The Fred Button notebooks

🕔Jan 31, 2011

Thanks to the astute observation of a library patron and quick action by the librarian, Prince Rupert has acquired a collection of photos from the city’s early years.

In January, 2009, the Prince Rupert City and Regional Archives received a number of phone calls about a new listing on eBay: local historians and Prince Rupert collectors were abuzz with news that a number of original Fred Button images had appeared for sale. Someone who had been watching eBay on the computer at the public library told librarian Kathleen Larkin, who then contacted the archivist for the Prince Rupert City and Regional Archives, setting in motion a process that concluded with the acquisition of this important collection.

Just who was Fred Button, and why were his old photos creating such a stir in Prince Rupert?

Button’s path to Prince Rupert
Fred Button was born in England in December, 1877, to Sarah and William Button. In 1904, at age 26, he married his wife Louise. They immigrated to Canada in 1905, settling in Lethbridge, Alberta ,in 1906.

At this time there was much speculation about northern BC and the talk of the Grand Trunk Pacific Railway constructing a route through the North. Fred may have heard the prospects of the northern coast and the potential land and retail boom that construction would bring. The Buttons gathered the courage to move to the newly established pioneer port city of Prince Rupert. Fred began photographing the very start of the city, and by 1909—the year Prince Rupert was founded—was issuing souvenir postcards of Prince Rupert and area.

Like so many of the early settlers, Button had more than one occupation. He and Louise occasionally travelled and worked as Methodist missionaries on the Queen Charlotte Islands. In Prince Rupert, Fred worked as a Real Estate and Insurance Broker; the F. Button Real Estate business in 1915 was located on 2nd Avenue. He also became a well-travelled photographer, developing and selling postcards and prints.

Little is known about Button’s life in Rupert. He shows up infrequently in the early newspapers and was not an active player in the town’s early clubs or societies. But from his extensive black-and-white souvenir photographs and postcards we can tell he travelled all along the railway construction line and over the pack-trails of northern BC, searching out the postcard-perfect photograph. Button followed and photographed the large coastal steamers and the smaller Skeena River sternwheelers. Through his photographs he documented the rise of the city of Prince Rupert, the boom of businesses and the sense of optimism that encompassed the settlers during the early years of construction of the railway.

Button used an early camera that allowed him to write directly on the image by using a small metal tool to scribe letters. On his hundreds of images Button etched his signature markings; the photo number, the photo description running along the bottom of the image and “F. Button, Prince Rupert,” usually in the lower right-hand corner of the image. He was careful with his photographic collection, storing his negatives in between the pages of nine school notebooks.

Postcards would have been a popular item to the many new settlers to Prince Rupert and area. Not only did people make it a hobby to collect postcards, there were hundreds of newcomers that sent postcards back to their former homes. A picture postcard offered the new settlers an easy way to show their relatives and friends back home the massive wilderness of northern BC and the rapid scale of growth of the rising city of Prince Rupert.

In 1919 Fred left Prince Rupert for Texas. The Evening Empire of July 22, 1919 stated that, “Mrs. Fred Button leaves tonight on the Camosun for Burkburnett, Texas, where Mr. Button is located.”

After five years in Burkburnett, Fred and Louise moved to Lubbock, Texas, where Fred tried his hand at another occupation, opening “Uncle Sam’s Store,” a grocery located on their Main Street. Louise died in 1953, and Fred died in 1962, at the age of 84.

The path of the notebooks
Button’s nine notebooks stuffed with nitrite negatives, glass-plate negatives and loose film, spanning 10 years of northern BC history from 1909 to 1919, were acquired by a collector by the name of Williams in Lubbock, Texas, where Button last lived. When Williams passed away, his daughter sold the notebooks to Rolf Hein of Pioneer, California, a dealer in “...books, ephemera, relics and historical collectibles.” Having bachelors’ degrees in both History and Fine Art, and over 20 years experience as a collector, Mr. Hein immediately recognized the historical and artistic value of Button’s images.

When archivist Jean Eiers-Page was contacted by the Prince Rupert librarian in January 2009, she immediately emailed the seller of the EBay items and “...advised him that the Prince Rupert City and Regional Archives, which is a non-profit society, would be very interested in acquiring the entire collection.” Eiers-Page also asked the seller what the collection consisted of and the condition of the nitrate negatives. Hein replied with the news that he had approximately 550 of Button’s negatives, and not only were they in great condition but he had been hoping an archives would contact him. Mr. Hein quickly provided an inventory of the negatives and emailed a photo of the notebooks.

In late January, 2009 the board of directors of the Prince Rupert Archives met to discuss acquiring the collection and passed a motion to make the purchase. $1,125 in US funds was paid for the Button collection—an unusually large amount as most of the material obtained by the Archives is donated. “In rare cases, if a valuable collection does come up for sale, the Archives will try and scrape up funds and monetary donations for it,” says Eiers-Page. “In this case the content of the negatives was a valuable asset to the history of Prince Rupert.”

Going through the collection for the first time Eiers-Page was amazed at the great condition of the almost 100-year-old negatives. A professionally trained archivist, she notes that the best way to store negatives is away from air and out of the light, just as Button had done by pressing them flat between his notebook pages. Most of the negatives were numbered in signature Button style and were still in original order. The staff at the Archives catalogued the collection, scanned all the negatives and placed them in acid-free envelopes.

The Archives put together a book for the 100th anniversary of Prince Rupert entitled Prince Rupert: An Illustrated History, making use of many of Button’s photos.

The Button images are a great treasure that helps us piece together our past. And, at just two little shoe-boxes worth, the Button collection is now part of a much larger assortment of material that the Prince Rupert City and Regional Archives cares for that includes books, diaries, ledgers, art, films, tapes, slides, photos, negatives, microfilm, reference files, maps, plans, reference books and ephemera.