Olentangy Valley News

History today

Center offers insights into Ohio's past


A visit to the Ohio History Center, the museum operated by the Ohio Historical Society, was on my list of things to do during the recent holidays. The early January arrival of Echoes, the society's newsletter for members, highlighted exhibits I wanted to see.

"Faces of Appalachia: Photographs by Albert J. Ewing" was surely worth seeing. We were introduced to it with a talk by Lisa Wood, a visual resources curator, who described Ewing as an itinerant photographer from Lowell, Ohio, a small town on the Muskingum River in Washington County. In the 1890s and early 1900s, his work took him mostly to Appalachian West Virginia.

While the Ohio Historical Society certainly pursues some of its collection with purpose, other parts are acquired by happenstance. In this case, a collector from Illinois purchased 4,000 of Ewing's glass-plate negatives at an antique store in southern Ohio. He eventually donated them to the Ohio Historical Society in 1980. The collection intrigued the staff, but it wasn't until about 10 years ago that they began to do research and consider how they might display this volume of work showing rural people posing for portraits, many of whom might never have been photographed before Ewing visited their tiny towns.

Now we can view a selection of Ewing's work in an attractive display that includes several enlargements, perhaps 4 by 7 feet in size, which bring unknown adults and children to life. It is often observed that subjects in photos of this time were very serious, but I learned some interesting tricks early photographers used to set up a portrait. Because of the relatively long exposure times, one couldn't expect young ones to sit still, so a baby or young child would be supported by an adult who was hidden under a blanket that, in the finished print, simply appeared to be part of the background. Look closely for these "hidden mothers" the next time you view old photographs.

Not a great deal is known about Ewing, but enough was learned to establish the basis for the exhibit. One of the joys for the curator and staff has been hearing from Ewing's descendants or, in one case, meeting a family who now owns a newspaper office that appeared in Ewing's photograph from more than 100 years ago. The society's hope is that more will be discovered. The exhibit has been extended for several months.

Another reason for our visit was to see the Lustron home, featured in the exhibit, "1950s: Building the American Dream." After World War II, when housing was in demand, the Lustron Corp., headquartered in Columbus, built and shipped prefabricated porcelain-enamel steel houses all over the United States. Nearly 2,500 homes were built during just a few years in the late 1940s. Of 275 built in Ohio, about 200 remain. There were three house plans and four "modern" color choices, with prices beginning at $4,190.

The timing of our visit made it possible for us to see the shimmering artificial silver Christmas tree, lit by a floodlight with a rotating wheel of color filters -- a classic from the 1950s. Gifts under the tree were wrapped, but familiar toys such as Lincoln Logs could be found in the children's room. Radios and a TV in the living room were playing voices and images of the period.

We were invited to rummage through the built-in drawers and cabinets, stocked with period items. I recognized kitchen utensils such as those from our parents' homes. My husband found a Keystone Automobile Club Travel Guide to be a source of curiosity, listing hotels known to us, some long-gone and some still around.

The self-guided tour of the house was fun, and the 1950s exhibit continues until 2018. Don't wait that long to see it, because there is a great deal more about that generation than the Lustron home. I need another visit to take it all in.

On Saturdays all year, there is a wide variety of programs, curator talks and theater presentations at the Ohio History Center. "Cabin Fever Weekends" offer special programs in January and February. You can find something to interest you on the center's calendar at ohiohistory.org.

The Ohio History Center is a central Ohio gem. If you have not visited there recently, the winter would be a great time to take time to appreciate it. I encourage you to watch for the Ohio Historical Society's promotional campaign during the upcoming tax season. We're promised that Annie Oakley, Gen. Ulysses S. Grant and the Wright Brothers will remind us to donate a portion of our state income tax refunds to Ohio's History Fund.

Carole Wilhelm is a member of the Powell-Liberty Historical Society.