When working with historical photo collections, it always pays to ask yourself: Does the title match the content? The original photographers sometimes mixed up dates and places, or misspelled words and omitted key info — just like you or I might.
Glancing at this pair of photographs, they seem to show the same scene. But the titles etched into the original glass negatives tell conflicting stories.
(Spoiler alert: Don’t click on the photos to see their catalog records yet or you’ll get the answer early!)
So, which caption is most accurate? What is actually happening in these photographs? Is it May 1 or May 2, 1914, and is it suffragettes (suffragists) or something else?
The now-demolished cottage confirms this is Union Square in New York City. When I opened the larger digital images, I saw some of the same people in each view. Both images were taken on the same day, perhaps even minutes apart.
I zoomed in even closer to check for visual clues like signs. The first hints of the nature of the event are the banners displayed below the speakers. They don’t immediately call to mind the signs carried by suffragists. A few have words in a Hebrew script, and others look like banners identifying organizations, but the words are difficult to make out.
With two potential dates to consider, I turned to the New York Times newspaper archive, which clarified the cause of the conflicting captions. On May 2nd, the Times noted a “May Day gathering of Socialists and labor unionists who celebrated the International Labor Day in Union Square yesterday.” On May 3rd, the newspaper reported on Suffrage Day, celebrated May 2 with open air meetings at several parks, including Union Square.
The banners make more sense as trade union signs. Unions in the United Hebrew Trades were at the event, which could explain the banners with Hebrew script. Several other photographs from the Bain Collection show socialist gatherings for comparison, and the banners in those photos seem similar to the ones here.
It now seems much more likely that the photos show Socialists and labor unions gathering to celebrate May Day, also called International Workers’ Day.
I returned to the large digital files for any other missed clues, hoping for one last bit of confirmation, and finally, there, in the photo originally labeled ‘Suffragettes’! A spectator near the front holds a small pennant flag, and what does it read? 1st of May.
With this last puzzle piece in hand, we were able to amend the records to show that both images are from the May Day gathering.
As often happens in research, the answering of one question raises a series of new ones. These photos are part of the Bain News Service collection.
- Could a news agency really have mixed up images it sold to subscribers to this degree?
- Did they lose their photos from the suffrage rally and need a fast substitute?
- Or, did the agency decide that one rally looks much like another when reproduced in a newspaper?
I’ll leave you with those questions and a challenge: Another photograph from the Bain News Service, this one showing a crowd in Union Square on May Day 1913, includes a 1st of May pennant similar to the one that cracked the case here. Can you pick it out of the crowd? (Hint: It’s being held by a woman.)