Wednesday, January 5th, 2011
Choosing home decor for its educational messages
Boy in the Box: 1909. Unlike most old child labor photos, this kid is smiling. Who knows why he’s smiling, but I like to think it’s because he’s playing during his lunch break.
I’ve been giving some thought to how our home is decorated.
In my 6-year-old’s room, in the past couple years, I’ve planted a framed map of the US, a globe and a poster of world flags, which she has taken a liking to based on how we’ve raised her. Geography and awareness of people and events outside our borders are certainly teaching priorities for me. I’m trying to find a place to put a Dymaxion map, the type where the continent sizes aren’t distorted — Africa is big, Greenland is small, and Antarctica makes sense.
I’m now rethinking the walls in the rest of our home and have decided historical photos are a good solution. For one, I love them. And two, my wife and I disagree on virtually everything when it comes to style. So I’ve given her the challenge of generating a list of images she likes from Shorpy’s Blog.
Every day, Shorpy’s Blog presents a few high resolution historical images that have been raised into the public domain. Most can be purchased as prints.
It raises some interesting issues as to what photos we will both find interesting and yet still contain a message for our kids. But that message really only needs to provide a sense of history, of how things used to be and how much they have improved.
A city street scene can show life before cars, dirt roads, very wide wooden sidewalks in a society built around pedestrians, newspaper stands, formal conservative attire, etc. Just a beach scene reveals interesting ideas about old-time modesty.
Just last week, I showed my daughter a photo of a used bookstore we were going to visit, except it was a photo from 1913 when the bookstore was a bank. The expanded view reveals the amazing number of wires that utility poles used to carry, and shows a local movie theater in the process of being renovated for its grand opening (a bunch of debris sits out front). The theater is still in operation today.
Here are a few of my personal favorites:
A Boy’s Life: 1924. It looks like an Erector Set to me. Some things change. Some things stay the same.
Henrietta: 1943. In the town of Henrietta, Missouri, an operator has just delivered a message to a passing train. Either this image grabs you or it doesn’t. I’m intrigued by the question, what was the message? My wife won’t let this one go on our wall.
Summit Cut: 1905. View the linked large version. This is just an interesting photo, with 8 people obscured in the image. Also, there’s a penny on the track. This train stopped for the photo to be taken.
Old Philly 1908. This image is a feast for the eyes, with a great composition and bustling street activity.
Shorpy 1910: This photo shows Shorpy’s Blog’s namesake, Shorpy Higginbotham… a young greaser standing front and center. I’ll have at least one child labor photo that both conveys how bad kids used to have it, and also how mature they could be. I’m also looking for a good photo of a newsie hawking newspapers on the street and a family living in extreme poverty, of which there are many on Shorpy’s Blog.
Powerhouse: 1920. The man at left is a mechanic working on a huge piece of machinery. It’s an iconic sort of image that screams of the hard, dirty labor culture of the 1920s to 1940s that is often captured in photos.
At right, two screen captures from Fritz Lang’s 1927 movie masterpiece, Metropolis. It doesn’t hurt that the film’s message was one of the disconnect between the affluent upper class and the unheard, unseen toil of the working masses.
Incidentally, a nearly fully restored version of the film is now available on Blu-ray after an almost complete cut of the film was found in Argentina in 2008. You’ll also get to see where the inspiration for depictions of Dr. Frankenstein and C-3P0 came from.
Scipio Wright: 1917. I imagine a conversation going something like this. A visitor to my home points at the above photo and says, “Who’s that?” And I say, “It’s Orville Wright’s dog,” and then I change the subject like it’s a normal thing to have a photo of Orville Wright’s dog displayed on a living room wall.
Hmm, but what’s the educational message? Well, even famous people lead ordinary lives. We all eat, sleep, poop and die. And many of us have pets we love. Why wouldn’t Orville Wright photograph his dog? If you don’t like that, there’s also the Wright’s Brothers Christmas tree, or, you know, photos of flights at Kitty Hawk.