Documenting the Island in 1902: the J. Wesley Swan photos and postcards


Quiet Nook
A Quiet Nook

When the postcard craze began in the first decade of the 20th century many of the large publishers were hard-pressed to quickly find images of the county in order to respond to the demands from vendors for attractive cards in order to meet consumer desires. Much photography was from local amateurs. In P.E.I. these included W.S. Louson and Cumming Brothers.  As we learn more about the postcard trade of the period it is emerging that rather than being commissioned specifically for postcards,  many of these images were from pre-existing bodies of work which were appropriated for postcards.  

One available source was from the small but growing number of professional photographers who were in the business of producing promotional photography for railway and shipping companies and many of the most memorable images of the period are from the photographic artists engaged by companies such as the Canadian Pacific Railway, Canadian Government Railways, and the Grand Trunk to promote their passenger rail services to the emerging body of railway tourists.   

A recent article in the winter 2021 edition of the Toronto Postcard Club’s journal Card Talk by Roger Miller titled ” Who was that Photographer?  John Wesley Swan and the Grand Trunk Railway” identifies a previously uncredited photographer of several iconic postcard images of Prince Edward Island.  These photographs were not created for postcards but they quickly became some of the most popular views of the province. 

Interestingly, J. Wesley Swan (1859-1913) had P.E.I. connections. Although born in Montreal in 1859, the early 1880s  found him working in the photography studio of George H. Cook in Charlottetown where he married Annie Morton of the city.  He relocated to Norway Maine, which was on the Grand Trunk railway line between Montreal and Portland, where he opened a studio. In 1885 on a visit to visit friends on P.E.I. he was identified as an artist and correspondent for the New York Graphic newspaper.  It was rumored at the time that he intended in opening a studio in Charlottetown but this proved to be untrue. His Norway studio was destroyed by fire in 1900 and by 1902 he was living in Montreal. 

In 1902 Swan was once again on the Island having been commissioned by the Canadian Government Railway system to take photographs to promote scenery and summer resorts along the line.  Roger Miller states that Swan was the official photographer for the Grand Trunk but he appears to have no difficulty taking on a job which benefitted the competition. He was reported to have taken 48 large views on the Island to be used for this purpose and the Charlottetown Guardian  enthused  that this would result in a large influx in visitors in the following year, noting the positive results of a similar campaign in the Muskoka Lakes region for which Swan had been commissioned to photograph  by the Grand Trunk.

Screen Shot 12-12-21 at 11.39 AM 002Eight of these photographs appear in an undated publication by Swan which, from internal evidence, appears to date from 1904. This album, Through the Maritime Provinces (New Brunswick and Nova Scotia) By J. Wesley Swan, Montreal includes images which continued for decades afterwards to be emblematic of rural Prince Edward Island. The brief introduction notes “The views shown are reproductions from direct photographs made by the publisher and are only available through this channel.” 

Almost all of these images were published as postcards about 1906. Cropped to fit the postcard format, they appeared as two series, both published under the imprint of Valentine and Sons and they all have Valentine image numbers (100219 – 100128) . The first series, in black and white, is a co-publication with the Prince Edward Island Railway, a division, along with the Intercolonial Railway, of the Canadian Government railway system.  The second, with coloured images, appears under the Valentine name alone. 

100927 North Shore Hunter River
On the Road, North Shore to Hunter River # 100,927

A posting on these two series titled “The P.E.I. Railway postcards of Valentine and Sons” can be found here.  It is interesting to note that for the most part the Valentine Card captions are the same as those used for the Swan volume.  

Several of the Swan photographs, including the image heading this posting, do not appear to have been reproduced in postcard format but do appear in  Intercolonial Railway promotional material.  Swan images of P.E.I. do not appear to have been used by other publishers. This was not the case elsewhere where Swan photos are the source of Warwick, Gage and Stedman cards among others.    The postcard collectors dream is that with 48 PEI images to start with, there could be other Swan postcards as yet undiscovered. 

The 1904 Swan album appears to be the source of  dozens of other Valentine postcard images for Quebec, New Brunswick and Nova Scotia as well as the P.E.I. cards noted here. Identical captions shared by both the book and the Valentine card listing (found here) suggest that J. Wesley Swan was one of most important of the early  postcard photographers of Canada – and one of the most unheralded.  


Author: sailstrait

I am an archivist, historian and small boat sailor. Since 2011 I have been skipper of "Ebony", a 1982 Halman Nordica 20. I sail in Northumberland Strait between Prince Edward Island and Nova Scotia. A long time interest in marine and maritime history of the region has resulted in number of publications as well as the less formal presentations in this blog series. In addition I am a member of the Charlottetown Yacht Club, PEI Sailing Association and the Northumberland Strait Yachting Association. I have a specific interest in the history of the Charlottetown Yacht Club, Charlottetown Harbour, Northumberland Strait and the vessels that have sailed there over the years.

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