Historical Photo Exploration #2 – What’s Going On Here?

The archival collections of the Jonesborough/Washington County History Museum are full of historical photos from all over Washington County. When the photos are donated to the museum, sometimes the donor knows all kinds of information about the picture, sometimes the person who took the picture left a whole lot of information on the back for future generations. Usually, though, the pictures come with no information at all. As historians, we have to look at several context clues within the picture to help us date when the photo was taken and where the photo was taken. What was going on in that particular moment in time when the photo was taken? Early photographic technology was not as instant as it is today. It took time to take a good photo, so photos were usually reserved for special occasions.

Each week, we’ll be posting a photo from our archives with some questions to help you explore the photo. We’ll also include some writing prompts if you feel like going a step further and turning this into a creative writing exercise as well.

If you are doing this activity with your student(s), the answer key is provided at the end of the post.


To see a larger version of the image, click HERE.


Questions to Answer

1) What is happening in this photo?

2) What is a cornerstone?

3) Where is the Courthouse in this photo?

4) What are some clues that can help you date when this photo was taken?

5) Who is included in this picture? (Look for clues to gender, age, and race.)

6) Who is not included in this picture? (Look for clues to gender, age, and race.)

7) Who do you think took this picture?

8) Why do you think this picture was taken?

9) What is the most surprising or shocking thing about this photo?

10) Would you be able to walk across an open construction site in the United States today? Why or why not?

Additional Study Question – Why was the Courthouse so important to Jonesborough?


Creative Writing Exercise – Pick a person in the photo and write a paragraph from their point of view. What were they feeling and thinking in this moment? Do your best to write like you’re from that time period. Go a step further and write a letter as the person in the photo describing the event you saw today.


Answer Key:

1) Placing of the cornerstone for the new Washington County Courthouse on Main Street, Jonesborough.

2) The cornerstone is the first stone set in the construction of a masonry foundation. All other stones will be set in reference to this stone, thus determining the position of the entire structure.

3) The Courthouse is currently just a hole in the ground in this photo. The old Courthouse had been torn down and a new one was being built.

4) This photo is actually dated, but other points of reference are the electric and telephone poles and the clothes being worn by the people in the photo.

5) There is a mixture of men, women, and children. People in the photo appear to be predominantly Caucasian. There are not many African Americans in the photo.

6) There are a few African Americans in the photo. Where are they located in relation to everyone else in the photo? (Not in the foreground) Why do you think this is? (Answers could touch on segregation and that African Americans were a minority within Washington County’s population.)

7) Possibly someone from the newspaper or a town official.

8) To commemorate the placement of the cornerstone for the new Courthouse.

9) Open ended answer, but one big surprise is the people walking over the hole in their finest attire across stacked boards.

10) Mostly no, and that has everything to do with changes in law and safety standards.

Additional Study Question – You can find the answer to this question under local history on our website, or by conducting a Google search on Jonesborough’s history.