I don’t know exactly what it is about Shorpy that draws me in so much. Shorpy is a self-proclaimed historical photo archive, a website that’s been around since at least February 2007, each day posting a public domain, high-resolution historical photograh. One day it could be a photo of a building from the 1930s, the next day a picture of migrant workers in 1900, the day after that, a suburban family at Christmas in the 1960s. The beauty of Shorpy is that you never know what will be next.
The curators of the website source their photos from public archives like government libraries, including ancient scanned photographic plates, and even from collections of family photos bought at yard sales and on eBay.
I really enjoy the street scenes for the details of historical life they provide. Because the photos are so high resolution, when you click on one, it is enlarged enough to be able to read signs in the windows and even see people going about their daily business. Others that show government offices or industrials space from a century ago or more or less provide a fascinating glimpse into the way people used to work. It’s especially intriguing to see offices without the automation we have today and the number of people doing a job decades ago that can be done by one person with a computer now.
There’s a little bit of everything in the archive, like I said. There are photographs of auto accidents in the 1900s, photos of once-famous, now-obscure politicans and entertainers spanning the decades, and pcitures and pictures of dressed up kittens from the 1910s that prove that cat fascination didn’t start with the Internet. There are scenes of famous events, such as San Francisco after the 1906 earthquake, and mundane events like people enjoying the beach in old-timey bathing attire.
Another nice part of the site is the community that exists around it. As each photo is posted, fans begin examining them and start posting comments. Often, for street scenes, they’ll do the research to find the exact location today on Google Street View and post it so others can see a comparison. Or they’ll pore over the photos and look for interesting details to point out. Or they’ll do historical research on unfamiliar elements and tell others about their findings.
Among my favorite photos on the site are those that come from the Massachusetts area, including street scenes, photos of buildings that don’t exist any more in familiar locales, and famous personages of the past. I have downloaded many of them, including photos of Boston’s Financial District from the first half of the 20th century, of the long gone railroad station in downtown Salem, and many more. I use them as screensavers on my iMac at work, a kind of melding of the past and the future.
Why do I love Shorpy? It’s hard to say why, but it is a lot of fun.
The name of the web site comes from the very first photo posted on February 2, 2007 of Shorpy Higginbotham. Taken in 1910, the photo depicts pre-teen Shorpy at work in a steel mill as a “greaser”. The photo is symbolic of the theme of the site, which brings us face to face with our history in an intimate manner that only photography can. ↩
- FaneuilHall1904: Public domain | Public domain