Vintage Snapshots

the wondrous world of vernacular photography

Category: 1930s Photos

Elephant, Dog, Rocker, Dress

Pretty, abstract shot of a small dog, an elephant figurine, and a view of a woman's leg and part of a rocking chair

c 1930s (click to enlarge)

A Depression-Era Portrait

Vintage 1930s snapshot of girl in front of screen door

Minnesota, 1939 (click to enlarge)

This photo didn’t jump out at me at first when I came across it in an album I recently picked up, but in looking at it again it struck me as possessing that simple beauty that snapshots are sometimes able to so singularly capture. There is a Minnesota processing stamp on the back dated April 1939, and so much about it conveys that Depression-era feel, from her dress to the house on blocks with no step up to the screen door. The dusty car in the background, her expression, the composition — it doesn’t, to be sure, scream “Great Depression” like some of the well-known images from that time, but it is, I think, deeply evocative in it own understated way.


Home Plate

Vintage Elko-border photo of a woman swinging a baseball bat while standing at a home-made home plate

Woman swings, c 1930s (click to enlarge)

I like the plate in this photo.

More baseball images here.


Vintage snapshot of three people sitting atop a rumble seat

Rumble seat + light leak, c 1930s (click to enlarge)

“In the Badlands”

Vintage '30s snapshot of lonesome road in The Badlands

Somewhere in the Dakotas, August 1934

City Views: The 1937 Cincinnati Flood

Vintage photo of the 1937 Cincinnati flood, when the water was at a level of 72.8 feet

Cincinnati flood waters just short of their maximum height, January 1937

In what has been called the “worst natural disaster ever to strike Cincinnati–and the Ohio River Valley,” the Ohio River flooded (from about Pittsburgh to Cairo, Illinois) for ten days in 1937, causing a loss of almost 400 lives (though only one in Cincinnati itself) – as well as, in today’s dollars, $7.8 billion of property damage. published an absorbing article on the event in January of this year – the flood’s 75th anniversary. The piece recounts the local library’s request for photos of the disaster, and says that they expected about 200 photos, but ended up receiving more than 700.

“Families that weathered this disaster squirreled away images of the rampaging river, of houses upturned, of people waiting in line for hours for some safe water to drink. They preserved these memories in their mind’s eye and on film. Some could only save the mental images. Not everyone could afford a camera in the middle of the Great Depression. But, they could remember. And, as these stories have been passed down from generation to generation, they have not been forgotten.”

Inscription on rear of vintage snapshot detailing how far the Cincinnati flood waters had risen

The inscription on the rear; the water would eventually reach 79.99 feet

Indeed, the article contains several eye-witness accounts from people still alive who retain vivid memories of the ice-cold water (it even snowed during the flood), months spent living elsewhere while homes and businesses dried out, and the fire that occurred on what is called “Black Sunday,” when gasoline storage tanks were knocked over by rushing water and a fire was ignited by a spark from a short circuit.

“Black, toxic smoke choked the air. Factories and houses in the beleaguered neighborhood burned to the water level. Telephone service and electricity stopped. The water works shut down. Natural gas lines were turned off. The city want dark, except for the flames burning into the night. More than 100,000 Greater Cincinnatians were homeless.”

As 79-year-old Lou Jacobs recalled, “It was miserable in Northside during the flood. The water was a filthy mix of oil and sewage and dead carcasses. It stunk. But that did not stop people from coming down to get their feet wet to take pictures.”

98-year-old Dan Henry lives in California and is another who remembers the flood – and may have had a better view of it than just about anybody. He was a pilot who took to the air to capture images for the Cincinnati Enquirer, and was shocked at the devastation he saw. He took the photo below of Crosley Field, the baseball stadium of the Reds at the time. The field had had sand placed on it before the waters came, and was rather amazingly ready for the start of the season a little over two months later.

Crosley Field, home of the Cincinnati Reds, during the 1937 flood

Crosley Field filled with water during the 1937 flood (Photo: Dan Henry)

Lou Jacobs remembered his parents returning to their clothing store some time after the waters receded. The shop would stay open for another fifty years, and “from time to time we tried painting the walls…But every time we did, the paint would peel off. Those walls got so wet in The Flood, they never dried.”

And in a reminder of how times have changed, Jacobs also recalls that drinking water was rationed for months afterwards, so he and other kids were sent down to the river each day to collect water in bottles to use to flush the toilet. “Nobody worried about us little kids being kidnapped…It was the Great Depression. People had too many kids of their own.”

City Views: Corpus Christi, Texas

Vintage photo of Corpus Christi, Texas in 1930

Peoples and Schatzel Streets, Corpus Christi, 1930 (click to enlarge)

This shot is dated February 11, 1930, notes the streets on the back and also mentions “Bay in background” – and you can indeed see it if you enlarge the photo enough. A quick check online reveals that unfortunately nothing in this photo seems to exist today. The block in the middle is open space, and the surrounding streets are occupied by the typical contemporary mishmash of larger buildings. Another step “forward” in American urban planning.

5-Cent Diner

Vintage photo of a city street with diner, dated 1937

Five-Cent Diner with Car, 1937

This photo is dated August 1937 on the stamp on the rear – the year the Great Depression deepened after actually having eased somewhat in the previous few years. By the following year unemployment would hit 19%. I don’t know if five cents was a great deal back then for what they were offering, but I would imagine it must have been a pretty good price or they would not have featured it so prominently. In any case I like the directness of the sign: what else, really, did you need to know?

Apart from that, though, the photo is just pretty stunning for a snapshot, I think: the lines, the angle, the light, the lone automobile, the hulking building looming over the hamburger stand, and where the 5-cent sign ended up being placed compositionally. But was the photographer perhaps actually making a photo of the large building, and the corner of the diner just ended up getting in the way?

One Guy Who Isn’t Afraid to Ask for Directions

Vintage photograph of dog in 1930s automobile

Conversation outside Acme Machinery Co., circa 1930s

Schlitz & Furnished Rooms

Vintage photograph of 1930s city scene with Schlitz sign

Car + signs, circa 1930s

I always like a good city scene, and this shot qualifies as one, I think. A lot of it comes down to those signs, of course…nicely framed against the sky.

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