Springfield history in old newspaper photos
It’s like a long forgotten, 80-year-old scrapbook of our city. It shows a bustling downtown crowded with men wearing fedoras and women in fur coats, a family brewery preparing for the onslaught of business after Prohibition, a swimming hole packed on a busy summer day, and many more scenes of daily life in Springfield between 1929 and 1935.
It’s not a literal scrapbook, but an exhibition of black and white photos developed from glass plates taken by Illinois State Journal photographers and neglected for decades.
Rich Saal, photographer for the State Journal-Register (which was formed when the city‘s two newspapers, the Journal and the Register, combined), organized the exhibition. In 2004, while preparing a different exhibition to celebrate the paper’s 175th anniversary, Saal started reviewing its old photos.
“I was blown away at how good and how descriptive they were. I felt like I was there looking at life in the 1930s,” he says. After studying those photos, “I wanted to study the period and know more about it, and get a better idea of what these pictures meant.” So, he went to the University of Illinois Springfield and got his master’s degree in history.
A student project led him to the Sangamon Valley Collection at Lincoln Library, a clearinghouse for materials and information about local history, where he researched about 1,300 images from the former Illinois State Journal. Somehow, no one’s sure exactly how, the glass plate images were discovered decades after their creation and returned to the paper, which donated them to the library in 1989.
Saal scanned every image and improved it with modern technology. To learn the story behind the images, he read every issue of the paper on microfilm from 1929 through 1935.
Then he chose 35 images for the exhibition, now on display at Lincoln Library. “I went for the images that were the most interesting to me and ones that had an interesting historical context,” he says.
Upon first look, one of the photos “isn’t that remarkable,” Saal says. “It’s a group of people lined up in front of a door at the State Arsenal (where the Illinois State Armory is now).”
The photo is dated August 5, 1932 – the Depression. “I discovered they were WWI vets who’d been promised their service bonus, payable in 1945 or so, and when the Depression hit, many of these men became unemployed and wanted their payment earlier. So thousands of them marched to Washington and wanted to meet with President Hoover. Hoover not only refused to meet with them, but he had his military forces throw them out of Washington,” Saal says.
The photo shows about 90 vets upon their return to Springfield. “They look dispirited, like they had been through a lot. They found a place to camp north of the city and vowed to stay together until they could return to Washington.”
Other photos show places and activities long gone – “aerial golf,” gas stations designed to blend in with their neighborhood’s architecture, the Orpheum Theater, Palmer School, a boxing match at the Elk’s Club.
These images represent a time when photojournalism was largely an unknown concept. The photographers were former reporters who trained themselves and used bulky, misnamed “Speed Graphic” cameras. “It was difficult to make spontaneous pictures because the camera was clumsy and slow,” Saal says. The photographers loaded their camera with about 24 glass plates for the entire day. “Once on the scene, pictures had to be deliberately composed and focused and exposures were made carefully, with little extra film on hand to accommodate missed opportunities,” wrote Saal in the exhibition’s catalog.
As a result, the photos are “straightforward.” And they reflect only part of old Springfield – African-Americans are mostly faces in the crowds.
The exhibition will be on display at Lincoln Library through Aug. 3. Afterward, the images will be given to the Farrell and Ann Gay Museum of Springfield History at the Elijah Iles House at Seventh and Cook streets.
The display is free and open during the library’s business hours. It was supported by Patrick Coburn, the Richard H. Driehaus Foundation of Chicago, the Sangamon County Historical Society and the Illinois Press Foundation.
If you can’t get to the library to see it, view the images online at www.springfieldphotographs.com and leave a comment if you see something you recognize. “I’d love to hear from people on the website who may have a memory or revelation about the people and sights in the images,” Saal says.
Contact Tara McAndrew at email@example.com.