It’s All in the Details: Broadsides in Theodore C. Wohlbrück’s Photography

Long-time readers of the AAS blog know we have posted frequently here about Worcester-area photographer, Theodore C. Wohlbrück (1879-1936). We’ve been writing about the Society’s holdings of this artist’s work since 2010. AAS has a large collection. of photographic prints and glass plate negatives taken by Wohlbrück between 1900 and ca. 1910, including regional landscapes, city views, and images of his family.

In 2012, we wrote about a set of 180 of these views, mostly of the city of Worcester. At that time, these images had recently been scanned from fragile glass plates and were part of our new digital asset system. Recently, they have been added to the online inventory of Wohlbrück’s images constructed by the Society’s Visual Materials Cataloger, Christine Graham, and are now easily available via our website. Each negative has been described, can be keyword searched, and can be freely downloaded for enlargement. Because the digital images were created from 3” x 5” high resolution negatives, the level of detail is amazing and will allow researchers and scholars to better understand the built environment of our home city.

The graphic arts collection at AAS includes not only photographic collections like Wohlbrück’s, but it also houses outstanding examples of American broadsides. Broadsides are ephemeral printings that were posted in public places to announce events like auctions and entertainments, sell products, or promote political and social activity, etc. They were usually papered over, faded in the sun, or were damaged by weather and the great majority of them have been simply lost to time. While scanning through the new Wohlbrück resource, we found several excellent shots of broadsides in situ, like this image of the Brockton Shoe Store which includes four sections of advertising paper plastered on the side of the building.

In some cases, users can zoom in and read the broadsides in their entirety as in the shot of the Baptist Church on Belmont Street. Here Wohlbrück’s composition included some overgrown fencing on a neighboring lot which sported ads for root beer, White City Amusement Park (in nearby Shrewsbury), and an excursion planned for the local chapter of the Irish National Foresters Benefit Society (an organization which supported Irish nationalism).

That last poster is not surprising, as the city had a large immigrant population at the turn of the century. Many Irish families had settled in the region in the 1870s and helped build the Blackstone Canal and railroads in the area. These resources then drove the industrial boom in the city in the early twentieth century when Wohlbrück was walking the streets with his camera. Central European immigrants, people from Scandinavia, and from Asia all moved to the city to work in the busy factories and manufacturing centers as the new century began. The broadsides posted on the side of a building in a view of the intersection of Millbury and Taylor Streets promoted a show at the Worcester Theater. Further research (and consultation with a language expert) revealed that the posters are printed in Yiddish and promote a Yiddish melodrama, “Satan in the Garden of Eden.” The play was written around 1905 by Joseph Lateiner, the first professional writer for the Yiddish theater in America, and was performed around the country by touring companies for Yiddish-speaking audiences, including residents of Worcester. Evidence of immigrant-owned businesses in the city can also be found in the window displays and signage in the commercial scenes Wohlbrück framed with his camera. For example, among the vendors he depicted along Main Street are Bun Fung Low’s Chinese Restaurant as well as a Chin Sam, a Chinese laundry.

While the focus of Wohlbrück’s camera was clearly on the prominent churches, hospitals and businesses in the city, zooming into the details of some of the images reveals layers of detail on costume and dress styles of the era, transportation methods (look for the endless wires for street trolleys), and advertising practices. The photographer’s negatives freeze moments in time. The digital versions now allow us to peek into shop windows, read “For Let” signs in apartments, see images of billboards on country roads, and peruse long-lost broadsides from more than 100 years ago.

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Lauren Hewes

Andrew W. Mellon Curator of Graphic Arts, American Antiquarian Society

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