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Monday, January 30, 2023
Museum receives valuable postcard collection


John Sayers

Special to The Lake Report

Niagara-on-the-Lake Museum managing director Sarah Kaufman is thrilled that a large collection of Niagara-on-the Lake postcards has been donated to the Museum by John Burtniak, a widely respected collector of Niagara postcards and ephemera for many years.

As well as Niagara Camp and Old Town, the John Burtniak Postcard Collection of almost 1,000 cards embraces historical images of Queenston and St. Davids, built up over many decades with the painstaking connoisseurship of both an historian and a collector. Some of these images probably do not exist anywhere else on the planet, and one, a St. Davids “fun” postcard aimed at the tourism market, is rare.

This valuable archive is likely the largest single collection of Niagara-on-the-Lake postcards and positions the museum as the world’s indisputable premier holder of images of the area.

From the historical side, the images record early pictures of life in the Old Town, Queenston, St. Davids, and Niagara Camp. And from the collector’s perspective we see several almost-identical pictures of Brock’s Monument – but they aren’t identical because they represent different publishers and a variety of card styles.

This aspect tells us that many, many people visited Brock’s Monument – and other highlights of the region – over the years, bought postcards from a range of retailers and sent them to relatives and friends back home. We are reminded that tourism here isn’t just a modern-day phenomenon.

A genealogy alert: some of the cards have names or addressees that may ring a bell with genealogists. We have already had an inquiry from a local person who is keenly awaiting the availability of access after the cards have been catalogued.

The key images are those taken by itinerant – and sometimes local – photographers, who spent their days seeking groups and events that they could capture on film and sell as postcards. The total number of cards ever produced would only be the ones that the photographer printed and sold at the time – maybe just one or two.

Postcard collectors refer to them as Real Photo postcards and they are the absolute cream of the proverbial crop. An image of a Niagara-on-the-Lake school class of 1912 might have been a gold mine for the photographer who offered to sell a copy to each of the parents.

The John Burtniak Collection has many Real Photo examples, including Niagara Camp photos. When the photos are captioned, they are even more important, so we know that the 28th Regiment Bugle Band trained here in 1911.

And when the photographer’s name is shown, that helps to pinpoint the event even more because we know that it was professionally done and who did it – a local or an out-of-towner. So the winning cricket team of September 1918 has the date, the event, and even the name of the Hamilton photographer who took and sold copies of the picture – a collector’s and historian’s dream.

Town landmarks received equal attention, as in a 1904 image by a Toronto photographer of guests luxuriating on the porch at the Queen’s Royal Hotel. 

Like any pond, wading into what is an ocean of material becomes even more interesting as our museum people become immersed in it.

Kaufman reports that the work is being led by assistant curator Shawna Butts, assisted by local postcard experts John and Judith Sayers. Butts says that if you have any interest in local history – and who hasn’t – you’ve got to see this collection.

Thank you, John Burtniak!

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