Two Gilded Age Gentlemen

Two dressed-up men smile into the camera on a spring day. One holds a Kodak camera.
Two men in high silk hats breathe the style of the times.  The year is 1889.  They are old enough to remember the century’s watershed event, the Civil War, which is long in the past, it being more than two decades since Appomattox.  These gentlemen, and millions of others, have moved on.  They are Gilded Age creatures, inhabitants of a rapidly modernizing society enjoying ever-increasing wealth.  Their era was empty of historical grandeur: in that respect, the 1880s, with their intense but under-examined social problems (including widening economic inequality), were somewhat similar to today.

Formally attired, but looking like they are often so, the two men smile into the camera of Uriah Hunt Painter.  Painter and the man on the left may be engaged in a mutual photo-shoot, for each has a Kodak camera, a new invention that became the era’s most fashionable ‘toy.’  This picture captures how people had begun to use it—not too differently from how people use their cell phones now.

The sun is shining on this Easter Monday, as all Washington gathers for the first-ever Easter egg hunt on the White House lawn.  The watch-chain of one man snakes along the surface of his taut belly, a symbol of the symbiosis between efficiency and attaining plenty.  He and his friend both sport the flamboyant facial hair that was a hallmark of the Gilded Age—the vast mustaches and expansive mutton-chops that would prevail even it Teddy Roosevelt’s time, the mutton chops first popularized by General Burnside, and eventually leading to the coinage of the enduring term, ‘sideburns.’

Image from this source.


The Only Time President Roosevelt Ever Consented to Pose Before a Kodak

The Only Time President Roosevelt Posed for a Kodak (1903; courtesy of the Library of Congress)
President Theodore Roosevelt, holding his top hat in one hand and flanked by two officers and an unidentified man, looks down at the photographer from the back of a railroad car.  The year is 1903.  The spontaneity of this picture registers how mainstream photography and photographic portraiture were changing in the wake of George Eastman’s revolutionary invention of the hand-held Kodak camera.

By then the Kodak camera had been around for fifteen years, but its impact was still widening and generating change. Because the Kodak was not just a new type of camera, but a new type of film, and one that gave the user freedom from having to learn film processing, it made picture-taking easier for everybody.  Amateurs began taking pictures like crazy.  The Kodak process also represented a big leap forward in terms of stop-motion photography, suddenly endowing pictures of living subjects with greater immediacy.

Those qualities shine in this marvelous photograph of President Theodore Roosevelt, taken during one of his myriad railway journeys.  Who was the photographer?  Was it a professional photographer assigned to cover him, or an ordinary American, perhaps even a woman, who successfully beseeched the President to pose just this one time?  Did he even consent?  His aides look amused, but Roosevelt himself looks positively put out.

Image: from this source.

Regarding the Ordinary American

A store with live fish for sale, vicinity of Natchitoches, Louisiana, July 1940. Photograph by Marion Post Wolcott.

A store with live fish for sale, vicinity of Natchitoches, Louisiana, July 1940. FSA photograph by Marion Post Wolcott.

In 1940, a federal bureau called the Farm Security Administration (FSA) dispatched photographers to various parts of the States to document the American people’s condition.  That the federal government would launch such an impolitic initiative is unthinkable today.  The pictures are uncomfortably realistic, many outright grim, the country being still on the ropes after that period of economic woe we proudly refer to as the ‘Great’ Depression.  That those in power cared enough to visit the nation’s suffering smacks of an unwavering democratic purpose unfamiliar now.

An FSA photograph by Russell Lee of a family in Pie Town, New Mexico.

Jack Whinery, homesteader, and his family, Pie Town, New Mexico, October 1940.  FSA photograph by Russell Lee.

The corpus of FSA photography stands as a magnificent portrait of America: penetrating and stark, troubling yet thrilling, capturing the country’s natural richness, its varied peoples and economy, its dilemmas and opportunities.

Going to town (FSA photograph)

Going to town on Saturday afternoon, Greene County, Georgia, May 1941. FSA photograph by Jack Delano.

For the most part, rural places and workers star in the FSA’s study of the mid-20th-century ‘political economy.’  A band of FSA photographers, who included Jack Delano, Marion Post Wolcott, and Russell Lee, fanned out across the South and West, documenting rural small-town folk as they went about their daily activities.

Dugout house of Faro Caudill, homesteader, with Mt. Allegro in the background, Pie Town, New Mexico, October 1940. Photograph by Russell Lee.

Dugout house of Faro Caudill, homesteader, with Mt. Allegro in the background, Pie Town, New Mexico, October 1940. FSA photograph by Russell Lee.

Indeed, many of the photographs—some shot with up-to-the-minute color slide film—show people living in conditions little changed since the previous century.

Commuters, who have just come off the train, waiting for the bus to go home, Lowell, Mass., January 1941. Photograph by Jack Delano.

Commuters, who have just come off the train, waiting for the bus to go home, Lowell, Mass., January 1941. FSA photograph by Jack Delano.

Besides documenting church picnics, horse auctions, and hard-scrabble farming, FSA photographers visited urban and industrial regions, where they more often shot in black and white.  As the project went on, its output began to show the stimulus of World War II, when the demand for goods in war-torn Europe and the growth of war-related industries dramatically expanded the economy and work opportunities for many Americans.


Houses and factories.   Unidentified photographer.  From the FSA/OWI collection at the Library of Congress.

The FSA project represented an interesting experiment on the government’s part, to use an expressive medium (photography) to supplement the ‘facts’ expressed through social science.  Seventy-five years on, the FSA photos allow us to behold the ordinary American circa 1940, in a form more eloquent than statistics or sociology.  Moreover, the characteristic themes of the photographs, including the unequal effects of modernization, Americans’ changing relationship with nature and the land, and economic vulnerability, are problems we continue to grapple with today.

All images from the Library of Congress.
Click on an image to go to its source.

Theodore Roosevelt Jumping, 1902

Rear view of an action photograph unusual for the time.

As one of history’s most active presidents came on the stage, photography raced to catch up with him.  This rather extraordinary photograph from 1902 shows Teddy Roosevelt, then president, jumping his horse over a split-rail fence.  Such beautifully crisp shots of objects in motion were exceedingly rare at that date. Continue reading

An early aerial view of the University of Chicago

Aerial panoramic view of the Quads taken from west of Ellis Avenue.
George R Lawrence was a pioneer whose specialty was panoramic aerial photography.  A native of northern Illinois, he invented the means to take high-quality “bird’s eye” views using a camera hoisted aloft with balloons or kites.  His most famous photographs are of a ruined San Francisco after the 1906 earthquake, but he also photographed Chicago, its waterfront and factories, and various towns nearby. Continue reading

They Partied On

Frances Benjamin Johnson, "Inaugural decorations, McKinley Inauguration, Pension Building" (Courtesy Library of Congress)
On the evening of March 4, 1901, men and women in formal dress began drifting in to the Pension Building to attend the inaugural ball for William McKinley, who had been sworn in to his second term as president earlier that day.  The cavernous Great Hall of the Pension Building had been lavishly decorated for the occasion.  Guests were nearly lost in its magnificence: the endless garlands of lights, the immense stretch of polished floor, the massive stone columns stretching up to a ceiling over a hundred feet high.  Overhead a gold-draped canopy glowed, reflecting the elegant incandescence below.

It was the one-hundredth anniversary of the first inaugural ceremonies to take place in Washington City, and the ball’s organizing committee intended to make it the most spectacular of any.  The official souvenir program they got up preserves the essence of what they wanted to achieve.


With each recurring inauguration of a President of the United States the festivities in which the people of the nation join are carried out on an ever increasing scale of elaborateness and grandeur.  This year, as on several occasions in the past, the inaugural ball will be held . . . in the Pension Office building. . . . The magnificent court of this immense building affords suitable accommodations for the thousands who gather to make notable this great social feature of the induction of a Chief Executive into an office, which is the highest a republic can give.

The inaugural ball is a time-honored and always enjoyable function.  The newly announced President attends with the members of his personal and official family, and leads the opening grand march.  It forms a fitting and spectacular climax to a day of so much importance to the whole people.  It is confidently expected that the ball this year will be the most resplendent, the most inspiring scene of gayety that has yet marked an inauguration.  Over $18,000 has been spent alone in decorations, bunting, electricity, and flowers being the component parts of a scheme, which surpasses in glory of embellishment and detail the dreams of Oriental royalty.

The general color effect will be a most delicate shade of yellow known as old ivory.  The ceiling will be a canopy of gracefully looped bunting, studded with innumerable incandescent lights burning within frosted glass.  There will be no glare of dazzling arc lights, but an artistic mellow glow from the incandescent bulbs.  The balconies which surround the court, the grand columns that reach from the tiled floor to arching roof, will all be decorated lavishly by the most skilled artisans.   . . . This year American Beauty roses, rare orchids, and thousands of yards of twining vines . . .  form the basis of the floral scheme.

The US Marine Band was slated to play a special program of promenades.  A 125-piece orchestra was also on hand to play dance music throughout the night.  Admission to the ball was $5 a ticket, while tickets to the buffet were an additional $1 each.

On arriving, President McKinley and his family, and Vice President Theodore Roosevelt and his family, were first shown to private suites of rooms off the Great Hall before emerging to lead the grand opening march.  President McKinley and his wife Ida were admirable figures, but the night really belonged to the new vice-president Teddy Roosevelt and his wife Ethel, whose youth and glamor threatened to eclipse the president entirely.  Roosevelt’s reputation as heroic leader of the ‘Rough Riders’ who helped liberate Cuba from Spain had endowed him with universal celebrity.  His very presence reminded everyone of the nation’s recent military triumph, further stoking the celebratory mood of the ball that night.

Image by noted photographer Frances Benjamin Johnston.
Courtesy of the Library of Congress
Click here to go to the source.

E. B. Thompson: His Wives and Times

E B Thompson at River Farm (Courtesy of the National Park Service Historic Photograph Collection)

E.B. Thompson with unidentified boy, in front of an outbuilding on the grounds of George Washington’s birthplace.  From the Historic Photographs Collection of the National Park Service.

For months now, I’ve been piecing together the biography of E. B. Thompson, an important early 20th-century photographer who spent the bulk of his career in Washington, DC.  This post is a bare recitation of his vital facts, offered in the hope that anyone who knows more about Thompson or his family will contact me.


Ezra Bowen Thompson was born in North Carolina in 1865, as the Civil War brought defeat to the Confederacy.  His parents, Alfred Simeon Thompson and Anna Christophers, were both of Raleigh: he was a young dry-goods merchant, she the daughter of the city clerk.  Ezra was their eldest child.  The 1870 census found them with a daughter as well, living in a household that included their former slave, Charity Bobbett, and her 8 children.  Alfred Thompson died the following year.

His widow remarried around 1875, combining her household, minus the Bobbetts, with that of widower Nathan Pope Holleman, a Civil War veteran a decade older than she.  Anna and her children took the Holleman name, and by 1880 she was caring for 5 children: stepson Nathan A Holleman (17), her son E.B. (14), her 11-year-old daughter Daisy, and two children she had with Holleman: William H and Frank C, ages 4 and 1, respectively.  Her husband told the census enumerator that year that his occupation was that of carpenter, though wounds he sustained while fighting for the Confederacy had cost him the use of his right arm.

The U.S. Capitol at night (Courtesy of the District of Columbia Public Library via the Commons on Flickr)

The U.S. Capitol at night, from the E. B. Thompson Collection at the DC Public Library


Ezra left home and headed for the national capital in the early 1890s, where he assumed the surname Thompson and eked out a living as a painter for several years.  Sometime after 1900, however, he found work with the government as a photographer, an opportunity that founded his entire career.  He worked for various branches of the Interior Department, photographing the new national parks on major expeditions.  After 1911, he made his living by running a photographic supply store where he also sold his photographs as a retailer.  Known professionally as E. B. Thompson, his full name and origins became hard to discover.


In maturity, Thompson was married at least three times.  His first wife was 30-year-old Sigrid Gustafson, whom he married in the District of Columbia on October 13, 1904.  She was a gifted photographer known for her skill at altering photographs–retouching and splicing them to enhance their appeal.  Did the Thompsons’ union produce a child?  It’s hard to say.  Sigrid died unexpectedly in December, 1905, while visiting her family in Jönköping, Sweden.  Presumably she was buried abroad.


By 1910, Thompson had remarried.  His second wife was Nancy Elizabeth Little, the daughter of R. A. Little and Lavantia Irvin Little.  She was born in February 1871 in Wethersfield, Illinois.  She was one of many children, whose forebears were known as early settlers of nearby Kewanee.  By the time she married Thompson, however, Nancy, who sometimes went by Elizabeth, was a divorcée.

Her first husband was Delno Ernest Kercher (1869-1935), whom she married in Illinois on 26 September 1893.  A graduate of Grinnell College, he was 24 years of age.  He subsequently became a doctor, graduating from the University of Pennsylvania Medical School in 1895.  The 1900 census finds Elizabeth and Delno Kercher living in Philadelphia with two boarders in the city’s 26th ward.  Delno had begun practicing as an ob-gyn, a profession he continued in until his death.  By 1910, Kercher reported his marital status as divorced, and his father David was living with him.  The two are buried together at Arlington Cemetery in Drexel Hill, PA.  David Kercher’s 1919 obituary noted that he had lived with his son for fifteen years (since 1904).

Nancy Elizabeth Little and Ezra Bowen Thompson were married sometime between 1905 and 1910, whether in Philadelphia, the District of Columbia, or somewhere else.  At the time of the 1910 census, they are living as a couple in the capital, Ezra 44 years of age, Elizabeth 35.  Her mother Lavantia, age 77, is with them, too.  Was Elizabeth in ill health?  She made her will in August 1910, and on the 18th of February, 1911, she, too, died.  Thirty-six years of age, she was buried in Rock Creek Cemetery.

Elizabeth’s will was probated and its provisions reported in the Washington Herald.  Elizabeth left just one dollar to each of her sisters and limited bequests to her mother and other siblings.  The remainder of her estate she placed in trust to provide for her husband Ezra until he died or remarried.  She directed that all her books, papers, and family portraits be returned to the family home in Kewanee.


On December 15, 1915, newspapers reported Thompson’s marriage to Blanche Love in New York City.  Thirty-four years old, she was at least fourteen years younger than her new husband, who on their marriage license shaved a good five years off his age.  She was born circa 1878 in Stafford, Virginia, the daughter of Ella M Coakley and Civil War veteran Charles H. Love.  Blanche was one of a large family of children.  At the time she married, Blanche was a resident of Washington, DC; and many members of her immediate family lived in or near the District for many decades.  It is not known whether Blanche and EB had any children, but if they did, they might still be living.

Mrs E. B. (Blanche) Thompson with unidentified children at Mount Vernon (Courtesy of the National Park Service Historic Photograph Collection)

Blanche Thompson with unidentified children at an outbuilding on the grounds of Mount Vernon.  From the National Photographs Collection of the National Park Service.

Blanche Thompson sometimes appears in her husband’s photography.  She accompanied him on trips.  But she is not buried with him, and I have yet to discover anything about her later life.


After his marriage to Blanche, Ezra continued living in the District of Columbia, at 1210 Euclid Avenue, NW, her former home.  In the mid-1940s, he fell ill, decided to sell his photographic collection and retire.  The District of Columbia Public Library bought some 2,000 glass-plate negatives from him for $1,000; today they form the backbone of the library’s collection of Washingtoniana.  In the mid-1970s, the National Park Service acquired Thompson’s photographs of the national parks, recognizing the historical value of his life-work.

In the final years of his life, E. B. Thompson returned to North Carolina, where he died, in Burnsville, on April 20, 1951.  He is buried in Oakwood Cemetery in Raleigh.

All photographs by or from E. B. Thompson.
Click on a picture to go to the source.

Please contact me if you wish to cite my work,
or if you have information about E. B. Thompson to share.

Author’s note (7/15):  My post originally misidentified E. B. Thompson’s third wife.
She was not Blanche Edwards Love of New York City; she was not a widow with two children; and she was not older than EB.
If there was such a couple, they are not the subjects of this piece.
Many thanks to Denise Goff for establishing Blanche Love’s true identity.

Also, I originally wrote that “Since the 1900 census record for the Holleman family in North Carolina records the presence of a nine-year-old grandson, Ezra F Hollowman, it’s possible that E.B. had married and fathered a child before leaving home.”  Now that I have learned much more about Thompson and the Holleman family, I am certain that that’s not the case.  SB


A street in Ireland, 1907 (Courtesy National Library of Ireland via the Commons on Flickr)

Among the hundreds of historical photographs I’ve looked at this week, this one stands out, jarring my sensibilities, its everydayness so strikingly at odds with ours.  Whereas many historical photographs appeal because of their near-resemblance to the life we know, others are fascinating in their strangeness, in their capacity to demand independent consideration.

So it is with this photograph from the National Library of Ireland.  It shows a muddy street in the port city of Waterford, where teamsters are conveying several carts of live turkeys up from the wharves.  Their destination may be a local poultry store, where the turkeys were likely to be sold to customers live, then kept at home and butchered by those in the kitchen for the holiday meal.  The date is December 16, 1907.  To have a rich turkey feast was then, as in Dickens’ time sixty years earlier, a singular joy and a sure token of prosperity.

There was a different appearance to a street.  The bricks of the gutter are evident, but the rest of the paving is scarcely visible beneath a thick layer of mud and animal waste, which night crews may have periodically combed smooth.  The only conveyances in sight are carts and wagons, though elsewhere, we know, automobiles were beginning to appear.  Besides teamsters hauling goods away from the harbor, the only other traffic is a pair of ladies in decent hats, driving themselves on their calls and errands.

The real point of interest, though, is along the curb, where we see a barefoot boy standing in the road.  He and his friend may be hoping to earn a few coins by helping the teamsters unload the turkeys.  Just a few feet away are a well-dressed lady and gentleman, and behind them are a trio of poorer, working-class women known as ‘shawlies.’  Whereas the lady has a proper overcoat or wrapper and a fur hat, the other women go about with their heads and bodies unceremoniously wrapped in shawls for warmth.  They carry baskets.

Class was different then, as clothing and shoes and manners marked out very visibly just how different one type of person was from the other.  Though the classes rubbed elbows much more intimately than they do today, the gulf between rich and poor was more evident and less was done to ameliorate it, to ease the suffering of the barefoot and hungry.

Image from this source.
Click on the image to enlarge it.