The real stuff of history

Woman's shoes circa 1845 from the blog "In the Swan's Shadow"

Woman’s shoes, circa 1845, featured on “In the Swan’s Shadow.

As a result of the internet revolution, the historian (whether armchair or professional) has better materials to work with than ever before.  Museums, libraries, antique dealers, auction houses, even private collectors are increasingly sharing images of their holdings online, giving the material culture of the past a prominence and visibility that it lacked formerly.  Hidden away for centuries in cellars and attics, History’s shoes and dresses, waistcoats and wallpapers, jewelry, love letters, paintings, and furnishings are suddenly everywhere, courtesy of digital photography.

The impact of these items can be surprisingly revolutionary, correcting and revitalizing the past that has come down to us through historical writing.  Architecture, photography, and other vestiges of material culture together impart a more accurate and sophisticated view of earlier cultures.  Rather than growing dimmer, views of nineteenth-century America, for instance, are growing more vivid each day.

Dipping into that past is the business of “In The Swan’s Shadow,” a blog that’s been around for about 5 years.  The unidentified blogger who puts it out is amazingly dedicated and prolific, posting 1,560 items in 2013.

The site is a trove of images of items surviving from the era of the American Civil War, documenting the lives of women (and children) in particular.  There are laces and shawls, bonnets and gloves, cameos, fancy dresses, portraits big and small, genre paintings, fashion illustrations, Victorian earrings and bracelets made of jet and turquoise, old photographs of women, hair-do designs, crinolines—you name it.  I love the items the “ebon swan” features.

Popular interest in the Civil War period, about what women wore and how they looked, has been stoked by historical re-enactment and its sister art, historical costuming, both of which are the focus of innumerable blogs.  A desire to re-create and re-inhabit the past, however briefly, has proved a powerful motive for taking history apart at the seams.

Fashion plate from the 1850s

1859 fashion plate featured in a post on “In the Swan’s Shadow

Thanks to an unsung army of hobbyists, curators, shopkeepers, and bloggers, two great gains for history are being achieved.  First, the scrim of drab sentimentalism that formerly enveloped the antebellum and war period is being torn away. The era’s clothes, jewelry, and pictures bring back a culture that was sumptuous, passionate, colorful, and edgy.  The heavy clothes that, in fashion plates, look only imprisoning can now also be appreciated as opulent expressions of female power and dignity.

Antebellum dress with black buttons.

Dress with black buttons in the Kentucky Historical Society‘s collection. Featured in a post on “In the Swan’s Shadow.”

Second, nineteenth-century America’s participation in a trans-Atlantic culture has never been more plain.  Many Americans lived in primitive conditions in the early national and pre-Civil War periods, but others had access to goods that were dazzling.  Lacking a fully developed sensibility, upper-class Americans continued to rely on Europe for luxury goods and ideas—for the glamour distilled in a fine silk damask, or in the light flutter of a lady’s fan.

Ladies fan in the collections of the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston.  Click to go to the source.

Feathered fan in the collections of the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, featured on “In the Swan’s Shadow.”  Click here to go to the MFA site.

Yes, the real stuff of history is piling up at a crucial intersection of proof and inspiration, offering its mute truths as a feast to our vision.

Small Red House

Small red house, © 2014 Susan BarsyThe South Shore Line, an electric train that runs from South Bend Indiana into Chicago, runs through some of the most beautiful places along Lake Michigan as well as some of the poorest and dirtiest.  The simple beauty of the dunes, marshes, and woodlands that line the Lake alternates with a landscape that industry and humble labor of many sorts have shaped.

The train runs along the beautiful old Calumet Trail, a prairie path that has existed since Indian times, following the curve of the Lake across boundaries separating town from country, blurring the distinctions of ownership and governing.  All of northern Indiana and Chicago’s southern hinterland are seamlessly joined.  On both sides of the train flow thousands of properties—neat and messy, beautiful and ugly, thriving and moldering—suggesting every condition of American society.

It’s a hard train ride because so many neighborhoods are decrepit and decaying.  So many places—and people—are just scraping by.  Our America is not a spotless picture-perfect place.  Off the political grid are thousands of people subsisting in garbage-strewn trailer parks, or living in ramshackle housing with windows missing.  They are exiles from the land of opportunity.  Embarrassing aberrations with no place in the progressive narrative of the world’s greatest nation, they are geniuses of survival, disciples of the art of making something out of nothing.  With luck, every day is the same, where social isolation limns the horizon.

Is this the nation our forebears intended us to become?

A Valentine’s Day Idyl

Idyl by Lorenzo Taft, © 2014 Susan Barsy

Idyl, by Lorenzo Taft, in the fern room of the conservatory

Thinking back on all the wonderful adventures my husband and I have shared this year, my mind turns to one particular autumn day, when we ventured to the Garfield Park Conservatory for the first time.  We were both overwhelmed by the beauty of this enormous old hothouse, filled with ancient and awe-inspiring plants, which, though battered by time and a recent devastating hailstorm, seemed to distill all the wonder of the natural world, and the essence of our beloved city itself.

The tree, © 2014 Susan Barsy

An Eden of sorts

We wandered the place in the company of many other pilgrims, our necks craning this way and that, faces upraised, our reverence as thick as the air itself.  After we had ambled for several hours, we wandered outside, where the splendor of an autumn afternoon greeted us, and, with a scattered assembly, we gloried in the radiance of being alive.

Happy Valentine’s Day, everyone!  Especially Bob.

Click on the images to enlarge.

It was a very good day for Charles M Schwab

Woodrow Wilson with Charles M Schwab (Courtesy Woodrow Wilson Historical Association via the Commons on Flickr)

An old photograph shows Charles M Schwab on top of the world.

True, the most recognizable figure in the photograph is President Woodrow Wilson, who looks down on Schwab from the platform of his special train car.  The day is sunny.  Wilson’s secret-service man and his second wife, Edith Bolling Galt Wilson, stand in the shadows.  Something has just happened or is about to happen.  A large floral arrangement leans against the train’s railing, its funny shape capped with a flamboyant bow.

Edith’s presence in what appears to be an official photograph (the widowed president married her on December 18, 1915) establishes that this photograph was taken no earlier than 1916.  The carefree postures of the figures and their light-colored clothing indicate that it’s spring or summer.  The president, always natty, is decked out in a light-colored suit and a boater.  Summer it was—sometime between Memorial and Labor Day.

Though the president is bathed in light, charisma emanates from the homely yet somehow magisterial Charles M. Schwab (1862-1939).  Here, with his back to the president—as though ignorant of his presence—, Schwab looks straight into the camera, his bluff exuberance setting the tone.  He and his two unidentified companions share a joke, as if they posed with the president every day.  Certainly, Schwab and the younger men exude solidarity, though he is evidently more powerful than they.

As for the young men themselves, what unconventional outfits they are wearing!  The one on the left wears a tie with his overalls; the one on the right, though seemingly equally careless of his dress, wears a good striped dress shirt (without the customary collar or tie) under a smock-like jacket.  No belt to the pants but two large buttons on his lapel.  Are they campaign buttons?  No, for they contain only numbers rather than words.  They are more like badges, some sort of ID.

One more figure is implied the scene: Carl T. Thoner (1888-1938), the photographer, whose name is stamped on the photograph’s corner.  Thoner worked for the war department, so this scene was part of Wilson’s presidency—pertaining to governing rather than running for office.  Yet the fact that the photograph bears Schwab’s signature and later ended up in the Woodrow Wilson Presidential Library testifies to the personal significance the occasion had for both men.

When did the careers of Wilson and Schwab intersect?  Schwab was one of the greatest industrialists of his time, a great steel man, self-made, a “master hustler,” some called him.  He’d learned what he knew from the likes of J. P. Morgan and Andrew Carnegie.

Born in Pennsylvania, Schwab had worked his way up in Carnegie’s mills, becoming president of Carnegie Steel while in his thirties.  After helping to found United States Steel Corporation and being its first president, he broke out on his own to take control of a smaller competitor, Bethlehem Steel.  Under Schwab’s ownership, Bethlehem Steel became the one of the world’s largest and most important heavy-manufacturing concerns.

In Schwab, a deftness with finance and industrial relations combined with innovative ideas about how to make steel.  He became great by perceiving the importance of the so-called I-beam, a product that, because of its great tensile strength, made possible skyscrapers, enormous ships, better bridges—all the emblems of modernity.  Hitherto, steel had been made in shorter lengths, requiring more welding and lacking the I-beam’s versatility.  By retrofitting his steel works around the beam’s production and more closely integrating steel-making more generally, Schwab increased Bethlehem’s annual sales from $10 million in 1904 to $230 million in 1916.  In the process, Schwab became immensely wealthy, embracing philanthropic causes but also living in a recklessly lavish style.

As part of his corporate stewardship, Schwab developed one of the nation’s most successful early soccer teams.  Founded in 1907, Bethlehem Steel Football Club hit its stride in 1913, winning a string of national championships thereafter, thanks in part to Schwab’s recruiting top talent from Scotland.  Was the man standing next to Schwab a soccer player?  The players, who worked in Schwab’s plants, were given time off to practice and travel to games.

No, the key to this photograph is Schwab’s appointment to head up the nation’s Emergency Fleet Corporation in the summer of 1918.  World War I was wearing on, and the nation’s program to produce a large number of ships for the merchant marine was faltering.  Schwab put his own life’s work on hold to move down to Philadelphia, where the government’s new Hog Island shipyard was located.  There, he reinvigorated the nation’s shipbuilding program.  The completion of the Quistconck (the subject of my previous post) in record time was attributed largely to Schwab’s energy and ability.

So, this photograph, like the one I wrote about previously, was taken at Hog Island, Philadelphia, on August 5, 1918.  The president and his wife had come down from Washington by train for the day, where, at noon, they presided over the Quistconck’s christening.  The men flanking Schwab are shipyard workers, one almost certainly the foreman MacMillan, who had driven the first rivet of the Quistconck on Feb 18, 1918, and was being celebrated at the christening as a near-hero.  The many thousand workers who had worked on the ship each contributed a mite to buy an enormous bouquet of roses, which was presented to the First Lady that day.

This photograph records the Wilsons’ final moment at the shipyard, when, just before their train pulled away, the President leaned over to give his best to Charles M. Schwab.

Image from this source.

Christening the Quistconck

The SS Quistconck launched (Courtesy of the NARA via Wikimedia Commons)

5 August 1918

There were no speeches, it being a hot day.  So, with a minimum of ceremony, and before a crowd of some 60,000 people, the new First Lady Edith Bolling Galt Wilson, clumsily christened the new cargo ship, the champagne splashing off its hull and all over her lovely dress of lavender voile.  A small detail lost in the excitement of the moment, as the enormous freighter slid down the ways under the gaze of dignitaries, the tens of thousands of shipyard workers who built her, and their families.  Meanwhile Edith’s husband, the President Woodrow, suddenly boylike, waved his hat in the air and led the crowd in a riotous patriotic cheer.  Bands played tinny airs, almost drowned out, while flags flapped in a sultry breeze.

It was a curious phase of WWI, with the long war nearly over and America’s concomitant shipbuilding effort only just then hitting its stride.  After years of maintaining its neutrality, the United States had entered the war in the spring of 1917, partly in response to Germany’s relentless U-Boat attacks upon all trans-Atlantic shipping.  It was another year before the US had embarked on an ambitious breakneck program to build a whole fleet of ships to replace the many US vessels that German submarines had destroyed.  (Germany sank some 6.2 million tons of Allied and neutral ships in 1917 alone.)

One result of this determination was the overnight creation of the vast Hog Island shipyard on the outskirts of Philadelphia.  Built on swampy outlying land (where the Philadelphia airport stands today), the shipyard consisted of 50 enormous bays.  Covering 1.25 miles of land along the Delaware River, the yard, which 30,000 workers labored in harsh winter conditions to build, was the largest of any in the world.  Though something of a boondoggle (the $50-million shipyard was essentially defunct by 1921), Hog Island was at the same time a source of great national pride, a proof of what American industry and a common sense of mission could together accomplish.

(Some scholars also credit Hog Island workers, who lived in an instant city and represented many food traditions, with giving the bulky sandwich known as the hoagie to the world.)

The Quistconck was the first vessel to be launched, of the hundreds that Hog Island was expected to produce.  Though some of the ships were never built (the end of the war made them unnecessary), the Hog Island shipyard produced 248 5500-ton steel vessels over a two-year period, at the unprecedented rate of one every three to four days.  The shipyard was innovative in applying standardized assembly-line techniques to shipbuilding, helping to restore and modernize the nation’s inadequate and sadly decimated merchant marine.  Essential to any military effort abroad, many of these ugly supply vessels saw service in WWII.

Mrs Wilson, who had been married to the president for less than a year, was given the privilege of naming many of the vessels.  Believing she was descended from Pocahontas and therefore a living representative of America’s indigenous nobility, Edith Wilson gave the ships Indian names.  Quistconck was Hog Island’s native Delaware name.

The ships are coming (Courtesy of Wikimedia Commons)The Quistconck’s christening celebrated the mobilization of a whole society around the national interests perceived to be in play during WWI.  Whether or not this was the whole story of the shipyard, art and photography record the vigor of patriotic sentiment that kept the crowds cheering on that hot August day.

Top image from this source.
Poster by James Henry Daughetry, courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.
Click here to see other WWI shipbuilding posters on the website
of the American Merchant Marine at War.

E. B. Thompson: His Wives and Times

E B Thompson at River Farm (Courtesy of the National Park Service Historic Photograph Collection)

E.B. Thompson with unidentified boy, in front of an outbuilding on the grounds of George Washington’s birthplace.

For months now, I’ve been piecing together the biography of E. B. Thompson, an important early 20th-century photographer who spent the bulk of his career in Washington, DC.   This post is a bare recitation of his vital facts, offered in the hope that anyone who knows more about Thompson or his family will contact me.


Ezra Bowen Thompson was born in North Carolina in 1865, as the Civil War brought defeat to the Confederacy.  His parents, Alfred S Thompson and Anna Christophers, were both of Raleigh: he was a young dry-goods merchant, she the daughter of the city clerk.  Ezra was their eldest child.  The 1870 census found them with a daughter as well, living in a household that included their former slave, Charity Bobbett, and her 8 children.  Alfred Thompson died the following year.

His widow remarried around 1875, combining her household, minus the Bobbetts, with that of widower Nathan Pope Holleman, a Civil War veteran a decade older than she.  Anna and her children took the Holleman name, and by 1880 she was caring for 5 children: stepson Nathan A Holleman (17), her son E.B. (14), her 11-year-old daughter Daisy, and two children she had with Holleman: William H and Frank C, ages 4 and 1, respectively.  Her husband told the census enumerator that year that his occupation was that of carpenter, though wounds he sustained while fighting for the Confederacy had cost him the use of his right arm.

The U.S. Capitol at night (Courtesy of the District of Columbia Public Library via the Commons on Flickr)

The U.S. Capitol at night, from the E. B. Thompson Collection at the DC Public Library


Ezra left home and headed for the national capital in the early 1890s, where he assumed the surname Thompson and eked out a living as a painter for several years.  Sometime after 1900, however, he found work with the government as a photographer, an opportunity that founded his entire career.  He worked for the National Park Service and other branches of the Interior Department, photographing the new national parks on major expeditions.  After 1911, he made his living by running a photographic supply store where he also sold his photographs as a retailer.  Known professionally as E. B. Thompson, his full name and origins became hard to discover.


In maturity, Thompson was married at least three times.  (Since the 1900 census record for the Holleman family in North Carolina records the presence of a nine-year-old grandson, Ezra F Hollowman, it’s possible that E.B. had married and fathered a child before leaving home.)

His first wife was 30-year-old Sigrid Gustafson, whom he married in the District of Columbia on October 13, 1904.  She was a gifted photographer known for her skill at altering photographs–retouching and splicing them to enhance their appeal.  Did the Thompsons’ union produce a child?  It’s hard to say.  Sigrid died unexpectedly in December, 1905, while visiting her family in Jönköping, Sweden.  Presumably she was buried abroad.


By 1910, Thompson had remarried.  His second wife was Nancy Elizabeth Little, the daughter of R. A. Little and Lavantia Irvin Little.  She was born in February 1871 in Wethersfield, Illinois.  She was one of many children, whose forebears were known as early settlers of nearby Kewanee.  By the time she married Thompson, however, Nancy, who sometimes went by Elizabeth, was a divorcée.

Her first husband was Delno Ernest Kercher (1869-1935), whom she married in Illinois on 26 September 1893.  A graduate of Grinnell College, he was 24 years of age.  He subsequently became a doctor, graduating from the University of Pennsylvania Medical School in 1895.  The 1900 census finds Elizabeth and Delno Kercher living in Philadelphia with two boarders in the city’s 26th ward.  Delno had begun practicing as an ob-gyn, a profession he continued in until his death.  By 1910, Kercher reported his marital status as divorced, and his father David had begun living with him.  The two are buried together at Arlington Cemetery in Drexel Hill, PA.  David Kercher’s 1919 obituary noted that he had lived with his son for fifteen years, since 1904.

Nancy Elizabeth Little and Ezra Bowen Thompson were married sometime between 1905 and 1910, whether in Philadelphia, the District of Columbia, or some other place.  At the time of the 1910 census, they are living as a couple in the capital, Ezra 44 years of age, Elizabeth 35.  Her mother Lavantia, age 77, is with them, too.  Was Elizabeth in ill health?  She made her will in August 1910, and on the 18th of February, 1911, she, too, died.  Thirty-six years of age, she was reportedly buried in Rock Creek Cemetery.

Elizabeth’s will was probated and its provisions reported in the Washington Herald.  Elizabeth left just one dollar to each of her sisters and limited bequests to her mother and other siblings.  The remainder of her estate she placed in trust to provide for her husband Ezra until he died or remarried.  She directed that all her books, papers, and family portraits be returned to the family home in Kewanee.


On December 15, 1915, newspapers reported Thompson’s marriage to Mrs Blanche E. Love of New York City.  Five years older than Thompson, Blanche (or Blanch) Edwards Love was a widow with two grown children.  Her first husband, Albert A. Love, a native of Ireland, had died prior to 1900.  She was left in comfortable circumstances, however, because she was noted in the society pages of the newspaper as active in clubs and “the women’s cause.”  Her daughter, Edythe Eleanor Love (1878-1949), became the wife of William Grotz (1877-1956); they are buried in Valleau Cemetery in Ridgewood, New Jersey.

Mrs E. B. (Blanche) Thompson with unidentified children at Mount Vernon (Courtesy of the National Park Service Historic Photograph Collection)

Blanche Thompson with unidentified children at an outbuilding on the grounds of Mount Vernon.

Blanche Thompson sometimes appears in her husband’s photography.  She accompanied him on trips.  Yet by 1940 she appears to have been living with her daughter and son-in-law in New Jersey, and to have taken up her old name Blanche E Love.


Ezra, meanwhile, continued living alone in the District of Columbia, at 1210 Euclid Avenue, NW.  In the mid-1940s, he fell ill, decided to sell his photographic collection and retire.  The District of Columbia Public Library bought some 2,000 glass-plate negatives from him for $1,000; today they form the backbone of the library’s collection of Washingtoniana.  In the mid-1970s, the National Park Service acquired Thompson’s photographs of the national parks, recognizing the historical value of his life-work.

In the final years of his life, E. B. Thompson returned to North Carolina, where he died on April 20, 1951.  He is buried in Oakwood Cemetery in Raleigh.

All photographs by or from E. B. Thompson.
Click on a picture to go to the source.

Please contact me if you wish to cite my work,
or if you have information about E. B. Thompson to share.


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