A recent Picture This blog post aptly titled: Posing (and Solving) Mysteries: Harris & Ewing Photographs Invite Detective Work included a photo that did invite some additional detective work! This leads us to this latest entry in our occasional series, Double Take, where we take a much closer look at images in our collections.
My colleague, reference librarian Jon Eaker, believed this photo was a crowd watching the victory parade on Sept. 17, 1919, that welcomed Pershing and the 1st Division to Washington after World War I. The question for me: could I confirm exactly where these people were perching so precariously on stacks of bricks to get a peek?
My exploration of a photo always starts with the simple task of looking closely at it, zooming in on the digital file and making note of any unique features that may help with learning more, or in this case, identifying a location. A few details immediately stand out to me: the smokestack at far right, the large white building to its left, and the signs on the buildings lined up along the left half of the photo.
As surprising as it may be if you have visited Washington, D.C. in modern times, there were multiple smokestacks in the National Mall region connected to power plants at that time, so figuring out which exact one I was seeing wasn’t the easiest starting point. The prominently identified Public Ledger building seemed like an easy road to identification, but my initial searches weren’t very fruitful. The Public Ledger was a well-known Philadelphia newspaper, but finding out if this was a Washington, D.C., distribution center or office for correspondents proved a challenge, so I looked more closely at the other buildings on the street. The one that is hardest to read looked to have the most information so I modified the image in an image editing tool to increase the contrast, and managed to make out: Ask Mr. Foster on the sign across the top of the building. Sometimes it takes looking at an image in a totally new way to get a new clue!
Another key tactic when searching for images is to get creative. There are always dozens of ‘failed’ search attempts on the road to a successful one, but the persistence pays off. After trying the more obvious searches such as “Ask Mr. Foster”, I started reducing the number of search terms, which typically increases the number of results to view, but also increases your chances to find something! It was a search for these two keywords: Foster Washington that paid off with this image:
With this image in hand, it’s easy to visually map the different parts of this interesting storefront to the less focused photo I have been studying. And happily, this caption includes an address: 503 14th Street near Pennsylvania Avenue. I looked at this address on a modern map and found it very near the parade route on Pennsylvania Avenue, only a few blocks from the White House. Sadly, this fun shop is long gone, replaced by a modern hotel.
So, what about that large white building I noticed in the photo? A quick check of the map shows the John A. Wilson Building standing there today. I know it as the D.C. city hall, and it was known for most of the 20th century as the District Building. It is a visual match for the part of the building I can see in the original photo.
And it was in searches in the Prints and Photographs Online Catalog that I hit upon what I think of as a jackpot image, confirming multiple details all at once:
A well-known landmark at far left, the Old Post Office Building, tells me we are looking at Pennsylvania Ave. NW running from left to right across the image, and 14th Street Ave. NW crossing it. We are looking south towards the National Mall on 14th Street, with the U.S. Capitol to the left and the White House to the right. We have the now Wilson Building, front and center, an exact match for the building in the original photo. And we even have that smokestack peeking out in the upper right corner. With all these geographic clues in mind, we can determine that the shop with the Ask Mr. Foster sign and those people craning for a view are positioned just ‘offscreen’ on 14th Street at lower left, looking towards Pennsylvania Avenue and the parade route.
This particular puzzle reminded me that the most obvious clues in a photo aren’t necessarily going to be the ones that lead to an answer. At first glance, the Public Ledger sign and the smokestack stood out to me, but they were ultimately not the key. It took a bit more creative thinking and of course, a bit of good fortune, thanks to the tens of thousands of views of Washington, D.C. digitized from our collections waiting to offer more clues along the way.
- Explore the National Photo Company Collection, full of tens of thousands of photos of Washington, D.C., many from about 1909 to 1932. Join any of the many parades featured in the collection.
- Explore the city of Washington, D.C. through maps issued by Foster & Reynolds which have been digitized by the Library of Congress Geography & Map Division. See if you can spot Ask Mr. Foster locations featured on the map!
- Revisit other puzzling pictures in the Double Take series of posts in Picture This.