Salvaged photographs from the St. Louis Street Department circa 1900-1930 catalogued in new book | St. Louis Public Radio

Salvaged photographs from the St. Louis Street Department circa 1900-1930 catalogued in new book

Aug 2, 2017

This segment was originally produced on November 26, 2016 and re-aired on August 8, 2017.

Charles Clement Holt was many things: an engineer, a draftsman, a surveyor for the St. Louis Streets Department. He became so good at the latter that he eventually became head of the Streets Department.

One of the keys to his success? Excessive photographic documentation. From 1900 to 1930, Holt led the group in documenting street activities across the burgeoning St. Louis community — from sinkholes being filled to streets being oiled. Along the way, he also managed to capture some “Humans of St. Louis”-style photographs of the people and places that made St. Louis tick back in the day.  

At its height, Holt’s Street Department produced about 6,000 images per year. Thousands of those photographs were eventually lost but during the 1950s, a city historian found 300 glass plate negatives from that era and saved them for the Missouri Historical Society’s collection. While a few at a time have made their way into the public eye in the past, now you can view all 300 in a recently released a book called “Capturing the City: Photographs from the Streets of St. Louis, 1900-1930.

On Tuesday’s St. Louis on the Air, authors Angela Dietz, director of digital initiatives at the Missouri History Museum, and Joseph Heathcott, a writer, curator and educator at the New School, joined contributor Steve Potter to discuss the images and history behind them.

“Charles Holt had a unique perspective,” Dietz said. “He had an aesthetic and an eye for the city he lived in. He wanted to learn about the city through these photographs. So he would widen that lens and focus on daily life going on.”

While the photos were initially taken to document street projects, the more you look at them, the more you realize they document the life and humanity of normal St. Louisans.

The glass plate negatives are especially notable because they capture fine-grain detail. The camera would have been a big, boxy, wooden camera with a black curtain draped over the photographer to eliminate glare. The fact Holt was able to capture so many photographs with such weighty equipment is laudable, Dietz said.

The photos document a variety of commerce and people delivering goods. They also showcase signs, stores and the pollution of the city in days gone by. Because the photographs were taken by the street department, most of the locations of the photographs are easy to pinpoint.

One of the most remarkable transformations captured in the book is the advent of the automobile. There are several photographs that showcase nothing but wagons and horse-drawn carriages. By 1930, however, automobiles and streetcars crowded the streets as far as the eye could see.

"To me the most surprising thing was not how alien this landscape or time seems, but how familiar." - Joseph Heathcott

In the book, the reader will also see different interesting public information campaigns. In one of them, the city of St. Louis makes an effort to shut down public privy restrooms to stave off the spread of disease, lobbying for (gasp!) indoor plumbing.

As the city limits were pushed outward with a growing population, the reader can also follow Holt’s journey to less populated parts of the city.

“To me the most surprising thing was not how alien this landscape or time seems, but how familiar,” Heathcott said. “We see so many people doing the same things they do today: sweeping the storefront, delivering goods. It is the kind of stuff that makes the city run even right now…and it was going on then. It is comforting to see the city in that respect.”

Below, a selection of his photographs:

At some point between 1910 and 1920, a crowd watches as municipal workers pull a horse out of a hole. "Falling" injuries and injuries due to improperly labeled municipal works were at an all-time high during the early 1900s in St. Louis.
Credit Capturing the City

Notice the sign about F.W. Woolworth Company on Sixth Street near Locus in 1915: "Nothing in this store over 10 cents."
Credit Capturing the City
You may recognize this intersection in the Central West End: Euclid and McPherson. On the left is what is known today as Mission Taco. Across the street on the left is what is known today at Left Bank Books. Taken between 1908 and 1918.
Credit Capturing the City

St. Louis on the Air brings you the stories of St. Louis and the people who live, work and create in our region. St. Louis on the Air host Don Marsh and producers Mary EdwardsAlex Heuer and Kelly Moffitt give you the information you need to make informed decisions and stay in touch with our diverse and vibrant St. Louis region.