Hidden in Plain Sight: Deconstructing a 1912 Panoramic Photo

Our first post of 2012 featured this photograph of a train excursion taken by the Young Men’s Business League (YMBL) to the Texas town of Comanche in 1912. It turns out there’s a lot going on in this one photo, so we’re going to take some time today to look a little closer at what lies within.

Since it’s unlikely these yardsticks were on-hand in case the people of Comanche had a spontaneous need to measure something in 3-foot increments, it’s likely they were branded with the name of a Waco company and passed out on the stops along the YMBL’s route. During this stop, the men took the opportunity to use them to spell out WACO, just in case later viewers of this photo were unsure of the train’s point of origin.

Of course, with almost every man in the photo wearing a hat reading, “Texas Cotton Palace/November 2 to 17/1912/Waco, Texas,” it would be hard to miss the source of these itinerant community spokesmen. The YMBL was a forerunner to the Chamber of Commerce; using their motto of “Come to Waco,” the YMBL toured Texas while touting the benefits of relocating to Waco for business or pleasure. In a book published by the League in 1912 (the same year this photograph was taken, coincidentally), the group listed “Situation [location], Natural Resources, Railroad and Capital” as reasons for choosing Waco as a permanent residence.

The Cotton Palace was another major point of pride for Waco, and a big draw for visitors from other cities. It made sense to promote the exposition to people across the state, as their attendance meant additional revenue for business owners in Waco. The hats worn by the men in this photo were just another way to get the message out about the date of the Cotton Palace – and they made a handy shade from the sun, to boot.

But what’s a pep rally for an entire city without a band? On this particular trip, the YMBL brought along a contingent of the Baylor University band, seen here posing with their instruments. Unlike the men wearing the Cotton Palace hats, the BU students are seen wearing a motley assortment of headgear, including what appear to be “slime caps,” or felt hats worn by Baylor freshmen.

Baylor wasn’t the only Waco institution of higher learning represented on the trip to Comanche. Here was see a small group of students from Toby’s Practical Business College, a school that purported to teach its students the most up-to-date techniques in the world of business. With branches in Waco and New York City, Toby’s was a fixture on the local scene and even fielded a football team – in fact, Baylor’s first football game in 1899 was played against Toby’s, with Baylor winning handily 20-0.

The real focus of the trip was commerce, and what better way to show Waco’s importance to the regional economy than to wear the message on one’s sleeve – or, in this case, across one’s back. This young man turns his back to the camera to reveal a message: “Ten Wheeler Overalls/Made in Waco/by Longley Mfg. Co.” While history may have forgotten his face, his endorsement of a favorite brand of local overalls is captured for posterity.

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If ever a group of men could appreciate the importance of good overalls, it would be the engineer and fireman of the locomotive pulling the YMBL special along. The badging on the cab of the locomotive identifies it as belonging to the St. Louis Southwestern Railway, part of a conglomerate known more commonly as the Cotton Belt Line. Servicing major cotton markets in Texas, Arkansas and Missouri, the Cotton Belt is recognized as one of the more famous regional railroads in the South.

These little vignettes within the larger photo make for a more interesting composition than might otherwise be expected. But the real challenge for historians when confronted with photos like this is the overwhelming lack of documentation associated with them. The caption in the upper left gives us some good information, but we’re not told if this photo was taken in Comanche or at a whistle-stop along the way. An even bigger challenge is identifying the men in the photo with any sense of accuracy. Precious few of these photos contain listings of people seen in them, and in this case, their identities may be lost forever.

But we have to emphasize the word may. The unique approach of using Internet users to identify elements of historic photographs – called “crowdsourcing” – can be helpful in identifying people, places, and events in historic photos. So, if you recognize your great-great-grandfather in this photo, drop us a line. You just might be able to help save a small part of Waco history.

(1) Images excerpted from an original panoramic photograph from the Texas Collection; images enhanced for Web viewing.

Visit the Texas Collection online at http://www.baylor.edu/lib/texas for more priceless Texana.

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