Digital archives thrive on collaboration and the Medford Historical Society’s Civil War Photo Collection bears that out in an especially meaningful and inspiring way. This massive collection of more than 3600 well preserved albumen prints was amassed by General Samuel Crocker Lawrence who commanded the Lawrence Light Guard during the Civil War. He went on to serve as Medford’s first mayor.
A feature article in Tufts Nowtraces how these prints were discovered on a second floor of the Medford Historical Society Museum in 1990 and came to be given very special care from the society, Civil War scholars, then Tufts Digital Collections and Archives, the New England Document Conservation Center (NEDCC) and the Digital Lab at the Boston Public Library.
The range of images includes portraits of military officers and their wives, camp scenes, battlefields, cannons, cities in ruin and more. The work of notable Civil War photographers George Bernard and Andrew Russell and those who studied under Matthew Brady (the seminal Civil War photographer) are included in the archive. Not surprisingly, some are untitled and dated simply 1861-1865. The collection is a valuable tool for researchers, students, teachers and history aficionados.
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.
The holiday season was celebrated at Digital Commonwealth by adding some interesting collections. Our biggest contributors, Boston Public Library and the University of Massachusetts/Amherst, of course, did their bit. But let’s highlight our other two contributors.
The Jamaica Plain Historical Society performed a good deed for all Bostonians by sponsoring the digitization of the Doyle’s Café memorabilia. When that 137-year-old institution closed in October 2019, many of the pub’s decorations and ephemera were auctioned off. JPHS made sure a record was made before they all disappeared into private collections. Thank you!
The Lawrence Public Library has been a frequent and welcome contributor. This month’s collection, the Phyllis Tyler Paper Doll Collection, is another set of seldom seen ephemera. If the fashions didn’t give away the fact that this set is from the 1940’s, the celebrity dolls – Betty Grable and Ava Gardner – would. Perhaps most striking is the WAFS (Women’s Air Force) pilot dolls in both military and mufti (left and right respectively). Yes, women did their bit in World War II, too.
My very first post on the Digital Commonwealth blog was an interview with Louise Sandberg of the Lawrence Public Library. She was knowledgeable, encouraging and funny. She was a perfect first interview. I’ve interviewed other members since and they have been universally enthusiastic about their collections and digitizing through DC.
It’s been an honor to be editor of this blog for three years and it is a joy to know I’m passing the editorship on to someone who loves the collections and finds our members just as fascinating as I did. (Good luck, Anne!)
You were all inspirational to me. I hope I did you some justice in these postings.
I’ve been fascinated by this photo ever since it was uploaded. Are we looking at the 19th century equivalent of Photoshopping? The Brown, Cooley, Noble and Strong families pose very sedately in front of a raging river with a train crossing a suspension bridge in the distance. The subjects are definitely sitting on chairs on a rocky ground. It’s that raging river that does not seem to belong.
Here is where the wonderful enlarging function on Digital Commonwealth comes in handy. Click on the link in the caption to go to Digital Commonwealth. Now you can enlarge it. What a closer look will show you is that there’s an aura or halo around any figure positioned directly in front of the river. The figures in the center do not have it. Maybe these families were posed outdoors, but I suspect the river was not raging when they were. Surely if the river was threatening to breach its banks, someone in that happy little group would be looking apprehensively to their left.
When I talked to Dick Rowley, Granville Public Library volunteer, he was more suspicious of the little train on the suspension bridge. He’s right. The trees, sky, bridge and train seem to be from a different photo taken at a different time of day. How many deceptions are there to uncover here?
We haven’t talked about the people in this photo. Dick points out that the earliest death date for any of them is 1888, so this photo was taken no later than that. They are all prominent members of Granville society, well-dressed, respectable, stern even. Except for the woman seated in the foreground. Dressed all in black, she seems to be smirking. She knows what’s going on, but she’s not telling.