Clear as Glass

Almost exactly a century ago an itinerant photographer made a meager living creating wonderful images of small businesses, everyday merchants and the real, unglamourous people living in Tacoma and the south Puget Sound region. His craft revolved around a cut glass lens, a view camera and the images he recorded on glass plate negatives. He kept the tools of his trade in a suitcase sized box decorated with labels and carried by a leather handle. He did not sign or mark his work and in the hundred years that followed just over 170 of his glass negative images drifted away from his story and most impenetrably, his identity. They survived water damage and distance, landing eventually in the basement of the Fairhaven Pharmacy in the gentle hands of Bellingham historian Gordon Tweit. And there the real story begins…..

Back in June I posted the first image from the collection and a short backstory on the subject, Pearson’s Grocery.  The image contained a clue to the identity of the photographer since it included his camera case in the corner of the shot. This next image is an interior view of a small corner variety storeGrocery with its proprietor behind the counter and a customer or perhaps delivery boy employee in front. The shelves and cases are full of everyday store goods, cigars and tobacco, wrapped bulk hard candy sold by weight and boxed chocolate, fresh fruit near the front door and non-perishable specialties in back. At the very back, reflected in a glass window or mirror is our unknown photographer taking his own picture. Grocery.detail.en.2The photograph is full of other details that create a an interesting narrative. It’s the World War One era which partly explains the large patriotic flag, but Armistice in 1918 also marked the end of two decades of  busy immigration to the Pacific Northwest from Europe and Asia. First generation Americans were particularly proud of their self sufficient new homes and businesses. There was also a growing backlash against newcomers based on ethnic prejudices, political bigotry and religious intolerance. Displays of patriotic loyalty were common in businesses operated by non-white merchants and that might well be the case in this store.


As the clues add up and the identity mystery is fleet afoot it’s valuable to look at some of the imagemakers other work in and around Tacoma. The moisture damage on many of the negatives obscures some of the visual information and overall composition but it also adds an element of exquisite decay and a timestamp of age. Here is a  damaged but chrisp portrait of the operators of South Tacoma Cleaners and Dyers at 5231 South Union which later became South Tacoma Way.

TPL Boland-B10178

The V for victory banner in the widow suggests a 1918 date and the white blouses and shirtsleeves mean its summertime. The business was owned by Harry Fabian Potter (that’s probably him with the suspenders and old fashioned sleeve garters) and his son Adrian Harry Potter who is at the wheel of the new delivery wagon. Here is the street in 1924. The building is there but the cleaners is gone.


SoTac Variety.en

Just down the street, South Tacoma Variety Store was another subject for a portrait again with the proprietor central in the composition. School supplies and silk stockings are hot items in the window along with a bouquet of ubiquitous American flags. Late summer 1918.


PuyallupGrowersThe picture maker found paying customers in Puyallup as well. Here’s a group photograph in front of the Valley Growers Union. The beets, corn and squash are in season and the long dusters are a reminder that farm to market deliveries were by truck. Reflected in the window is the back of their vehicle and a Firestone tire dealer across the street.

But back to our photographer. These damaged glass plates are only a small part of the collection, the story and the mystery of who this skilled photographer was. Next we’ll look at some more bits of evidence and perhaps take a step closer to the answer to the puzzle. The best images in the surviving collection are still to come. Here’s one last, truly wonderful image. Again no names or identities but a taste of the pure joy in a well made photograph recorded clear as glass.


Continued….Clear as Glass, Part II and Clear as Glass Part III


Thanks to Ed Nolan at the Washington State Historical Society Research Center and the Tacoma Public Library.


  1. Really interesting! Terrific photos. Especially love the last one – those expressions, those faces. Wonder who those children were and what their lives held as they grew older?


  2. Hello Mr. Sullivan
    I am interested in speaking with you about your knowledge of Holy Rosary. I see in one of your photos with lady standing in doorway that there is house numbers on it. One should be able to scout for that address and with some detective work find the location. Maybe you have already done so. I also have photos of a similar gas station ( if memory serves me correctly) that I think was close to Grandmas house on E st. I will look for those. I am interested in writing a book based on Patrick c. Hayes, my deputy Marshall Grandfather, ( one of the first) president of the Wood Workers Assoc. who’s thoughtful knowledge created their union bylaws, which were then adopted by the NRA.
    Tons of stories that I have looked into, but still mystery remains.
    We have murder suicide, death from a bank robbery, a pioneer from 1851, Peyton Place, love, loyal friendships and survival. I have amazing photos from around Tacoma from the 1890-1950’s. Let me know if you are interested and if you would have time to discuss Holy Rosary and those Brewers that built it.
    I so enjoy reading your article on this mystery photographer.


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