how people celebrated New Year’s in the past. I was amused by this image [C-07336], which was inscribed “New Year’s Eve at Mrs. James Fell’s home.”

Unfortunately, this image came to the Archives more than 50 years ago, and very little information about the photo was collected at the time. We don’t have a date (possibly around 1900?), or the names of the people in the photograph (although I’m pretty sure that Mrs. James Fell must be the dowager at the front). Nonetheless, I think it captures an interesting moment – and one that wasn’t easily documented 110 years ago, as an interior, night-time shot was technically challenging.

It’s also surprising how much extra information we can glean just by studying the image closely. For example, the man on the left is smoking a pipe, and wearing a very smart dressing gown over his clothes to protect them. The gentlemen and ladies appear to be “in their best”, but the household looks fairly modest. The cane-seated chair on the right has seen better days and has holes in the back and seat. Two heavy curtains, used to keep heat downstairs on cold nights, are visible on either side of the staircase. The door to a hallway closet is open, showing a variety of household products – a sight not often documented in family photographs of this, or any, era!

When analyzing photos for content, it is also useful to ask the “Who, What, When, Where and Why” questions so that we understand the context of their creation. In this instance we know why the image was created – to record a celebration, and a gathering of friends and family. We know that all the people in the photo are connected in some way to Mrs. James Fell, and since the photograph probably originated with a family in Victoria I think it’s likely that it was taken inside this house, which is identified as James Frederick Fell’s house on Pandora Avenue in Victoria [D-04044].

We can make an educated guess about the year of the New Year’s photo based on the clothing, and the specific date (December 31) is implied in the title. All of this information “adds value” to the image, and makes it worth keeping.

Can you spot anything else in either photograph that you find noteworthy? Or do you know anything more about this family? Do let us know! You can email me directly at The more we know about images like this, the more valuable they become as research resources. (And if you print up any of your own pictures of this past New Year’s Eve, remember to label them lightly, and in pencil, with the date, place and names of the people in the photo. Rename and add information to your digital files too. You might save some future archivist or family historian a whole lot of head-scratching if you do!).

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