We love getting photographs in any format, since pictures are an especially rich way to look at our county’s history. Some formats are less common, and glass plate negatives certainly fall into that category. A recent donation to us of a photograph collection from St. Francis, circa 1900-1920, is almost entirely composed of this type, totaling more than 200 glass plates.
Glass plate negatives date back to the 1850s. Early on, photographers had to coat the glass with a photo-reactive solution (“wet plate”), but by the 1880s it was possible to purchase “dry plate” negatives that could be placed ready-to-go into the camera. This collection is composed of these dry plate glass negatives. The photographs taken on glass plate negatives contain amazing detail and a range of tones, but not surprisingly they are also fragile; the glass plates themselves can break, or the silver emulsion (the chemical solution on one side that reacts with light to create the image) can flake or be scratched off of the glass.
These particular photographs were all taken by John Lindbloom, who was a blacksmith in St. Francis, Minnesota. He took photographs of his family, his home, and his friends; together, they give us a glimpse at life around the turn of the century in one of Anoka County’s oldest communities.
Some of the photographs document working life in St. Francis. They show us a barn being built, lumber being cut, and corn being processed. Others show us the interior of homes in the area, with members of a family gathered into a corner to pose for the photograph. Calendars on the walls of several of these photographs are open to months in 1914 and 1915, helping us to date some of them. It is also interesting to see how people decorated their homes in this particular time and place. Some indicate the sadder parts of life, showing an open casket with a young woman inside.
Other photographs in the collection were clearly taken for fun: two young men wearing ladies’ hats, several men standing around a barrel of beer on a sleigh (not a flake of snow in sight), glasses in hand. We think the latter may have been posed and taken in response to restrictions on alcohol that were occurring in the late 1910s. (Did you know? Anoka County voted to go “dry” in 1916 – a full four years before Prohibition took effect at the national level!)
One photograph gave us a surprise. The photograph itself shows a young man standing outside, wearing a suit, collared shirt, and tie: nothing unusual there. After the negative was processed, though, someone took a pen and wrote an unexpected and startling phrase down one side of the young man’s shirt – suggesting he had an inappropriate relationship with pigs. The context for this is missing, of course. Was it written to indicate a strong dislike of the person in the picture? Was it a literal accusation? Was it a friend ragging on a friend? We don’t know. While initially startled by a use of profanity that we tend (incorrectly) not to associate with our ancestors, this photograph provided a good reminder to us that people in the past were not fundamentally different from those of us alive today. We cannot display this particular photograph in public, but we will preserve it. Having a more rounded, rather than a rosy, view of Anoka County’s past is something that we feel is beneficial.
The St. Francis glass plate negatives are unfortunately mostly unidentified, so we do not know who the individual people in them are. But knowing the general area and time period in which they were taken gives us enough information that the photographs are absolutely worth preserving, letting us see one of Anoka’s rural farming communities in a way that we could not before these negatives came to our collection.