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.
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