Choosing home decor for its educational messages

Photo of a boy smiling while sitting in a box. Machinery wheels are visible in the background.

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:

Photo of a boy building a crane with what looks like an Erector Set.

A Boy’s Life: 1924. It looks like an Erector Set to me. Some things change. Some things stay the same.

A photo shot from the rear view of a caboose as a train passes through a station. An operator is prominent alongside the track, holding a pole with his arm in the air, having just delivered a message.

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.

View of the front of a train passing between steep hills close on both sides. The train appears to be stopped, with several people alongside the train or hillside.

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.

Photo of Market Street in Philadelphia, bustling with horse-drawn carriages and a train trustle extending into the distance.

Old Philly 1908. This image is a feast for the eyes, with a great composition and bustling street activity.

Photo showing a bunch of child greasers, completely filthy, standing for a photo outside a steel and iron company in 1910.

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.

Photo montage. On the left, a powerhouse worker wielding a huge wrench on a giant circle adorned with bolts. At right, a screen capture of a similar piece of machinery from the film Metropolis and a second image of a worker bent in the same manner over a lit circular machine.

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.

A photo of a St. Bernard sitting on a carpet.

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.


9 Responses to “Choosing home decor for its educational messages”

  1. Amy says:

    Those are amazing, especially the Old Philly one. I opened up the train one and searched it to find the people – only found 6 – where are the other two hiding?

    January 5th, 2011 at 1:20 pm

  2. Lady in a Smalltown says:

    In the rocks on the left I see 2 children, a short white man with a mustache, a tall black man, and then about an inch (on my screen) back there is another white man (although my eyes could be fooling me).
    On the train I see the very obvious conductor, a woman over his elbow and a man above him.
    I am not 100% sure about the last guy on the left, but if you move left from the woman that is where I see him.

    Thanks for the terrific link.

    January 5th, 2011 at 3:14 pm

  3. AJ says:

    I circled the people in this linked version. You can just barely make out the head and body of the eighth person. The zoomed view in the image is from Shorpy’s blog (because he has a master scan of the image).

    January 5th, 2011 at 3:29 pm

  4. AJ says:

    By the way, Scipio (“skip-ee-oh”) is probably named after Publius Cornelius Scipio Africanus, a famous Roman general. I’m learning now that it was a ‘cognomen’ (third name, or nickname, in Roman culture), but cognomens eventually became hereditary, essentially a family name.

    You’ll find Scipio on baby naming websites.

    January 5th, 2011 at 4:03 pm

  5. Tim says:

    I’ve been reading Shorpy daily for a few years and the best part is being able to see and discuss the details in the backgrounds of these fascinating images.

    I now have nearly 700 images that I use as desktop backgrounds on my laptop. Some that I could imagine framing and hanging in our house:

    January 6th, 2011 at 9:29 am

  6. KGS says:

    You may already know this, but the “American Memory” section of the Library of Congress website ( has some great historic photos, many of which can be printed free for non-commercial purposes. I enjoy the Edward Curtis archive (, but there are many different subject areas to explore. They also have lots of audio files, scans of historic documents… I could spend all day on that site!

    Also, Jim at Sweet Juniper ( has an obsession with old images of street urchins (including newsies), you might find something you like there.

    January 6th, 2011 at 10:05 am

  7. Jen says:

    I love browsing the American Memory section at the LOC website. I found out about it during a special elective class I took during my grad work for my ed degree. The entire class was based around using technology to illustrate history and social studies. There is some really awesome images store in the collection, as well as some great sound bites and videos.

    January 6th, 2011 at 1:07 pm

  8. Bev says:

    I was taken with the Henrietta 1943 photo. My father worked the mail on the train from SF to LA for all of my growing-up years, so I am very familiar with that method of transferring information to the train.

    January 12th, 2011 at 12:23 pm

  9. Brenna says:

    I absolutely love old photos like these. I wonder if I could figure out a way to work those into our decor…

    January 17th, 2011 at 8:14 pm

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