Category Archives: Vintage Photographs

Air and Light: The Photography of Bayard Wootten

I was recently in need of a museum day, and so I drove out to Cullowhee, NC to the Mountain Heritage Center.  I was interested in seeing a group of photographs by North Carolina photographer Mary Bayard Morgan Wootten, whose archive is held by the library at UNC Chapel Hill.  Wootten’s is not exactly a household name, not even here in North Carolina, but I’d read enough about her to know I wanted to learn more.

The very short version of her biography is that she was born (1875) and reared in New Bern, NC, was educated at what is now UNC Greensboro, which was at the time a school to train women to be teachers.  She did teach art for a while, and eventually married and had two sons.  Her husband went off to the West, looking for fortune, leaving Bayard and the small boys abandoned.  Back in New Bern she worked as a decorative painter, but realized that there was more money to be made in photography.

She set up a photography studio in 1904, and her biggest money-maker was taking the portraits of guardsmen at nearby Camp Glenn.  Her reputation grew, and in the 1920s she moved her studio to Chapel Hill, where she was the official photographer of Yackety Yack, the UNC yearbook.  But her interest went beyond the studio, and during the 1920s through the 1950s, she traveled the Carolinas documenting people as they lived.  As a result, there is a vast archive of photographs showing the people of the Carolinas.

These top two photos are of Bayard, and were probably taken by her brother, George Moulton, who was her partner in the Chapel Hill studio.  The Wootten Archive contains over 90,000 items.  Unfortunately there was a fire at the studio in the early 1930s, so most of the photos and negatives post-date the fire.  Still, this was the time when Wootten did most of her documentary work.

All the illustrations for this post are my photos of the exhibition, so please pardon the reflections.  All the photos can be enlarged with a click.

Information for each photograph was somewhat limited, and I’m not sure if that is due to curatorial decision or the lack of documentation in the archive.  This photo was labeled Mrs. Wilma McNabb’s Porch, Western North Carolina, 1930s.  I love Wilma’s stylish dress, and the fact that it reputes the idea that mountain women were still in sunbonnets and prairie-style dresses in the twentieth century.

Gossips, [Western North Carolina] 1930s

Wootten was often commissioned to make photos to illustrate books.  This one can be found in Olive Tilford Dargan’s 1941 book, From My Highest Hill: Carolina Mountain Folks.

Weaver at Penland, North Carolina, circa 1934

Wootten also made many photos of crafts people at work at Penland School of Crafts.  Located near Spruce Pine, NC, Penland was founded by a cousin of Wootten’s, Lucy Morgan.  In this case we know that the weaver is Mae Gouge.

This photograph was labeled as being in a Greensboro textile mill, 1940s.  It’s actually earlier, as evidenced by the clothing and hair of the women workers.  They are inspecting the bolts of cloth.

Late 1920s, early 1930s is my estimate.  And even though child labor laws had been enacted, look at how young some of the girls are.  And even though their pay was very small, these young women managed to be somewhat fashionable, even on the job.

This is a textile spinning room, possibly in the same mill as the above one.  By the 1930s, mechanization had reduced the number of workers needed in a spinning room, and the spindle tenders were often very overworked.

This was probably my favorite of all the photographs.  Taken in Crossnore, NC, the surgeons are doctors Mary and Eustice Sloop.  Mary Sloop wrote a book about her experiences as a mountain doctor, and the formation of a school in Crossnore.  The couple preferred to operate outdoors due to the poor lighting in the buildings.  The presence of the three women in street clothing is a bit puzzling.  Maybe they were family members of the man on the table.

The Mountain Heritage Center is part of Western Carolina University.  The exhibits are in temporary quarters in the library, but will be moving to a new visitor’s center when it is completed.  That’s good, because right now the set-up is so limited, being split across two locations in the library.  And there is a quite large collection of artifacts concerning Western North Carolina, most of which are not on display.  There are also thousands of print items, some of which are available for viewing on their website.

All original images are copyright of the North Carolina Collection, University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill Library.

 

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Filed under Museums, North Carolina, Vintage Photographs

New York Public Library Digital Collections

New York World’s Fair 1939-1940 records, Manuscripts and Archives Division, The New York Public Library

There is a growing movement within libraries and other institutions to allow freer use of resources that are without copyright restrictions.  This movement has even extended to the law in some places.  In the United Kingdom the courts recently ruled that photographs of items in the public domain (such as works of art) are also in the public domain.

The New York Public Library recently announced a change in their policy concerning the use of items in the public domain within their digital collections.  They have actually made it easier for people to freely use the items in their digital collections, going so far as to provide high resolution images that are available to download with one click.

On this blog I try to use my own images, but there are time when I don’t have what I need in my own collection.  It is great that institutions like NYPL are willing to share their riches, and thus to contribute to all the great scholarship that I see in fashion history blogs.  And I’m sure that this applies to other topics as well.

For a long time the internet has been like a giant free-for-all when it comes to images, and even content.  Perhaps the thinking at NYPL and other institutions is along the lines of, “If you can’t lick them, join them.”  People are going to take the stuff anyway, so providing them with the tools necessary to properly attribute the images used will keep images from being separated from their history.   Let’s hope so, anyway.

There is a search function, of course, but images are also arranged in categories and sub-categories.  I’m warning you though, this is a very deep rabbit hole, with more than 180,000 images.  Have fun!

New York World’s Fair 1939-1940 records, Manuscripts and Archives Division, The New York Public Library

L.Bonnotte, 1920, Art and Picture Collection. The New York Public Library

1895 Basket Ball Team of Smith College, The Miriam and Ira D. Wallach Division of Art, Prints and Photographs: Photography Collection, NYPL

Fashion Print, 1931, Art and Picture Collection, New York Public Library

Grace Wiederseim, 1904, Art and Picture Collection, New York Public Library

Wool Cycling Dress With Pleated Back ; Tennis Costume Of Cream Flannel With Striped Sleeves & Trim, Black Ties 1891, Art and Picture Collection, New York Public Library

My search term, “sports women”, produced all the above images.

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In the Snow, 1952

I recently read an interesting quote by The New York Times fashion critic Vanessa Friedman: “Everyone who gets dressed thinks about fashion.”  And while I couldn’t find the quote in context, to me it brings up the idea that being concerned with one’s dress is not for the serious-minded among us.  In other words, fashion is fluff.

The woman in today’s photo may or may nor be a fashionable person, but she is obviously concerned with her style of dress.  Before you go out into the cold weather, throwing on anything that will keep you warm, think about this woman and how she styled herself for the cold.

She limited herself to two colors – pink and black – plus white.  Since her jacket was pink, she chose a black with white snowflake sweater.  Around her neck she tied a black and white scarf.

I suppose the obvious choice for gloves would have been black, but she went with a darker pink with white mittens.

But probably my favorite thing about this snow ensemble is the choice of socks.  How wonderful are those pink socks!

The 1950s are often thought of as a time when everything had to match, but we forget that “matching” can happen in many different ways.  She didn’t do for all pink accessories because the little touch of black at her neck created more contrast and is more interesting visually.

I do have one concern.  For someone who is so stylishly yet appropriately dressed, where the heck is her cap?

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Filed under Proper Clothing, Vintage Photographs, Winter Sports

1920s Shawl-Collared Sweaters, Part II

One of the great things about collecting photographs is that I don’t have to look very far for illustrations for my blog posts.  I found the shawl sweaters in my 1921 catalog so interesting that I looked through my collection to see how women wore shawl-collared sweaters in the 1920s.

Above is an early 1920s photo that was taken at a sporting event of some sort, maybe a college field day at a school for women.  There were lots of young women in middys and bloomers, but there were also some very sporty spectators.

I posted this photo some time ago in a quest to figure out what the heck these young people were doing.  A close look shows that at least one of them is wear a shawl-collared sweater.  (They are pulling a log for some unknown reason.)

This sweater looks like a more masculine style, so it is possible that this young woman has appropriated her boyfriend’s or brother’s sweater.  I didn’t show any men’s sweaters from the Famous Fain catalog, but it does show this style of cardigan – a style that changed very little through the 1960s.

This photo is a bit more recent than the others, being dated 1929.  It’s a good possibility that this is a man’s sweater as well, as those made for women tended to be more “fashionable.”  By 1929, this style had been around for a while.

Collecting vintage photos is fun.  They are easy to store and they do not take up much space.  For practically every interest, there are vintage photos.  I have a really hard time limiting myself to just ones of women in sports clothes and to travelers.  I could easily tip over into people wearing Halloween costumes, homes decorated for Christmas, and kids playing with their dogs.  And though I don’t actively collect them, I always look for ones that are somehow quirky, like ones I saw at the Met several years ago.  I could have a category called “people doing nutty stuff in inappropriate clothing.”

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Filed under Collecting, Proper Clothing, Vintage Photographs, Winter Sports

Along the Way to Women Wearing Slacks – Beach Pyjamas

One reason I know I’ll never be able to write a book is because I’m too easily distracted.  For the past two months I’ve been immersed in old magazines and books, looking for references to women’s hiking attire.  But I also found myself being attracted to other subjects that kept turning up, especially ones that had to do with women wearing pants.

Most intriguing was the way beach pyjamas burst onto the American fashion scene in 1925.  In January, 1925, Vogue speculated on the success of the daring new style:

All the shops are showing the new and brilliant beach pyjamas, so successfully worn at the Lido – so daringly sponsored by one lone Newport leader last summer.  Will they – or won’t they – be seen at Palm Beach?  Poiret, for one, declares that they will.  But customs are very different at the Lido and at Palm Beach, and it is unlikely that their popularity will be as great in this country as in Italy.

To me, the term beach pyjamas conjures up a vision of the wide legged one-piece pyjamas worn in the early 1930s.  But Vogue was referring to an entirely different silhouette.  The beach pajamas of the 1920s were more like pajamas of today, with narrow legs and consisting of two pieces.  The photo above is from a 1925 ad for Best & Co.

The Lido Pajama is the latest thing for beach wear.  These have wool jersey trousers and a smart little mandarin top of bright patterned rubberized silk banded in jersey.

By April, Vogue had taken another tone when referring to beach pyjamas.  In an article titled “Warm Weather Accessories,” beach pyjamas were mentioned almost matter of factly.

For those who prefer the freedom of the pyjama is this terry cloth beach set.

Through the end of the 1920s, beach pyjamas were just that – a two-piece set of top and trousers.  The photo above was taken in 1929.

To get a better picture of what American women were actually wearing, I turned to Good Housekeeping, a magazine that had monthly fashion features but which was not a fashion magazine.  It was not until June of 1930 that I found a reference to beach pyjamas in that more mainstream publication.  The one pictured was French and one-piece, but the trouser legs were still slim.

But wide legs were on their way.  The illustration above is from a 1931 publication from Wright’s Bias Fold Tape.  You can see the transition from the older style pajamas in the green suit on the right, to the wider legs of the other two examples.

Of course I don’t know why the legs got so wide so fast, but it can be observed that the wide legged pyjamas of the early 1930s seem to mirror the shape of the floor length evening gowns of the period with their narrow waists and wide, sweeping hem.  Those of the 1920s were a more boyish look, in keeping with the “garçonne” look of the mid 1920s.

 

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Filed under Sportswear, Vintage Photographs

Currently Reading: Women in Pants

Dear Readers, I am having some problems with my computer, and so I’m not able to make any new posts. While we are waiting for a miracle cure for my old HP Touchsmart, here is a post from five years ago.

I’ve been reading this book, Women in Pants, for the past day or so, and I’ve got to say how much I really loved it.   Ironically, I almost didn’t buy it; in fact had passed on it several times.  You see, I was prejudiced against it for several reasons.  First, there are more photos than there is print.  That is usually a bad sign for me, as I love great old vintage photos, but I like a  little information served up with them.  It’s been my experince that books full of vintage photos usually are just about what you see.  And that leads me to former objection number two, which was this book is pretty much the collection of one person, author Catherine Smith.  Again, I’ve really come to suspect books of this type as being long on images, short on info.

I’m happy to say that I did take a chance on the book, and I was terribly wrong about it.  Smith and Greig present a well researched, beautifully illustrated book on the subject of women who literally wore the pants in an era when it was almost completely socially unacceptable to do so.  The photos Smith and others have collected are accompanied with insights gleaned from many primary sources, which are quoted liberally throughout the book.

While the book shows women wearing pants in the expected ways – college girls in bloomers playing basketball, stage actresses dressed as men during performances – there are some really interesting and off-beat photos of women dressed as men lovers and even all female weddings with half the women dressed as men.  And then there are the women adventurers dressed as men as they flew aeroplanes and scaled mountains.  Fantastic stuff!

As a collector of old photos of women in sportswear, I’ve looked through thousands of vintage photos.  Usually the older ones just get a quick glance from me, but now I’ll be looking for the crooked mustache and the too large suit coat!

And here are some of my favorite women in pants:

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Thoughts on Photographs – Vintage and Modern

A lot of my time on any vintage shopping excursion is devoted to looking through stacks of vintage photographs.   I just can’t think of a better way to study how people actually dressed than to examine the photos of an era.  I guess it would be even better if they were all in color.

I’ve noticed that I rarely see photos younger than the early 1970s.  I’m thinking that newer photos are still in the possession of their original owners, but that as time passes and the owners die, treasures from the 1970s through the 1990s will hit the market.

It has occurred to me that these wonderfully old candid snapshots are pretty much a thing of the past.  With digital photography we take and retake an image until it is “perfect.”  We arrange not only ourselves, but also our belongings in photographs.  What we have lost is a sense of spontaneity in our photos.

I know that many history and museum people object to the use of the word “curate” outside of a museum setting, but it does aptly describe how people take photos in the digital age.  I’m not saying that photo “curation” is somehow wrong; I’m saying that it is leaving a false record of how our lives actually look.

Another disturbing thought is that many photos taken today are never seen outside of the virtual world.  Out of the thousands of photos I take in any year, I might actually print a hundred or so of them.  I doubt that anyone prints all the photos they take these days.

Of course the trade-off is that there are so many photos digitized and shared today that the  internet is a virtual photo album of the grandest sort.  More and more people and institutions are digitizing collections so they can be shared online.  We have access to photos of the past – and present – like never before.  That said, I don’t think anything can replace the fun of a good shuffle through a stack of vintage black and whites.

Here are two more photos from the Sophie in Miami set.  In the top photo Sophie is on the left, next to yet another man identified only as Sy.  That’s him in the bottom photo, with his arms around Betty of the fantastic shoes, so he was probably not one of Sophie’s conquests.

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