What Pennsylvania Avenue Looked Like in 1909

Rare footage reveals the fashions, modes of transportation, and a general disregard for safety of turn-of-the-century Washington.

National Journal
Marina Koren
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Marina Koren
Nov. 6, 2013, 11:09 a.m.

What did the streets of Wash­ing­ton look like more than a cen­tury ago? Thanks to some of the na­tion’s early film pi­on­eers, mod­ern-day Dis­trict dwell­ers can take a quick stroll through his­tory.

This foot­age, shot in Ju­ly 1909 (not 1907, as the You­Tube clip’s title reads) on Pennsylvania Av­en­ue between 10th and 11th streets, re­veals the bustle of a city against the back­drop of the U.S. Cap­it­ol Build­ing. Wash­ing­ton ap­pears to be in the middle of the trans­port­a­tion re­volu­tion, with cars, trol­leys, and horse-drawn car­riages all nav­ig­at­ing the same streets. Bowl­er hats were big, and jay­walk­ing was the norm.

The minute-long clip comes from Ghosts of DC, a blog that col­lects video, pho­tos, and stor­ies from the Dis­trict’s long his­tory. The per­son who sup­plied this foot­age to the blog, iden­ti­fied as Tom, writes that the foot­age comes from the Charles Edis­on Fund, ori­gin­ally known as Brook Found­a­tion Col­lec­tion, a phil­an­throp­ic in­sti­tu­tion cre­ated by Thomas Edis­on’s son in 1948. Edis­on had pi­on­eered early film­mak­ing in the late 1880s, with his in­ven­tion of the kin­eto­scope, and later through the movies he pro­duced with his mo­tion pic­tures com­pany.

The Ghosts of DC con­trib­ut­or writes of the scene:

No­tice the bill­boards. The one on the left ap­pears to be an ad for C/B Cor­sets. The right bill­board ap­pears to show sil­hou­ette of a child and the word ‘Vel­vet.’ My search for bill­board iden­ti­fic­a­tion turned up noth­ing.

I don’t know, but would love to find out, wheth­er this is an “ac­tu­al­ity” or an Edis­on clip for a movie. It does not ap­pear to have been a staged scene with act­ors. Also no­tice the Afric­an Amer­ic­an wo­man hold­ing a para­sol and the styl­ishly dressed Afric­an Amer­ic­an man cross­ing the street.

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