Postcards were not always mass produced. In the early twentieth century, one could print Kodaked images onto postcard stock and create one’s own unique postcard to mail off to friends and relations. The University of Alberta Archive’s Peel’s Prairie Provinces has just recently doubled its collection of early Western Canadian postcards to nearly 30,000 examples, some entirely unique. I had the opportunity last summer to examine some of the ones that weren’t yet digitized. Among the picture postcards of Banff’s main street, parades at the Calgary Stampede, European pioneers in Saskatoon, and everything in between, I ran across a series of privately produced postcard images that I find incredibly intriguing. They are a set of photographic postcards that have been cut from a photo album – the backs are blank, glued to pieces of black paper from the album sheets. The same people appear in multiple images, but aside from a few telling details and a few names which may or may not be jokes or pop culture references I cannot understand over a century later, these images are now relatively anonymous. This photoset may not even be complete. I confess I was scanning them alongside about 300 other images over the course of a single day and I only noticed that they were from the same grouping later on when I began looking at them more deeply for my major research essay. I also only examined a few boxes of cards which had been separated out by the archivist for having explicitly Aboriginal subjects, so it is possible that there are other postcards from these photographers in the Peel’s Prairie Provinces Collection, yet to be digitized. I was initially hoping to incorporate them into my major research project, but they have far more in common with anonymous photo album pages than they do postcards, as fascinating as they are. Ah, well, a project for another time!
I have placed these images in an order that made sense to me, placing them either in what amounts to a sequence, or beside images that share the same photographic subjects for ease of comparison. Do not ascribe meaning to the order as it was imposed by me. I now invite you to consider these photographs for yourself. I have included a few preliminary observations, but I welcome any further commentary from my readers. Maybe we’ll find the proverbial smoking gun that identifies these people. Please click the images to enlarge them and see my annotations. (Note: The strings of numbers beginning in “PC” (“post card”) are their Peel’s Prairie Provinces call numbers, so you may cite them or look them up when they finally become digitized.)
PC030189 – “Accepting Friendship” The man on the right appears in multiple photographs, as does the man on the left, identified as “Calf Robes” in another image. Notice the ax on the ground between them – perhaps a reference to the expression “burying the hatchet”?
PC030240 – “The blow almost killed Father” A family man, eh? This implies that the author of the messages on these images – possibly the photographer – is that man’s daughter or son, or that the image was sent to the children of the “Father” and so the author of the note is writing from the children’s perspective, their potential audience. This image may also be playing to “Indian” stereotypes – fighting with tomahawks. It’s interesting that the “Sarcee”(?) man on the left (Calf Robes?) is a full participant in these photographic vignettes. He also appears to be wearing dancing/ceremonial regalia – the war bonnet, the beaded jacket and moccasins and the bells(?) on his belt are not everyday wear.
PC030238 – “A original Hair Cut” A faux depiction of scalping. The posing of this scene may be influenced by popular images of missionary martyrs… or “Father” is just praying prior to his “death”.
PC030247 – “Calf Robes resisting capture” Because this is from the 1920s at the latest, I’m going to assume that that’s a real gun. Calf Robes does seem to be holding his own, though. Is “Calf Robes” his real name? Or is he playing a character just as much as the other men in the scene are? These first four photographs all seem to have been taken on the same day with the same backdrop (tent, light snow on the ground).
PC030250 – “Good bye sweet day” The tables have turned. That doesn’t seem to be “Calf Robes” holding the gun, though. He appears in multiple following images. The man cheering in the background with the ribbed bone bead work on his shirt is also a recurring figure.
PC030242 – “Gone but not forgotten” Apparently the man didn’t escape. The man holding the rifle in this shot is not the same man holding the gun in the previous “Good bye sweet day” image, but the cheering man.
PC030237. This man appears in multiple images, as does his beaded robe/blanket.
PC030195 – “Tis only the “Brave” that deserve the fair.” I suspect that this caption is a quotation from some poem or song (I think “None but the brave deserve the fair” is an expression), and that they are creating a pun. The writer put “Brave” in quotation marks, drawing attention to the play on words: brave as in courageous but also “brave” as in “native warrior.”
PC030191 – “Spencer & Kipp” Once again, are “Spencer and Kipp their real names? Or is this another reference I don’t understand? These two figures appear in several other images, as does that distinctively beaded robe.
PC030246 These are the two men from previous images – whom I have called “Father” and “the Scot”, wearing the feather headdresses and the robes of the Aboriginal participants. They may also be striking stoic portrait poses from paintings of “Indians.”
PC030251 – “Black + White or A scot in Indian garb.” This image may have been taken immediately after the previous one, and definitely on the same occasion. (Whose leg is that on the left? Possibly “Father’s”.) It is possible that these two images were taken with two separate cameras, considering the quality of some of the images (some more grey in tone, like this one, and others lighter and more sepia) and the fact that several other photographs show “Father” holding a brownie camera, meaning that there were two cameras present.
PC030276 These two ladies wear what look to me like very Edwardian outfits, particularly the very large hats which were only popular for about a decade until 1914 or so. As a side note, I would like to point out the fact that all three people in this portrait are wearing feathers on their heads. The man in the middle is definitely wearing ceremonial/dancing regalia: bells are not worn on a daily basis.
PC030194 – “Mrs. Mayfield’s Baby” Note the two ladies from the previous image having their photograph taken in the background, likely taken on the same occasion because they are wearing the same outfits. This photograph also confirms that there were two cameras at play. This photo series may only be the results of one of those Kodak Brownies, though. Note that cameras were not held to the eye – you looked through the viewfinder from up above and hold the camera at waist height.
PC030241. This image really set the tone for me as I looked at the rest of the photographs in the series. These two men are having fun, being ridiculous and out of place.
PC030244. This wagon also appears in the previous photograph. That man with the ribbed bone shirt also appears in earlier photographs (“Good bye sweet day” and “Gone but not forgotten.”) I also have to ask myself what they are doing there – and where “there” is. Are they tourists just out on the town, wanting to be photographed with some “real Indians”? The posture of the man with the pipe (“Father”) makes me uneasy, especially with the other man standing behind the child and turning his attention to the baby, holding his or her hand for support.
PC030190 – “Mr & Mrs Muski” I am unsure if “Muski” is an Edwardian pop culture reference, or the woman’s name. If the latter, the “joke” is likely to be found in identifying the man as her husband. Note that the man on the right holds a Kodak Brownie camera under his left arm.
PC030199 – “Susie” The fact that this woman is named leads me to believe that these “tourists” knew some of the people in these photographs, but I could be mistaken. This photograph also made me quite excited because she is standing next to a window with a newspaper prominently displayed. I hoped to use it to date the image. It says: – “LANDSLIDE , Saturday February 25th, 9am.” I haven’t been able to find which newspaper this is; unfortunately, the name of the paper is not in frame. I was hoping that the landslide it refers to was the infamous Frank Slide, but that happened in April, not February. However, there were only four years between 1895 and 1920 in which February 25th fell on a Saturday, so this particular photograph could have been taken in 1899,1905, 1911, or 1922, though judging by what the white women were wearing in other photos in this series I’d say that the middle two dates were most likely. As a side note, I also find the shadow of the photographer in this image slightly eerie. Who/what is Susie looking at?
PC030200 – “Susie’s blind husband” Again, these photographs were taken on at least two separate occasions: Susie is pictured again here, but in a completely different outfit, though possibly wearing the same beaded belt. I am intrigued by the fact that Susie appears to be standing arm in arm with the white man in the centre. I believe that the caption is correct and the man on the left is blind, judging by the way his gaze does not meet the camera. If he is blind, it is entirely possible that he would have been a distinctive enough individual to record. How many blind men lived on the prairies circa 1910? Susie also appears to be wearing dress moccasins (heavily beaded, unlike in the prior image of her taken in town) and what may be (judging by the texture) a beaded shirt. She holds her plaid blanket in one hand instead of using it as a shawl as she did in the prior image. Perhaps this photograph was taken when she was dressed for a special occasion.
PC030248 – “The toiler?” That question mark is very telling and may be playing into stereotypes of “Indians” as inherently lazy, despite all of the evidence to the contrary. Some of these photographs were evidently taken in a small town, perhaps the one visible in the background of several other shots (with the grain elevator). Maybe this photograph was even taken later in the day from the first “Susie” photograph, judging by the location and the length of the shadows.
PC030193 – “Age 93 Bull Head’s Squaw Chief of the Sarcees” Many postcards depict exceptional individuals, particularly the elderly. I do find it disturbing that we cannot see her face, even though the lighting in the image would otherwise indicate that we could.
So, in summary: these photographs were taken on at least two occasions, as evidenced by the same figures appearing at least twice in different outfits and the presence/lack of snow on the ground. These photographs were likely taken South of Calgary, as one of the figures is identified as “Sarcee” (Tsuu T’ina); that is, of course, if the writer identified the band correctly. The photographs likely date from circa 1899-1922, but are more likely from 1905 or 1912, when gigantic Merry Widow hats were popular. There were two photographers present, but these photographs may have only come from one of their cameras. I am unsure of the relationship between the people in the photographs. Why do “Calf Robes” and the others play along in staging scenes of violence? Is “Susie” truly on a first name basis with the photographer and the man she stands arm-in-arm with? Are these white folks tourists, locals visiting Tsuu T’ina friends, or the family of an Indian agent with political power over these people? Furthermore, if these photographs were all taken by the same person, there may be a (sixth?) person in the party who is never pictured because they are always behind the camera and not in front of it.