Before COVID-19 changed life and work as we know it, lots of new content was added to Digital Commonwealth including the voluminous photo archive of Dennis Brearley which chronicles the life of the City of Boston from the 1920s to 1970s. From parades to protests, it’s all there providing the rich historical context that photographs can.
Originally scheduled to take place Sunday, April 4, a program on the Remarkable Photography of Leon Abdalian at the Jamaica Plain Branch Library has been postponed due to the COVID-19 crisis. While that talk will be re-scheduled at a future time, in the meantime we encourage you to visit Leon’s large body of work accessible via Digital Commonwealth.Born Leon Hampartzoum Abdalian in Armenia, Ottoman Empire in 1884, he came to the US as a 12 year old in 1896.
The Abdalian family settled in Jamaica Plain, a subject of thousands of his later photographs. A train conductor by day with the Boston Elevated Railway, Leon was largely self-taught and took photographs as a hobby which expanded into a busy sideline. His photos were published in The Boston Globe, Boston Herald,Boston Traveler and as a career highlight, in the March 1920 issue of National Geographic magazine.
Besides his beloved hometown of JP, West Roxbury, Milton, Dedham, Lexington, Salem and Gloucester are featured subjects as our family groups in their living rooms, at picnics, weddings, and the Arnold Arboretum. The photos are clean and classically composed, and really fun to browse, especially when compared with the JP of today.
After his death in 1967, his daughter Lilian donated several hundred negatives to the Boston Public Library and his entire body of work was bequeathed to BPL in 2003, a gift of the Arnold P. and Lillian A.Clough estate.
A lot of new content was added in February–must have been the leap year effect! There’s something for everyone with maps, manuscripts, prints and photographs all ready for research and enjoyment. The Leon Abdalian Collection, containing the work of self-taught photogapher Leon Hampartzoum Abdalian reminds me of the Leslie Jones Collection.
Both men turned their lens’ on the people of Boston, Jamaica Plain West Roxbury and surrounding communities and brought ordinary people into sharp focus. Leon and Leslie, good eye! Travel back in time with them via Digital Commonwealth.
Digital Commonwealth ushered the new decade in with new collections from the Massachusetts Archives relating to the Quabbin Reservoir and the Swift River Valley, Boston Children’s Museum Scrapbooks as well as some additional items to existing collections. Engineers and geologists will be fascinated by the depth and breadth of the photographs of the Quabbin Reservoir and the Swift River Valley in the Masschusetts Archives haul.
Fans of turn of the century and early 20th century postcards, greeting cards and advertisements will be charmed by the Boston Children’s Museum scrapbooks from the American History Collection. American History was a big part of the curriculum at the museum which was founded in 1913 by the Science Teacher’s Bureau. Each scrapbook is viewable either page by page or in spreads. The handwritten entries in some are really adorable.
Having been established in 1913 by the Science Teacher’s Bureau, the Boston Children’s Museum has grown in size, stature, and influence in those 107 years. What’s remained the same, however, is the mission to educate children about the world through exposure, interaction and observation.
In November of 2019, hundreds of lantern slides were added to Digital Commonwealth. This collection shows the early years of the museum, the second oldest of its kind.
Even before STEM became a commonly known acronym, the Children’s Museum was a pioneer in teaching about the natural world, offering lots of field trips and collecting specimens for identification and study. Jaunters Clubs filled with both boys and girls took their nets and jars and had a truly hands-on experience with the natural world.
Echoing the diversity found in nature, the early Boston Children’s Museum mounted exhibits teaching about other countries and cultures. Dolls and dollhouses from all over the world delighted thousands of kids. Many dolls were mechanical, sparking curiosity. Games and spontaneous play were encouraged. Visit the full collection of over 300 slides.
Let us give thanks for November’s new collections. And additions to existing collections. But I was most taken with two of our new collections: Boston Children’s Museum Lantern Slides and the Washington Historical Commission Collection.
Many of the lantern slides are hand-colored, giving unnaturally rosy cheeks to all captured in the image. I never knew the Children’s Museum started in Jamaica Plain, but you can see in the image at left that it was still there in 1940. Not that the museum was parochial – you’ll see Images of international exhibits on Egypt, China and Scandinavia for a few.
The Washington Historical Commission Collection is a wonderful collection of images, texts and ephemera. The Reward of Merit (Below right) is something I’ve never seen. Apparently, they were handed out by teachers to students. Who wouldn’t settle down to their studies if they were given certificates like this?
Every year there is a first substantial snow of the year. As I type this, snow has just started falling in Boston. Over the course of the Thanksgiving weekend, the prediction has gone from “up to 12 inches” to 6-12″, to 4-6″ to “wintry mix”. I have no idea how much snow we’ll get in the end. It definitely will make a difference if you’re in the Berkshires, Greater Worcester or south of the Pike.
Two things I do know: media forecasters will talk as if this is a never-seen-before event in Massachusetts and drivers across the state will drive like they’ve never seen snow before. Come on, people. We have snow every year. Some storms are historic, like the Blizzard of ’78 or the Blizzard of ’88. This time, though, the timing is everything. The Blizzard of ’78 occurred in February, in 1888 it was March.
This time it’s Thanksgiving weekend. One of the busiest travel days of the year. No matter how much snow we get, it couldn’t come at a worse time. So be smart, slow down, be careful and be safe.
Scenes from the yachting life of the early 20th century in Marblehead come alive through the Herman Parker Collection of Glass Plate Negatives (Parker Collection). These images, along with the voluminous Frank Cousins Collection of Glass Negatives (Cousins Collection) were recently added to Digital Commonwealth by the Phillips Library at the Peabody Essex Museum (PEM). We spotlighted the Cousins Collection in a previous post and both collections are well worth perusing.
Herman Parker and his wife Lillian (Percival) were listed in the Social Register of Boston and were active in the active yachting scene in Marblehead which kept and still continues to keep Marblehead Harbor hopping. Parker was an architect and clothier in the Boston based Macullar Parker Company. His side pursuits included sailing and photography.
A defining feature of Parker’s photographs is the sense of movement and immediacy he managed to capture– which given the challenges of the glass plate negative process is all the more remarkable. Schooners and boats on the open sea almost appear to be flying and the water churning. Yacht clubs are thriving and races are still going on in Marblehead. Current sailors should take a look at these vintage photographs.
One of our favorite contributors, Lawrence Public Library, added to several existing collections as well as added new collections in July. One of which is the Lawrence, Mass. Before Urban Renewal Photograph Collection. Lawrence hired a photography studio to document the first area targeted for urban renewal, so we have photos like the one of Bradford Street (Right) showing what was slated for demolition.
On a happier note, the Cambridge Historical Commission added 278 items to their Cambridge Photo Morgue Collection. Sometimes the captions only add to the mystery of the photos. One of my favorites is Cambridge “Sparks” and his radio scooter. (Below left)
July also saw contributions to existing collections at the Boston Public Library, Harvard Law School Library, a major re-harvesting from Amherst College and a new collection from the South Hadley Public Library. (Below listings.) We hope all Massachusetts cultural institutions will continue to contribute new and to existing collections. It makes for a better Digital Commonwealth, which, as you can see, is already pretty amazing.
Amherst College 23 new collections re-harvested; 3,290 new items added to existing collections
Boston Public Library The Liberator (Boston, Mass. : 1831-1865) – 261 items added to existing collection