A few years, Rick Bell donated to Brock University a trove of photographs found in his mother’s house in St Catharines. While many of the later photos are of his family members, there are a number of late 19th century studio portraits depicting unidentified people. We wrote about these mysteries in our virtual exhibit about black history in Ontario:


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The materials were in steamer boxes in the attic. The family found materials relating to the Bell, Tyrell, and Sloman families, descendants of former slaves who traveled to Canada during the American Civil War.

Generations of Bells and Tyrells lived in St Catharines, and were involved in coal and ice delivery, and jewelry and watch-making. The Slomans lived near London, Ont.

The collection includes photos dating back in some cases to the late 1800s, marriage certificates, and tithing receipts dating to 1874 from St Catharines’ British Methodist Episcopal Church.

Solving Mysteries

Many of the pictures from the late 19th and early 20th century are posed portraits of Bell and Sloman family members in formal wear – long dresses, corsets, nice hatssuits and ties, and even the robes of a lawyer or priest.

These pictures teach us about the economic circumstances of these families at the time: rich enough to afford nice clothes and professional photos. One photo shows a painted backdrop of Niagara Falls in the background, which could mean the photographer was from the area.

Not all of the photos have dates and names, so we can’t be sure when they were made or which family members are in them. We use clues about the production of the photographs to make our best guess: for example, all of the tintype photographs – images made on pieces of iron using chemicals that etched right into the metal – are probably from the 1860s to 1900s, because that was when the technique was most popular.

Another clue is the name of the photographer and the location of his studio written on the photo frame: we know that this man owned his studio in Lucan for only five years, from 1877-1882.

There are 54 images needing more information in the Brock University James A. Gibson Library Special Collections & Archives digital collections online. Can you provide some names and dates for these photographs?


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