Montréal 1885; une ville de contrastes

In all, the William Notman studio takes three thousand images during Montreal’s plague year. Yet, looking at them, you'd never know this tragedy took place.

Notman's Canada Inc.
McCord Museum of Canadian History, PTV

© Notman's Canada Inc. 2004



Montreal, 1885. Through the course of the year, members of City Council all oblige Mr. Notman with their images, for a grand composite. First among their number is the newly elected reform mayor, Honoré Beaugrand, who has a new project. He is determined to clean up his city.

The streets are filthy. As the snow begins to melt, the refuse produced by 200,000 people over the winter is exposed. Garbage, dead animals and animal excrement litter the streets.

It is a side of city life that William Notman does not choose to photograph. There is, after all, no market for such pictures. In April a young Acadian girl working at the Hôtel Dieu hospital dies of smallpox. The hospital discharges its patients and the disease spreads through the poor, mainly French areas, of the city.

After a bad batch of vaccine makes several patients sick, many refuse vaccination. The city temporarily suspends its use. As a result, 3,000 people will die of the disease.

For those coming into the Notman studio to have their portraits taken, this is another world. They may worry about the disfigurement the disease could cause to a beautiful face, but they have been vaccinated. They are immune.

They live up on the mountain, away from the slums. That summer of 1885, many go to the resorts of the St. Lawrence, from Murray Bay to Tadoussac, to escape the heat and the pox.

To show that smallpox is no respecter of race or language, that summer there is an unexpected English victim. Sir Francis Hincks, once prime minister of Canada, and Montreal’s most prominent citizen, dies of the disease. From then on, no one feels entirely safe.

The studio on Bleury Street, now with 31 people on staff, continues to operate throughout the epidemic. But business is less brisk than usual. In August, Buffalo Bill’s Wild West Show comes into town. Like many a famous visitor before them, they visit William Notman.

Among their number, a man who is already familiar with the ravages of smallpox and what it has done to his people. Tatanka Iyotake -- Sitting Bull -- has taken up Buffalo Bill’s invitation to join his show, for $50 a week, plus expenses.

Sitting Bull, in his contract with Buffalo Bill, specifies that he has the right to sell photographs of himself to those members of the public who wish to have a memento of the man who defeated General Custer.

The era of celebrity photography has begun. In all, the William Notman studio takes three thousand images during Montreal’s plague year. Yet, from the images he makes, it might never have happened.

When the year is over, the Castanet Club arrives at the studio to celebrate its production of the new Gilbert and Sullivan opera, The Mikado. William Notman obliges with a composite in honour of the occasion.


Three little maids from school are we
Pert as a school-girl well can be
Filled to the brim with girlish glee
Three little maids from school.
Everything is a source of fun
Nobody’s safe, for we care for none!
Life is a joke that’s just begun!
Three Little Maids from school.
“The Mikado.” Gilbert and Sullivan.


It is left to other photographers to document the floods that devastate the city the following spring.

Teachers' Centre Home Page | Find Learning Resources & Lesson Plans