Manitoba History: Cool Things in the Collection: Hall & Lowe Cabinet Cards
by Katherine Pettipas
In its ongoing commitment to enhance public access to First Nations and Métis historical documents, the University of Manitoba Archives & Special Collections has acquired five late 19th-century cabinet cards  from Greenfield Books of Winnipeg. The images are studio portraits of First Nations and Métis individuals and were the only remaining photographs that were once housed in a carte de visite album.  The acquisition of this unique collection of images and the album was facilitated by Connie Macmillan, a member of the family that owned the album. The cabinet cards date from circa 1882-1886 and were produced by “Hall & Lowe Artists and Photographers” located at 499 Main Street opposite Winnipeg’s City Hall. The images can be accessed through the Archive’s website:
When considered in its entirety, the collection provides unexpected insights into the ways in which owners repurposed their carte de visite albums to store and display new formats of commercial images. By the 1880s, the popularity of the larger-sized cabinet card over the smaller carte de visite format forced album owners to either purchase larger albums or accommodate the new image format to their carte de visite version. In this case, the owners adjusted the size of the cabinet cards to fit their album by cropping along the bottom where the name and street address of the studio would have been printed. Before they were cropped, the albumen prints (14 x 10 cm) were likely mounted on large studio cards to produce cabinet cards. The backs of the cards have been printed with the studio’s name and address that are bordered with either an elaborate floral or geometric design.
The album cover itself is worthy of note as an example of Victorian decorative parlour art. Ranging from simple velvet-covered styles to elaborately decorated leather- bound versions, albums became forms of decorative art and, along with their contents, valued as heirlooms. In spite of its well-worn and faded cover, the Macmillan album was once a highly attractive item.
Portraits of Indigenous men, women, and children living in foreign lands such as India, Japan, South America and the North American West were popular in Victorian society where there was a fascination with the exotic or “the unfamiliar other.” One can easily imagine family members and visitors sitting in household parlours and leafing through the pages of albums containing such images with great curiosity. Photography studios capitalized on this interest by offering subject matter that transported unique landscapes and Indigenous peoples into Euro-Western homes. One of these studios was operated by partners James Deakin Hall (1854–1936), an immigrant of Irish descent, and Skene Lowe (1856–1920), a 26-year-old Englishman. Hall worked out of Winnipeg from 1881 to 1886 and went into partnership with Lowe in 1882. They also hired a photographer who was posted along the CPR line to take photographs of scenes, largely during winter. Following the closure of their Winnipeg studio in 1886, a new one was opened in Vancouver in 1887. Ironically, no photographs of the partners have been found to date. 
What is striking about these images is that all but one feature individuals in their everyday garb as you might have met them in passing in the 1880s. The exception is that of a young man posed in profile wearing a European-style sweater, a striped blanket around his shoulder and a shell earring through his pierced ear. He wears his braided hair in a traditional style associated with western Plains cultures. This particular image reminds me of the stereotyped paintings and photographic images of the “classic Plains Warrior” in profile as represented forty years earlier by artist Paul Kane, and later by the American photographer Edward S. Curtis (1900 into the 1930s) and artist/photographer Edmund Morris (1907–1910). And while props may have been used in the Hall & Lowe images, none of the other individuals have been formally posed to this degree in order to emphasize their “Indianness.”
In one image, a seated Indigenous woman is holding a child in a cradle board. She is dressed in European-style clothing, including shawls and a head covering. The construction of the cradle board, along with the elaborate style of bead embroidery, are reminiscent of Anishnaabe-Ojibwe work, perhaps providing a clue as to her Native ancestry. Fortunately, the woman was identified on the reverse side of the card as a “Half-Breed Woman & Papoose in Beaded Moss Bag.” Yet another card depicts an elderly Native man smoking a pipe and garbed in a well-worn European-style hat and a woollen hooded, buttoned-down coat or capote which would have been typical of everyday wear. The words “Half-Breed” were written on the back of the card.
There is one other portrait of a man wearing a combination of blankets/shawls over his shoulders, a European shirt, and a Catholic rosary around his neck. His toque-like hat has patches of white fur and ribbons and a rolled brim decorated with fur. Finally, a young boy, dressed in a European-style jacket, sat for the fifth portrait. His unkempt long hair is worn loose with a fringe of bangs. One wonders if a future photograph would have presented quite a different persona—that of a residential school student dressed in a school uniform whose hair would have been cropped short—barely recognizable as the same individual.
These images speak volumes about their producers, clients, and subjects within a number of contexts, and will be of interest to a variety of users. The acquisition of these cabinet cards and their safekeeping by the University of Manitoba Archives will ensure their accessibility for generations to come. With more research, who knows what stories the images may reveal?
I would like to acknowledge Dr. Shelley Sweeney, the Head of the University of Manitoba Archives & Special Collections, for introducing me to the collection and for her valuable input. The assistance of other staff members was greatly appreciated.
1. A cabinet card is a style of photograph produced mainly from an albumen print that was mounted on a card approximately 108 x 165 mm (4½ inches x 6½ inches). It was a popular form of portraiture after 1870. They were called cabinet cards because they could easily be propped up and displayed for viewing in a parlor cabinet.
2. A carte de visite is a small albumen print (54 x 89 mm or 2.1 x 3.5 inches) mounted on a card (64 x 100 mm or 2½ x 4 inches). They were relatively inexpensive and easy to pass along to relatives and friends.
3. Information on Hall & Lowe has been provided by an article on the website of the Manitoba Historical Society titled “Manitoba Photographers Index: Hall & Lowe.” For more information on these photographers, see the Manitoba Historical Society’s website at www.mhs.mb.ca/docs/photographers/halllowe.shtml.
Page revised: 3 April 2020