…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.