May 8, 2010

This blog will be devoted to the history of the City of Winnipeg, as depicted in postcards, viewbooks, maps and photographs that I have collected over the years. Of special interest are “real photo” postcards, which are postcards developed directly from negatives on special postcard stock. This type of postcard is prized because, unlike the lithographic technique used to produce most mass-produced photography, real photos are printed in continuous ink rather than in the manner of a newspaper photo (i.e. as a discontinuous collection of tiny dots). Therefore real photo postcards tend to reveal far more detail and are often enlargable without loss of clarity.

The content of the blog will naturally be dictated in part by the interests of the photographers and promoters who created or commissioned the images — we cannot go back in time and take pictures of things that interest us today but were neglected then. We are also limited by the fact that postcards and viewbooks were produced in far greater numbers at some periods than they were in others. Fortunately for Winnipeg, the height of the postcard collecting mania coincided exactly with the height of the city’s boom period — both the city and the postcard fad reached a zenith in 1911 and 1912. Subsequently, with the advent of the Great War and economic hard times, it was slow going. For example, while real photo postcard images featuring Winnipeg buildings completed in 1912 (such as the Confederation Life Building and the Union Trust Building) are plentiful, real photo postcard images of equally fine buildings completed just three or four years later (such as the Paris Building and the second Bank of Hamilton Building) are virtually unknown.

After about 1913, Winnipeg’s real photo postcard makers largely ceded the market to manufacturers of lithographed postcards, such as Valentine & Sons — other, that is, than with respect to spot photography of events. Thus there are many real photo postcards, from the War Years through the 1920s, 30s, 40s and 50s, of royal visits, parades, the General Strike of 1919, the floods of 1916 and 1950 and of the city’s many tragic and dramatic fires. For their part, viewbooks seem to have been popular from around 1900 through the 1920s. In both cases (real photo postcards and viewbooks) quality generally tended to decline in the later years.

Winnipeg’s leading commercial real photo photographers — Maurice Lyall, Charles Meyers and (briefly, in 1904-1905) George Alfred Barrowclough — were excellent photographers who appear to have possessed state-of-the-art equipment that could produce results that would be difficult to equal today. Real photo photography was also possible for the ordinary person: some of the rarest and most interesting postcards are these personal cards, featuring families, houses, small businesses and other images intended to impress friends and family “back east”, in the U.K. or in Europe that life in the unimaginably distant province of Manitoba was prosperous and happy. There are also many excellent and fascinating lithographed postcards produced in a succession of forms throughout the twentieth century, some of which will also be featured here.