McCowan's Phototeria
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Industry, Inventions and a
New Amusement Experience at the CNE

New developments in industry and manufacturing was one of the main features of the Canadian National Exhibition in Toronto in the early decades of this century. The budding consumer society was developing a fascination for work-saving devices and toys for both young and old. Self-serve vending machines were beginning to appear -- and perhaps the most unique of these was David A. McCowan's "Phototeria". This wonderful electro-mechanical-chemical contraption produced a photographic likeness of a person within a minute.

The Phototeria was an "amusement" in the sense that it was such a novel attraction and "entertainment centre". The April 14, 1928, issue of the Toronto Star Weekly prepared Torontonians for a strange new experience:

Here at first sight is a booth that is like a telephone booth. You enter and sit on a stool which you may adjust to your height. You focus your face with the aid of a couple of mirrors which give your eyes, nose and mouth the correct alignment. All the time you are looking pleasant, please, into a hollow white reflector designed with curves that will flood your face with light. Then you drop a quarter in the slot and watch for the dickey bird to come out. There is a whirr as the electrical mechanism starts. Powerful lights flash on that are like the Kleig lights of a moving-picture set. Eight seconds pass -- and the camera clicks. You are taken. Stroll out to the back of the booth and wait. Within a minute your mirror-photo drops out of a slot into a waiting cup.

The Phototeria was also an example of inventiveness scoring on the growing public passion for consumption. And, of course, consumption meant the movement of capital and the creation of jobs:

He took one of his phototerias out on trial to a small Ontario city and, from the sidelines, watched it in five days take 2,350 photographs, which means, in money, $587.50. In other locations he has watched it perform at the comparatively busy rate of one hundred photographs an hour, which works out at only a little less than two sittings a minute... "The money part, strange as it may seem, does not appeal to me. No, I have no plans for spending it. All I can see at the moment is the opportunity it gives me for expanding, for providing work for men and women, for developing an industry here in the east end [of Toronto]. The thing that gives me pleasure is to see men working and to hear the rumble of the machinery."

David A. took his Phototerias to the CNE in about 1928. One of the associated family stories relates that his father, Alex, while counting the quarters, marvelled at how easily these automatic photograph "vending" machines brought in money -- it was as simple as dumping the coins from the big sack onto the dining room table. Alex would, of course, be recalling the hours of back-breaking work that it took forty years before to "put on a load of straw... Got $9 per ton." We must remember, however, that David had invested years of research and development in his Phototeria.

April 14, 1928, issue of the Toronto Star Weekly as cited in
Fairs and Frolics: Scottish Communities at Work and Play

The Scarboro Heights Record V13 #11


We were very pleased to help with the research on the Canadian chapter the book, “American Photobooth: The History and Art of the Photobooth in the U.S. and Canada”. This book includes a section on the McCowan Phototeria, invented by the young David A. McCowan who had, growing up in southwest Scarborough, “stammered lamentably”. According to Bill McCowan, there was a McCowan Phototeria at Scarboro Heights Park.