…or stumbled onto history

Written by Michael Shannon

“The past is never dead, it’s not even past.” William Faulkner said that. He had every reason to believe it. Considered America’s premier Southern writer, he came by his craft honestly. He sat at the kitchen table and listened to his family talk. A common American theme for many of us.

Faulkner’s grandfather served in the same 2nd Mississippi regiment as my great-great grandfather and though that isn’t a connection cemented by DNA, it counts in our family.

Faulkner brought a fierce intelligence to his work. He was a keen observer of the life around him.

I suppose I could be accused of looking in the rear view mirror, after all life is made stable by what we know and learn about the past. The black and white past of pictures. There is another past though.

Old photographs and illustrations in long forgotten newspaper and magazines are always in black and white. People almost never smile. That can be because they had to sit very still for cameras whose exposure time was so long or perhaps they simply had bad teeth. My own grandfather had all his teeth pulled by the barber when he was in his thirties, so that could be true. He didn’t smile for the camera until he had those nice, shiny false teeth. After that he made up for all those frowns. Anyway, who really knows.

So much of our communal history is in black and white. Great-grandma Shannon’s picture portrait was so stern and scowling that no one in the family wanted to hang it. Was she really like that? My father always called her the meanest woman in the world. Was it her or was it the photograph?

Catherine Shannon and my uncle Jackie, Pismo Beach,1919. The meanest woman in the world. Shannon Family photo.

A recent development, the advent of colorized film has shone an entirely different light on those old, staid, ash colored pictures. Somehow the simple act of broadening the color pallet has made them seem much more real; interesting and alive.

Picture this. A colorized film shot around 1905 in New York city is posted on You Tube, shots of the line of pushcarts lined up along Hester street. The fishmonger, butcher, apple peddler and a cart with a hand cranked sewing machine for those in need of timely clothing repair are all there. Derby’s, hardboiled, everywhere. Soft felt hats on the poorer working man, women in shirtwaists and long floor length skirts; nearly every one with an apron. We take a ride on the elevated train as it crosses the Brooklyn Bridge. The train passes the Hippodrome which took up an entire block between 43rd and 44th streets along 6th avenue where entertainment included entire circuses, musical revues, Harry Houdini’s disappearing elephant act and vaudeville shows. Silent movies such as Neptune’s Daughter (1914) were shown before packed houses.

Harry Houdini and the disappearing elephant, Hippodrome, New York.

In what was meant to be a typical sidewalk scene the camera remains rooted while foot traffic passes up and down the broad walk. In the background the clip clop of shod horses, the metallic grinding of iron wheels, in the distance the clanging of a brass trolley bell announcing its coming. Typical people coming and going, a newspaper stand aligned along the curb in the middle background. A stout matron lumbers across the walk, her Merry Widow hat topped by a long ostrich plume, seemingly indifferent to anyone nearby; a young man in an early spring boater skipped out of her way the way a sailboat flees from an ocean liner intent on it’s destination. In the way people do, no one smiles or takes any direct notice of the camera. None of my business; places to go, things to do.

In the distance a pair of young people walk towards the lens. By their clothes they could be dressed up for a stroll towards the Hippodrome or to Delmonico’s for lunch. He in fawn colored trousers, polished shoes with toe caps, a jaunty straw boater atop; dark blue coat, sky blue shirt with a starched collar and cravat as ties were called then. She wears a white skirt over her matching petticoat and a pink shirtwaist adorned with ribbons. all tied at the waist with a velvet ribbon. Her summer straw hat has a big black and white bow.

There is no doubt they are a couple. In a time when displays of public affection were frowned upon it is clear by how closely they walk, an occasional brush of the hand, a smiling glance aside says that this is love indeed. There is a certain sweetness on display.

They walk towards the lens oblivious to the goings on around them. Not paying attention she walks directly over a steam grate set in the sidewalk and ala Marilyn Monroe, it blows her skirt up waist high before she can get her hands out to hold it down. High button shoes and silk stockings on display, a man crossing the street casts a sly sidelong glance. The young man turns to help, his hands reaching out towards her but embarrassed enough not to touch. Flustered she pushes her skirt back down, takes a step and turns to look at the young man, he grins. Has he seen them before? Suddenly with a smile of pure delight, she throws back her head and laughs; out loud.

What a glimpse into the living past. Not some posed, rigid mysterious photograph that leaves you guessing it’s meaning, but a look at how people really were. Just like now. Just like today. Just like always.

If you can get past the speculation, the rigid historical writings and like this flash of truth from New York 1905, you can see a beautiful young couple whose lives are ahead of them. If you can do that, then you know history is not some dry and dusty photo album in grandma’s attic nor a textbook sitting on your desk, it’s alive and it lives. Every day.

Michael Shannon is a World Citizen, Surfer, Sailor, Teacher, Builder and Story Teller. He lives in Arroyo Grande, California, USA. He writes for his children.




Written by Michael Shannon

Annie Grey, the Kodak Girl, 1904. Fitz Hugh Studio portrait. 1904. Shannon Family Photo.

Know that life goes on in a never ending circle, never reaching an end. What we do today has been done before. Human nature abides.

I was once a teacher. I taught in high school classrooms at the dawn of the I-Phone. The experience was seminal. We saw a transformation in the way people communicate. Literally overnight my kids created a new dimension for sharing information.

History has many examples of these technical or social transformations, the radio, the telephone, television, etc. which we are familiar with. Others are very old. The earliest known writing was invented around 3400 B.C. in an area called Sumer near the Persian Gulf, todays modern Iraq. Because many of these changes happen outside personal experience they are not so obvious.

In 1954, my grandparents retired from the dairy business after 41 years of serving cattle. They were happy with that. For the first time in nearly their entire married life they didn’t have to get up at four am. It as like being released from a long prison sentence and it changed their lives.

To reward themselves they decided to build a new home. My grandmother Annie picked a plan from a home and garden plan book, they called Howard Sharps, a contractor whose father C C had built their barns and outbuildings and he came out to the house they had lived in for thirty years, sat down at the kitchen table and Annie put her finger on the house she wanted. Over coffee they talked about what she wanted, shook hands on it as they used to do, and the project was underway. No contract because you didn’t do that. It was a small town, after all Howards father had worked as an apprentice for Annie’s brother-in-law and my father and uncle had gone to school with his boys. I went to school with Howards kids. You could trust them.

The New House 1963 and The Old House, 1930. Family Photos

In due time the family pickups were loaded at the old house on El Campo Road and driven up the hill and unloaded at the new house. They kept my grandmothers piano, which you may have read about, my uncles roll top desk from the original Bank of Arroyo Grande, and the solid Maple bedroom set which they had brought down from Berkeley in 1918. The White treadle sewing machine which was their first purchase as a married couple in 1908 went in the guest bedroom where we slept as little boys when we stayed over and the mahogany rocker in which my grandmother had rocked her little boys, my dad and my uncle Jackie.

That was about it. The old family were not big savers. In those days things were used, repaired and taken up to the dump at the back of the ranch when they wore out. Besides, grandma wanted new things, a washer, a dryer, refrigerator; living room and dining room furniture and those floor length white gray draperies with the rose pattern. New, it had to be new. Do you blame them? They lived through a twenty year depression, two World Wars and it had been a hard life.

I was just nine when they moved and I don’t remember much about the old house my great-grandpa Shannon built in 1920, where they lived all those years, but I do remember the new one. It was so different than the farmhouse we grew up in which was more than eighty years old. It didn’t smell like an old house. It smelled fresh, the walls were clean, it had new wallpaper and my grandma had Mae Ketchum, her old friend come once a week to clean it. My dad always said they drank more coffee than any cleaning he could see, but they had known each other since they were girls before the turn of the century so who’s to blame them.

I’ve always been a snoopy kind of guy. I want to know whats behind everything; what make it tick, what does it look like? You might be like that too. In the new guest bathroom grandma had a long row of floor to ceiling cabinets. She kept her linens there. Taking a hand towel out one day when I was washing up before lunch, I was hauling hay for my uncle Jack in the summer when I was thirteen and anyone who has done that knows how filthy dirty you get. Unloading the hay truck in the barn where it’s hotter than the dickens is not a labor of love. So, as I pulled the towel out I saw for the first time the three shoe boxes she kept in the back of the cabinet.

Curious, I pulled one out and removed the lid. Inside were stacks of very old photographs. Some printed on stiff cardboard, bearing the stamp of the photo studios where the family used to go when the it was only way to be photographed. You had to go down to Stonehart’s studio in Santa Maria or the Gainsborough studio or Fitz Hough’s in San Luis Obispo. It was a train ride on the old Pacific Coast Railway either way. Dressed in your best clothes, they would pose you against a backdrop where you had to sit very still while the film was exposed. It’s why you see so few candid photographs from that time. So serious. Or so it seemed.

We have a red velvet covered photo album full of these portraits, none I believe taken after 1900. Every one is a studio portrait. Serious, sober looking people dressed in their best. Sadly we only know the names of two. Below is one. I takes some serious imagination to breath any real life into them.

Mister John Corbit. Prominent Arroyo Grande Resident. Born Ireland 1846, Died Arroyo Grande 1893, Studio Portrait. About 1888.

Of course, they were no more serious than we are today. My grandfather and his boys used to tease my grandmother unmercifully, just to see her laugh. They lived lives just like ours, full of humor strife and sadness, it just doesn’t show in those old pictures. When I was young I thought, gee, they were so serious back then, not like now. Of course I was wrong. I just needed to look deeper into those boxes.

That didn’t happen though. It took another forty years, the passing of my grandparents, father and mother before those old boxes showed up again. In 1999, my uncle Jack living by himself on his cattle ranch up in Creston fell and cracked his head against the fireplace. He lay on the floor with a very nasty head wound, bleeding and just semi-conscious. A neighbor who used to come around to visit and check on him, found him, called the family and the ambulance. He’d spent his whole life chasing cows and he finally just wore out. He was ninety.

The ranch needed to be rented so cleaning up was a necessity. Uncle Jack was never one for maintenance so it turned out to be a big job. The boxes of photos turned up though. He must have taken them when he and my dad sold the Arroyo Grande Ranch and he bought the new one on Huer Huero creek.

I’ve been through them time and again. The sad thing is that almost none of the old photos has a caption or any information written on them. It’s been an adventure just trying to figure out who’s who. I wouldn’t say it’s been a chore; more like a treasure hunt. There are studio photos, pictures in old autograph books, school pictures and stacks of candid pictures taken when my grandmother Annie was a girl living in her uncle’s big house, Farview, with it’s panorama of the entire valley from it’s place on top of the hill.

Annie came up to live in Arroyo Grande when she was just eight. That was 1893. Soon after she must have asked for a Kodak. For the next few years until she graduated from college she took stacks of photos of her friends and family. I still have the old camera and actually used it when I was a kid. I Finally stopped when Kodak no longer made film for it. I kept it though.

Patrick Moore’s Farview House with nearly all of Arroyo Grande in attendance. 1890. Shannon Family Photo.

By far the most significant event in the history of amateur photography was the introduction of the Kodak #1 camera in 1888. Invented and marketed by George Eastman, a former bank clerk from Rochester, New York. The Kodak was a simple box camera that came loaded with a 100-exposure roll of film. When the roll was finished, the entire machine was sent back to the factory in Rochester, where it was reloaded and returned to the customer while the first roll was being processed. The Kodak was made possible by technical advances in the development of roll film and small, fixed-focus cameras. Eastman’s real genius lay in his marketing strategy though. By simplifying the apparatus and even processing the film for the consumer, he made photography accessible to millions of casual amateurs with no particular professional training to make their own photographs. To underscore the ease of the Kodak system, Eastman launched an advertising campaign featuring women and children operating the camera, and coined the memorable slogan: “You press the button, we do the rest.”

Within a few years of the Kodak’s introduction, snapshot photography became a national craze. Various forms of the word “Kodak” entered common American speech and amateur “camera fiends” formed clubs and by 1898, just ten years after the first Kodak was introduced, one photography journal estimated that over 1.5 million roll-film cameras had reached the hands of amateur shutterbugs.

The great majority of early snapshots were made for personal reasons: to commemorate important events weddings, graduations, parades; to document travels and to record parties, picnics, or simple family get-togethers; to capture the appearance of children, pets, cars, and houses.The earliest Kodak photographs were printed in a circular form, but later models produced a rectangular image, usually printed small enough to be held in the palm of the hand. These are what I have.

My grandmother and her friends, 1903. Kodak circular print. From top. Hattie , Myrtle, Annie, Maggie, Mamie and Tootsie at bottom. The original is just palm sized, about the size of an egg. Shannon Family Photo.

That little camera was a turning point in her life. She recorded all of those things. She documented for me a period of her life when she was young, just a girl really. Her friends and family shown in a way not possible before the little camera. She kept it up until she married in 1908 and then she slowed down. By the 1920’s she was finished. I suppose life got in the way. She was a dairyman’s wife, raising two boys and other than occasional shots of her growing children she did little after those years.

Playing dress-up at Farview, Annie Shannon, Tootsie Lierly. 1900. Shannon Family Photo.

Like the cell phone today, the hand held, owner operated camera shed a new light on the history of her time. Before the Kodak you had the stereopticon with its two identical images that gave you the illusion of three dimension and There were postcards of far off places. Paintings and drawings illustrated the time and place. Stiff, formal and unforgiving, the visual history of the time left much to the imagination.

Annie with Uncle Pat Moore and Molly “O”. Shannon Family Photo.

Suddenly pictures of everyday life were possible. Grandmas little photo albums laid her life as a young woman, smart, playful, full of the gaiety of life before the gates to grown up opened.

A Day at the Beach, Harrie Tyler and Annie Shannon 1898, Pismo Beach, California. Shannon Family Photo.

Cellphones, Tik-Tok, Instagram, SnapChat, it’s all been done before. Society becomes more inclusive and at the same time less focused. Did the Kodak let me see a little ways into my grandmothers life? It sure did. Did it erase some imagination. It did that too. But look how much history the Kodak gave us.

At the beach in Pismo on a Sunday double date. Left to right, Annie Gray, Margaret “Maggie” Phoenix and Archie “Arch” Harloe. Taken at the foot of Main Street in 1904. Photo: Jack Shannon. Shannon Family Photo.

A note on the last photo, Both couples ultimately married. Annie Grey married Jack Shannon, they were my grandparents and Maggie Phoenix married Arch Harloe. Maggie taught school for forty years and has an elementary school named for her. Margaret Harloe Elementary School in Arroyo Grande, California.

Michael Shannon is a World Citizen, Surfer, Sailor, Teacher, Builder and Story Teller. He lives in Arroyo Grande, California, USA. He writes for his children.