Provincial Archives inherits decades of Fredericton's history

Staff at the provincial archives are sorting through 20,000 brown envelopes dating back to the 1950s thanks to a donation from Fredericton photography business Harvey Studios. 

Each envelope has a few handwritten words coupled with a number that matches an old ledger and contains at least one photo negative.

"This is one of the collections that we've known was out there, and we were just kinda waiting, everyone was waiting, until the time was right," said Josh Green, a photo archivist at the Provincial Archives of New Brunswick.

Dozens of boxes were donated about a month ago during a recent purge by Harvey Studios to make room to expand the business. 

Gary Moore/CBC

Harvey Studios has been in business since 1883 and is known for its portrait sessions and school photography. 

But the business also captured much of Fredericton outside the studio walls and in the community as a commercial photographer — snapping decades of history.

There are photos of Prince Charles hanging out with Johnny Cash in Fredericton, a visit from the Queen, and Babe Ruth sporting a long fur coat shopping at a local outdoors store — just a sample of the sort of history that's been captured by the photo studio.

"We knew that whatever they did have it would be kind of a complete record of life, at least in this part of the province," said Green. "We're really pleased to receive it." 

Most envelopes have multiple negatives, and Green estimates there are more than 40,000 images, taken up to the late 1990s.

Submitted/Josh Green

Now that the archives have acquired the collection, the real work of cataloguing and piecing together the story of each photo begins.

"The ultimate goal is to have it all completely described and each field is discrete, so basically you'll be able to sort things by date and location and names and subjects," said Green, adding that in the end the photos will also be digitized. 

But the biggest challenge for the staff at the archives is to tell the story of each photo, with not a whole lot of information to start with.

Green said he found one envelope that only said "boxing match," but he was able to recognize who the boxer was once he saw the negative. 

Gary Moore/CBC

"If you've seen him before you can recognize immediately that it's Yvon Durelle, who's probably the best-known New Brunswick boxer. So that was a cool one that we found."

But Green knows he may not be so lucky with all of the negatives and will have to do some digging. 

"If it's someone with a title or whatever, and you've got a specific date or we know it was taken for a newspaper or something, then we can put in the time to try and figure out who it was," said Green.

Staff at the archives are just starting to catalogue the collection, and it will take years to complete.

"It's going to be a huge resource for people doing 20th-century history," said Green. 

The provincial archives have more than 900 different photo collections, and the Harvey Studio collection is one of the largest, he said.