BROOKVILLE — The first photograph showing people was titled “View from the window at Le Gras” taken in Paris in 1826.
The image was grainy and only two people on the busy boulevard are easily identifiable. The street was busy but everyone else appears as a ghost. That is because it took several minutes, using available light, to make the exposure. Not everyone was willing to stand still.
By modern standards it is not a very good photograph. In our digital age we take multiple photos in just a few seconds using our phone.
There were thousands, if not hundreds of thousands of studio photos taken in the 19th century but photographers still had to rely on natural light to take their photos. The photos were stiff and with good reason. Often photographers used a metal posing rod that enforced the photograph’s mantra “Stand still!”
In 1884 George Eastman of Rochester, N.Y., developed dry gel on paper, or film, to replace the photographic plate so that a photographer no longer needed to carry boxes of plates and toxic chemicals around. In July 1888 Eastman’s Kodak camera went on the market with the slogan “You press the button, we do the rest”. Now anyone could take a photograph and leave the complex parts of the process to others. Photography became available for the mass-market in 1901 with the introduction of the Kodak Brownie camera. All you had to do was send the camera back to Rochester where the photos would be developed. The camera would be reloaded and returned to you. Hopefully you didn’t need your camera for a few weeks while it was in the mail!
That still did not ensure that the photos you took were what you envisioned when you pushed the button. Thousands of underdeveloped, overdeveloped and just plain bad photos were taken.
Many of these early photographs were taken of loved ones and don’t really tell historians very much about the people except for their social status or the fashion of the time.
Other photos tell us a great deal about the people and the times. The two photos attached to this story are examples of photos that tell us a great deal about the people and their times.
We know Brookville photographer Fred Knapp took the pictures on June 9, 1914. We know this because Knapp attached a label to one of the photos! The label also tells us the photo was of the Chautauqua booster parade.
Chautauqua was an adult education movement in the United States highly popular in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. Chautauqua assemblies expanded and spread throughout rural America until the mid-1920s. The Chautauqua brought entertainment and culture for the whole community, with speakers and teachers. musicians, showmen, preachers, and specialists of the day
The photos tell us much more than the label.
The photo with the label was taken in front of the Jefferson County Courthouse. This is the old courthouse entry before the 1927 renovation. Cars were used in the parade giving us a glimpse at the transition from the horse and buggy era to the age of autos.
Main Street was still brick, a surface that did not provide a smooth ride! That fact is demonstrated by an essential device mounted on the car in the center…a spare tire! Flat tires were very common.
These early autos also lacked one very important feature: side windows. Of course when you were cruising along on a dirt (or mud) rural road, at a blazing 15 miles an hour, those side curtains probably were not that important. (Unless you were a lady in your finest Sunday dress!)
The second photo is even more revealing. At the center of the photo is the old county jail. The cells were in the rear of the building. The front of the structure was used for the jailer. It is odd that the earthen bank extends from the courthouse to just under the jail cells. That fact probably helped more than one escape from the jail. The jail was demolished during the 1927 renovation.
Just visible on the upper right of the photo is the barrel of one of a pair of cannons that commemorated the Civil War. The cannons and the cannon balls were removed during a World War II scrap drive.
The towering building on the left is the American Hotel, the site of the Town Square. The hotel was demolished in the 1960s to make way for a service station.
One final thing we can tell from this photo; it was a hot day! It was uncommon at that time for men to appear in public in their shirtsleeves! Times change!
Not all photos offer such deep insight as these two photos but there is always a story behind the label.