Oh Where Can This Be?: Photos Without a Location

When we enter new photographs into the PhillyHistory.org database, we include as much information as possible about an image from the date and photographer’s name to the location. Without a doubt, location is one of the most important parts of our photo collections as many of the historic images depict street scenes and the exterior of buildings. Whenever possible, we try to geocode (assign latitude and longitude coordinates) to an image. We can geocode a photo by identifying an address, street intersection, or place name (such as City Hall) or by selecting a point on a map. The software behind PhillyHistory.org will take this information and calculate the latitude and longitude coordinates associated with that spot. Once a photo has been geocoded, users can search for and find the image based on its geographic criteria. The geographic location of a photo is crucial as PhillyHistory.org users search for images by address or neighborhood more than keyword or any other search criteria. If a photo has an identified location, users also can download it to Google Earth or compare the historical images with the present-day Google Street View.

However, what we know about a photo depends upon what information the photographer left behind. Sometimes, we unfortunately have little or no knowledge of where a photo was taken. Photographs of bridges, railroads, and creeks are among the most challenging to locate since the photographer’s terminology is frequently too broad or too narrow for our purposes. In some instances, photographers used surveying markers to describe their location, but unfortunately “North from Station 109+70” can’t tell us exactly where a photo is located along the Frankford Creek. Alternately, some locations were recorded in very basic terms. In these cases, tracking down an address often requires some ingenuity and super sleuthing, along with a little help from our friends.

So how do we do it? Here’s an example using a PhillyHistory.org image taken on March 27, 1898.

The title, “Broad Street Bridge,” places the photo at any number of locations along Broad Street. When the title and the description provided by the photographer prove vague or indefinite, we turn to the photo for more details. Fortunately, the photo itself provides a few clues; we can see that this was a railroad bridge and there is a sign on the right-hand side building that reads “Gas And…” Following these leads, I turned to the Greater Philadelphia GeoHistory Network (www.philageohistory.org), a pilot project of the Philadelphia Area Consortium of Special Collections Libraries and now led by the Athenaeum of Philadelphia.

Among other resources, the GeoHistory Network provides digitized copies of historical maps and atlases from the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, along with an awesome interactive maps viewer that allows users to zoom in on a location and compare the historic map with the current street grid. To find a location for this photo, I used the 1910 Philadelphia Atlas by G.W. Bromley. Following North Broad Street from City Hall, I found the old Philadelphia and Reading Railroad freight yard at North Broad and Callowhill Streets, which seemed like a good candidate for this photo’s location. To confirm my suspicions, I scanned the map area, which lists business names on the building outlines, and found the Horn and Brannen Gas and Electric Fixtures Factory at the next intersection – North Broad and Noble Streets. This matched the “Gas And…” sign visible on the right-hand side of the photo and, to make my final determination, I zoomed in on a high resolution copy of the image. Not only was the full factory name visible, but the building on the left-hand side turned out to be the Baldwin Locomotive Works, which was also visible on the map. Satisfied with my findings, I geocoded this photo to North Broad and Callowhill Streets and set the Street View to look north toward the intersection of Broad and Noble Streets.

Often, the maps from the GeoHistory Network are an invaluable resource in our efforts to locate photos; additionally, we also rely on the knowledge of our users who can submit comments and error reports for any photo on PhillyHistory.org. As the story of this one photo shows, sometimes all it takes is a keen eye, a bit of research, and a little luck to solve the mystery of photos without a location.

“Oh Where Can This Be?” is the first article in “Behind the Scenes at PhillyHistory.org,” a new series of blog entries that will provide insights into the activities that go into creating PhillyHistory.org.

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