Unlocking a Treasure Trove of STL History

15, March 2017

NHPRC logoThe Picturing 1930s St. Louis: Sievers Studio Collection Project is made possible by an NHPRC grant from the National Archives. 

Last September, MHM’s Photos and Prints department began processing our Sievers Studio Collection, which contains the original negatives and select prints created by the Sievers Studio between 1918 and 1989. Thanks to funding provided by the NHPRC, we’re creating a detailed index describing each photo shoot and making some item-level records for the 1930s images. We've mainly been tackling the index up to now, and that work has helped us know how many and what kinds of images we have. Now we're starting to review the 3,600+ identified images from the indexed records to select some of the more interesting ones, create detailed descriptions of them, and scan them for posting to our website. Because we’ve only just started the work necessary to make these items available online, we don’t have a lot of new photos to show just yet. But we have learned a great deal about this amazing collection over the past six months.

Color photo of NHPRC Processing Archivist & photosLauren, our NHPRC processing archivist, with some less-than-exciting images of stairs and a heater.

What We Have Is a Fraction of Sievers Studios’ 1930s Work

We’ve finished indexing for the years 1931 through 1934 and have more than 1,100 photo shoots searchable on our website as a result. But when we compared what we have in our stacks to the transactions listed in the Sievers business ledgers, we discovered that two thirds to one half of the studio’s output never made it to our archive. Some of the negatives may have gone directly to clients, been discarded due to client disinterest, or deteriorated beyond use over the years. One thing is certain: Donor Alvin Sievers certainly didn’t edit out the dull images—the number of insurance-related photos of damaged cars attests to that.

What You’re Likely to Find

Although we can’t get a full picture of what the Sievers Studio produced, we can make some general observations about the kinds of images you’ll see in the coming months and where they were taken. As commercial photographers, the Sievers crew wasn’t confined to a studio like portrait photographers are. Images of buildings around St. Louis make up almost 20 percent of the 1930s work. Another 13 percent consists of transportation-related pictures, from delivery trucks, car dealerships, and bicycles, to ice-cream vans and car wrecks. Advertising shots featuring products as varied as cocktail shakers, hats, baked beans, Parker Pens, 7-Up, lipstick, and ice-cream cabinets make up 16 percent of the assignments. There are also promotional images for movie premieres, national celebrities such as Eddie Cantor, a child dressed as Buster Brown, and a young woman astride a burro in front of a Christmas display at Nugent’s department store.

Black-and-white photo of the interior of the Arcadia BallroomArcadia Ballroom interior, 1932. Photo by Isaac Sievers. Missouri History Museum.

Pictures of events and large groups of people gathered for banquets, picnics, and other activities account for 26 percent of the material. If we count funeral photos, this category goes up to 28 percent, but that’s kind of creepy, so we’ll leave it out.

Among the living we’ve found a few images of St. Louis’s upper class, but mostly we’ve seen middle- and working-class white people from a variety of families, organizations, and ethnic backgrounds. So far we’ve spotted some German, Italian, and Jewish groups, but a wide variety of people hired Sievers to document their weddings, parties, and community events. As always, the poor are largely unrepresented except in a few images of Depression-era Hoovervilles and soup kitchens. African Americans also make rare appearances in this collection. Living in segregated enclaves within the city, they tended to use photographers from their own community instead of hiring white studios.

Black-and-white photo of group in traditional German attireGroup in traditional German dress during St. Louis Schwabenfest in Triangle Park, 1932. Photo by Ed Myers. Missouri History Museum.

Where the Sievers Photographers Shot

Being the visually oriented folks that we are, we’re also almost embarrassingly excited about a series of maps we've created that shows the locations of all the photo shoots we have addresses for, organized by year. With this map, you can see that Sievers worked primarily in the city’s central corridor but that he occasionally got as far northwest as Lambert Field and as far south as Jefferson Barracks. In some years odd pockets appear where we have no images at all. The Hill, Lindenwood Park, Wellston, and Pagedale tend to be Sievers-free zones, but it’s hard to know whether that’s due to the community makeup or the missing negatives.

We've inlcuded a smaller version of the map below. Just click one of the colored camera circles to see information about a particular shoot. To view the full breakdown or explore by year, click the bracket icon in the top-right corner of the map header.  

We've long suspected that the Sievers Studio Collection is a treasure trove of St. Louis history, and these past six months have confirmed that theory. We're looking forward to sharing some of the digitized images with you via our website by the end of March. We’ll also have photo assignment records from 1935 available a couple months after that. So stay tuned!

—Amanda Claunch, Archivist, Photographs and Prints

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