We can trace the origins of theatre programmes to the publicly-posted British playbills of the seventeenth century, which then evolvedto personal souvenir printings in the late-nineteenth century. We defer to the Canadian spelling, although you might see the interchangeable American “programs,” or defaults to the brand name “Playbill,” but they all refer to the same tradition. These personal reference items are sometimes sold as lavish souvenirs but are most often given freely to theatre patrons as they take their seats, and can have multiple functions. Most practically, they are a guide to the on- and off-stage artists involved with that night’s entertainment, and might include notes from the director or guidance on casting changes. They are souvenirs, to be filed away or consulted, to be autographed or even framed. Toronto Star theatre critic Karen Fricker noted in an April 2023 article that these “bridges between the spectator and the theatrical experience” can even double as a diary of sorts. They are evidence of attendance, something to spark memory and reminiscence over the joy theatre can bring. Programmes can be as simple as a single photocopied sheet; they can be glossy, high-quality publications. Some feature photos, some barely feature the names of the artists. Some are as thick as a novella, some are no bigger than a napkin, while some are printed as an entire newspaper. For many, the physical programme is intrinsic to the theatre-going experience, and despite recent moves to replace physical programmes with digital, smartphone-centred equivalents, collectors cling tight to their physical mementoes.
On October 21, 2021, Joseph Paul Christie—Paul to his many friends—passed away peacefully at home. Paul lived a long and joyous life, from his youth in Toronto to adventures in London as a bookseller and a distinguished career as a court reporter with the Ministry of the Ontario Attorney General, but one of his many defining traits was his love of the arts. For the last thirty years of his life, Paul served as a front of house team member (to over-simplify, we might say ‘usher’) at theatres around Toronto, most notably the Elgin and Winter Garden Theatres. From this insider’s position, Paul saw as much theatre as he could. His theatregoing career stretched back to boyhood, and lasted until he literally could not see any more plays, as the COVID-19 pandemic closed theatres in the spring of 2020. After Paul’s passing, the Toronto Metropolitan University Archives and Special Collections were honoured to receive a gift commemorating a life in the theatre. In dozens of carefully curated binders, we were presented every programme (and ticket stub, and clipping, and souvenir postcard) that Paul Christie collected over the course of sixty-eight years, filed chronologically and with extensive annotation to create the Paul Christie Theatre Program Collection reflecting a lifetime in the arts.
As a former theatre professional and current contract member of the TMU libraries team, I was thrilled to have the opportunity to help with the description and cataloguing of the Paul Christie collection. This collection stretches from the sporadic souvenirs of a teenage boy, starting with an autographed 1952 programme for a piano concert by Lubka Kolessa at Etobicoke Community Concerts Association, one of two items that year. From these humble beginnings, it is clear Paul “caught the bug,” a theatregoing habit which peaked in 2012, in which he attended one hundred and fifty six performances, at a rate of three per week. A lover of opera, orchestral performance, theatre, and dance, Paul’s tastes were eclectic and adventurous.
His collection spans the rise and fall of many of Toronto’s most legendary theatres, including the Crest Theatre, Theatre in the Dell, Centre Stage, and Melody Fair. He attended the first ever production at the O’Keefe Centre—Camelot featuring Julie Andrews and Richard Burton in 1960—and remained a patron of that venue as it evolved from the Hummingbird Centre to the Sony Centre to Meridian Hall. Paul’s theatregoing spanned the birth of Theatre Passe Muraille, the Factory Theatre, Soulpepper, and Buddies in Bad Times. He was a champion of the Toronto Fringe, and often attended a dozen shows in a single week to support new and emerging artists, evidenced by the intricate and specific notes he jotted in the margins. Paul was there when TIFF was still called the Festival of Festivals. He had his finger on the pulse of the next big thing: he saw world premieres of Hosannaat Tarragon, Kim’s Convenience at the Fringe and Come From Away at Sheridan College, all destined to become Canadian classics.
Paul briefly dabbled in the theatre himself, and several of his souvenir programmes note his involvement as playwright and actor with the Dickens Fellowship of Toronto. He played Herbert Pocket in his own adaptation of Great Expectations entitled The Benefactor, and later took on A Midsummer Night’s Dream’sBottom in the Shakespeare Society of Toronto’s 1960Twelfth Night Revels cabaret. While it was clear that the theatre was a crucial element in Paul’s life, he eventually left the stage to the professionals, and settled into his greatest role: audience member.
Paul was a globetrotting theatregoer, with almost annual trips to New York City to enjoy what Broadway had to offer. He saw the original production of West Side Story three times (and kept three programmes as proof), saw Barbra Streisand’s breakout role in Funny Girl, and was there for the rise of the megamusicals in the 1980’s (Cats, Phantom, and Les Mis were regular repeat watches). Paul’s time in London afforded him opportunities to soak up British theatre, which included works at the Royal Shakespeare Company, Theatre Royal Covent Garden, and the Royal Opera. He also took advantage of the proximity to the continent, taking in opera in Germany and Moliere in Paris. He travelled regularly around Canada, with theatre programmes marking stops in Vancouver, Charlottetown, Halifax, and, most often, Stratford and Niagara-on-the-Lake. The Shaw and Stratford Festivals held a place of great joy in Paul’s artistic pursuits, and he was a loyal patron for nearly seven decades.
The remarkable thing about the Paul Christie Theatre Programme collection lies not in the rarity of the items or the fame of its collector. Rather, it is a snapshot of a part of one man’s life that brought such great joy, in attending performances across an extraordinary range of genres. To read through the collection of more than four thousand theatre items is to get to know Paul. As an Elgin and Winter Garden employee, he witnessed many hundreds of performances of all types at both theatres, from touring musicals to high school rentals to the Dora Mavor Moore Awards. He attended Christmas Eve services each year at Roy Thomson Hall with the Metropolitan Community Church of Toronto, and carefully filed those programmes alongside the theatre ones. He was a proud ally of Toronto’s 2SLGBTQ+ community, and was an avid supporter of queer-themed plays, cabarets, and fundraisers, especially through the dark days of the 1980s AIDS epidemic and beyond. In this, it was clear just how much Paul valued community and the power of the arts. Paul loved to rub shoulders with celebrities, and sought autographs from his favourite performers (including Maureen Stapleton, Gwen Verdon, Martin Short, and Paul’s favourite, Grant Tilly), who often left him with autographs which made clear how much his support was appreciated.
Most incredibly, Paul used his theatre programme collection as a journal of sorts: each item is a treasure trove of annotations, opinions (where he would note his favourites in each show, and occasionally even those he did not care for), and clippings. From the earliest days in the collection, Paul collected newspaper articles and advertisements for the plays he had seen, and built intricate scrapbook pages to memorialise each performance. Sometimes he even returned to past entries to claim an autograph on a long-ago object or to supplement with new details. For the shows that did not offer a programme, Paul would make his own, on a napkin, or the back of an envelope.
In his latter years, Paul’s collecting intensified, and it is clear that live performance was an overriding preoccupation, particularly with the advent of cheap, convenient screenings of live opera, ballet and theatre in movie theatres. Even these movie ticket stubs, for events which usually do not provide a programme, were carefully annotated. Often, Paul would attend up to three or four films a week to see performances from the Metropolitan Opera, National Theatre of Great Britain, and Stratford Festival. Later entries even included developed photographs of the marquees and posters outside of theatres and cinemas, carefully placed to preserve a moment in time.
The final binders of Paul’s collection are heartbreaking in retrospect, because we know the world is about to change. In the first two months of 2020, Paul attended 21 performances, finishing with the National Ballet of Canada’s Romeo and Juliet at the Four Seasons Centre on March 12, 2020. After a lifetime of theatregoing, however, the COVID-19 pandemic abruptly shuttered the theatres and all at once closed the book on a lifetime in the audience. It is telling that Paul was so prolific until there were no more shows to see, and it must have been a devastating blow to lose this outlet.
When Paul passed away in October 2021, his love of the theatre proved central to how he was remembered by his many friends and family. We are honoured to preserve his lifetime in the theatre at the TMU Archives and Special Collections. After several months cataloguing this incredible collection, I feel as though I knew him.
If you’re looking for photographs from the 1940s to 1990s taken in Ontario, there is a wonderful collection at the Archives and Special Collections waiting for you!
The Collingwood collection was donated to the Archives & Special Collections in 2021 by a relative of the photographer. The collection consists of 35 mm and 2 ¼ negatives, prints, and textual records. The volume of the collection is high and it is being processed and it will be added to our database. A part of the collection consists of acetate based negatives suffering from vinegar syndrome. Vinegar syndrome is a term that refers to the odor of vinegar that is emitted due to hydrolysis of the acetate base of the negatives. The deteriorated negatives require special care and handling practices and due to their condition are not accessible for viewing in the reading room. The Archives and Special Collections is in the process of digitizing the deteriorated negatives before moving them to cold storage to increase accessibility to the collection.
Harold Grant Collingwood was born on August 4, 1909, in Exeter, South Huron, Huron, Ontario and died at the age of 87 in May 1996. As an avid photographer, he photographed well-known jazz musicians, street views, buildings, events and venues. He was a commissioned photographer who took photographs for numerous companies namely the Mclean Hunter newsletter and Chatelaine magazine. In his portfolio, there are photographs depicting the office culture of the 40s to 90s in Canada. You will be able to find photographs of important events like the Eaton’s main store demolition and buildings like the old City Hall and the new City Hall. As a result of the variety of subjects that Collingwood photographed, this collection can be used for researchers who are interested in Toronto street views, events and even fashion between the years 1940 and 1990. Additionally, since Collingwood was commissioned to photograph events for companies and businesses, it can also be an excellent resource for researching the existing industries and businesses in Canada during that time period.
Drop by the Archives and Special Collections Department on the 4th floor of the library to see the current exhibition of the Collingwood collection. If you are interested in learning more about this collection you can check our database.
Photographs from TMU Libraries’ Special Collections are currently on view at Mount Dennis Library as part of Robert Burley’s exhibition The Last Day of Work. The CONTACT Photography Festival exhibit includes historical records from the Kodak Canada Corporate Archives and Heritage Collection, including a 2004 letter announcing the closure of Kodak Heights, the company’s former manufacturing plant in Toronto’s Mount Dennis neighbourhood. The 48-acre lot was the home of Kodak Canada from 1912 until its closure in 2005.
At this time, we are looking to expand our collection of oral history recordings of past employees. If you are a former Kodak Heights employee or family member with ties to Kodak Canada and are interested in participating, please email us at email@example.com.
The Kodak Canada Archives has extensive photographs, publications, and memorabilia related to employees and corporate life at Kodak. Here are some highlights, including a 16mm film about the history of Kodak Canada, pages from a scrapbook with postcards and photographs taken during employee baby showers and retirement parties, and a souvenir brochure used in tours of the Kodak Heights’ facilities.
This week the nostalgia machine has churned out never before seen images of everyone’s favourite puppet cartoon show, Fraggle Rock! Yes, you heard that right, Muppets.
Our collection includes nearly 600, full colour vintage negatives of everything from the backdrop, to the set, props, and of course the stars of the show; otherwise known as the supreme rulers of the universe, the Gorgs! Oh, and some Fraggles and Doozers as well. You can also see the amazing production team behind our beloved creatures, but rest assured the magic is still there once the illusion is shattered.
These images provide a once in a unique intimate opportunity to see the innerworkings of how the internationally acclaimed TV show was produced. The collection was graciously donated by the Canadian production designer Robert Arthur Hackborn who workers for the CBC. His work as a set designer and a film director have greatly influenced the trajectory of the creative vision of multiple productions, not just Fraggle Rock. Make sure to check out the rest of his donated works of audio visual, photography, published materials, textual records, objects, and graphic materials!
We’re joining the Archives of Ontario in their #ArchivesAtoZ month-long campaign. The aim is to increase the public’s awareness of archives and their collections. We’ll be sharing four blog posts throughout the month showcasing items from our holdings and demystifying archival concepts related to each letter of the alphabet.
April 4: A to F
April 11: G to M
April 18: N to S
April 25: T to Z
Archives and Special Collections often go beyond papers, books, and photographs in their collections. Many will have objects and artifacts as well. Our Archives and Special Collections is home to a robust collection of artifacts in all shapes and sizes, including many oversized and heavy ones that make storage tricky. Here are a few examples from the collections. (tap on the photographs to learn more about the objects)
Our collection contains a large variety of published materials including books and journals. The Archives previously collected the published works of faculty. Special Collections houses rare books with a photographic focus, children’s books and History of Toronto books. They also have a large collection of photography related journals. Unlike the rest of the library – these books are not out on open shelving for viewing – they need to be pulled by Archives and Special Collections staff, and they are not available to take home. The books can be searched using the library catalogue and narrowing the location to either Archives or Special Collections
Campus maps are an important part of our collection. They show the evolution and growth of the campus starting with its creation in 1948. They highlight not just the growth of the campus, but also show movement within the campus by the programs and schools that make up the University. For example the School of Architecture is currently located at 325 Church Street. But in the 1960s it was located at 44 Gerrard Street (former School of Performance building), in the early 1970’s it was housed at in the City Hall annex building at 465 Bay Street and after a fire in that building Architecture was housed at 720 King St. (near Bathurst).
The Doozers, a favourite of the Archives and Special Collections staff, were part of the Jim Henson Television show “Fraggle Rock”. These tiny creatures were forever building structures only to have them eaten by the Fraggles. The photograph and the book are part of the Robert Hackborn Fonds. This collection contains extensive documentation of the creative processes for television show including on-set images, sketches of set designs and correspondence. Robert Hackborn was a Canadian set designer and art director. He started working at the CBC in 1955 as a scenic paint artist and later progressed to the Set Design Department where he would produce versatile special visual effects incorporated in years of Canadian film and television programming. (Tap on the photographs to learn more about the records)
Special Collections has a selection of pamphlets, press releases and publications for exhibitions in museums, galleries, festivals and universities across Canada, the United States and abroad. The collections is continuously growing, but the original acquisition was donated by Alison Nordström, the Curator of Photographs at George Eastman House International Museum of Photography and Film, who collected the material between 1986 and 2011.
Frank Sommers interviews
The Frank G. Sommers Fonds contains text and audio records of interviews he conducted with European and Canadian film directors Marianne Ahrne, Walerian Browczyk, Bert Haanstra, Claude Jutra, Ettore Scola, and Alain Tanner between 1978 and 1979. The goals of the interviews were to review converging trends in international cinema through director’s perspectives and gain a deeper understanding of the works.
Next week we’ll highlight items and archival concepts for the letters G to M!
Special Collections has a variety of books related to the history, production and exhibition of photography. In honour of Black History Month, we are featuring exhibition catalogues and books centering Black photographers, artists and curators. Although this is a small sample from the collection, all of these works highlight the importance of self-documentation in photography as a way to celebrate communities and counter the historical misrepresentation of Black people.
In the 1948 book “Camera Portraits : the techniques and principles of documentary portraiture” Gordon Parks shares insight into how he photographed 40 individuals with his unique style of photography. He recounts his interactions with the subjects and analyses his overall approach to the portrait. Parks also includes valuable technical elements for each photograph, such as the camera model, exposure, film stock and light source.
Deborah Willis and Claudine Brown curated the works of 15 artists who examine roles played within families and communities. The catalogue recounts how the exhibition was created when the Smithsonian was contemplating the need for a dedicated museum to preserve African American history. They were unsure if they would receive enough donations to build a museum collection and some believed that African American material culture was already preserved in other museum branches.
The exhibition served as an inspiration for underrepresented communities to self-document their stories and validated personal narratives as a key part of history.
The 2003-2004 exhibition “Embracing Eatonville : a photographic survey” presented works by Dawoud Bey, Lonnie Graham, Carrie Mae Weems and Deborah Willis.Eatonville, Florida is one of the oldest Black towns to be incorporated in the United States. In 2002, the four artists were tasked to capture the spirit of this historical city through documentary photography. Each photographer brought their unique approach to this exhibition to provide a snapshot of the community and its landscape. The exhibition was shown at Light Work in New York and the Robert B. Menschel Media Center in Eatonville.
Love it or hate it – snow in the winter is inevitable in most of Canada. Going along with this theme – let’s take a look at some images and items from the collections showcasing winter and snow. So put on a warm sweater and pour yourself a mug of something hot and take a look.
This beautiful scene is a painting done on plexiglass, which was then mounted in a wooden frame. We have back lit it for this image to give you an idea of what they might have done when using it for filming. It is from the Robert Hackborn collection. Robert Hackborn had a long and important career in the design and production of sets and special visual effects for television – working on shows like Mr. Roger’s Neighbourhood, Mr. Dressup and Fraggle Rock.
These five images below of the University Campus in winter (RG 395.121.01.216) were taken by then staff photograph Dave Upham. The photographs taken between 1992-1999 were used in campus publications like the now defunct Forum newsletter. They are part of a larger collection of images used by the University for promotional purposes and news stories.
The next two images are part of the Lorne Shields Historical Photograph collection. The collection consists studio portraits, cabinet cards, photograph albums, dageurreotypes, tin types and other photographic formats donated to Special Collections in 2008 by Lorne Shields.
For many years the University had a winter carnival sponsored by the Students’ Union. It had many different activities such as ice carving, a broom ball tournament on Lake Devo, various food eating contests, concerts, pub nights, and skiing day trips.
Lastly lets take a look at some Kodak advertising around winter and Christmas. The Kodak Canada collection contains records and artifacts from the Kodak Heights manufacturing facility in Toronto, as well as the historical collection belonging to the Kodak Heritage Collection Museum.
Kodak is most likely known for its photography related wart efforts, such as their advertisements encouraging citizens to send images to soldiers or the Vest Pocket camera sold as “The Soldier’s Kodak.”1 Nevertheless, they were also supporting wartime demands through employee initiatives and by shifting their manufacturing plants at Kodak Heights in Toronto.
A group of employees organized the Kodak War Efforts Club to send packages overseas with sweets, knitted goods and magazines. In addition, they partnered with the Red Cross to host a weekly Kodak Blood Clinic and rewarded employees with badges for recurring donations.2
In 1941, Kodak Heights was approached by the Department of Munitions and Supply to manufacture compasses. They had previously built tools and parts for combat airplanes, but this was their first venture in producing instruments for the armed forces.3 As seen in many sectors, women stepped into manufacturing positions during the war, and Kodak was no different in finding new roles for women to support the production of compasses.
In their internal employee publication, the company celebrated this endeavour and shared positive feedback received from the U.S. War Department as well as their own employees who were redeployed in the war fronts and recognized the C.K.C engraving (Canadian Kodak Company) on a compass.4
Kodak Heights even exhibited images of the compass in the Employee Building cafeteria to promote the initiative among staff. These images may have remained on the walls as a memory of their war efforts, because by fall of 1945 Kodak had already pivoted back to its regular production of cameras and photographic material.
Kodak had several internal magazines which provide incredible first hand accounts of the day to day life at the company. Running from 1936 to 1955, “KODAK: A Magazine for Kodak Employees” was a bimonthly internal publication designed to communicate the activities of Canadian Kodak and its employees. For more information on war efforts at Kodak Heights, explore the publications in our database or on the Internet Archive for online versions.
Roger, Andrew C. ‘Amateur Photography by Soldiers of the Canadian Expeditionary Force’. Archivaria, vol. 26, no. January, 1988, pp. 163–68.
‘Kodak Meets the Wartime Challenge (Part 1)’. KODAK: A Magazine for Kodak Employees, vol. 1, no. 3, Apr. 1945, pp. 1–2.
‘Kodak Meets the Wartime Challenge (Part 2)’. KODAK: A Magazine for Kodak Employees, vol. 1, no. 4, May 1945, pp. 1–3.
In 2019, I exhibited my SSHRC-Insight Development Grant-funded research, “Newspapers, Minstrelsy and Black Performance at the Theatre: Mapping the Spaces of NationBuilding in Toronto, 1870s to 1930s,” as part of RUBIX, a showcase celebration of the Scholarly Research and Creative (SRC) activity within the Faculty of Communication and Design. At this event, I met Alison Skyrme, Special Collections librarian at Ryerson who suggested that I drop by Special Collections to examine images of blackface in the Kodak Canada Archive.
I was struck by her invitation because it happens so rarely. Despite the fact that blackface was a popular theatrical form of entertainment from the 1830s through 1960s, performed not only in the professional theatre and in Hollywood films, but also in communities at high schools, athletic clubs, hospitals, at retail, and even summer camps, most people want to hide their blackface artefacts, they do not invite Black researchers to interrogate them. And so, one afternoon in the fall of 2019, I and my graduate student, Emilie Jabouin, scoured through the Kodak Archive’s blackface repertoire. While the images were new to me, I had prior knowledge of the important role that Kodak played in the development of photography.
The company, which stopped making digital cameras in 2012, was founded by George Eastman in 1888. At that time, the Eastman Kodak Company introduced on the mass market a box camera that allowed users to take their own photographs. For the first time, photography was quick, simple, and accessible. The Kodak box camera was the first commercially available product that allowed users to do little more than press a button to take their own pictures. Within a generation, millions of people were given the ability to produce their own images, they were no longer at the whim of a professional photographer’s stylistic choices in terms of dress, pose, and costume.
With the proliferation of the photographic “snapshot,” images, and postcards, by the end of the nineteenth century, ideas about the power of photography created a new relationship between image and reality. For example, an advertisement appearing in the Ladies’ Home Journalin 1897 declared, “Take a KODAK with You. Make the most of the lure of the first soft days of spring. Picture the parks and the fields and the woods. Let Kodak be your companion on every out-of-door day – twill [sic] give you a fuller joy in the day itself – and afterward the joy of possessing pictures of the places and people that you are interested in.”
The mass adoption of photography coincided with blackface’s popularization during vaudeville. Blackface minstrelsy began as a theatrical form of entertainment in New York, Boston, and Philadelphia in the 1830s and 1840s. From its outset blackface was performed by white, mostly male northern performers who crossed racial and gender boundaries by mimicking African Americans (e.g., they would wear bright red lipstick, darken their faces with coal-black make-up, exaggerate their facial expressions, and cross dress) in order to entertain audiences with the supposedly “authentic” music, humour, and dance ostensibly common on southern plantations.
By the 1880s, the minstrel show had waned in popularity, but vaudeville theatre brought many of its conventions back through the reinvention of the stage into a variety show. When vaudeville appeared, it was unique because unlike the legitimate theatre, vaudeville acts came from all ethnic groups and genders, in all shapes and sizes, ranging from the “respectable” thespian to the circus “freak,” from burlesque to chorus performers. By the mid-1920s, there were no longer vaudeville theatres in Ontario, and a decade later, there was no vaudeville at all, but blackface performance continued.
This is the sociocultural context that frames the images located within the Kodak Archive. By the 1920s, as blackface declined at the theatre, it was performed on an amateur, local level. The images discussed here range from 1920 to 1923. They predate feature ‘talking pictures’ such as The Jazz Singer (1927), starring Al Jolson in blackface. They were also taken after the First World War, the Spanish Influenza pandemic, and the fight for women’s suffrage – all of which came to their completion in the years between 1918 and 1919. These images reflect both a sentiment of celebration but also nostalgia for ‘simpler times.’
With this context in mind, we explain how the Kodak Archive came to be, and also how to read images that, from today’s point of view are racist, but functioned at the time under a different guise; they functioned under the auspices of entertainment. How do you contend with such contradictions in the present? Why, and how, must we address the images’ latent racism today, resisting the desire to keep them hidden?
By talking about these difficult images, we learn how to grapple with our contemporary moment when anti-Black racism still exists, and blackface is still adorned to mimic and defame Black bodies. Our intention is to encourage students, faculty, and researchers to engage with these images so that we can have much needed conversations about the production of racial difference and the anti-Black racism such acts engender.
Kodak Blackface Records
The Canadian Kodak Company (later Kodak Canada) arrived in Canada in 1899, and officially opened its offices on Colborne Street in Toronto in 1900. In 1921, the company moved its manufacturing facility to a location near Weston Road and Eglinton Avenue West, and from there, “Kodak Heights” manufactured cameras and other photography equipment, and employed 3,000 people at its peak. Like many companies of this era, Kodak had an athletics club. The Kodak Athletics Association (KAA) was an employee lead group within the company whose leadership was elected by employees. The association organized a variety of events, such as Christmas parties, ladies’ nights, drama club, and dances, in addition to bowling, hockey, volleyball, and softball leagues. The Kodak Heights KAA also organized blackface minstrel shows that can be found in the Kodak Archive.
There are several themes that can be seen in the Kodak Archive’s blackface images. First, the images reveal a rich history of performing minstrel shows, and of the cultural importance they had for many Canadian families. The song and dance numbers, operas, orchestras, and the ways that these shows functioned as team building opportunities for employees were not unique to Kodak; this was common practice across corporate Canada. The shows were commemorated with formal portraits, and extensive reviews published in the employee newsletter, containing the blackface images. Of all the records, there are a few that stood out to us as examples of amateur blackface performance.
In “First Annual Kodak Minstrel Show” (1920), a blackface cast with three white women, as well as two white men who are not in blackface captures what blackface ensembles in racial caricature looked like. What separated the characters in the minstrel show from each other were speech, dress, and geographic location. End-men played tambourine and bones (they were sometimes called Tambo and Brudder Bones) and were portrayed as being of lower class by costume and vernacular. These characters wore satin suits, oversized ties, and curly wigs, and they engaged in jokes and quips with the smartly attired white Interlocutor who commanded centre stage. The Interlocutor, sometimes called the middleman, did not wear blackface. He was a kind of mouthpiece for high culture: his dress and speech were upper class, and the plot usually centred on the End-men putting down the Interlocutor because it would have been funny to see “Black folks” on the plantation making fun of the “civilized” Northerner.
Both the American flag and the Union Jack are visible in the image. The American flag likely signaled that the content of the show originated there, while the Union Jack was commonly flown at this time in Canada. The Citizenship Act of 1946 demarcates the moment when Canadians were no longer considered British subjects. In 1965, the Canadian flag replaced the Union Jack as our national flag, then as part of the Centennial Year celebrations two years later, “O Canada” became the official national anthem. Hence, at the time of the Kodak Minstrels, Canadian society was profoundly British, though it was also, paradoxically, becoming increasingly patriotic. For example, in “Second Annual Kodak Minstrel Show, Burgess & Seymour” (1921) two white men stand beside drawings of white women. One man is in blackface as an End Men, and the other, as Interlocutor, is not. One drawing captures a woman with a hat brimmed with the word “Canadian” while the other woman’s hat reads “Kodak.” This not only places the American company in Canada, it also marks Canadianness as something distinct, though culturally, it was quite undefined at this moment in our history.
“Third Annual Kodak Minstrel Show, Crystal Theatre” (1922) is a good example of the extent to which minstrel shows required detailed production, not just with actors in blackface but also musicians, stage set-up, make-up, dress, and costume design. This image is particularly striking because there is a child (between the sixth and seventh End Men, from left to right) who is also in blackface. The boy is dressed all in white, even his shoes. Because community blackface was so common, children were often used as part of the show and/or encouraged to attend. These were not censored events even as they are offensive to viewers today. Some questions that are important to think about in terms of this image are what kind of trauma was ingrained and normalized in this child? How did they process the mimetic racial play that was at work in the performance of blackface?
Finally, in “Mount Department Minstrels at ‘Girls Night’ Frolic” (1923) nine women appear in blackface, as part of what was dubbed “An Adamless Evening”. At this event, women were encouraged to set aside convention and enjoy themselves without their husbands. Eight of them are in blackface dressed in overalls, straw field hats and handkerchiefs as End Men, and the one performing as the Interlocutor is not in blackface sitting on a chair. The performers are not only women in blackface, they are also in drag. Significantly, the minstrel show of the nineteenth century was for all intents and purposes the first drag variety show. Most minstrel troupes were men who wore blackface to sing, dance and tell jokes and while there were female characters, these were typically female impersonators, or as Marjorie Garber describes, “double crossover figures, men playing women, women playing blacks” (276). In this sense, blackface minstrelsy became a site where compulsory heterosexuality was challenged, even as women were also derided through impersonation and misogyny. Michael Rogin explains cross-dressing as challenging binary categories in two ways, “by locating pleasure in the in-between condition (woman dressed as man, white as black) and by parodying the supposedly natural identity” (31). In other words, cross-dressing in the blackface theatre signified not an either/or binary but an intersectional both/and which called into question the repressive gender categories of man and woman, white and black. As it relates to the KAA, however, such performances might have been just “play” or they might have similarly functioned as a form challenging gender roles that would have been derided in ‘real life’ in the 1920s.
How should we read these images?
The initial information about the Kodak Archive was that there was one image in the collection that was known by the Special Collections Library (the collection was processed by contract employees over a number of years), but the extent of the material was not known until a student exhibition, Kodak Canada: The Early Years 1899-1939, which took place at the Ryerson Image Centre. The coverage within the Kodak Heights newsletters was not identified until the dates for the minstrel shows were identified and those issues searched. In other words, the very reason why we have been able to make sense of these images in this collection is because Alison and others put in the work to connect the dots, so to speak, between the images and Canada’s history of blackface.
These images are difficult. But 2020 has shown us that just because something is difficult does not mean that it should be ignored, minimized, and kept secret for fear that people will think, in this instance, that Ryerson’s Library and/or the University is ‘racist’ for simply having them in their possession. On the contrary, we would argue that in every library across Canada (and the United States) and in the personal collections of those Canadians who are over the age of 70, in particular, there exists blackface image(s) and/or amateur playbill(s) of local shows they either attended and/or participated in as children. The time is now to take these images out of the shadows and bring them into the light so that we can contend with this history that speaks more to who we are as Canadians than the myths people tell themselves to prevent from seeing the reality of the past for what it was – complicated, but also virulently anti-Black.
As such, reading these images first requires that you engage with secondary sources (see the list below) to understand the sociocultural context of their production. Second, before labelling the images as racist and therefore feeling a sense of shame for even looking at them in the first place, take a breath, step back, and start asking questions about the image. Who is in the image? These images were taken at a time when Canada’s Black population was quite small, and companies like Kodak were undoubtedly all-white spaces. What did these performers know about Black people? If they did not know Black people, where did they draw their caricatures from? What is captured in the image, such as instruments, dress, footwear, etc.? What intersections of race, gender and class are at work? Where was the image placed on the page? Is there a heading? Are the names of the sitters listed, and if so, who are they?
By asking yourself these questions, you begin the process of unpacking rather than reacting to difficult imagery. And by unpacking, you allow yourself to understand the production of racial difference and the ways in which mimicry not only disempowered the mimetic Other, it also disempowered the actor as it prevented them from seeing Black people as whole people – with lives, families and desires. It also prevented white people from acknowledging their own whiteness and privilege. Ultimately, these images of blackface in the Kodak Archive give us an opportunity to unpack white privilege, rather than declare its existence without understanding how it too, like race, is a social construct that, once identified and acknowledged, can be dismantled. It is only when we are all seen for who we are that we can truly lay the past to rest and move on toward a future based on equity and mutual respect. By unmasking Canada’s history of blackface, we believe we are taking a giant step toward achieving this goal.
Emilie Jabouin is a PhD Candidate in Communication & Culture, working on her doctoral dissertation at Ryerson/York universities on Black women organizers and journalists in early 20th-century Canada. Emilie is also a story-teller and dance artist who explores the social and cultural histories and expressions of the African diasporas. Find her on Twitter at @emilie_jabouin.
Bean, Annemarie. 1996. “Transgressing the Gender Divide: The Female Impersonator in Nineteenth-Century Blackface Minstrelsy.” In Inside the Minstrel Mask: Readings in Nineteenth-Century Blackface Minstrelsy, eds. Annemarie Bean, James V. Hatch, and Brooks McNamara, 245-256. Hanover and London: Wesleyan University Press.
Johnson, Stephen. 1999. “Uncle Tom and the Minstrels: Seeing Black and White on Stage in Canada West prior to the American Civil War.” In (Post)Colonial Stages: Critical & Creative Views on Drama, Theatre & Performance, ed. Helen Gilbert, 55-63. Coventry: Dangaroo Press.
Nicks, Joan and Jeannette Sloniowski. 2010. “Entertaining Niagara Falls, Ontario: Minstrel Shows, Theatres, and Popular Pleasures.” In Covering Niagara: Studies in Local Popular Culture, ed. Joan Nicks and Barry Keith Grant, 285-310. Waterloo: Wilfrid Laurier University Press.
Did you know Ryerson Special Collections has a large selection of World War II comic books? We have a collection of over 180 Canadian Whites comics!
These are referred to as the “Canadian Whites” since only the front and back cover were printed in colour, while the pages inside were kept in black and white.
In 1940, the War Exchange Conservation Act (WECA) deemed American comic books non-essential luxury goods, which could not be imported during World War II. Canadian publishers responded to this demand for comics by creating their own national superheroes with local storylines.
They introduced iconic characters such as Johnny Canuck, a Canadian hero who fights Nazis without superpowers but with his own strength and patriotism, and Nelvana of the Northern Lights, a superhero tasked to protect Northern Canada. Nelvana was one of the first female superheroes to be featured in comic books, and even predated the creation of Wonder Woman. Her character was possibly inspired by an Inuit elder that the Group of Seven painter Franz Johnston met during a trip to the Northwest Territories.
The Canadian Whites comics are incredible resources to read, research and analyze. There are several facets to explore, from the character’s stereotypical depictions and the Canadian propaganda storylines to the type of ink processes used to print the comic books.
If you’d like to view these comics from your home, Library and Archives Canada has several issues digitized and available online. Browse through their finding aid to locate the links and view the comic books.
Check out these resources for more information about Canadian Comic Books: