A Treasure Trove of Photographs

Ireland Good, Collections Assistant, Point Ellice House Museum & Gardens

Imagine a Sunday morning at your grandparents’ house: the sun is shining through the lace curtains and the smell of pancakes wafts through the air. You have nothing to do while you wait for your breakfast, so you go exploring. You begin to sift through the closets and drawers, hoping to find some long-lost treasure. Eureka! Inside a box is an object you have never seen before. You might have a story like this, where you’ve found some forgotten memories of places once visited, people once met, and lives once lived. 

This past summer, as a Collections Assistant at Point Ellice House, I have stepped back to being a kid and searching through boxes, hoping to find something special. Here at Point Ellice House, we have over 12,000 artifacts in our collection, so stumbling across never-before-seen items happens regularly. Recently, our Assistant Curator found a box tucked away in the attic of the heritage house. This small, seemingly insignificant, brown box contained over 700 original photograph negatives of the O’Reilly family spanning the 1920s to the 1940s. 

In years past, Point Ellice House has been interpreted through the lens of the Victorian era (1837–1901). Although the Victorian period holds great importance in understanding the city of Victoria and the O’Reilly family, the family’s connection to Point Ellice House spans more than 100 years. These negatives are pieces of a larger puzzle that help to inform our understanding of the family and house between the 1920s and 1940s. The photos taken give us an opportunity to learn about an era that has not been well researched.

A question that arose for myself/the staff was, how did these survive in the attic for so long? Fortunately, these negatives are made of cellulose acetate – not cellulose nitrate; if these fragile negatives were composed of cellulose nitrate we would have to be very careful as it is very flammable and releases hazardous nitrogen-oxide gases as it deteriorates. If cellulose nitrate film is not properly stored it has the potential to spontaneously combust. However, the negatives that we found did not have the markers for cellulose nitrate film, such as “V” shaped notch codes on the side of the negatives, or a yellowing and sticky texture that accompanies cellulose nitrate film deterioration. Since they are not this material, the negatives are safer for us to handle — and they won’t turn into dust as we are handling them, thank goodness! 

This summer we have begun processing the negatives, and making them accessible to the public. Adding new entries to our online database allows others to interact with these never-before-seen photographs and provides us with the opportunity to gain insight into the images.

Over the summer I scanned and catalogued over 300 negatives — just 400 more to go. Please enjoy the images below which happen to be some of my favourites that I scanned! Have you ever searched through old boxes, closets, or cabinets and stumbled across treasure? What did you find?

A young John Windham O’Reilly with a puppy. Circa 1920s–1930s. PEH2022.001.40
Mary Windham O’Reilly and Jack O’Reilly seated in the Point Ellice House drawing room. Date unknown. PEH2022.001.134
Kathleen O’Reilly and Mary Windham O’Reilly tending to the garden at Point Ellice House. Date unknown. PEH2022.001.151
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