Small mysteries and random clues are afoot in the close examination of these glass plate negatives from a century ago. Here are a few of the photographs we have not shown yet along with some of the background information that goes with each of them. Somehow it seems that by discovering as much as possible in each photograph patterns will emerge, locations, dates and identities will help with the story and perhaps somewhere hidden in the clear images there will be a detail or trace that leads to the name of the photographer.
In the Tacoma City Directory for 1919, the Royal Ice Cream Company was operating at 914 A Street making not just their frozen trademark product but candy and confections across from the towering Tacoma Hotel. About ten years earlier, the company founder J.L. Wetherby hired a Canadian born piano tuner named Bert H Walker as his secretary. In 1910, the 40 year old musician became president of the Royal Ice Cream Company and by the time this photograph was made they had a branch operation at 2901 Sixth Avenue. Which of the two location shown in this photo is a question as are the names of the employees gathered in front. Based on the direction of the sunlight and the shadows it looks like the A Street storefront where there is still a masonry building standing today. The Royal Ice Cream Company grew into Meadowsweet Dairies and built a gigantic Art Deco dairy building at 25th and Pacific in 1927. They went on to become Foremost Dairy, Tacoma’s largest milkman delivery enterprise. This photograph captures the pioneer days of the company just after World War One.
Some of the mystery disappears when the subject is standing next to his own name as in this portrait of tailor Harry F McLean in the doorway of his shop at 1505 Commerce. The rear door to the Travelers Hotel at 1506 1/2 Pacific Avenue confirms the location. There is starting to be a pattern with this photo and the next which is right next door. In 1918-20 the intersection of 15th and Commerce was on the edge of Tacoma’s little Italy and within Japantown. Harry’s father was born in Scotland and he and his wife Ferrol seem to have landed in Tacoma just as WW1 was ending suggesting he may have stayed after mustering out of the army. This was a poor location compared to the fashionable shops on Broadway and Pacific Avenues but Harry appears to have a sense of style with his silk tie and crisp pressed trousers.
Next door to the Shamrock Tailors was the Union Coffee House at 1501 Commerce. No names or story to go with this young couple but the reflection in their window shows the Hiroshima Hotel, a major institution in Tacoma’s Nihonmachi and among the finest Japanese American operated hotels on the west coast. The reflection is looking up 15th Street from the corner shop on Commerce. The building was owned by Pacific Brewery baron Anton Huth and the soft drink cafe on Pacific Avenue a floor below the coffee house was known for its indifference to the lofty ideals of prohibition. In pre Starbucks days a coffee house might just give two people a start in life but the Union Coffee House never made it into the City directories and was probably short lived.
This small group of photographs tell us the photographer found client in downtown Tacoma but they were clustered in the lower rent district. In the next group we will go inside the shops and see some of the more technically difficult images our unknown photographer created. These few plates revealed no obvious new clues to the photographer other than a concentration of work in Tacoma’s ethnic commercial districts. In the next group another pattern begins with a focus on automobiles and bicycles, just the sort of thing a documentarian would be interested in as the roaring twenties begin.