Sometimes a picture really is worth a thousand words. For this reason, historians are increasingly turning to visual imagery as primary source material in archival research. The wealth of information contained in a simple photograph is immense, each one representing a unique moment in time and place. Even unidentified photos can provide invaluable information to anyone willing to take a few minutes to look closely.
This real photo postcard, captioned “Mill Street, Reno Nevada,” is an example of how we can use historical photographs to better understand the most intimate and casual details of daily life.
Looking east on Mill Street, this image captures the daily rhythm of life in early twentieth- century Reno. Notice the woman on the left, wearing a skirt that exposes her ankles. This fact alone helps date the photo to circa 1915. Also, notice the telephone poles, an early twentieth-century design and another common way to date photographs. The trees are young, indicating the newness of the neighborhood. The street is dirt and there is snow in the gutter on the right side. This, and the shadows created by the lower winter sun, mean that the houses across the street have southern exposures, which places them on the north side of Mill Street. This is how we know it is facing east. Checking the Sanborn Insurance Maps of Reno is a simple way to confirm this.
Notice the wagons on the street, showing home delivery of the resources people used to keep their households warm and running. The horse-drawn wagon next to the woman is a fuel delivery wagon, possibly bringing kerosene to her. Also, notice the wagon full of firewood going down the street. A pile of logs has fallen from the wagon, and the photographer has snapped the picture right as the man is walking back to pick them up! This is a completely innocuous yet stunning detail.
The house down at the very end of the street was built by the father of local architect, Frederic DeLongchamps, who grew up in the bungalow behind it. He would become famous for the Washoe County Court House, the Reno Post Office, and many other still-loved homes and buildings in Nevada. While this house still stands at the intersection of Mill and Holcomb, the Automobile Museum and an empty lot have replaced the rest of the homes on this section of Mill Street.
If you are interested, come see this photo and many other exciting and equally revealing materials on exhibit right now in the Knowledge Center as part of our Reno 150 celebration.