Photography as we know it was invented in the 1840s, but a practical method not involving complex and bulky chemicals on glass emerged in 1884 when George Eastman marketed “film” – a dry gel on paper – that could be developed in a studio dark room in simple, timed steps. The processes were easy to learn and required relatively little investment, so there was a rapid flourishing of photo studios worldwide. Ottawa was no exception.
One source* lists over 80 studios in Ottawa during the period 1868 – 1929. While a few, such as the William J Topley chain, became well-known and many examples of his studios’ work survives, most are known only through faded advertisements in period newspapers. Many appear to have existed only briefly, suggesting that it was a highly-competitive business, easy to launch, but difficult to achieve profit, not unlike the modern photography profession.
A formal studio portrait became a regular feature of various stages of family life, and were delivered to the customer as a “cabinet card” with the image on heavy stock cardboard about 108 by 165 mm (4 1⁄4 by 6 1⁄2 inches) in size, such as the one shown here. This was visible when displayed in a cabinet in a typical-sized parlour, hence the name. They are easily found in antique stores and provide often touching glimpses of people of the period.
This image bears on the back a logo of “Wallis – Photographer – Sparks Street – Ottawa” with the emblem of Prince Arthur, Duke of Connaught, who was Canada’s 10th Governor General from 1911 – 1916. This implies – not necessarily truthfully – that the Duke was a patron of the Wallis studio. The inclusion of the ducal crest on this image strongly suggests Wallis studio still operated during the Duke’s term of office in Canada. This is curious, because while the Ottawa photographer listing cited above does indeed include Wallis studios, no entry appears after 1902. Did Wallis become so well-known that he did not need to advertise in the popular press? Or did another Wallis, perhaps a son, continue the business after 1910? The much lower-ranked couple depicted are described in a penciled notation on the back as “George Ferguson and wife Eliza Keys. George worked at Fallowfield and met Eliza there.” Fallowfield is today little more than a crossroads, but at the turn of the 20th century it was a bustling town with numerous small industries and services, and a stopping place for travelers en route to Ottawa. It is not surprising that George would have found work there and a social circle large enough to include an eligible young lady to woo.