Recollecting century-old views of Northeast Philly neighborhoods
January 15, 2013By Peter Crimmins
It was probably staged.
The picture, "Out at Second Base," was snapped in the playground at the J.H. Brown school in Holmesburg, in Northeast Philadelphia.
The play is at second base, but the batter seems to be ready to swing, and the pitcher is looking directly at the camera. The runner, called out by the nearby umpire, appears to be dead.
The photo was taken around 1910, perhaps by William Sliker but more likely by his son, Charles. Part of the Sliker family studio photography business, based in Bridesburg, was to roam the surrounding neighborhoods peddling picture postcards.
Cameras were scarce in 1910, and the Slikers had one of the first portable box cameras, the Kodak Brownie. Charles would systematically roam the neighborhoods taking pictures of interesting things, return to the darkroom to develop the shots as postcards, then go back out to those neighborhoods and sell them.
"Then they got to know him: 'Would you come out and take pictures of us at the house?'" said Fred Moore, a member of the Northeast Philadelphia History Network. "That started to work. He went out on horseback, riding around the country."
There are lots of images of Philadelphia at that time, but the Sliker pictures are useful in that the father-and-son team systematically combed the neighborhoods looking for interesting landscapes and structures that could be sold back to the neighbors as postcards.
A rich history of the Northeast
"So, the Sliker studio created this documentary visual history of the Northeast," said Jack McCarthy, a professional archivist and a member of the history network. "More than any other single photographer, that body of work is just this really rich history of the landscapes and buildings and structures -- the bridges and roads."
The pictures were collected by Bruce Conner, another member of the history network. But two years ago, he died in a car accident. The quadriplegic was an avid collector and left behind a historical trove of African-American artifacts, Japanese swords, objects related to John Wanamaker, and more than 700, early 20th-century picture postcards.
"Kathleen Conner [Bruce's mother] said, 'Get this categorized and sorted.' She had no clue," remembered Moore, a longtime friend of Conner. "McCarthy and I were busy -- we dragged our feet. We went once and didn't come back."
Eventually Conner sold her son's picture collection to a dealer, who in turn sold them to another dealer. Now the history network has launched an email campaign to buy them back.
The Northeast Philadelphia History Network, a loose affiliation of amateur historians who broke away from the Frankford Historical Society, has little in the way of organized structure. There is no building, no storage space, and no 501(c)3. This postcard set is the first thing members will have ever collected.
Reacquiring the collection
"And then, where do you keep this? We have no central location," said Moore at his kitchen table in Huntingdon Valley. "I will probably keep it -- don't tell my wife -- but it's only two shoeboxes. My goodness."
The history network whittled the 700-plus collection down to 341, which the dealer has agreed to sell at a discount for $5,500. By doing little more than emailing their friends, the history network has so far raised about $4,500.
"That's what's heartening -- it's a grass-roots response. Small amounts from lots of people," said McCarthy. "It demonstrates that people are committed and care. They are not big donors in the charitable world. These are working people."
Ultimately, the history network would like to make high-resolution, electronic scans of the images available to users online.