Retro photography – just do it

Almost a year ago I blogged about how I was going to go play with my old film cameras.

Well, like the grand old duke of York, I marched them up to the top of the hill, then marched them down again. I bought some fresh film, even bought an extra camera through ebay (a totally mechanical Balda Baldessa from the 1950’s), and then did nothing.

Not quite true. I put some film in my old Olympus Trip and may old Vivitar SLR, but I didn’t, like, actually do anything as radical as take a picture.

Well there was an article on the ABC at the weekend (another one) on how film was making a comeback. Incidentally, this isn’t just hype, the price of working retro cameras on ebay has been steadily climbing, and the last time I was in the big Camera Warehouse in Albury they were stocking film and advertising they could process it for you.

So, yesterday, I took my old Olympus Trip down to Chiltern with me, and after my day’s documentation I stopped off at the railway station.

Chiltern railway station is unmanned these days and fairly quiet allowing me to geek about. I’d timed my visit to coincide with the arrival of a train, but the train was late, meaning I had the station more or less to myself.

I realised that I’d forgotten to set the film speed, and I couldn’t remember what film I’d loaded, so I took a guess at 100ASA and set the camera to that.

I took some fairly crappy shots of the old station building – probably badly composed and amateurish, but actually I found the experience useful to bring back old skills – like you do need to use the viewfinder, you do need to line up and compose your shot, and the time to wind on set up the next shot is more, much more, than with digital.

All in all, I’ve probably taken around ten fairly poor shots, but I’ll go back in a few days, and try and do it in a more composed manner.

I’m not going to try my own processing and scanning this early in the exercise, I’ll let the photo lab process and scan the negatives for me. I’ve already played with Gimp enough to work out how to both convert a negative image to positive and play with light and contrast, so we might be in with a chance, plus I might learn something …

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Life experience and documentation

Down at Dow’s, quite often I come across things to do with photography.

Not just film packets, which you’d expect, but items such as contact print frames, developing trays, and even some very old photographic developing powders


I’ve even found an old 35mm film camera in a drawer which might have belonged to one of the pharmacists or an assistant.


We can date it to the 1950’s or just possibly the early 1960’s as Neoca went bankrupt and disappeared in 1960.

In fact there’s enough photographic bits and pieces shoved in drawers to suggest that someone working at the pharmacy was an amateur photographer who was interested enough in photography to do their own developing and printing – normally a chemist offering a film processing service would send customers’ exposed films off to a big commercial specialist processing facility, such as Kodak’s lab in Burnley.

And this was how most people had their films processed and printed.

However, especially for black and white photography, the whole developing and printing process was quite open. It was easy enough to process your own films and make your own prints. Colour processing was rather more complicated, and while doable at home, you needed more in the way of specialist equipment and a dedicated lab space.
In comparison, black and white processing was simple enough to do at home, and there was enough tolerance in the process to allow a bit of inaccuracy. You could buy home use developers and fixers over the counter, and all you then needed was a measuring cylinder or two, a stopwatch, and a developing tank, plus a change bag – basically an opaque bag in which one opened the film cassette and spooled the film into the developing tank spool, and then closed up the light proof tank.

You then followed the bouncing ball, adding chemicals in the correct order and fifteen minutes or so later you had a set of negatives.

How do I know this?

Because I’ve been there.

As a teenager in the early seventies, I became interested in the social history of trains. Still am, truth be told.

And around where I lived, there were quite a few abandoned train lines and railway stations and I used to ride my bicycle out to them to photograph and document them using my trusty Regula Sprint camera.

Some of the pictures I took, I took on colour slide film, and that was too complicated to process at home, and anyway most of the over the counter brands included the cost of processing in the price.

But I also took a lot of black and white photographs, most of which have sadly disappeared.

By the time I’m writing about colour photography had become the norm, but the equipment to do home black and white developing and printing was readily available second hand, and most good camera shops would sell you the processing chemicals, making doing it yourself a very cost effective proposition.

And that’s exactly what I did. I acquired the equipment, including an enlarger to blow up images to a larger and more usable size, taught myself how to process and print black and white photographs, and even rolled my own film cassettes using bulk black and white film from eastern Europe and recycled empty film cassettes – again some of the more specialist camera shops would happily sell you a bag of empty cassettes for something fairly nominal – I think they sort of assumed that you’d come back and buy chemicals and photographic paper from them, and perhaps eventually a more expensive camera.

And then, of course, life changed and I no longer had time to do my own developing and printing, and by the time I might have had the leisure to start over, photography was going digital.

Since the I’ve dabbled in retro photography, but to be honest, it’s only been dabbling.

But strangely, while documenting at Dow’s I’ve found what could be described as irrelevant knowledge useful.

After all no one under the age of forty probably remembers pre digital photography, and amateur developing and printing was always very much a minority sport – the people who did it were either oddballs like me, art students who did it as part of their course, and some old school press photographers, meaning the knowledge was probably not that widely spread to start with.

And suddenly, years later, being able to recognise the equipment, knowing about film brands and film sizes, has suddenly been very helpful in identifying and documenting items.

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A few days ago I was idly browsing instagram (my instagram feed is full of posts from various archive services) when I came across the item above.

It had been misclassified as a packet loose tea – when it in fact was a packet of loose rough cut cigarette tobacco or makhorka (Махорка).

There’s also a bit of a give away in that the labelling includes the word табакъ (tabak or tobacco). We can also confidently date the packet to a date before 1918 as the word табакъ includes a hard sign character (ъ), something that was done away with in the 1918 spelling reforms

Makhorka is made from the dried leaves of Nicotiana rustica – a different species of tobacco from the one used in the west.

Nicotinia rusticana  grows freely over most of Russia, meaning that it for the peasants it was essentially free as it could be grown behind the chicken coop in the back yard.

It also has great cultural significance – it was issued to the Red Army during the second world war, and Russian novels are full of descriptions of peasants hand rolling cigarettes made of newspaper and makhorka and held together with a bit of spit.

Okay, so I know something that the person who catalogued the packet didn’t. That’s not a crime, and I’m painfully aware from my work cataloguing Dows Pharmacy just how easy it is to misclassify objects. In fact I’ve gone back on several occasions and corrected entries in the light of new knowledge.

And equally, I’ve been very dependent on the work of others who have traced and documented objects for much of my documentation work. Standing on the shoulders of giants etc.

And, to be fair the archive site, responded when I told them and said they would check it out – perfectly fair – they don’t know me from Adam and I could have been talking out of my bottom for all they know.

However I think what this little story does show is the power of opening up one’s collection online and allowing comments, which indirectly may help improve the quality of the archive.

Yes, it’s only a minor correction but it is a correction …

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Pubs with tile exteriors

Recently I posted the following on Mastodon

Screenshot 2022-12-25 125925

in response to a post about a recent article on why some Aussie pubs have tiled interiors

The urban myth is of course that during the time of the six o’clock swill beer was spilt, bodily fluids released, and tiling pubs made them easier to hose out.

I’ve also heard a hybrid version where pubs in mining towns in NSW and WA had tiled counters because the miners would drink thenselves into oblivion, and piss themselves when they slid down the bar and fell over.

Not true.
And not true in Scotland either.
In Scotland, the main reason for pubs acquiring ceramic tiles on the outside was to make them stand out among the general greyness of the typical late Victorian street scene – no publican would invest in brightly coloured (and expensive) tiles for his clientele to wee against.

Most tiled exteriors post date the 1880’s when glazed tiles became easier to produce in mass quantities – for much the same reason early London Underground station (remember the system started in the 1860’s and the Central Line mostly dates to the 1880’s) have red tiled exteriors to make them stand out in an otherwise grey streetscape …

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An Arabian Baboon

I follow quite a number of blogs, including the University of St Andrews Special Collections blog which deals with the rarer early printed books in their collection.

Every year in the run up to Christmas they do a series of Christmas themed posts based on the collection. One year it might be early photographs of winter in St Andrews, another it might be medieval music. This year it’s based around the Yule Days, a versions of the more common 12 days of Christmas, first published in 1847.

The published poem is in English, not Scots, but includes words such as papingo – the early modern Scots word for a parrot, suggesting there might once have been a version in Scots.

However, if there was a Scots original it’s been lost to us.

One of the more striking lines is

Screenshot 2022-12-22 164639

which of course begs the question of how a baboon got to Scotland.

Well, nowadays baboons are not known on the Arabian peninsula, but they are known on the opposite coast in what is now Eritrea and Somaliland, lying on the major medieval spice trading route to and from India and Sri Lanka. (Arab traders would take advantage of the monsoons to sail to and from India via the Horn of Africa or Aden, and then return to sell their spices in Alexandria, where they were sold to Venetian or earlier, Byzantine traders. The Spice Market in Istanbul is still sometimes called the Egyptian Bazaar.)

So, even though baboons are pesky vicious and smelly, it would be possible for a few to have reached Scotland on the back of the trade in spices and eastern exotica, just as cockatoos reached renaissance Italy as curiosities, just as 3000 years earlier, a langur may have reached Knossos.

It’s interesting that studies of baboons mummified by the ancient Egyptians suggest that they were captured in the Horn of Africa region, leading to the suggestion that it was the semi-mythical Land of Punt.

Likewise, there is some evidence that the semi-mythical Ophir referred to in the Bible was also in the same area.

So perhaps John Masefield was more right than he realised, and trading ships, if not exactly quinquiremes of Nineveh carried apes and peacocks back to Palestine …

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Of letterpress and sellotape

I’ve been puzzling over the labels on a lot of old bottles, mostly of aromatic oils, I’ve been documenting down at Chiltern.


I was assuming that because some of the bottles looked to be nineteenth century (the glass had a slightly greenish tinge, and there were inclusions in the glass) that the letterpress labels used by Rocke Tompsitt dated from the Victorian era.

However, as I found out, that’s not the case – the same labels were used by Rocke Tompsitt on their trade packaging until the 1940’s at least.

Some of the older looking bottles do have deposit stickers such as this one


Which seem only to occur on older bottles.

Clearly, some of the bottles are old and some are less so. But also note the use of sticky tape to secure the labels. There are also a number of old bottles (judging by the glass quality) that have simple typescript labels secured by sticky tape


Sticky tape was first produced in America branded as Scotch Tape by the 3M corporation in 1930. Sellotape, it’s British competitor didn’t appear until 1937, so we can say that these typescript labels date from the 1930’s, even if the bottles are older.

So, I’m guessing there was a lot of reuse and refilling of bottles, sometimes with the same contents as before, and sometimes with new and different content.

This is nicely confirmed by a large glass bottle, clearly dating from the nineteenth century with a typescript label


But which is embossed on the rear “ B. Eugene, Hairdresser, 201 Punt Road, Richmond


I was initially unable to find any evidence of a B. Eugene at 201 Punt Road, but a B. Eugene, Hairdresser and Wigmaker was advertising in the Age in the 1880’s as having premises at 96 Elizabeth Street, and a little more digging found her trading from 201 Punt Road in 1912, meaning we could tentatively date the bottle to 1900 ±20.

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Using Notable for family history research

A few weeks ago I wrote about using a Linux based laptop for research and documentation.

At the time I suggested that you could use a local install of Notable to keep work in progress notes – I suggested Notable as it keeps notes as a series of Markdown files, making it easy to extract notes later and add them to something else. Notable is available not only for Linux, but also for Windows and the Mac.

So, today I thought I would experiment on using Notable for some family history research and I used the Windows version for this little experiment.

I’d previously used Notable when putting together some notes on the Yelverton case, but not for actual note taking while researching something.

I chose to research a man called John Stiven Moncur. He was born in Dundee in 1830 and died in Pavlovsk, near St Petersburg in 1910, with is profession being given as an engineer. He would have been 80 when he died, so I assume he was retired.

Interestingly, his address was given in the records of British nationals who died abroad as 74 Kalashnikov Quay in St Petersburg.

Kalashnikov Quay was named for the nineteenth century Kalashnikov family of corn merchants, and was renamed Sinopskaya Embankment in 1953.

If you use Google Street view there’s still a nice nineteenth century house at 74 Sinopskaya, so even if he was living in an apartment in the building he must have been reasonably well off.


He was born to Charles Moncur and Isabella Coupar (married women in Scotland did not change their names on marriage in the 1800’s) in Dundee on April 4 1830


Charles and Isabella had married in Tealing in 1814. I can’t say that definitively that Charles was related to my family but there were a number of us in the Tealing area in the early 1800s, so there’s a reasonable probability he’s related to an ancestor of mine.

Charles was quite easy to find and was born in 1784 meaning he’d have been thirty when he married.

Isabella was a bit more difficult to trace. No Isabella Coupar was born in the forty years before the date of their marriage. Isobels and Isabels yes, but no Isabellas.

Isabella died in 1850 and her age was given as 65 suggesting she was born in 1784 or 1785, and there is exactly one Isobel Coupar born in 1784, so I’m guessing Isobel preferred to be Isabella.

Charles and Isabella had a daughter, Marion, who was born in 1817, when both Charles and Isabella would have been 32 or 33. They don’t appear to have had any other children other than John.

Given that John was born in 1830, Isabella would have been 45 when he was born, which is quite old.

I did wonder if John was actually Marion’s illegitimate child, but at 13 or 14 years old she seems a little young to be a mother, even though at that time in Scotland girls could legally be married at 12. 12 was also the age of consent in Scotland at the time, so I guess it’s not impossible.

It’s also probably unknowable.

I havn’t been able to trace John Stiven Moncur – certainly he appears in the 1841 and 1851 censuses as living in Dundee but after that nothing until his probate notice.


I’m assuming he married given that he has beneficiary named Charles Moncur who was probably his son, but I’ve been unable to trace a marriage record

Using Notable, I found it was quick and simple to transcribe my notes

working notes 20221113

and attach screenshots and document images

So I think it might actually be a workable solution for work in progress notes.

If I’ve whetted your appetite for more information on the internals of Notable, I’ve written a more technical post over on one of my other blogs

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Nellie Bly as an inspiration …

Last night, J and I started watching the David Tennant version of ‘Around the World in Eighty Days’.

It’s a complete romp, and very enjoyable for that, ideal Sunday night viewing.

It’s been years since I read the book, but I don’t really remember Passepartout’s ethnicity, or that there was a female journalist called Abigail Fix-Fortescue involved, but it doesn’t matter, it’s 45 minutes of well made fun.

The Abigail Fix-Fortescue character is clearly inspired by the exploits of Nellie Bly and  Elizabeth Bisland both of whom competed in 1889 to beat Phileas Fogg’s fictional record, however while both Nellie Bly and Elizabeth Bisland were American, the Abigail Fix-Fortescue character is clearly English.

J had never heard of Nellie Bly, and while I told Nellie’s story the discussion moved onto Louisa M. Allcott and the fictional Harriet Stackpole in Henry James’ Portrait of a Lady.

In England in the 1880’s the idea of a female journalist, especially an adventurous female journalist would be almost impossible to imagine, but clearly not so in America.

Why so?

My guess, and it is only a guess, is that the number of middle class men died in the American Civil War was sufficient to allow women to fill some of the roles formerly dominated by name, mucj as happened in Britain after the First World War.

It’s an interesting idea and certainly the trope of the determined female reporter seems to go back further in the USA than the UK …

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Arsenic and old books

A few days ago I retweeted the following from the Yorkshire Post

Strangely, I was not surprised. The mid Victorian period really was peak arsenic. It was everywhere, in patent medicines such as Fowler’ Solution, and doubtless many others. It featured in murders, most prominently in the Madeleine Smith case, where Madeleine was put on trial for murdering her boyfriend, who was blackmailing her over her remarkably explicit letters describing their sexual encounters.

Madeleine was accused or murdering him by putting arsenic in his cocoa. (I suspect that if it wasn’t for the sexual component the murder of Emile l’Angelier would not have achieved the notoriety it did.)

There was also the case of the arctic explorer Charles Francis Hall who died mysteriously. Hall was treating himself with a patent medicine for a stomach ailment when he died.

His body was exhumed a century after his death and his fingernails sampled for arsenic. It was found that he had a high concentration of arsenic in his body, suggesting that he died of the effects of arsenic poisoning.

We don’t know the patent medicine Hall was using, or if it contained arsenic. Shortly before his death Hall complained that his coffee was too sweet (arsenic reportedly has a sweet taste). Given that he was not well liked by his men there is a lingering suspicion they may have added a little extra arsenic to his diet to help him along.

Arsenic was readily available and, while there were some attempts made to keep records, it was easy to obtain covertly. There are numerous cases of wives in mid-Victorian times poisoning their abusive husbands – in a society without divorce and where men controlled a wife’s assets – it could well be better to be grieving widow than a battered and beaten wife.

© Punch and the Estate of John Tenniel

Arsenic really was everywhere in the nineteenth century, in artist’s paint, in dyes, in wallpaper, in textiles

It’s been suggested that the green arsenic based dye in Napoleon’s wallpaper in St Helena had a part to play in his demise.

William Morris used arsenic based dyes extensively in his wallpaper designs, something that may have inadvertently hastened the end of some of the Victorian middle class. Morris did not believe that his arsenic based wallpapers were toxic and argued that the arsenic based inks gave a better colour, and did not remove the arsenic based inks from his wallpapers until 1880. (It’s one of the happenstances of history that a few years after her trial, Madeleine Smith married George Wardle, William Morris’s workshop manager).

Likewise, arsenic based dyes were used to dye textiles giving dresses and other garments a deep and shimmering green, even if their use may have hastened the wearer’s demise, so it’s not really surprising that arsenic based dyes have turned up in book covers.

In fact, given how common the use of arsenic dyes was in the mid nineteenth century it would be surprising if it didn’t turn up in old books.

The Winterthur Museum in Delaware has been running a project to investigate the use of arsenic in old book bindings, and has produced not only a guide to handling possible arsenical books, but also a list of the books they’ve identified.

Personally, given how common arsenic inks and dyes were, I’d treat any book published before 1900 with suspicion – while the dyes had more or less dropped out of common use by 1880 it’s probably a good idea to give oneself a margin of error, just as one would if handling wallpaper or textiles from the period – it’s safer to assume arsenical than not.

So, that old family bible, botany guide or Walter Scott novel with a green binding should be treated with suspicion – you never know what secrets it could be hiding …

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Reverse N’s

I was looking at the Facebook paleography group recently and came across the following post

Now I’ve seen the reverse N before in old grave markers in country areas in Scotland.

If you look at the inscription you can see that the letters are roughly spaced out, slightly uneven and not quite the same size.

I’d guess that the inscription was written out in chalk and then carved with a chisel – hence the thickening of the curves on the C’s and D’s.

The person who did the carving may not have been the person who wrote out the original inscription – in times of shaky literacy it could be that the carver may have been illiterate, or effectively so and unsure of his letters.

Be that as it may, it doesn’t explain the reverse N – if the inscription was written out in chalk on the stone for him to follow it’s the fault of the inscription writer, or if he copied it himself from a slip of paper it’s likely he copied the mistake (or if the inscription was written cursively made an error converting from cursive to capital letters).

This is what I call the Deborah effect after a former girlfriend in my youth. The upper purple square shows a rough copy of a carved reverse N. If you look at the bottom square you will see two cursive N’s.

The upper one is the way we were taught to write in school with the curve starting half to two thirds up the vertical, and the bottom is my approximation of Deborah’s cursive capital N with the loop of the N starting from the bottom of the vertical stroke. Square it and straighten it up and you get a reverse N.

As can be seen from the Eassie Kirk session minutes from 1805 a lot of people who wrote professionally, such as the Kirk Session secretary formed their N’s correctly, in this case by an upstroke, followed by a downstroke and second upstroke.

Bit less literate people?

I don’t have any examples, but I’m guessing that people who didn’t write all the time, and when they wrote on rough paper ended up doing something like the Deborah N to avoid scratching, blotting or tearing the paper as you can see in this fragment of an 1815 list of books available to the servants at Dyffryn in Wales

who ever wrote the list almost made a reverse N by forming a loop at the bottom of the N to avoid going back over the ink and risk making a blot …

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