Treasures Revealed Episode 12 – Pregnancy Photos

Greenish stylized treasure chest with Library and Archives Canada maple leaves at the bottom and rays rising from the chest at the top. Numbered 12. 

In this episode of Treasures Revealed, we speak with Krista Cooke about the curious absence of pregnant women in photos from the birth of photography in the 19th century up to the Second World War.

Duration: 23:48

File size: 32.8 MB Download MP3

Publish Date: August 17, 2023

  • Transcript of Treasures Revealed episode 12

    Josée Arnold: Dear listeners, I just wanted to let you know that this is episode is an updated version of a previously released podcast. There's a lot more to the story that we felt should be heard and we have re-edited the podcast to better reflect what our guest shared with us. Even if you've heard the original version we think that you will appreciate this additional content, which adds a whole new angle to the story. Happy Listening!

    Théo Martin (TM): Welcome to “Discover Library and Archives Canada: Your History, Your Documentary Heritage.” I’m your host, Théo Martin. Join us as we showcase treasures from our vaults; guide you through our many services; and introduce you to the people who acquire, safeguard and make known Canada’s documentary heritage.

    Welcome to Treasures Revealed!

    In this podcast series, we’ll be showcasing certain items in the Library and Archives Canada collection. Each episode, we’ll speak to a LAC employee and highlight an item that they consider a real “treasure” in our collection.

    They may be rare items, perhaps unusual or valuable, or items with historical significance. Perhaps they will have a compelling or interesting story to go along with them. More importantly, all of them will showcase our vast and rich collection that is the shared documentary heritage of all Canadians.

    Now, on to Episode 12.

    Krista Cooke (KC): Well, I guess I’ll first of all start by describing it. It’s a tiny, little photograph in an album mounted with photo corners, it looks like a standard family photograph, but to me it’s much more than that.

    TM: That was LAC curator Krista Cooke. We asked Krista to tell us about the treasure we’ll be talking about on this episode of Treasures Revealed.

    KC: The photograph shows a man and a woman standing in a muddy field, leaning on their harvesting tools, and between them are two small children, a puppy, and a big bucket of potatoes. Behind them, you can see that they’ve recently cleared; there’s piles of brush and a scrubby forest in the background. You’d think it was a standard family photo, but it’s not. It comes from an album that was created by the Canadian National Railway’s Land Settlement Association, and this organization settled over 27,000 new immigrants on the Prairies in the early part of the 20th century.

    TM: A land settlement division, called the Canadian National Land Settlement Association (CNLSA), was established within CN’s Colonization and Agriculture Department on March 9th, 1925. This was part of their program to promote immigration and land settlement in Canada. Over 27,000 immigrants were assisted by the CNLSA. Land was located and money released to immigrants to purchase land, equipment and livestock.

    KC: This photograph and the organization that commissioned it sits squarely at the centre of Canada’s colonial expansion and nation-building efforts. This wave of early 20th century immigration documented in the album was part of a government effort to colonize western Canada, wreaking havoc on generations of Indigenous people in the region. The album does not focus on the Indigenous people of the region at all, it focuses uniquely on the European families who arrived in Manitoba between 1927 and 1930.

    TM: Each page in this album contains information about a newly arrived immigrant family, including the name of the head of the household, the family’s nationality, the name of the ship they arrived on, their landing date, and the location of their new parcel of land.

    KC: The Polish family in this photograph that I chose, Jozef Jarosz and his unnamed wife and children, settled near Renwer, which is in central Manitoba, and they chose that spot because his brother had already established a farm nearby. When you look at the photograph in the series of their family, you can see that their outbuildings are rough and their home is, looks like it was not an easy life for them, but they were very excited about their choice to move and proud of their first crop, which consisted of 300 bushels of potatoes. And actually, interestingly, on Ancestry fairly recently, descendants have tagged the children, so now we know that the family’s names were Jozef, Anna, and the two little boys are Adam and Joe. The family went on to have seven children.

    To stay on the land the new immigrants had to quickly build their capital and prove their determination to contribute to the Canadian economy. So you can really see in this settlement album that they are building houses, they are raising barns, they are cultivating, they are managing flocks of livestock and they are raising large families.

    TM: Some of the pages feature a short narrative about the family’s experiences.

    KC: The narrative underscores the suitability of these new immigrants for farming life and their gratefulness at being afforded new opportunities in Canada. I’ll read a couple of them just because they’re kind of fun. One reads: “This appears to be a very thrifty and industrious family and they express themselves at being particularly well pleased to be able to secure such a pleasant and convenient location.” Another family reported being “pleased with their choice and their future in Canada.” So the message that was imparted by these narratives is one of progress and official satisfaction with this wave of new settlement. You won’t find any stories of homesickness, illness, misery, failure, or any acknowledgment of the lost territories of Indigenous people.

    TM: We asked Krista how she discovered this item in the collection, and what makes it so interesting.

    KC: This photograph was brought to my attention in about 2004. I was working at the Canadian Museum of History with a team developing an exhibition, which was called Acres of Dreams: Settling the Canadian Prairies. And on our exhibition team, Jeffrey Murray, who is a retired archivist at LAC, suggested that we use some of these albums in the exhibition.

    The team chose this particular photograph because the composition was unusual. Anna is standing side-on to the camera, and you can see that she is very pregnant. It wasn’t until a few years later that I realized, what an unusual photograph, and one of the reasons why I now consider it to be a treasure. So, a couple of years later, I was working on a research project to try and document the private lives of Canadians, and I realized that even in journals, family photographs and letters, people didn’t reveal themselves during this time period, so a subject like pregnancy remained private and quiet in the 19th and early 20th centuries.

    So when I thought back to this particular photograph, which is a very visual representation of pregnancy, reproduction, sexuality, I realized it was one of the very few images I had ever seen of a heavily pregnant woman from this time period. And it got me thinking about why, when women were having so many more babies than we do today, why there should be so few photographs of that phenomenon. Women in 1910 in Canada averaged about 4.6 babies, and probably many more pregnancies for some of them, but yet you don’t find photographs from this period until at least the Second World War of women who are pregnant.

    So I started thinking about it, and the first reason I found was that people were squeamish about pregnancy. It wasn’t something that was talked about. The discussion of pregnancy has changed a lot in the last couple of hundred years. At one point, pregnancy was seen as a positive force. Historian Susan Klepp argued that in early colonial America, pregnant women were described in a positive way as “teeming,” “fruitful” or “blooming,” but by the end of the 18th century, with the transition to more rational, revolutionary thought that placed emphasis on logic and planning, the pregnant body was seen as excessive and immoderate. This rolled nicely into the Victorian era, which had a focus on modesty. In Canada and the United States, this was a period where any talk of the body was not acceptable.

    The interesting thing, I think, is that this is something that carried on until fairly recently. I’ve done a lot of interviews with people who were of my grandmother’s generation, I guess, who raised large families in the 1950s, and even into that period, there are rarely photographs.

    TM: In both the United States and Canada, the Victorian period, which saw both the medicalization of birth and the beginnings of photography, brought an increased modesty to discussions of the body. Legs, even on a piano, became limbs and underwear, linen. For pregnancy, there were simply no words to describe what would have been what costume historian Rebecca Bailey called an “embarrassing evidence of lack of control.”

    How would these pregnancies be covered up in photos? Krista tells us.

    KC: Camouflage and avoidance, I guess, are the two answers to that question. Before the family snapshot became really commonplace it was all about portrait photography, so women could quite easily avoid appearing in photographs because they could just not schedule to have a portrait taken when they were very visibly pregnant.

    The second aspect of that is the idea that women went to great lengths to camouflage their bodies. So, LAC has another photograph of a society woman, Montréal’s Linnie Stewart, taken around the turn of the 20th century, in a fancy dress, and she is wearing a very tightly corseted dress, tailored clothing, and she carries a fan to conceal herself.

    I’ve been able to track down several, well almost a dozen photographs I guess, of women who have disguised themselves behind all kinds of things. I’ve seen fans, tables, flowers, children, newspapers, and even a large cabbage in one of the photographs.

    In one photograph that’s held by the McCord Museum Mrs. Alice Notman who is the wife of William Notman the photographer is sitting behind a small table in the photograph and the rest of her family are behind her. I never would have known about these two photographs, either the Linnie Stewart photograph or the Alice Notman photograph, except the pregnancies have been researched by historians, both of them at McCord, Hélène Samson and Cynthia Cooper, and that data has been integrated into the catalogue record. Otherwise I never would have found it.

    When I looked around at advice literature and advertisements for the early twentieth century you find that there are a tonne of really hilarious (to us) euphemisms about pregnancy which, again, complicates the ability to find things in letters or diaries or photographs. Women were called “brides of a few months”, “young married ladies”, “expectant mothers” or my personal favourite “stout ladies”. They were also said to be “in hopeful expectation”, in certain special circumstances” or late in their pregnanices they would be said to have entered “their confinement”. Nowhere in any of those statements would you be able to find anything that a modern researcher might be able to hook onto. Unless you know the code you’re not going to to find those artifacts or archival documents.

    It's frustrating to not have good cataloguing data but even the photos that have been catalogued more recently, like the photo that I mentioned at the very beginning of Anna Jarosz, the photo is just called “harvesting potato crops”. Unless you looked at the photo with that lens, even though she’s obviously pregnant you wouldn’t think to perhaps make that comment as you’re cataloguing. You just don’t make comments about each other’s bodies, it’s not polite, but at the same time, as a researcher, it’s pretty frustrating to not be able to find things because people are not forthcoming with that kind of information.

    There’s a funny story about Doris Anderson, who in the 1960s was probably one of Canada’s most powerful women, she was editor of Chatelaine magazine, but she insisted on going to work while she was pregnant and the people who ran the office asked if she could “please use the backdoor” because they didn’t want any of the male executives to be embarrassed or offended by her condition. It just goes to show, basically until the sexual revolution, that state of pregnancy was not talked about or well accepted.

    In the 1980s, 1990s major corporations like Canada Post and Air Canada start to have maternity uniforms for their staff, but until those women are out in the public eye working, being photographed in advertisements and womanness about sexuality starts to happen it’s kind of a hidden phenomenon. In 1991 Demi Moore poses naked on the cover of Vanity Fair while she’s pregnant and that was kind of what blew the last taboo open, in terms of photography and the pregnant body. Which is kind of commonplace these days.

    One thing that I wanted to bring the photo back to was, the photo that I started with, the photo of Anna Jarosz posed side-on, to me was very unusual and a mystery. I couldn’t figure out why she was posed that way. Was she standing naturally side-on to show herself or had she been asked to stand that way by the photographer, because as I said earlier it was such a perfect encapsulation of the goal of the Land Settlement Association to see these families growing in the prairie west.

    That sort of led me down a whole other road. I realized that as I was looking for photographs I found a fair number of photographs of women posed side-on, in this same sort of way, this silhouete way. But that the one thing they all had in common was that these women were marginalized women, they were ‘others’. They were new immigrants, women living in poverty, First Nations, Inuit or Métis women so while women from the British or French-Canadian majority took great pains to disguise their bellies, these other women were posed in profile to emphasize their pregnancies. I found that very interesting to think about why Anna Jarosz might have been posed that way.

    When Canada’s immigration was at its height around the turn of the 20th century, it increased tenfold in just ten years. Many of these new immigrants were welcomed by the Canadian Government but the tensions that such enormous volumes of people coming into the country caused receiving this new population (new customs, new languages, prejudice) – there was a lot of prejudice against Eastern European women during this time period. Putting that photograph in that context is interesting and I saw examples of other Eastern European women photographed pregnant and also First Nations and Inuit women.

    I started thinking about how the goals of these photographs was different than the portrait photographs or the studio photographs. I really had a confirmation of my suspicions that there was something going on when I saw a series of photographs of a woman named Ida Quok who was Nlaka’pamux from British Columbia taken by James Teit who was an anthropologist. Now these photographs are at the Canadian Museum of History, and it’s a series of photographs, four images, labeled by Teit in his album as “normal ethnographic procedure”.

    Ida Quok is photographed front, side and other side. It made me think of today’s mugshot which actually is based in that same scientific thinking. Teit and his boss Frank [Franz] Boas posed their Indigenous subjects in order to better understand their physiology. In an era when many scientists held the racist view that cranial dimensions and facial symmetry was linked to behaviour, this kind of photographic series was common.

    Anne Maxwell, a scholar, writes about anthropometric photography which she writes, “was practiced in those parts of the world where colonized peoples had been so thoroughly subjugated that they were powerless to resist bodily intrusions and images stripped them of indivuality, personality and subjectivity.” Métis Nation scholar Sherry Ferrel Racette has called it photo-colonialism. So what was normal and allowed in this kind of photograph is very different than what was used for standard formal studio portraiture for women who were in the Anglo or Franco-Canadian majority.

    TM: We asked Krista why she considers this photo a treasure.

    KC: I think, to me, it’s about the rarity of the photograph. In all of these years of researching about pregnant women, I’ve only found I don’t know, maybe 25 images of women who are pregnant, and I’ve been looking for a very long time. So it’s partially about the rarity of the photo but it’s also about…when I look at her as a part of this sort of photo-colonialism it raises so many questions about prejudice, about how people can be ‘othered’ through photography and also about how we remember the past. So, for most of us, having a photograph of a pregnant woman standing with her family would not be a big deal, and yet, when you start digging into the photo, you really see, you start to see all of these different research aspects that are brought together in that one, little tiny image. So, to me, that’s what it’s all about.

    TM: If you are interested in viewing photos relating to this episode, you can go to LAC’s Flickr page. There, you will find an album of images called Treasures Revealed. We will update that album with each episode, giving you a chance to view the treasures that we will be highlighting.

    Thank you for being with us. I’m Théo Martin, your host. You’ve been listening to “Discover Library and Archives Canada—where Canadian history, literature and culture await you.” A special thank you to our guest today, Krista Cooke.

    The music in this episode was provided by Blue Dot Sessions.

    This episode was produced, engineered and edited by David Knox, with additional editing and sound design by Tom Thompson.

    If you liked this episode, you’re invited to subscribe to the podcast. You can do it through the RSS feed located on our website, Apple Podcasts, or wherever else you get your podcasts.

    If you’re interested in listening to the French equivalent of our podcast, you can find French-language versions of all our episodes on our website, Apple podcasts and Spotify. Simply search for “Découvrez Bibliothèque et Archives Canada.”

    For more information on our podcasts, go to LAC’s homepage and type “podcast” in the search bar in the top right corner and click on the first link. If you have questions, comments or suggestions, you can find the email address for the podcast team located at the bottom of the episode page.

Host: Théo Martin, Archivist, Performing Arts Archives

Guest: Krista Cooke, LAC Curator


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