An advertisement from The Photographic Herald and Amateur Sportsman, November 1889. (submitted)

T.W. Paterson column: There are 8 million stories in the Naked City

Beer Barons of British Columbia, has given me another great lead for a story…

Nanaimo bottle collector Bill Wilson’s latest book, Beer Barons of British Columbia, has given me another great lead for a story…

A question often put to me is, where do I get my ideas for the 52 Chronicles columns I write each year?

As surprising as it may sound, although my favourite deja vu trick of using a contemporary news event to take you back in time should be a pretty good clue, a major source comes from my reading. Current newspapers for the most part, although the Spring 2013 issue of British Columbia History magazine is a slight departure from the norm. Not a departure from my usual reading but that it, rather than a newspaper, provided this great lead for a column.

This magazine, if you’re not familiar with it, is the quarterly publication of the B.C. Historical Federation (www.bchistory.ca and info@b.c.history.ca). It’s well worth the annual subscription price of $25. I buy mine with my yearly dues for the Cowichan Historical Society.

In the 2013 issue Bill Wilson, Nanaimo real estate appraiser, bottle collector and co-author of Pioneer Soda Water Companies of B.C., gives a chapter from his book Beer Barons of B.C. Provincial history is a natural subject for Bill whose family has been here since 1889; his great-great grandfather helped to build the first Lumbermen’s Arch in Stanley Park, in fact.

Anyway, Bill tells the story of the Stanley Park Brewery which “has achieved a near-mythical status among those interested in Vancouver history but left many unanswered questions for brewery historians”. It’s a lengthy, detailed and exciting read, all of eight pages with photos and bibliography. On the seventh page is a reference that made me sit up and pay even more attention to the article.

That’s the “sad episode” in the Vancouver brewery’s story when its travelling sales representative Walter Travis went missing in late June 1906. His friends had notified the police after he failed to check in with them for several weeks. His regular sales route, reported the Victoria Colonist, brought him to Vancouver Island. Police determined that he had, in fact, arrived safely in Nanaimo and had conducted business with several drinking establishments as per his regular routine before proceeding to Duncans [as it was then known]. As of July 5, however, “all trace of him has been lost…”

Travis was, in fact, eventually traced to Duncan.

There, the mystery was soon solved but without a happy ending. The 55-year-old Travis had checked into the Quamichan Hotel. That’s where he was found, in his room. He’d hanged himself.

Now that’s a perfect Cowichan Chronicle lead if ever I saw one! So when I can make the time, I shall visit the Cowichan Valley Museum/Archives on the third floor of City Hall to follow up on the tragic Mr. Travis in the Cowichan Leaders of the day. After all, that’s why they invented the micro-film machine.

Another story lead that came out of the blue was the query recently put to me, “What’s Kodak?” This from a Millennial who, I thought, should have known better. Surely, everyone and his/her uncle has heard of the Eastman Kodak Co., the Rochester, N.Y. firm that, for a century, dominated the amateur and professional camera and film markets!

My first camera, a Kodak box model, was given to me when I was in elementary school. It took its name from its shape — a rectangular box with two windows (the red one showed the number of the photo to be taken after it was advanced by a small crank), the clear lens and a shutter release. That’s it; there were no real controls, you simply aimed, fired and hoped that the film’s very limited speed was sufficient to capture your subject in the prevailing light. (Sunny, outdoors was always best.) As for stopping action, forget it — way too slow and all you’d get is a blurred image.

And in black and white, of course, although you could buy colour film (which was even slower) for a premium; so black and white it was for most working folks although professionals made Kodachrome the industry colour standard.

Despite their simplicity, Kodak box and folding cameras (for these more sophisticated models, you opened up an accordion-fold bellows that otherwise was locked within), sold by the hundreds of thousands, probably millions. How many people over the years recorded and preserved memories of their family activities in small (sometimes hardly bigger than a postage stamp) photos can never be known — but they were legion. Millions of these so-called contact prints (enlargements were a more expensive option) exist today in family albums, scrapbooks and attics. Those which weren’t properly “fixed,” the last step in developing photos in a darkroom, turned sepia or faded. Which is why we associate brown (sepia) images with age.

Most of these cameras’ photographic quality (what we refer to in this digital age as high-resolution) was, for all their primitiveness, outstanding. My father’s 1948 Tourist folding camera, which became my first real camera before I graduated to 35 mm, had phenomenal sharpness. You could blow up that 2 3/4 x 3/34 ‘landscape’ negative almost to the size of a mural before it seriously degraded. Without the dot pattern (pixels) of New Age digital cameras, I might add.

So much for my limited memory and personal use of Kodak cameras. Wikipedia tells the story of this onetime colossus in just three paragraphs; how it was founded by George Eastman and Henry A. Strong in September 1888; how it held its dominant position in photographic film for most of the 20th century. “The company’s ubiquity was such that its ‘Kodak moment’ tagline entered the common lexicon to describe a personal event that was demanded to be recorded for posterity.”

But, slow to transition to digital photography despite developing the first self-contained digital camera, and with the resulting downturn of sales of photographic film, Kodak began to struggle financially in the late 1990s. In January 2012, Kodak filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy protection and, “shortly thereafter, announced that it would stop making digital cameras, pocket video cameras and digital picture frames and focus on the corporate digital imaging market”.

The venerable company, finally having embraced the computer age, still exists but, of course, no longer manufactures photographic film and, as a result, is no longer a household word.

I’m sure that anyone, middle-aged and older, will remember the name Kodak with fondness and respect. And, almost anywhere in Canada or in the U.S. you can be sure there are treasured family photos tucked away, thanks to George Eastman and Henry Strong…

As the old detective in the 1960s TV show used to say, there are eight million stories in the Naked City.

www.twpaterson.com

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