Hidden Drama

Published:April 10, 2008 by Brendan Wolfe

Dinner at the Salvation Army

I may be biased (I almost certainly am), but I tend to think that some of our richest and most interesting material is in our pictures and photographs. Take the above photograph, which will accompany our entry on the Great Depression, as an example. It’s one of the thousands of images commissioned by the Federal Government during the Great Depression, many of which are now housed in the Library of Congress.

We know from photographer John Vachon’s records that the two men are eating dinner at a Salvation Army soup kitchen in Newport News, Virginia. The Library of Congress has dated the photo to March of 1941. What captured our interest here, however, was the newspaper tucked into the coat pocket in the lower right-hand corner. What was he reading about? And could the newspaper help us learn anything else about the photo?

Luckily, our high-resolution print of the image, combined with a bit of help from Photoshop, is more than up to the task. Here’s a close-up of the corner, digitally sharpened a bit for clarity:

Zoom in on the newspaper

The masthead certainly looks familiar – it looks a lot like the Washington Post. More importantly, we can read the lead story’s headline: “Balkans Near Zero Hour, British Say.” A quick search in one of the newspaper databases available to us through the University of Virginia reveals that that this was the headline of a major wire story of March 17, 1941. We haven’t been able to find a Post layout for that day or the next that matches this exactly; it may be an alternate edition. Regardless, it seems likely that we’ve dated the photo, within a day or two.

We also know that the Post that day carried a dramatic story about Mussolini’s daughter, a nurse who went down with her torpedoed hospital ship, and my instincts tell me that’s the story behind the headline fragment we see at left.

These are the kinds of treasures I occasionally find as I sift through the photographic record. Thankfully, we’re building image zoom technology into the Encyclopedia itself, so that users will be able to zoom in on that newspaper and read the headline for themselves.

If nothing else, a man in a soup kitchen, photographed by a New Deal photographer, reading about the ongoing outbreak of war across Europe, reminds us of the interconnected drama of history, both here in Virginia and around the world.