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 stereographs—of 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.
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.
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.
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.”
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.