Photos of 1920s Philadelphians, Hanging Out on Their Stoops

The Vault
Historical Treasures, Oddities, And Delights
Aug. 25 2014 8:00 AM

Photos of 1920s Philadelphians, Hanging Out on Their Stoops

The Vault is Slate's history blog. Like us on Facebook, follow us on Twitter @slatevault, and find us on Tumblr. Find out more about what this space is all about here.

Photographer John Frank Keith wandered Philadelphia in the 1920s, capturing scenes of people in front of their houses. The photographs tightly frame groups of people—drinking, playing, babysitting, hanging out—against backdrops of South Philadelphia brick and concrete. The Library Company of Philadelphia offers a great set of Keith images on its Flickr page, as well as a digital exhibition of his work.

The Library Company writes that Keith was a friendly loner who never married. He had a day job as a bookkeeper and hobbies including “stamp collecting, keeping the beat with marching music on a phonograph, making and setting off fireworks, and reading the World Book Encyclopedia.”

Advertisement

He used a simple camera to make his images, curator Merry A. Foresta writes, a choice that “dictated a consistent distance from his subjects.” As a result, there is a sameness to the images, which focuses the viewer’s eye on changing details of dress, facial expression, and attitude.

While other photographers of his day—Walker Evans, Lewis Hine—photographed everyday people as a way of commenting on society’s ills, Keith, who left very few records, appears to have thought of his project as simply a way to meet people, be a part of the neighborhood, and earn some small amount of money from subjects who paid for copies of his images.

Thanks to reader (and photographer) Christopher Boas for the suggestion. 

1JohnFrankKeithCollage
L: Taken circa 1925. R: Taken circa 1925.

Courtesy of the Library Company of Philadelphia.

2JohnFrankKeithCollage
L: Taken circa 1925. R: Taken circa 1925.

Courtesy of the Library Company of Philadelphia.

3JohnFrankKeithCollage
L: Taken circa 1925. R: Taken circa 1925.

Courtesy of the Library Company of Philadelphia.

4JohnFrankKeithCollage
L: Taken circa 1925. R: Taken circa 1925.

Courtesy of the Library Company of Philadelphia.

Rebecca Onion, who runs Slate’s history blog The Vault, is a writer and academic living in Ohio. Follow her on Twitter.

TODAY IN SLATE

Politics

The Right to Run

If you can vote, you should be able to run for public office—any office.

Move Aside, Oxford Comma, the New Battle Is Over Single or Double Quotes

Renée Zellweger’s New Face Is Too Real

Sleater-Kinney Was Once America’s Best Rock Band

Can it be again?

Ben Bradlee’s Fascinating Relationship With JFK

Culturebox

The Simpsons World App Is Finally Here

I feel like a kid in some kind of store.

Technology

Driving in Circles

The autonomous Google car may never actually happen.

My Father Invented Social Networking at a Girls’ Reform School in the 1930s

How Punctual Are Germans?

  News & Politics
The World
Oct. 22 2014 11:57 AM Why Wasn't the WHO Ready for Ebola?
  Business
Moneybox
Oct. 21 2014 5:57 PM Soda and Fries Have Lost Their Charm for Both Consumers and Investors
  Life
The Vault
Oct. 22 2014 11:36 AM Casting the Role of Scarlett O'Hara Was Really, Really Frustrating
  Double X
The XX Factor
Oct. 22 2014 10:00 AM On the Internet, Men Are Called Names. Women Are Stalked and Sexually Harassed.
  Slate Plus
Working
Oct. 22 2014 6:00 AM Why It’s OK to Ask People What They Do David Plotz talks to two junior staffers about the lessons of Working.
  Arts
Behold
Oct. 22 2014 11:04 AM Do All U.S. Presidents Look the Same? What About Japan’s Prime Ministers?
  Technology
Technology
Oct. 22 2014 10:29 AM Apple TV Could Still Work Here’s how Apple can fix its living-room product.
  Health & Science
Science
Oct. 22 2014 11:30 AM Where Does Ebola Hide? My nerve-wracking research with shrieking bats.
  Sports
Sports Nut
Oct. 20 2014 5:09 PM Keepaway, on Three. Ready—Break! On his record-breaking touchdown pass, Peyton Manning couldn’t even leave the celebration to chance.