Posted by: Pam, at RML | December 3, 2009

Archive comes ALIVE! Historic Photos of Pennsylvania

According to Todd Bottorff, publisher of Laura Beardsley’s book, Historic Photos of Pennsylvania (2009), our state has thousands of historic photographs that reside in archives, both locally and nationally.

Laura in the Winsor Room

 On a rainy Wednesday night in early December, Laura shared some of these images from her book with a group of history lovers in the Winsor Room. In the dimly lighted space, these images were more than just projections on a screen. Each image had been carefully selected from thousands of photos in numerous archives, representing countless hours of review and research.

Everyone around here knows that Philadelphia is the city of “firsts”…first zoo, first hospital and so on.  But here is some information that I am sure is not common knowledge, even among the “locals”. In Philadelphia, on September 25 in 1839, amateur photographer and inventor Joseph Saxton created a daguerreotype after reading a brief description of the new photographic process in a local newspaper. This daguerreotype is the oldest known photograph created in the United States. It is a unique view taken from a window and that’s all I am going to tell you. At the Library program, this was the “first” photograph that was projected onto the screen. If you are the curious sort, stop by the Library and if the book isn’t checked out, you can see for yourself. (I actually took a picture of that first photograph as it was projected on the screen and I posted it here…but then I took it down right away. Copyright violation? Perhaps. Either way, it didn’t feel right.)

We looked at some of the earliest known photographs of Pennsylvania. The first part was from 1839 through the end of the nineteenth century. My favorite photo in that group was taken in 1863 in York County. If you look carefully at the photograph and then squint, you will recognize a most famous person in American history. The next group of photos  spanned the beginning of the twentieth century through World War 1. Deeply disturbing was a photograph of young boys working late into the night at a bowling alley in Pittsburgh in 1908. Then we looked at photos from the 1920’s through the 1940’s. Most memorable from that group was the mysterious double-deck privy on a farm somewhere in Pennsylvania and two photos made by Walker Evans. The final few we were shown were made 1950-1970.

Laura certainly knows her material. She gave interesting background on the images and that helped us interpret the scene as we observed the photograph. But then, all too soon, the show was over and on came the bright lights. Without question, we were left with a better understanding of  Pennsylvania’s reputation as a great industrial giant and its place in the history of this country. But we saw evidence of its weaknesses, also.

The goal of the publisher is met by making these photographs more accessible to people. This book “seeks to preserve the past with adequate respect and reverence”.  (Todd Bottorff of Turner Publishing)

We are very grateful that Laura made the time to visit the Library (for the 2nd time!) and look forward to her visit again in the future. The author is currently working on another book about Philadelphia and we can look for it in 2010. I hope it has photos!  I’ll keep you posted…

If you are interested in watching this program, it will become available online at VIMEO in the near future. Thanks to Tom Ellis, who, like an apparition in the doorway, appeared with his high tech equipment for recording Laura’s presentation.  Our sincere thanks, Tom. 

Note: The book talk is now available for you !


  1. …snowing outside AND on This has to be another Philly “first”.


  2. What a wonderful program. The historic photographs opened the door to Pennsylvania history making me want to find out more.
    Laura Beardsley also influenced the way I will take photographs in the future. I liked the fact that many of her choices for the book included photographs of people living, working, socializing, or doing the things they do, in their everyday lives.


    • Laurie, thank you so much for coming and I am so glad you enjoyed Laura’s presentation! It’s such a treat to sit back and look at these photos and hear Laura give the background. I am impressed by her ability to talk without notes. I guess she feels intimate with these photographs having spent time with them before finalizing her selection for the book. And as you said…people and not just places.


  3. The video of Laura’s presentation may be found at


    • Tom! I thank you (and the Library thanks you, too) for recording this event. Just today, George Strimel said that you do great work and he wants to use these gems at Studio 21 (channel 21)…


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