Women in the Printing Room

In 18 63, Oliver Wendell Holmes described the tasks carried out by workers in photography printing rooms. The worker of his description, notably, is a young man:

In a small room, lighted by a few rays which filter through a yellow curtain, a youth has been employed all the morning in developing the sensitive conscience of certain sheets of paper, which came to him from the manufacturer already glazed...This "albumenized" paper the youth lays gently and skillfully upon the surface of a solution of nitrate of silver. When it has floated there a few minutes, he lifts it, lets it drain, and hangs it by one corner to dry. This "sensitized" paper is served fresh every morning, as it loses its delicacy by keeping.

We take a piece of this paper of the proper size, and lay it on the varnished or pictured side of the negative, which is itself laid in a wooden frame, like a picture-frame. Then we place a thick piece of cloth on the paper. Then we lay a hinged wooden back on the cloth, and by means of two brass springs press all close together, - the wooden back against the cloth, the cloth against the paper, the paper against the negative. We turn the frame over and see that the plain side of the glass negative is clean. And now we step out upon the roof of the house into the bright sunshine, and lay the frame, with the glass uppermost, in the full blaze of light When we think it has darkened nearly enough we turn it over, open a part of the hinged back, turn down first a portion of the thick cloth, and then enough of the paper to see something of the forming picture. If not printed dark enough as yet, we turn back to their places successively the picture, the cloth, the opened part of the frame, and lay it again in the sun...A photograph-printer will have fifty or more pictures printing at once, and he keeps going up and down the line, opening the frames to look and see how they are getting on. As fast as they are done, he turns them over, back to the sun and the cooking process stops at once.6

At this point, the print would go to the "toning room" to have the image fixed, washed, and dried. Finally, it would be mounted on a card.7 Holmes's description makes it clear that the job of a printing room employee was one that required both experience and diligence. Attention to detail was essential and timing the print's exposure required a skill gained by experience as it depended upon variables such as the quality of the negative and the brightness of the day. At Notman's, the workload was heavy as well; the studio produced thousands of negatives and a minimum of one print per negative every year. In 1871, for example, Notman's made about 10,000 photographic negatives. In 1873,

6Holmes, "Doings of the Sunbeam," 5-6.


when North America reached the deepest point of a recession, production for the studio peaked at about 14,000. In 1874, approximately 12,000 were made. By 187 6, however, business had returned to the levels of the late 1860s when an estimated 6,000 negatives were made.8

In 1874 and 1875, eighteen women were employed at Notman's (out of a total of fifty-five and fifty-three employees respectively). In 1876, this number had dropped to nine out of a total staff of fifty-two.9 Eight of these

8The figures for the years 1861 to 1884 are on file at the Notman Photographic Archives.

In the 1876 picture books, negatives numbers range from 22,741 to 43,375. However, there is a gap between 24,999 and 40,000 in which no images are entered. Nora Hague at the Notman Photographic Archives has speculated that Notman was setting up branch studios at this time and may have set aside these numbers with the intention of including branch studios' photographs in the Montreal filing systems. Based on these numbers, then, a minimum of 5,633 negatives were made in Montreal in 1876.

The phenomenon of an increase in photographic work during the recession was not unique to Notman's. An 1875 report on photographic activities in Germany included the observation that "Notwithstanding the dull state of industry and the export trade, and in spite of the universal money calamity, the photographers have yet always more to do than many another business The possession of a portrait is made a necessity not only by marriage solicitors in the newspapers, but all seeking positions, are often enough asked to send their recommendation and portrait." See "German Correspondence," The Philadelphia Photographer 12 (November 1875), 341.

9By 1877, Notman's staff v.*as reduced to thirty—eight people including seven women. See Appendix D.

- the women of Miss Findlay's Group - worked in the printing room and one, Mrs. Burns, worked as a caretaker. These women may well have done double-duty at Notman's by working in not only the printing room but also spending some time attending the reception and dressing rooms or mounting photographs on cards. The only position that women are known with certainty not to have occupied is that of staff photographer.

In 1873, Jabez Hughes analyzed the role of women workers in England's photography industry. He divided these workers into three categories derived from their class status: the 'maid-of-all-work,' the 'shopwoman, ' and the 'governess' classes. The various skills of each, Hughes explained, complemented the division of labour in the production of photographs and allowed "these three kinds of female skill to have adequate scope" in photography occupations. For example,

What I have called the "maid-of-all-work" class is of course the lowest grade, and their work is quite behind the scenes, being confined to what is technically called "printing," that is, preparing the paper and producing on it the print from the "negative." This class of labor is the most laborious and dirty, and, as such labor generally is, the least remunerative. Women of this grade are more often employed in the country than in London, and at best their work is mainly confined to the cheap establishments. Their remuneration will be from ten to fifteen shillings per week. Their recommendation is, not that they do their work better, but that they can be got cheaper than men. In many respectable establishments this kind of work is done by men and boys.10

Hughes contends that in England the photographic studio was a place in which women of the lower classes would find employment only rarely and when they did it was out of sight of patrons and only at studios of less than premium quality and reputation. According to this account, then, the employment of women in Notman's printing room in comparison to practices in England would seem to be unusual on three counts: Notman's was a prestigious urban studio, employment in the printing room appears to have been confined to women whose class status was a cut above the "maid-of-all-work," a designation for unskilled women labourers, and finally, the women may have worked in more than one area of the studio.

Hughes went on to explain that in a photography studio the "greater part of the female labor is supplied by the 'shopwoman' class," a class that seems to align more readily with that of Notman's printing room women.11 But in England, the labour done by these women did not include printing. Instead, their positions involved photograph mounting and retouching, attendance in the reception room,

10Jabez Hughes, "Photography as an Industrial Occupation for Women," 1873, in Camera Fiends & Kodak Girls: 50 Selections By and About Women in Photography, 1840-1930, ed. Peter E. Palmquist (New York: Midmarch Arts Press, 1989), 33.

assisting women portrait clients with grooming, taking customers' orders and payments, and looking after the studio's correspondence. He estimated that these positions paid between fifteen and thirty shillings a week. (I have been unable to determine the equivalent figure in Canadian dollars and thus cannot yet compare Notman's wages to wages paid in British studios.) Hughes argued that the "governess" class of women, the highest rank of working women, would be especially well qualified to take on positions of trust in the studio, such as account-keeping and correspondence, that required a certain literacy level. However, he wrote, "The chief fault with this class is, that they will not bend to their work; they think too much of themselves, and act as if they were the persons who patronize the photographer." In other words, while work in photography studios was found to be eminently appropriate for women, a distinction remained - and had to be maintained - between those who assisted in the production of the portrait photograph, those who met and worked with patrons, and the patrons themselves who commissioned the image. Because the classes must intersect in the course of the transaction, the advantage to employment of the "governess"

class of women was that in "manners and behavior they import no corresponding drawbacks "12

The 187 6 portrait of Miss Findlay and her companions, the women of the printing room, contradicts Hughes's description of their British counterparts. Miss Findlay's Group (Figure 9) is composed as a conversation group - or the left half is. Two distinct groupings are posed with seemingly little connecting the two. On the left, while gazing off to the right of the viewer, a young woman seated on a rug in the foreground rests against the woman behind. Three women behind her are engrossed in a problem: a dejected-looking young woman sits facing an impassive companion. Closing this circle is a more mature woman bent forward with her arms around the shoulders of the two; she appears to be consoling, or cajoling, the unhappy sitter. In contrast, the remaining four women on the right-hand side of the group, while closely gathered, are more engaged with the viewer than with each other. Two, bearing a resemblance to one another, are seated, flanked by their standing colleagues. The woman on the right appears to be slightly older than the rest and her position and posture suggest a seniority and authority that the others do not share.

The women are all dressed in ruffles and fancy collars; some sport decorative cuffs; one wears satin, one velvet; and most wear earrings, a necklace, pendant, or hair accessory. In other words, these women are not attired in workaday clothes. The heavy cuffs and abundant ruffles would impede the physical movement required to do the work carried out in the printing room. Instead, the women of the printing room are dressed and posed in an environment that complements their attire: a panelled background wall, a long, heavy curtain, upholstered chairs, a pillow and rug denote a private drawing room. Miss Findlay's friends, the portrait suggests, have been photographed as they might have been while gathered during a visit to her home. The label is ambiguous, however, because it does not disclose to the unacquainted viewer which woman is the main figure. One is left to speculate on the basis of composition and individual deportment. Doing so, Miss Findlay might well be the woman of authority on the right of the photograph who could be the senior staff member. Or she might be the woman on the left who is caring for two of her companions. She might also be the woman standing at the back in the centre of the photograph, with her companions grouped around. However, the photograph, like the label, does not reveal which woman has gathered her friends for a portrait.

The portrait's title is ambiguous on another level, as well. The basis of the women's relationship as employees of the studio is not revealed by the label in the picture books; nor does this relationship appear to be a primary element or motivating force in the portrait itself. Another group portrait, this time of men, seems to have been meant to function in a similar way. Like Miss Findlay's Group in 187 6, a photograph named Mr. Burke and Friends was made in 1878, the year that John Burke left Notman's employ (Figure 37). Mr. Burke is seated on the right of the circle of four young men gathered around a small side table, as in a study or drawing room, all so much alike with their loose ties and collars, buttoned suit jackets, mustaches and carefully combed hair. Mr. Burke in his patterned suit stands out from both the dark background and his friends. Like Miss Findlay's party, Mr. Burke's is not defined in a professional way. The men's relationship is unclear. In the absence of a defining title, as with the "Young Ladies of the Printing Room," the viewer is left with a description of a group of young men drawn together apparently in friendship only, situated, furthermore, in a private environment. Any hint of a work relationship is absent.

Thus the slippage in the labelling of Miss Findlay's Group, indexed as "Young Ladies of the Printing Room," is fortuitous for its illumination of lawsrs of social roles

The labelling of these women, portrayed as companions, reveals that paid labour was an element of their social identity. Furthermore, the secondary title prioritizes their industrial occupation while rendering the women in the image anonymous. The portrait, Mrs. Cowan's Nurse (Figure 15), functions in a similar manner (see Chapter Three). In contrast, the title Miss Findlay's Group implies and prioritizes a social interaction and dependence. Furthermore, much of the seeming cultural homogeneity of the group was predetermined by their employer's criterion of social characteristics rather than a result of their own process of selection of preferred and compatible companions. Miss Findlay left Notman's employ in July 1876. This group portrait may well have been commissioned by Miss Findlay or by her printing room companions to commemorate their time together as something more than work mates.

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