Popular tourist attraction, Niagara Falls, was the subject of the oldest surviving photograph taken of Canada.
It could be the image of a postcard.
The 1840 daguerreotype taken by British industrial chemist Hugh Lee Pattinson on a trip to Niagara Falls is the oldest known photograph of Canada. However, in 1840, Canada did not yet exist – Pattinson was traveling to what was known as British North America or the Province of Canada, intending to scope out the land and see if he could set up a mining business. He ended up setting up a business in New York instead but didn’t leave his trip without a photographic souvenir.
Since daguerreotypes require a long exposure time and this one would have taken around 10 minutes to capture, many believe – including Parks Canada – that the small smudge at the bottom is Pattinson. That means the first photo in Canada was not only a tourist pic but also a selfie.
The image has been flipped from left to right and was taken from the Canadian side of the falls. That is why when you look at it, it doesn’t quite look like the Niagara Falls we know of today.
The antique photo was forgotten in Newcastle University’s special collections in England for over 150 years – until 1997. But it remains in that collection today. Pattinson’s family had donated the photo to the school after his death.
Pattinson also took a photo at Horseshoe Falls at Niagara which is currently part of the Victoria and Albert Museum collection in London. The Horseshoe Falls photo was originally estimated to have been taken some time between 1843 and 1845, and is marked in handwriting at the back as such. However, it was later found to be most likely taken in 1840, along with the other Niagara Falls photo.
These are some of the oldest existing daguerreotypes since they were snapped just a year after the invention of this form of photography. That was 27 years before Canada officially became a country.
They were also taken more than 15 years before the oldest photos of Toronto were captured. Between 1856 and 1857, a series of 25 photos of the growing city were taken by a photo and civil engineering firm as a sales pitch for Queen Victoria so she could choose the location of the country’s capital.
That collection, captured by Armstrong, Beere and Hime, shows the earliest picture of urban Toronto – a Golden Lion department store that rivaled Eaton’s at the time, the British Colonist newspaper office and The Normal School where teachers learned their trade.
Some of the other oldest photos in Canada took place years after the 1840 Niagara Falls ones. They have been dated as 1865, 1867 and throughout the decade after Confederation, often focusing on landscapes of homesteading life, canoeing, politics and even early drinking spots.
Still, a good 25 years before then, when fewer people had the privilege of owning cameras and learning photography skills, the earliest surviving photos from a pre-Confederation era might hint at what our ancestors found to be beautiful and memorable enough to capture and keep, the marvels of nature and humans finding their place in it.