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.

FSA-houses-factories

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.

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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.

EARLY LIFE

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

ARRIVAL IN WASHINGTON

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.

MARRIAGE TO SIGRID GUSTAFSON

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.

MARRIAGE TO NANCY ELIZABETH LITTLE

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.

MARRIAGE TO BLANCHE LOVE

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.

RETURN TO NORTH CAROLINA

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

Cuba

Representative photograph from the Highsmith Collection, showing the interior of a Cuban theater in ruins (Courtesy of the Library of Congress)

On this day in 1959, Cuban dictator Fulgencio Batista relinquished power and fled, pushed out by a Marxist-inspired revolutionary movement that Fidel Castro led.  Several months later, Castro, then 32 years of age, assumed his place at the head of the government, where he remained until lately, directing Cuba’s course as a socialist state.

havana

The beautiful collection of photographs of Cuba taken by American Carol M. Highsmith and donated to the US Library of Congress makes for poignant viewing, bringing to life a troubled place whose destiny will nonetheless always be entangled with ours.  Whether Cuba will enjoy a rebirth or continue as a land of lost opportunity is surely one of the more interesting issues the future will decide.  In the meantime, Highsmith’s work is commendable for the rare view it offers onto an all-too-foreign land.

outtodry


Images from
this source.

A Glimpse of Another Christmas

Washington DC market scene by E. B. Thompson (Courtesy DC Library via the Commons on Flickr)

E.B. Thompson was a successful photographer active in Washington DC in the early decades of the 20th century.  Thompson, who was probably born around the time of the Civil War, gained prominence around the same time as Theodore Roosevelt; indeed, the Rough Rider may have been Thompson’s chief patron.  Readers may recall reading this post about Thompson’s 1899 photograph of the coffins of American war dead awaiting burial at Arlington Cemetery.

Besides documenting the political scene, Thompson created and preserved many other pictures—photographs and stereographsof everyday life in the District and other subjects of local and personal appeal.  Among them was this picture of a turn-of-the-century open-air market, taken around Christmastime, as you can see.

Evidence internal to the photograph (such as the clothing and shutter speed) suggests it was taken no earlier than 1905.  Prints of the original image were then colorized for sale.  The color does a lot to draw us back into that earlier time.

Image: from this source.

Faces of the Thirties

Carl Van Vechten, Portrait of Earl Jones in Langston Hughes's "Don't You Want to Be Free?" (Courtesy of the Library of Congress).

Among the heroes of public culture, James Billington, the long-serving Librarian of Congress, ranks high.  Under his leadership, the Library of Congress has been on a drive to digitize its vast collections and make them accessible online to a global public.  Sound recordings, films, photographs, old prints, drawings, maps, manuscripts—millions of items can now be viewed and freely used, to the extent that copyright law allows.  Many of the illustrations on Our Polity are from its website.

Among the Library’s holdings are a collection of photographic portraits by Carl Van Vechten, taken mainly in the 1930s.  Van Vechten (1880-1964) was an Iowa native and graduate of the University of Chicago who, in 1903, moved to New York City and became a journalist under the tutelage of Theodore Dreiser.

Van Vechten first made his reputation as an art and music critic, writing mainly for the New York Times, where he was a champion of then-neglected forms of popular music such as folk, jazz, and blues.  He also wrote about, and got to know, the many gifted African-American artists, writers, and intellectuals who, in what was referred to as the Harlem Renaissance, were first making their mark at this time.

Carl Van Vechten, Portrait of Ethel Waters (Courtesy of the Library of Congress).     Carl Van Vechten, Portrait of Ram Gopal (Courtesy of the Library of Congress)    Carl Van Vechten, GertrudeStein with American flag backdrop, 1935 (Courtesy of Library of Congress)    Carl Van Vechten, Portrait of Leontyne Price (Courtesy of the Library of Congress).    Carl Van Vechten, Photograph of F. Scott Fitzgerald (Courtesy of the Library of Congress).

Only in the 1930s did Van Vechten turn to photography, the field in which he scored his greatest lasting achievement.  Several thousand of his portraits survive, most but not all taken in his studio, amounting to a fascinating collective portrait of cultural life of the time.  Included among his subjects were noted composers, actors, singers, ballerinas, folk artists, novelists, poets, and prize fighters.  Many were Van Vechten’s friends; others were new or making a passing appearance on the scene.

Van Vechten’s photographs mirror the diversity that was then a new feature of America’s culture.  It was our first truly cosmopolitan, modern decade.  The Russian ballerinas, Jewish publishers, gay expatriate arts patrons, Spanish surrealists, and black opera-singers that thronged the cities represented a welcome and radical shift in a culture that had long been dominated by a pale, genteel population that was far more narrow and homogeneous.  In the thirties, American culture came of age, incorporating into itself the global currents that formed, and continue to influence, the culture of the present day.

Images from the Van Vechten Collection: (top) Actor Earl Jones; (inset, left to right)
Ethel Waters, Ram Gopal,
Gertrude Stein, Leontyne Price, F. Scott Fitzgerald.
Courtesy of the Library of Congress.

Ferris: His Wonderland

The First Ferris Wheel, Chicago, 1893; photograph by Starks W. Lewis (Courtesy Brooklyn Museum via the Commons on Flickr)

Around this time of year in 1893, millions of people were flocking to Chicago to see the great world’s fair the city was hosting.  Formally known as the World’s Columbian Exposition, the fair belatedly commemorated the 400th anniversary of Columbus’s “discovery” of the New World.

In a bid for national and international celebrity, Chicagoans (whose young city had burned to the ground 22 years earlier) went all out in constructing the fair’s great White City: acres and acres of magnificent pavilions, illuminated at night by millions of dazzling electrical lights, and all organized around a network of waterways.

To make it even more special, the organizing committee hired a young engineer named George Washington Gale Ferris, Jr., to dream up something similar to the amazing tower that George Eiffel had designed for the world’s fair in Paris in 1889.  Similar to that tower, but better.  Yet at first the organizers of Chicago’s fair were doubtful about the idea that Ferris came up with.

Ferris, 34 years old (and destined to die of typhoid fever just three years later), had already gained an impressive reputation as an engineer and bridge-builder, a reputation that sprang from his understanding of steel.  The design that he proposed to the fair’s organizers was for a gargantuan wheel, that, if built, would tower above everything and lift passengers effortlessly, treating them to aerial views from astonishing heights.

Starks W. Lewis, an amateur photographer who managed to get his camera (it would have been pretty bulky) set up on the wheel, captured the wonder of it all.  From his vantage, the intricate workmanship of the wheel itself, as well as size and design of the passenger cars, each of which was designed to hold 60 people, is clearly revealed.

Despite organizers’ fears, Ferris’s daring contraption worked perfectly.  Rising to a height of 264 feet and measuring 825 feet around, the Wheel weighed more than 2.6 million pounds.  It was powered by two 1,000-horsepower steam engines and operated reliably, unimpaired by lightning and gale-force winds.  According to Judith Adams-Volpe, writing about Ferris in the American National Biography, the wheel became the Fair’s leading attraction, the first instance of “technology being harnessed purely as a pleasure machine.”

View of the Fair from the Ferris Wheel, 1893 photograph by Starks Lewis (Courtesy of the Brooklyn Museum via Flickr Commons)

What steel gave society was the capacity to rise above the earth and gain an entirely new perspective on itself.  The people who visited the Fair from all over the US could see their world as they had never seen it, from a perspective previously offered only by mountains or the occasional steeple.  In the wondrous aerial vision Ferris gave the world came a hint of the built marvels that were still to come.

Images: Photographs of and from the first Ferris Wheel
by Starks W. Lewis, 1893, courtesy of the Brooklyn Museum, from this source.

War Dead

The remains of American soldiers awaiting internment at Arlington National Cemetery (Photograph by E.B. Thompson, courtesy DC Public Library via Flickr Commons)

On April 6, 1899, Washington DC photographer E. B. Thompson rode out to the cemetery at Arlington, where the remains of several hundred officers and soldiers were about to be buried.  The men had died in the late war with Spain, a brief affair that both began and ended the previous year, bringing the US control of Spain’s former island possessions—Guam, Puerto Rico, and the Philippines—and the independence of Cuba.

The coffins represented a fraction of the 3,000 Americans who died, felled not so much by their adversaries as by tropical diseases like malaria and yellow fever.

Now, belatedly, they were to be buried.  The coffins lay suspended over long trenches dug in a new section of the cemetery.  Many of the remains were unidentified, so coffins of the known dead were carefully positioned at the ends of the rows that would be most visible during the ceremony.  Thompson positioned himself near the presidential viewing stand and took this picture.  It is an image as raw as the landscape itself, the kind of grim tribute to the fallen that we hardly ever see.  It was colorized later.

A crowd of some 15,000 people, along with President McKinley and other dignitaries, gathered for the funeral rites.  A newspaper in New Brunswick, Canada, carried a full account of the proceedings.   The work of burying the coffins began after the crowd dissipated, a tough, tedious job that took several days.

Image: E.B. Thompson photograph, “Interment at Arlington National Cemetery,” 1899.
Courtesy DC Public Library Commons, from this source.