In this installment of Double Take, the blog series where we take a much closer look at images in our collections, we dig a little deeper into the story behind the photo below, featuring a truck – and a trunk! – of unusual design:
The White House is in the background, so I know we are in Washington, D.C., but the truck is what caught my attention. What an unusual contraption! It appears the steamer trunk on the back was built either purely for advertising or the trunk (pun intended) of a cleverly disguised delivery truck! I would guess this is an advertising photograph, the truck angled to feature the trunk and business name, but carefully not blocking the White House. The information on the back reads: TOPHAM TRUNKS TRAVEL 1219 F St. N.W. I turned to the digitized newspapers of Chronicling America to find ads or articles and found quite a few mentions of this longtime D.C. business selling and repairing trunks and other travel needs. The image on the right is not a traditional ad, but part of a jingle contest run by the Washington Evening Star, featuring the winning rhyme for Topham’s.
I decided to try and find photos of the business itself. A search for Topham’s in the online catalog does not turn up any additional relevant images, so I turn to the address. Per the newspaper ads, I learned Topham’s did business at numerous locations in Washington, D.C. but I focus on the F Street address mentioned in the original photo. Searching for a specific building by address can be challenging, as many historic photos in our collections have minimal descriptive information, based on captions noted on the object itself or on an accompanying housing, logbook or card file. However, it never hurts to try! A search for 1219 F St. N.W. does not provide any results. However, a good tip when searching for buildings is to try all possible variants of an address, and my search for 1219 F Street N.W. (street spelled out rather than abbreviated) is more successful, providing three results in the Prints and Photographs Online Catalog. In the first photo, the distinctive and elaborate sign for Wm. Ramsay, Watchmaker and Clockmaker with its large pocketwatch definitely grabs my attention, as does the number 1221 at top of the sign. But which building is 1219 F Street – to the left or the one under construction to the right?A quick look at one of my other search results gives the answer. At the far left, I can see a man busy at work on the building under construction in the previous photo. And in the middle, on the striped awning, the address 1213 is clearly visible. So, if we work our way across the photo, 1219 F Street N.W., home of Topham’s Trunks, is the one with workers toiling away! The building appears empty, which raises a few more questions. Further newspaper searches reveal an article in the September 16, 1905 edition of the Washington Evening Star, marking the 50th anniversary of Topham’s, and including a brief history of the business. In 1901, noting a trend toward increasing trade on F Street N.W., founder James S. Topham “purchased the old Hanson property, 1219 F Street…” The building was removed and “replaced by the present modern business structure.” (p. 8) The photos above date from 1901, so they appear to document the construction of a brand new building to hold Topham’s business and factory.
I wonder what the “old Hanson property” looked like? After online searches fail to retrieve any images of it, I turn to one of the many card catalogs in the Prints and Photographs Reading Room and find a reference to a photo of the 1200 block, F Street dating to around 1901. The photo is not digitized, so I retrieved the original photo and lo and behold, there is the Hanson rowhouse, soon to be replaced by the modern Topham’s building! The snapshot below offers the incontrovertible proof we are looking at the right part of F Street: the distinctive, painted pocketwatch sign of the Ramsay business next door:
And finally, another card catalog reference pointed me to this photo of the same range of buildings from between 1920 and 1921. The Topham’s is now Queen Quality Boot Shop and the clock sign and business are gone, replaced by a much larger building. Zooming in on the store window of the former Ramsay’s shows recent, modern inventions for sale: Victrola phonographs. Note also the changeover from a horse-drawn carriage in the photo above to an automobile below.
Researching buildings through photographs and supporting sources such as contemporary newspaper accounts offers great perspective on the evolution of a street, a neighborhood and the city as a whole. If we compared a modern street view of the 1200 block of F Street N.W. to the oldest photo above, the one featuring the Hanson house, we would miss all the subtle changes as this block transformed over 20 years. The story of a place is never just “then and now”, as there are so many “thens” to find.
And to think our little journey down the 1200 block of F Street N.W. started with a truck shaped like a steamer trunk!
- Dig into previous entries in the Double Take series in Picture This, for more in-depth looks at photos and uncovering the stories behind them.
- Read our reference guide on Researching Historic Washington, D.C. Buildings for tips on your next search.
- Explore the many mentions of Topham’s Trunks in the newspapers of Washington, D.C. through Chronicling America.
- Photographer Camilo José Vergara explores the evolution of cities such as New York, Detroit, Los Angeles and others through revisiting the same sites and photographing over years. Explore some of his photographic sets through this reference aid: Camilo José Vergara Photographs: Tracking Time to Document America’s Post-Industrial Cities.