A Closer Look: Beware of Photos Bearing False Captions

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!)

Original caption: Suffragettes, Union Sq., May 2, 1914. Photo by Bain News Service, 1914. http://hdl.loc.gov/loc.pnp/ggbain.15753

Union Square 5/1/14

Original caption: Union Sq., 5/1/14. Photo by Bain News Service, 1914. http://hdl.loc.gov/loc.pnp/ggbain.16486

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.

Detail of http://hdl.loc.gov/loc.pnp/ggbain.16486

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.

Detail of http://hdl.loc.gov/loc.pnp/ggbain.15753 (Highlighting added.)

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.)

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6 Comments

  1. John Hrynyk
    October 5, 2011 at 3:25 pm

    Thanx for the info

  2. Sharon M.
    October 6, 2011 at 7:05 am

    What wonderful sleuthing! It must been a lot of fun.

  3. Katherine
    October 6, 2011 at 8:35 am

    Great sleuthing – very History Detective!

  4. Lisa
    October 8, 2011 at 1:27 pm

    Great detective work!

  5. Yvette Porter Moore
    November 10, 2011 at 12:55 am

    Great Detail observations. This is good tips for researchers to take when looking at photo’s and the captions. Your investigating was done well!

  6. Pangraz
    March 10, 2012 at 7:35 am

    I just came across this site, and will return to it. I worked at LC for years, right around the corridor from Prints & Photographs. Now I can dip into that treasure trove more easily! Thanks for this blog–

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