Looking closely at photographs often reveals morsels about how we came to be the people we are today.
Street scenes are particularly good places to start, especially if they have people in them.
A lot of our older pictures don't. There are good reasons for that. One was a stylistic convention that came from the art world that suggested landscapes generally should be quiet and bereft of bothersome people. Then there was the practical problem that early cameras had lengthy exposure times. The reason people often look grim in early formal photos is that their heads are being held in place by hidden steel clamps.
By the time our picture for today was taken in the early 20th century, exposure times were considerably faster. Still, the lady in the foreground hurriedly jaywalking with her young son appears somewhat blurry. The people on both sides of the street, moving more slowly, are in focus.
A colorized postcard version of this picture was printed by the Detroit Publishing Co. in spring 1910, so the picture carries that date. It probably was taken the year before.
It is a warm summer day in the photo, and we are looking south on High Street from Chestnut Street. The street is made of brick and holds up well under the horse-drawn traffic of the day. A close look to the left reveals an early automobile making its way toward us, but most of the carriages and wagons in this picture are pulled by horses.
This is a commercial and entertainment district. The May Co. is to the right with signs advertising "Draperies-Stoves Etc." and "Furniture-Carpets." To the left, we can see the ostentatious Strengs Department Store; nearby is the New Idea Millinery Store.
Across the street at the corner of Spring and High streets is the new Chittenden Hotel. An earlier hotel with the same name on this site burned to the ground in a fire in 1893 that leveled two city blocks.
Between the Chittenden and the nearby Star Hotel is a sign luring people into a theater to see vaudeville at 5 or 10 cents. The sign does not make clear what the extra nickel purchases.
This is a work day, and most people are in town for business reasons. The men are in wool suits and are uniformly wearing hats. Some of the hats are straw, telling us this picture was taken between Memorial Day and Labor Day when straw hats could be fashionably worn. The ladies also are wearing hats and their dresses have long hemlines, but the bustles and wasp-waist corsets of the previous generation are gone and the ladies appear to be relatively comfortable in their summer clothes.
Most of the buildings are four to five stories. In an era before elevators, that was the number of flights of stairs one could reasonably expect people to climb to visit their doctor, lawyer or architect.
But the city is changing. In the distance, high-rise buildings around Statehouse Square can be seen. With the success of the "safety elevator," the Wyandotte Building became the first skyscraper in Columbus in 1895.
In 1910, Columbus was known as the Arch City, and the reason is clear in the center of the picture. In 1888, 250,000 Union Army veterans and their families descended on Columbus for the annual "encampment" of the Grand Army of the Republic. At the time, Columbus was a town of about 80,000 people. The only way the large number of visitors could be accommodated was to erect immense tent cities on vacant land near downtown.
To provide security and illumination to the veterans and their families, large wooden arches lit by gas lights were erected at every street and alley intersection along High Street. Large conventions attracted muggers, pickpockets and thieves from many miles away, but the lighted arches helped local law enforcement keep the bad people at bay.
The success of the arches led to their replacement with metal arches lit with electric lights. The arches also provided power to the electrified streetcars of Columbus. Eventually, arches could be found on most of the major streets downtown. They lasted until 1914 when they began to be replaced with electric lights on poles.
Much of the Columbus of 1910 along High Street is gone now, having been replaced by newer and generally larger buildings. We still can see brick streets in some of the neighborhoods near downtown, and some of the commercial buildings from the era have been renovated and reused. In the Short North and in other parts of Columbus, the arches have returned, as well.
My strong supposition, however, is that 5-cent vaudeville won't be coming back soon.
Local historian and author Ed Lentz writes the As It Were column for ThisWeek Community News.