Historical Photo Exploration #3 – 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 are some of the items you can identify in this photo?

3) What do you think the man is making?

4) What is written on the back wall of the shop?

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

6) What does the word credit mean in this situation?

7) Why would he have suspended credit to his customers during the time this photo was taken?

8) Who do you think took this picture?

9) Why do you think this picture was taken?

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


Creative Writing Exercise – What do you think this man was feeling in this moment when this photo was taken? Do your best to write like you’re from that time period. Go a step further and write an advertisement for this business based on what you’ve learned from this photo.


Answer Key:

1) This is a cobbler engaged in making shoes.

2) Hammer, leather, work bench, hat, glasses, apron, diagrams, etc.

3) Open ended answer, but he is actually making shoes.

4) “New Way No Credit for 1898-99”

5) The year is written on the wall behind him. This photo was most likely taken in early 1898.

6) “The ability of a customer to obtain goods or services before payment, based on the trust that payment will be made in the future.”

7) Maybe his customers weren’t actually paying him like they were supposed to? Also, the United States went through several depressions and panics in the 1890s that destroyed the economy. Many people didn’t have enough money to live on.

8) Might have been someone who knew the store owner. Might have been some one from the newspaper who was helping him advertise his new rules.

9) Lots of possible answers, but what we like best about this photo is the amount of detail.