Researching my next book, I came across this trove of photographs in the online magazine Monovisions.
There’s something about the visual image that arrests in a way that verbal descriptions never do. I lose myself in a narrative or descriptive account, letting my imagination recreate the scene; but with a photograph or map I find myself studying ever more closely, seeking out meaning in the slightest detail.
This photograph was identified as “ca. 1900” and located on Market Street. Let’s assume that the street address on the photo – 1310 – follows the same numbering system in use today. Here’s what’s there now:
A pocket park next to City Hall.
I’m tempted by the story, how the city went from Image A to Image B, but I’m also irresistibly drawn to the image itself. The life in that photograph! The man peering out from the dark interior on the left – is he the proprietor? And what draws his attention? The blurred passerby near him, or the two loafers propped again the liquor window farther down? I can’t make out the posters in that window, but they appear to be promoting a circus that’s coming to town. Below that, California wines are advertised. California wine, in Missouri, at that time? I never imagined.
The enormous billboard on the roof is another infinite attraction. The Forest Park Highlands will be opening for the season soon! There’s a matinee at the Imperial! And who can resist Tomlinson’s Dead Shot and Quick Relief Oil? I’d buy a bottle just for the name.
And these pavers, identified as working on Compton Avenue north of Meramec in 1906, spiffy in their neckties. Why so many paving stones out? I’m guessing it had something to do with getting a good fit of the stones, with pride in one’s craft. Judging by the spires of St. Anthony of Padua in the background, this looks to be the block today:
Those stone paving blocks are still underneath the asphalt, I’ll bet. That would be Gasconade Street crossing, which puts the location way south in St. Louis, down in Dutchtown. A solid and respectable address even then, with gaslamps, limestone foundations, and a big brick neighborhood church. You can see in the background how the paved street will improve the place, as the rutted dirt track leads up the hill to St. Anthony’s.
Finally (for my purposes, anyway: there are more photos in the article), an unidentified street in the early twentieth century. It’s just the beginning of the motorized era; a sleuth more expert in early automobiles could probably identify the year by the look of the light cargo carrier in the right foreground. But carriages still dominate. Ahead of the man in the motorcar is another man in a one-horse gig, following a wagon that appears to be laden with sacks of grain as it labors up the muddy, tracked hill. But most fascinating of all is the heavy wagon coming in from a side street to the left, with an enormous wooden barrel. Delivering? Taking away? Whatever the task, I wouldn’t want to be that horse.
The marvel about old photographs is how the edges, the details, reveal as much or more than the putative subject. The cock of a hat, the item in a window, the passing glance, all speak to us.