Locating the Past through Images

In recent years, a number of projects have appeared with the intention of allowing the people to link their present-day surroundings with the past through the use of photographs and other images to track the evolution of landscapes and cityscapes over time. Whether it’s because we like to feel nostalgic or have a deeper fascination with the ways that our neighbourhoods and communities have evolved over time, the explosion of websites are an indication that the public has a much deeper interest in history than most of us might suspect.

As someone who spends more time on the internet than I should, I’ve always gotten a kick out of websites such as historypin.com and facebook pages like Vintage Toronto (which, at the time I am writing this, has over 50,000 followers) for the simple reason that I love to see how the neighbourhoods I know today looked like in the past. I’ve sometimes even felt a bit envious of those who, in the course of their research, get to work with images of the communities and cities they study. Although I do come across some interesting images in the course of my research, none have ever really provided me with the opportunity to explore the evolution of space. So, when I came across a picture of a group of lesbian activists picketing outside of a convenience store in London, Ontario in 1978, I decided to try and locate that store. While I have spent a bit of time in London, I wouldn’t say that I’m very familiar with the city. All I had to go on was the name of the convenience store (Master Variety) and the road on which it was located (Central avenue). No address. Luckily, Central avenue isn’t a very long street and I was able to find the building in only a few minutes.

london variety store

Master Variety in 1978 (photo credit: Heather Ramsay and Body Politic) and Victory Variety today (photo from Google Maps). Click to enlarge.

On the left is a picture of members of the London-based Gay Activist Group for Equality and London Lesbian Collective picketing what was then Master Variety. They had gathered to protest the recent firing of Lyn MacDonald, a former employee of the store who was fired when her employer discovered she was a lesbian. On the right is a look at what the store looks like today. While the comparison doesn’t really reveal anything too interesting, other than that it seems the owners decided to add some windows and move the door, I still thought it was pretty cool to finally be able to find the location where this picket took place.

(I should add that the current owners of Victory Variety probably aren’t the same people who fired Lyn MacDonald 35 years ago, so there’s no reason to hold it against them. If you’re in London, try stopping by. I’m sure they’re friendly people. Plus, buying from local shops is always better than buying from the big ones.)

I don’t expect to be using any of this in my dissertation, but this kind of work is something that is fun and relatively easy to do. It’s also given me pause to consider that there might be some potential for integrating this type of work into the ways in which we teach history. I have no doubt that asking students to locate current sites of historical events or buildings through the use of images could make the prospect of writing an essay a much more interesting one for a number of students. As I move forward in my teaching, it’s something that I’ll definitely have to keep in mind.

EDIT: As a recent comment left on this site from someone identifying herself as the former owner of Master Variety points out, the owners disputed Lyn MacDonald’s claim and stated that she was fired for reasons other than that she was a lesbian. My goal in writing this post was not to side with either party. Rather, it was simply to highlight some of the potential uses of images in the researching and teaching of history.