From cobwebs to Interwebs: Uncovering vintage photos of the museum’s aircraft

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The Stearman Speedmail, with its distinctive yellow wings. Before it was donated in 1970, the Speedmail was restored as a Canadian Airways mail delivery aircraft.


Every once in a while, something will remind me that we live in a small world filled with coincidences.

I was reminded again a few weeks ago. Like many people during this pandemic, I’ve been taking on long-overlooked projects. I’m sure that I’ve cleaned our nearly every cupboard and junk drawer. I recently started to “rescue” photos from Mom’s sticky magnetic albums — scanning and sorting them for safer storage.

Picture (head and shoulders) of a man wearing a plaid shirt, and resting his head on his closed hand.

My father, Joe Poulton, in a snapshot taken in the late 1970s — a few years after his airplane photographs.

As Mom pulled out family albums, Dad mentioned that he had a box of photos somewhere in the basement, too. We’re never quite sure what we’ll find in Dad’s storage bins as, to put it politely, he has a penchant for hanging on to things. What we did find came as a great surprise. Among the books and models were envelopes containing colour photos of the aircraft I now work with every day, taken about a decade before I was born.

Back in the 1960s and 70s, the National Aviation Museum was located at Rockcliffe air station, the current site of the Canada Aviation and Space Museum. This collection has an interesting and complicated origin story — something that curator Rénald Fortier explored in his 2020 article about the Canada Aviation and Space Museum’s anniversary.

Both of my parents are from Ottawa, and they raised our family in the area. Dad would have been twenty-something when he took these photos — likely in the early 1970s — at public events such as Canada Day, Aviation Day, or Air Force Day. At that time, some of the museum’s older showpieces were moved outside for special occasions — something we likely wouldn’t see today!

I know that these photos aren’t necessarily unique. Many of you may well have shoeboxes, albums, or slide reels just like this in your own basements, especially if you are from the Ottawa area. Still, I was surprised to see our airplanes in this context, and thought it would be fun to share a few highlights. 

A special thank you to Rénald for helping me to sort through all the images (over Zoom!), and filling in many of the gaps.

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Erin Poulton

Erin Poulton was the Interpretive Planner for exhibitions at the Canada Aviation and Space Museum from 2013 to 2023. She graduated from the University of Ottawa in 2006 after completing her Bachelor of Arts in English and History, her Master of Arts in Canadian History, and her Bachelor of Education respectively. Erin has been working in the museum field since 2000, and enjoys finding fun and effective ways to share Canada’s aviation and space stories with the public.