About 90 years ago, the Tidal Basin was a swimming hole. To take a dip, the proper women of the District—clad in chaste, heavy swim dresses and bathing caps—had to line up to have the distance from their hemlines to their knees measured by a policeman. If that distance exceeded 6 inches, they would be found in violation of a 1922 city ordinance, written by the Superintendent of Public Buildings and Grounds, to enforce modesty and prevent any sexy glimpses of ladies’ mid-thigh regions. It was an envious beat for a cop of yesteryear—an old-timey, real-deal version of the dude in the bikini inspector T-shirt. In a photograph from that year, policeman Bill Norton kneels with his tape measure, as a flock of ladies looks on anxiously.
It’s discoveries like those that fuel Dave Hall’s treasure hunt through the Library of Congress’ archives for the images on his photo blog, shorpy.com. The perfect Shorpy photo displays a slice of life from simpler times—when kids ran barefoot, a bottle of milk cost mere pennies, and streetcars took you wherever you needed to go. Hall avoids portraits—too stiff—in favor of newspaper images and cityscapes ranging from the late-19th century through the ’50s. Most come from the National Photo Collection in the Library of Congress’ database, where Hall weeds through thousands of uncorrected glass-plate images online to digitally restore and post on the site.
“I’ll look through a collection, and there’s always new photos—well, new if you count 100-year-old photos as new—being added,” says Hall, 49. “They all look kind of gray. A lot are damaged by mold, or the emulsion is deteriorating.”
Hall, a Fairfax resident on leave from his job as an editor for the Washington Post’s Style section, founded the site last year with Ken Booth, a friend from the University of Florida, who lives in Alabama. Through Fairfax-based Juniper Gallery, they sell their restored prints to collectors and also to movie studios for use on sets; Hall compiled the images used in the opening credits of the documentary What Would Jesus Buy?
“I have always had an antiquarian bent,” says Hall. “When I was little, I collected old National Geographic magazines. I had them back to 1915.” Old cars and advertisements also pique his interest, which is reflected in the site’s photo selection—you’ll find anything from proud owners standing next to their Model Ts to images of buildings that used to occupy Washington intersections. He estimates that he looks at hundreds of photos a day out of the thousands that the Library of Congress adds each month. Hall runs a handful of other sites—Plan 59 (’50s graphics), Box of Apples (fruit-crate art), Patent Room (patent applications), and Vintograph (vintage posters)—but Shorpy is the only one he updates daily.
“People don’t have a good mental picture of the teens and ’20s,” says Hall. “[The site] puts the earlier part of the century in a sharper focus.” At the same time, he admits, “It’s a challenge to not always be showing the same 12-year-old kids selling newspapers.”
Though he is not a professional photographer, Hall is fascinated by technology of early photography, particularly in the time before the invention of 35-millimeter film, when photos were made from large glass plates the size of windowpanes rather than from small negatives.
“People think they are fake because they think photographs back then weren’t too sharp,” says Hall. “But the further back you go, the negatives get bigger and bigger and have more information—so the older they get, the sharper they get.”
In fact, he adds, the images often have high enough resolution that he can read the license plates on cars, which helps to determine date and location. “Sometimes [in the photos] you’ll see a calendar on somebody’s wall. It’s kind of a treasure hunt. I don’t think a lot of these have been seen since they were taken.”
The only information provided for each photograph in the database is the photographer’s notes, which sometimes identifies the subjects. When Hall posts these, he sometimes gets inquiries from descendents of people in the picture. “They always have stories about how Great-Grandpa fought in World War I and had a zillion grandchildren,” Hall says.
Though he doesn’t consider himself a historian, Hall does do some light research on the backstory of each of his five or six posts a day, and the site’s commenters pick up where he left off. Often, they will post present-day images of the locations on the site, but occasionally the research goes even deeper. That was the case with the image that provided the site’s name—a photograph of a young coal miner named Shorpy.
Shorpy, the nickname of Henry Sharpe Higginbotham, a boy who worked in an Alabama mine, appeared in several of Lewis Hine’s photos at age 14, when the photographer was documenting child-labor offenses. Visitors to the site searched records to learn the boy’s history and found that he was crushed by a boulder in a mine at age 30, shortly after his wife became pregnant with their child. One historian even tracked down the child, who is in his 80s and still living in Alabama, but he proved to be uncooperative, Hall says.
There are certain types of images that catch Hall’s eye aesthetically, like the time-exposure shots of Union Station or the House chamber of the Capitol, revealing the “ghosts” who’ve wandered through those spaces. Mostly, though, Hall looks for people—adults and children in candid moments in the city. The people in many of the pictures may never be found, but will, in Internet perpetuity, demonstrate the customs and way of life for a simpler time. “You can see how far the standard of living has come along,” he says. “It was a hard life 80 years ago. Everything looks dusty—the air was full of coal dust—and the average house for people was a shed-like thing on a farm.”
The images of tough living—especially when it comes to children and child labor laws—are surprising to many. “One thing that strikes people is how many kids did not wear shoes,” says Hall. “The raggedy kids who are barefoot, they aren’t unhappy, so I guess there’s a lesson to be learned there.”
In the images of city life, however, the assembled photo subjects appear healthier-looking, despite the suggestion of one photograph of an ice cream truck that reads, “Eat a plate of ice cream every day.”
“People 80 to 100 years ago were thin. There were not many overweight people,” says Hall. “They walked everywhere and didn’t eat a lot of meat. People were more likely to be thin, barefoot, and dirty.”
But even though they lived in tinier houses and bathed infrequently, our ancestors kept their spirits high, says Hall. “My impression of turn-of-the-century people was that they were stiff, but people are the same as they are now: smiling, laughing, kidding around.”