Salvaged photographs from the St. Louis Street Department circa 1900-1930 catalogued in new book
This segment was originally produced on November 26, 2016 and re-aired on August 8, 2017.
Charles Clement Holt was many things: an engineer, a draftsman, a surveyor for the St. Louis Streets Department. He became so good at the latter that he eventually became head of the Streets Department.
One of the keys to his success? Excessive photographic documentation. From 1900 to 1930, Holt led the group in documenting street activities across the burgeoning St. Louis community — from sinkholes being filled to streets being oiled. Along the way, he also managed to capture some “Humans of St. Louis”-style photographs of the people and places that made St. Louis tick back in the day.
At its height, Holt’s Street Department produced about 6,000 images per year. Thousands of those photographs were eventually lost but during the 1950s, a city historian found 300 glass plate negatives from that era and saved them for the Missouri Historical Society’s collection. While a few at a time have made their way into the public eye in the past, now you can view all 300 in a recently released a book called “Capturing the City: Photographs from the Streets of St. Louis, 1900-1930.”
On Tuesday’s St. Louis on the Air, authors Angela Dietz, director of digital initiatives at the Missouri History Museum, and Joseph Heathcott, a writer, curator and educator at the New School, joined contributor Steve Potter to discuss the images and history behind them.
“Charles Holt had a unique perspective,” Dietz said. “He had an aesthetic and an eye for the city he lived in. He wanted to learn about the city through these photographs. So he would widen that lens and focus on daily life going on.”
While the photos were initially taken to document street projects, the more you look at them, the more you realize they document the life and humanity of normal St. Louisans.
The glass plate negatives are especially notable because they capture fine-grain detail. The camera would have been a big, boxy, wooden camera with a black curtain draped over the photographer to eliminate glare. The fact Holt was able to capture so many photographs with such weighty equipment is laudable, Dietz said.
The photos document a variety of commerce and people delivering goods. They also showcase signs, stores and the pollution of the city in days gone by. Because the photographs were taken by the street department, most of the locations of the photographs are easy to pinpoint.
One of the most remarkable transformations captured in the book is the advent of the automobile. There are several photographs that showcase nothing but wagons and horse-drawn carriages. By 1930, however, automobiles and streetcars crowded the streets as far as the eye could see.
"To me the most surprising thing was not how alien this landscape or time seems, but how familiar." - Joseph Heathcott
In the book, the reader will also see different interesting public information campaigns. In one of them, the city of St. Louis makes an effort to shut down public privy restrooms to stave off the spread of disease, lobbying for (gasp!) indoor plumbing.
As the city limits were pushed outward with a growing population, the reader can also follow Holt’s journey to less populated parts of the city.
“To me the most surprising thing was not how alien this landscape or time seems, but how familiar,” Heathcott said. “We see so many people doing the same things they do today: sweeping the storefront, delivering goods. It is the kind of stuff that makes the city run even right now…and it was going on then. It is comforting to see the city in that respect.”
Below, a selection of his photographs:
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