Historical Photo Exploration #5 – 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 view a large version of the image, click HERE.


Questions to Answer:

  1. What do you think is happening in this photo?
  2. Why do you think all these people are gathered together?
  3. What are some clues that can help you date when this photo was taken?
  4. Do you recognize any of the buildings in this picture? (Hint: This photo was taken on Main Street, Jonesborough.)
  5. Why are the two people at the edge of the photo blurred?
  6. Who is included in this picture? (Look for clues to gender, age, and race.)
  7. Who is not included in this picture? (Look for clues to gender, age, and race.)
  8. Who do you think took this picture?
  9. Why do you think this picture was taken?
  10. What is the most surprising or shocking thing about this photo?


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. Open answer, but the people are actually gathered because Shipley’s Hardware, the business they’re standing in front of, was giving away a brand new sewing machine. If you zoom in on the picture, can you find the sewing machine?

2. Open answer, but they are gathered together to see who will win the new sewing machine from Shipley’s Hardware. We believe these are all the people who entered the contest.

3. Poles with wires, fashion worn by the people, the model of the sewing machine. This picture was actually taken in 1912.

4. All of these buildings are still standing on Main Street. The antique shop is there now. The wall was knocked down between the two businesses and now the buildings are one.

5. The people at the edge of the photo are blurred because they were moving. Any movement made during a photo would blur it, so people had to remain very still when a picture was being taken.

6. There’s a mix of genders and ages in this photo.

7. There seem to be very few African Americans in this photo. Why might that be?

8. Possibly the owner of Shipley’s Hardware or someone from the newspaper.

9. To document the sewing machine give away and all the people who came out to enter the contest. Do you think Shipley’s Hardware did good business that day?

10. Open answer, but we always enjoy seeing the men hanging out the open window up top.


Additional Study Questions – Why was a sewing machine such a great giveaway in 1912? Answer, sewing machines greatly changed the life of the average American. They made repairs to clothes and creating new clothes much easier. They were also expensive, so winning one was a great prize. Some people would rent sewing machines because they couldn’t own one outright.


To read more, check out these newspaper articles from the Herald and Tribune about the giveaway.



To see the articles enlarged, click Here, Here, and Here.