Photographs: Our Window into the Past

Have you ever dreamed of traveling back in time to see how your neighborhood used to look? Ever envied Marty McFly’s adventures into the worlds of his ancestors?

Is that a ghost on the steps of Old Town Hall? Not exactly – this layered image shows a current view of the building with a view of a Victorian-style façade from 1890 peeking through underneath. Click the image above to see more details.

Since we can’t build our own DeLorean, I think photographs are the best time traveling vehicles we have. They capture a moment in history and allow us to actually see people of the past going about their daily lives. As you read in our last post, two of an archivist’s most important functions are sharing and promoting collections. We use these visuals in exhibits, programs, and publications to help people better connect to the past and to add interest to the stories we tell. We also help researchers to find and utilize these images for their own projects.

The Delaware Historical Society Research Library houses tens of thousands of images showing people, buildings, businesses, community events, and many other subjects. Some date back to the early days of photography—the 1840s—and others are as recent as this year. They include daguerreotypes (the first commercially successful photographic process), tintypes (images on iron sheets covered with lacquer), glass plate negatives, and photographic prints, just to name a few.

We’re used to thinking of photographs in terms of prints and negatives, but some new media projects such as SepiaTown and Historypin are creating a global digital archive, which reach a broader audience and help to keep archives relevant in the 21st century. Both of these sites use crowdsourced mapping software, where anyone who wants to participate can create an account, tag a place on the map, and upload their own image of that spot. One cool feature is the side-by-side juxtaposition of historical and contemporary photos, which lets you track changes in the landscape!

The mobile market also offers new opportunities to share collections. Recently, our library staff contributed images to More Than A Mapp, a smartphone application which allows you to add photos and stories of significant African American historical sites. We have added photographs of Buttonwood School, Mother AUMP Church, Delaware State University, and Samuel Burris’s birthplace. These unique projects are fun and interactive—I urge you to take a look and add your own stories!

Inspired by these digital projects, we set out to create a few of our own “then and now” examples of Market Street in Wilmington.  We felt a bit like history detectives as we attempted to capture what the places in our historical photos look like today. This was a really fun project and a great way to recognize the history that’s all around us. Check out our photos and let us know what you think!

West side of Market Street between 2nd and 3rd, circa 1873
West side of Market Street between 2nd and 3rd, October 2012










Southwest corner of Market Street at 4th Street, 1928
Southwest corner of Market Street at 4th Street, October 2012


Old Town Hall, 500 Block of Market Street, 1890
Old Town Hall, 500 Block of Market Street, October 2012
















East side of Market Street between 7th and 8th, 1914
East side of Market Street between 7th and 8th, October 2012










Make sure to come back next week when we’ll be talking about how to archive your own family’s history!



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