Recently I received a wonderful surprise in the mail, a gift from a dear friend and someone who shares my love of photography and history, as well as an appreciation for exquisitely crafted typography and illustrations. Wrapped neatly in a protective plastic bag was a beautifully preserved issue of American Photography magazine, dated July 1914. The first thing I noticed is that the cover featured not a photograph, but a line art illustration very much in the style of the era.
The inside pages are brimming with the innocent, pre-war consumerist enthusiasm of a society flush with disposable income and the free time to devote to hobbies like photography. America was prosperous, at peace, and times were good.
Just like today, advertisements promoted new photographic technologies, along with the latest cameras and gadgets. Kodak was a prominent advertiser, and the lenses of Carl Zeiss were already famous. Of particular curiosity is the ad on the back cover for a product called Velox Paper, with a headline that reads, “Prints by Gaslight.”
Dr. James C. Elsom, Phys Ed professor and photography enthusiast
It’s fun to compare and contrast these early techniques with modern photography. But, aside from the nostalgia factor, I love old books and magazines for their historical nature. Often, old books contain inscriptions or marginalia that tell us something about the people who owned the books before us. Periodicals usually don’t include such clues, but coincidentally, I found an article featuring the work of Madison (WI) photographer and University of Wisconsin Physical Education professor Dr. James C. Elsom.
James C. Elsom, first director of physical education and first men's basketball coach. Photo courtesy University of Wisconsin.
As a former Madison resident myself, I read with interest Dr. Elsom’s thesis that photography was a valuable hobby because of the health benefits associated with taking the camera on hikes.
I read with interest Dr. Elsom’s thesis that photography was a valuable hobby because of the health benefits associated with taking the camera on hikes.
Elsom lamented the fact that American society had become an indoor culture, separated from the outdoors (sound familiar?). His photo insets include hilarious images of well-dressed pre-war Wisconsinites leaping from huge haystacks for fun. One image shows the same people milling about on the shore of what appears to be Lake Monona, in Madison.
Well-dressed pre-WWI Wisconsinites leaping from large haystacks, just for fun.
Standing by what appears to be Lake Monona in Madison, a lake I have photographed many times in all four seasons.
Given our Madison connection, I became curious to know more about Dr. Elsom. I learned that he was the first physical education professor and the first (and not so successful) coach of the newly formed UW Badgers basketball team in 1898.
Elsom was a consultant on the first edition of the Handbook for Scout Masters of the Boy Scouts of America (1913).
He published a bizarre New York Times article called "Atypical College Men" (1910), claiming that after studying the stats of over 8,000 college men, those who are morally inferior (those caught cheating on schoolwork) were also physically inferior in certain key ways.
New York Times article from 1910, by Dr. JC Elsom, which determined that young men who cheat on schoolwork also display undesirable physical attributes.
He was still writing about physical education into at least the 1930s. He was active in Madison promoting sports and physical fitness until at least the 1940s. As for his photography, Dr. Elsom’s work was published in many textbooks on subjects ranging from geology to agriculture, and he also wrote on the value of photographs as evidence in courts of law.
1914: a pivotal year in world history
But, especially telling is this newspaper article about a speaking engagement in 1920. The article reads, “The principal speaker at the meeting of the Phy. Ed. Club last Friday night was Dr. J. C. Elsom of the University of Wisconsin faculty. Having had experience in reconstruction work in France his lecture was very absorbing, especially since he had slides of the pictures he had taken of his work over there. Dr. Elsom laid great stress on the value of recreation in keeping the wounded and mutilated men cheerful and in good spirits.” Here, we get further information about how Elsom used his photography, but that last gloomy sentence brings us back to the significance of American Photography magazine.
July 1914 was a pivotal time in history. When this old issue of American Photography was fresh on the newsstands, Archduke Ferdinand had just been assassinated, and no one could have anticipated the massive disaster that awaited the world. By the end of July, war was declared, beginning what became known as The Great War -- World War I. In 1914, Dr. Elsom had been concerned about American’s lack of physical fitness. Six years later, he was in Europe helping treat wounded and mutilated soldiers. Even though America didn’t enter the war until 1917, nothing was the same again.
As for American Photography magazine, it published from August, 1907 until 1953.
This article illustrates the amazing thing about touching a tangible piece of history like this magazine.