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Posing (and Solving) Mysteries: Harris & Ewing Photographs Invite Detective Work

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I’m constantly amazed and amused by photographs from the Harris & Ewing Collection and the range in the information that came with them, from the sublimely detailed–full of names and dates–to the barer-than-bare bones: no caption at all. Here’s an example that intrigues me, particularly with the model wagon(?) beside her on the desk.

NO CAPTION (photo of a woman at a desk). Photo by Harris & Ewing, between 1913 and 1917.
NO CAPTION. Photo by Harris & Ewing, between 1913 and 1917.

Though some may find it confounding, if you like pursuing mysteries, the absence of information can be tantalizing. It invites all the satisfactions of detective work: deduction and deep dives into information sources documenting the era in which the photos were produced–a rather expansive 1905-1945.

Reference librarian Jon Eaker has been making his way systematically through the more than 41,000 digitized Harris & Ewing negatives, looking for those where the information might be enhanced. In the process, he has shared some great photos and has, simultaneously, demonstrated how he is able to piece together the story behind an unidentified photo. He recently shared this photo on the electronic version of our staff sharing wall.

Crowd viewing parade, Washington, D.C. Photo by Harris & Ewing, 1919.
Crowd viewing parade, Washington, D.C. Photo by Harris & Ewing, 1919.

When one of our colleagues asked if he knew what the group was watching, Jon laid out what he had figured out: “From the neighboring photos, I think it is people trying to view the Sept. 17th, 1919 parade that welcomed Pershing and the 1st Division back to Washington after WWI. In some of the neighboring photos you can see the temporary triumphal arch that was built just before the parade. The parade appears to be military in nature and no one is wearing coats. So I’m 95% certain it is that parade.” He also speculated that someone better versed in Washington, D.C., buildings might be able to figure out the precise location. For that we turned to our resident expert at deducing locations, reference specialist Kristi Finefield.  It didn’t take her long to come up with an answer: “They are standing on 14th Street NW, looking south toward the Mall and looking across Pennsylvania Ave. The arch Jon is referring to would have been a block to the right of the photo on Pennsylvania Ave.”

If you’re looking for an opportunity to exercise your own photo detecting skills, Jon has obliged by picking out some minimally-identified photos that we are featuring in our Flickr album, “Mystery Photos–What’s the Story?” (which also has lingering mysteries from previous years that remain to be resolved!).

There, you’ll see, for instance, this one that may hold some scientific or technology clues:

Laboratory? Photo by Harris & Ewing, 1927 or 1928.
Laboratory? Photo by Harris & Ewing, 1927 or 1928.

Here we know the location and even the year, but what are the horse and rider doing there?

Person on rearing horse in front of U.S. Capitol, Washington, D.C., 1927.
Person on rearing horse in front of U.S. Capitol, Washington, D.C., 1927.

And this one shows a pretty good portrait likeness, but we’d sure like to know more about Sara, which is all we could make out from the identification that came with the negative:

 Sara [..] Photo by Harris & Ewing, ca. 1938.
Sara [..] Photo by Harris & Ewing, ca. 1938.
If you think you know more about any of the photos above, please feel free to comment!

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Comments (2)

  1. I’d guess that the top woman is a patent examiner, because they used to have to come w/ models, and a look through the patent office files may reveal at least the wagon’s info.

    • Thanks for the suggestion! Meanwhile, suggestions coming through Flickr and Ask a Librarian have helped us pin down details on several of the recently added mystery photos. You can recognize them in the Flickr album by the exclamation “Identified!” that precedes the title. It’s so satisfying to know more about the photos! Thanks to all who have applied their detective skills to the task.

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