It’s been another strange few months, working from home, trying to do what we can here at L&A Archives, without being able to physically work with the archival records. For me, this has meant focusing on updating our online PastPerfect database. I’ve spent the last two months ensuring that the descriptive information for each photograph in the collection is correct and up-to-date, and that each photograph is digitized, accessible online, and locatable in the vault. Paging through this vast catalogue of photographs, I have come across some fantastic portraits and snapshots of the people of L&A County throughout history. 

While updating the database the collection that struck me most was a series of vivid and ethereal portraits from the Napanee studio of Stephen Manson Benson (1836-1901). Benson was a local telegrapher and photographer active in the 1860’s. This collection of nearly 400 wet collodian glass plate negatives are primarily studio portraits of residents of Napanee and Lennox and Addington County, taken 1863-1864. These portraits provide insight into the socioeconomic status of individuals, their interpersonal relationships, and their professions, among many other things.

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Photo Caption: Louisa Bell née Moran (d. 1880) & Margaret Bell née Thomas (1838-1905). These two women were well-known and highly skilled tailors in Napanee in the 1860’s.

Benson photographed many of his family members, including his sister Anne Benson, brother Arthur Wellington Benson, and father John Benson. John Benson was a Napanee merchant and public servant, who served as Clerk of the Division Court (1833-1837), Reeve of Napanee (elected 1855), Napanee Town Clerk (1860-1862), Justice of the Peace, County Auditor, and Collector of Customs.

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Photo Caption: Annie Benson, Arthur Benson, & John Benson

The Benson photographs show off some of the most elaborate clothing worn by Napanee residents, including dresses with intricately embroidered embellishments, elaborate flounced sleeves and ruffled hemlines, such as those worn by Catharine Schryver (ca. 1848-1928), daughter of local engineer George Schryver, and Caroline L. Northgraves (b. 1846), eldest daughter of watchmaker and jeweller William J. Northgraves.

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Photo caption: Catharine Schryver & Caroline L. Northgraves

Unfortunately many of Benson’s portraits are unidentified, but even these hold great aesthetic value and help us visualize this period in L&A’s history.

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I am really looking forward to being back in the Archives to have the opportunity to digitize more of the glass plate negatives in the archives collection, because the vividness and detail produced by this photographic method is quite astounding! Covid-19 has reminded archivists of the importance of making as many archival collections available online as possible, in order to reach as many users as we can. Even though there is no substitute for holding a two hundred year old photograph in your hands (with gloves of course!), having as many of these images freely accessible online is very important to helping researchers and genealogists find what they need. I hope you can take the time to browse through some of the Archives’ photographs in our online database here:

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Photo Caption: A View from Benson’s Gallery, 1863