Yesterday's Myths & Mysteries

Looking Back: Canadian Museum Attempts To Unravel 1941’s ‘Time Traveling Hipster’

Paranormal Photography Phenomena

A long, long time ago, the Internet was ablaze with viral images of would-be time travelers and out-of-place artifacts. Do you remember? The tiny watch allegedly found in a Chinese tomb, the unusual “CD box” noticed in a painting from the 1800s. All those goofy vintage photos of people who looked like modern day celebrities. Is Nicolas Cage a time traveling vampire? Maybe, maybe not. Maybe that was just some extremely premature viral marketing for Renfield.

I have a few of those stories compiled here if you’d like to take another look, but that’s a period of online paranormal silliness that’s probably better left in the past.

Then again, I recently stumbled upon a presentation from April 2011 about one of those photos. How it passed me by, I really don’t know, but its focus was the popular image of the so-called “Time Traveling Hipster,” or as the paper refers to him, the “1940s Time Traveller.”

The Picture

If you’re not familiar with the image itself, it’s a genuine scan of a photo that was originally found at the Virtual Museum of Canada, from a collection held by the Bralorne Museum of central British Columbia. That online museum website (VMC) has since been decommissioned, however the image is still available elsewhere on the Digital Museums Canada website. You can see its full unedited version right over here.

The black-and-white photo is from 1941, and shows a group of people attending the reopening of the South Forks Bridge in Gold Bridge, B.C., Canada after it was closed due to a flood in 1940. However, in early 2010, the photo became an online sensation thanks to the singular individual center-right who somehow appeared suspiciously out of place.

Time traveler at the South Fork Bridge?

Compared to the other people around him, he certainly stands out. He’s wearing goggles, a seemingly branded shirt, and is also holding what looks like a small camera. His mostly modern appearance led to intense discussion in online communities and even in the media – was this a time traveler?

Long story short, probably not.

The blog Forgetomori had the best breakdown of the situation, though like the VMC website itself, it no longer exists. Still, the information is out there. That blog’s post, published on April 15, 2010, around the height of the image’s popularity, showed comparisons of attire available around 1941. The goggles were likely sunglasses, the printed shirt probably a college sweatshirt, with speculation that its pattern was actually an “M” representing the Montreal Maroons hockey team, and the camera could have easily been a Kodak Folding Pocket camera available “since the beginning of the 20th century.”

The man likely wasn’t a temporal tourist, but rather just someone with a unique sense of style, and a modest interest in bridges. But that didn’t end the speculation.

Tracking “the Sasquatch footprints of our Time Traveller”

That’s an actual quote from the April 2011 analysis. I love it. The paper is fully titled “The Mystery of the ‘1940s Time Traveller’: The Changing Face of Online Brand Monitoring.”

Now, obviously, breaking down what is essentially an online urban legend into something as mundane as an analysis on brand monitoring really takes the mystique out of things. But I still find it fascinating. The way stories spread, which stories spread, and how information just takes on a life of its own – it’s all part of the folklore. And what’s especially interesting about this analysis is that it was written by members of the Canadian Heritage Information Network (or CHIN) themselves, who ran the VMC, so there’s inside knowledge on how things played out.

Basically, the paper explores the effect that the “Time Traveling Hipster” had on the small Virtual Museum Of Canada, how they reacted, and how information and sources can get lost when stories like this spread far and wide.

Here’s how things went down:

The photo initially gained popularity on Digg.com (talk about time travel), from an upload on Imgur. This, however, was after being shared around on smaller alternative websites. The Digg post had the title “Time traveler caught on camera from 1941.” Other social networks, blogs, and media outlets then picked up the story, leading to a mess of time travel lore and intrigue. This culminated in a very large amount of traffic to the museum website from a shared post on Reddit.

As the study says, “Seventy years after the photo was taken and five years after it was posted online…the photo took on a life of its own.” Which is an incredible stat to me – it only took five years for an obscure photo from a Canadian museum database to become an online time travel urban legend!

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Sometimes Things Just Happen

The paper goes on to describe the internal reaction to the image’s explosive popularity within CHIN. They weren’t aware of the situation until they received an email in March 2010 asking about the image’s authenticity, and whether or not a higher resolution copy existed. This email was followed by over a dozen others requesting the same information. Who were these people? Why were they so focused on this one ordinary photo out of seemingly nowhere?

From there, in an attempt to unravel the mystery, CHIN did a quick Google search for themselves and discovered why there was suddenly so much interest in a nearly century-old photograph of a bridge opening.

And that’s when they found out about the Time Traveling Hipster Hypothesis. In response, CHIN then began watching how the story developed and changed over the course of the following months.

The rest of the paper focuses mostly on that reaction, and how online “spreadability” affects branding, accurate information, and even tends to obfuscate original sources in the long run.

For example, while initially the museum was credited as the source of the image, the paper notes that eventually this changed. The original source became more and more obfuscated. “Unfortunately,” they wrote, “as the image moved further into the Web, references to the original diffused into ‘some Canadian museum,’ and ultimately into obscurity.”

Was it important to know where the image came from? Possibly. At the very least, pointing toward the original source of something allows for a better understanding, and an opportunity for doing your own research. This, unfortunately, doesn’t happen as often as it should. On the other hand, knowing which museum the scan came from doesn’t say anything at all about the identity of the individual in the photo, time traveler or not.

CHIN also made mention of the bizarre tendency for certain outlets to claim ownership of things that were never theirs to begin with: “We could not help but note the irony in that lesser known bloggers, with little regard for the actual provenance of the image, were accusing one another of intellectual property theft and plagiarism.”

Welcome to the Internet

“Sometimes,” the authors wrote, “what is put online can escape a museum’s control.” The image of the “Time Traveling Hipster” essentially became its own brand. Its own story. There was never any controlling it, and the best the museum could do was observe and, later, add their own voice to the conversation.

The conclusion drawn by CHIN, at the end of all things, was basically that life finds a way. Or sourcing, in this case. As they tried to keep on top of things themselves, “the Web began to self-regulate.” Articles and social media shares began to point back to VMC and the Bralorne Museum as the source of the image.

I’d say this could also be due to the fact that, generally, people want sources. They want to know where certain information comes from, paranormal or not. If you show a strange image of a bridge opening and claim there’s a time traveler in it, it’s good to know where the image came from, or what the context is. It doesn’t prove anything one way or another, but it does provide useful information.

Even if it ruins the fun.

I remember, a long time ago, receiving a comment on a post here about how over-analyzing a certain topic ruined the mystery. I don’t remember which article that was, but the commenter didn’t like the way I’d share something intriguing only to undercut it at the end with a more rational (and sourced) explanation. That’s something I tend to do, even though I want to believe, myself.

But that’s just how it goes! It really comes down to a compromise: Do you want to get caught up in the mystery and have fun, or do you want to actually know? For me, the answer is both. But knowing too much can ruin the mystery. I guess it’s for every individual to decide the right balance there.

As for our “time traveling hipster,” while none of this really says much about his identity, or even whether or not he actually was a time traveler (likelihood being not), it’s still an interesting look into the nature of paranormal discourse and how things spread online.

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Rob Schwarz

Writer, blogger, and part-time peddler of mysterious tales. Editor-in-chief of Stranger Dimensions.