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America As It Once Was: A Daily Gift

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Author and historian David C. McCullough has said, "History is who we are and why we are the way we are."

There is no doubt that a look back now and then permits us to view the future more clearly, and today the ability to "think back" regularly is available to us via the web, courtesy of two journalists who have built a business featuring photos and posters from America's past. Most of the images are from about a century ago, and they are a great reminder of the beauty of our towns and what it means to be an American -- both how we work and how we play.

They Started With the Old West
A few years ago, journalists Ken Booth, who worked at the Orlando Sentinel, and David Hall, an editor at the Washington Post, started devoting nights and weekends to creating a website about "when the Old West was young." Using actual news stories from the late 1800s and early 1900s, www.ghostcowboy.com is still live on the Internet but no longer updated. As with many first efforts, Booth and Hall used their experience with Ghost Cowboy to create a blueprint for a business that could sustain them.

Booth and Hall continued looking back in other areas, and they began working with Library of Congress images available to the public. They noted that the images were wonderful but the files were large and the quality of the photographs often left a lot to be desired; many images were scratched or had become dark, and most required a great deal of work to reveal the detail.

They began the painstaking work of cleaning up the photos and selling the finished products, first in a store and then totally over the Internet. What started as a hobby became a business: Shorpy. The site describes itself as a "vintage photo blog featuring high-definition images from the 1850s to the 1950s," and Time magazine selected the site as one of the best blogs of 2010. Both men still live in different cities but both now can devote full time to the online operation.

While Hall prefers working on the photographs, Booth has extended the business into posters as he soon found a passion for working with WPA (Work Projects Administration) posters and "fruit crate art" (think of the glorious painted images we have all seen that used to adorn crates of fruit) as well as other government posters such as these from World War II: "Careless Talk Costs Lives" or "Grow It Yourself: Plan A Farm Garden Now." These can be seen at their Vintagraph site.

Community Contributions
Booth and Hall have built a community of subscribers by sending out a daily email (seven days per week) featuring two to three images per day. In a quick moment, a subscriber can scan through the images and if something catches his or her particular interest, the reader can take a closer look at the photo by clicking "View full size." At that point, the absolute beauty of the site pops into one's computer monitor -- the level of detail is so remarkable. People in the photograph who seem a bit blurry in the smaller image are suddenly revealed in great detail, often complete with recognizable facial expressions. Take a look at this one of honeymooners from 1905. Look at the first version of the photo and then click through to the enlarged image -- one can't help but laugh!

In a phone interview, Booth notes:

"The level of detail with glass negatives is far beyond what one would usually capture with a camera today. The challenge is bringing it out."

In other photographs, architectural details become extraordinarily apparent, and signs in store windows can be read. Anyone interested in the social history of our past will find these photos irresistible.

Booth explains that the site has built a following and that subscribers have become a contributing community.

"Some people upload their own photos from the past, which we encourage in order to expand the site. Other people will look at the photos we post, and they will send us detail of a particular street corner or identify specific buildings in a community they know."

Booth estimates there are now ten thousand images on the site.

The site takes its name from a young boy Booth and Hall found in searching through the Library of Congress photographs. Shorpy worked in the mines near Birmingham, Ala. Visitors to the site have helped fill in information about him. Records show that Henry Sharpe Higginbotham was born Nov. 23, 1896, in Jefferson County, Alabama. Photos reveal that he began working in a mine at a very young age (no older than 14 and perhaps younger). He served in the armed forces during World War I and married in 1927 but he died in a mine accident the following year at the age of 31, crushed by a rock. He is buried in Jefferson County. He became a father, posthumously, when his widow bore his child in the summer of 1928.

To sign up for these regular mailings, visit www.shorpy.com.

A glance through this site may also illustrate the wisdom of this quote from author Aldous Huxley (1894-1963):

"The charm of history and its enigmatic lesson consist in the fact that, from age to age, nothing changes and yet everything is completely different."


For more stories of America, please visit my site: www.americacomesalive.com.