Tuesday, February 23, 2010

Rural Eastern Washington Life in the Early 20th Century

We are quite fond of The Scout Report, a weekly list of interesting websites produced by the University of Wisconsin. The list recently included a link to the Frank A. Matsura Image Collection at the Washington State University Digital Collections. It's well worth a look, and it's always affirming to see more digital resources available.

The Scout Report's summary review says: After coming to the United States from Japan in 1905, Frank S. Matsura stopped in Seattle and then moved across the Cascades to the city of Okanogan, WA. As a photographer, he was involved in his own practice and in documenting the changes in the environment as the city expanded and the Conconully Dam was built nearby. Matsura was a very active member of the community, and he created a playground for local children and he was fond of dressing up in strange hats and costumes. This delightful digital archive of his work was created by the Washington State University Libraries Digital Collections, and it contains almost 1600 of his photographs. Users can look through the "Predefined Searches" section for a few highlights organized into areas like "automobiles", "children", and "Native Americans". Overall, the site offers a rather unique glimpse into early 20th century life in rural eastern Washington.

Wednesday, February 17, 2010

Fay Fuller's Boots and Minty Mudslides

It's all in the latest issue of COLUMBIAkids. Learn about the first woman known to have climbed Mount Rainier--in 1890, just after Washington became a state. What clothes did she wear (no Gore-Tex available then)? What about climbing boots?

And while we're asking questions... Why is Princess Ariadne of Crete lounging around the Washington State History Research Center? Who is the ghost looking for her daughters in the lighthouse? What's a wabit basket? How did Pah-toe, Wy-east, and Loo-wit resolve their differences?

The answers, along with a recipe for no-bake Minty Mudslide cookies (perfect to munch while you're reading) are available in the new COLUMBIAkids.

How to Build a Dinosaur

Can dinosaurs be brought back to life? Is there a velociraptor lurking in the cells of every chicken? Does extinction have to be forever? Dr. Jack Horner is revered among those with an interest in dinosaurs, and our friends at the Burke Museum of Natural History and Culture will host the paleontologist on Friday, March 5 at 7:00 PM in UW Kane Hall 130. Ticket information at www.burkemuseum.org.

Tuesday, February 9, 2010

Why we do this

Yesterday, the State Capital Museum hosted Nicolette Bromberg of UW's Special Collections. She works with visual resources, such as film and photography, and she spun a fascinating story about her research into Viretta Chambers Denny, a turn-of-the-century woman photographer in Washington State.

Bromberg first encountered Denny when she found an album of her photographs at an auction. She was intrigued, she said, because there isn't much known about early woman photographers, and she determined to bid on the album and another lot, a box of lantern slides and glass plate negatives. She suspected they might be related to the album because it's typical in auctions to break up items into smaller, saleable units.

After a brief bidding war, she won the album. Her opponent sought her out during a break and asked if she was going to bid on the box of negatives and slides. When Bromberg confirmed that she was, he offered to buy it and then split the contents (he wanted the slides, she wanted the negatives). She agreed, he won the box, and they divided the contents.

When she got back to her office, she quickly realized that the glass plate negatives were, in fact, the source of the photographs in the album, although there were more negatives than prints. She also confirmed that the album contained photographs by Viretta Chambers Denny, who was descended from two important pioneer families: the Dennys, who helped found modern Seattle, and the Chamberses, one of Thurston County's earliest families.

The photos in the albums included captions, things like "Deschutes River" and "Ravenna Lake," that helped Bromberg pinpoint their locations. She was excited to have what was now a sizable collection of photographs and negatives from this early woman photographer, and the photographs were technically solid and pleasingly composed: nature scenes, a few shots of people.

A few months later, Bromberg was looking for a project to give students in the museum studies program. She came across an old album that had no identification and was about to pass it over (too difficult a project for the class) when she flipped it open and thought, "I know that picture!" It was another Viretta Chambers Denny photo--as were the rest in the album--and they matched some of the glass plate negatives Bromberg had purchased at the auction. Suddenly, the whole album was identified and could be added to the nascent Denny collection.

Then, a few months after that, Bromberg was looking through the old photograph subject files for another picture. Years ago, when photographs were donated to archives, it was standard practice to separate them and label them by subject if no other identification existed. Nowadays, of course, we would never do that, instead leaving the collection intact and conducting research to learn more about it. Still, UW and other archives have subject files for photographs, and they are a useful if sometimes frustrating resource.

At any rate, Bromberg was looking through the subject files for something else entirely when she came upon a picture she recognized instantly. Yup: another Viretta Chambers Denny. She then combed the entire subject file catalog and found still more photographs that had, up until then, not been identified. This expanded the Denny collection still further.

And as Bromberg noted in her talk, having more photos to include in the collection helped her understand Viretta Chambers Denny better. She was able to study the photographs and develop some interpretation about Denny's style, for example.

It was a fascinating talk, highlighting what is so rewarding about historical research. It's those little a-ha! moments, when you see a link that hadn't been apparent before, or when you can definitively connect events or people or places.

That wasn't the end of the story, though. When Bromberg finished her talk, a few audience members made comments. One woman said that she her husband was a Chambers descendant, and that she had three pictures on her piano at home--of Viretta Chambers Denny, most likely. Bromberg has not conclusively identified the photographer in a picture, so this was an exciting lead.

Another woman identified a woman in one of the photos that Bromberg showed as Viretta's sister--adding knowledge to the story--and noted that although there are many Chambers descendants in Thurston County and beyond, only two or three are identified by that last name, including Washington Supreme Court Justice Tom Chambers. Then a distinguished-looking gentleman across the room raised his hand and said, "I'm Tom Chambers." In the course of an hourlong talk, Bromberg made new contacts that will help her research into Viretta Chambers Denny.

It's that combination of hard work, sharp eyes, vigilance, and happy accident that combine to make doing history so gratifying. I've often felt that in my own research into the North Cascades: there are long periods of slogging through primary sources, trying to make sense of it all. Then, every once in a while--often just when you really need a boost--pieces fall into place, the story becomes clear, the light bulb goes on. It makes it all worthwhile.

Thanks, Nicolette, for reminding us why we do this.

A different point of view

Four Points of Washington
February 27 at the Washington State History Museum

People from around Washington submitted photographs for the “Four Points of Washington” program in 2009, and their digital art will be on view in a large screen lobby display at the History Museum. The photographs are displayed in sets of four, showing different views or aspects of places around the state. The project was designed to generate an archive of Washington views, and the photographs were inducted into the Historical Society’s digital photography collection.

For a sneak peek, check out this online photo gallery devoted to Four Points at Research.WashingtonHistory.org/Collections/FourPoints/default.aspx.

Skagit Valley tulips, photographed by Jenn Chushcoff, April 29, 2009. (Washington State Historical Society/Jenn Chushcoff)

Monday, February 1, 2010

Extry! Extry! Read All About It in Historic Newspapers Online!

The Library of Congress's Chronicling America website is a treasure trove of historic newspapers around the country. Recently, the Washington State Library contributed more than 42,000 pages from eight Washington newspapers to the collection--which already had more than 2,000 Washington titles. These are the new adds:

Colfax Gazette 1900-1912
Colville Examiner 1907-1922
Commonwealth (Everett) 1911-1914
Leavenworth Echo 1904-1922
Pullman Herald 1888-1893; 1907-1922
Ranch (Seattle) 1902-1914
Seattle Republican 1903-1913
Washington Farmer 06-15-1914

But really, it's just fun to meander around the Washington newspapers generally. Happy reading!