A Visit from the Past

Every October, archives across the United States celebrate Archives Month. This year, the State Archives of Florida is focusing on how archives change lives. Join us throughout the month as we share stories about the impact the Archives has had on staff and patrons like you!

Mary Lou Bisplingoff, 1951

Mary Lou Bisplingoff, 1951

As archivists working with the Florida Photographic Collection, we often receive phone calls and emails from patrons looking for specific images. Sometimes photos are acquired for news articles or academic publications, but other times pure curiosity fuels their inquiries. Whatever the case, we archivists become detectives for the public. The research process can be tedious and frustrating, but it can also be quite exciting and rewarding—especially when we are able to uncover surprising material for our patrons.

A few months ago, we received a question from patron Katie Godwin. Her family has an old portrait from 1951 of her late grandmother Mary Lou Bisplingoff. At the time, Bisplingoff, who had not yet married, was on the edge of twenty and a student at Florida State University. While Katie was replacing the broken glass of the framed picture of her “Nana,” she discovered something interesting about the photo: “When I took the frame apart to install the new glass, I found two surprises: one was a baby picture of my mother. The other was that the picture we had admired for so long was actually an ‘unfinished proof.’ A stamp on the back said the picture had been made at L’Avant Studios.”

With a sense of mystery, Katie began her quest. This is her story:

“You don’t get new pictures of people once they’re gone.”

Mary Lou Bisplingoff, 1951

Mary Lou Bisplingoff, 1951

While the new glass was being cut for the frame, I searched online and found that L’Avant had been a prominent studio in Tallahassee for decades. The studio closed in the 1980s and donated their inventory to the State Archives of Florida. I began to get excited. I hoped that I could find the original version of this beloved picture and get a clearer, brighter copy to share with my family.
The next morning I called the Archives and asked about the photograph. I was referred to Photographic Archivist Adam Watson, who knew the collection well. At his request, I sent a copy of the image and the stamp on the back, as well as an approximate date for the photograph. As promised, I heard back within just a few days; however, I was only partially prepared for the response. The image I was searching for was not there, but Adam found eight other pictures of Nana. Upon seeing the photos, I recognized only one of them. The rest were entirely new to me and my family. Nana has been gone for two years now. You don’t get new pictures of people once they’re gone. It was surreal. These pictures were taken just before she turned twenty, over sixty years ago!

“Seeing and holding the photos felt like having a visit from Nana.”

Initially I thought I would print all of the pictures and surprise my mother with them for her birthday, but I couldn’t keep something this big to myself. Instead, I immediately told her over the phone and then sent the proofs to her. I also texted the photos to my sisters. It was all so out of the blue and unexpected. As for my grandfather, who struggles the most with losing Nana, we decided to wait to tell him until we had the prints. I worked with Jackie Attaway to purchase high resolution digital scans of all eight images and then had them printed at a local print shop.

Mary Lou Bisplighoff, 1951

Mary Lou Bisplighoff, 1951

“…they gave us a glimpse of who she was before we knew her.”

Seeing and holding the photos felt like having a visit from Nana. My Mom noticed that in one picture you could see Nana’s resemblance to her father’s side of the family. Another was my favorite because I thought you could see the glint in her eye and the sparkle she was trying to contain. In one of the photos, we noticed that her shoes were almost the same as the shoes my sister wears now; and in some you could see the shadow of a huge lamp that made the whole scene look like something from the movies. All of the photos were glamorous, and they gave us a glimpse of who she was before we knew her. My grandfather could hardly speak when he saw them.  They were bittersweet for him, but he has told me several times how much he loves the pictures and how he took them around to his friends in town, showing her off. I had no idea that the State Archives could hold such a treasure for our family. Working with Adam and Jackie was pleasant, easy, and more rewarding than I could have imagined.

Mary Lou Bisplingoff, 1951

Mary Lou Bisplingoff, 1951

At the State Archives we use our institutional knowledge, tenderness, and care when assisting patrons like Katie. Each day we have the privilege of being the custodians of a vast and wonderful collection of historic treasures. Katie’s story is an example of how a little archival research can allow patrons to connect with history on a personal level. As archivists, those are the most rewarding days for us.

What will you find in the Archives? This October, join us in celebrating Archives Month by exploring the Archives yourself. You can search for pictures of your family members on the Florida Photographic Collection, then further your research in person at the State Archives. In addition, the Photographic Collection provides high resolution scans and prints to the public for a nominal fee. Did Katie’s story inspire your own family research? Let us know in the comments section below!

Meet a Researcher

Every October, archives across the United States celebrate Archives Month. This year, the State Archives of Florida is focusing on how archives change lives. Join us throughout the month as we share stories about the impact the Archives has had on staff and patrons like you!

Meet Braeden Belcher, a historian at Florida State University who is using the State Archives of Florida as a resource for his master’s thesis. Originally from Brighton, Michigan, Braeden is a student in the FSU Historical Administration and Public History Program and “hope[s] to one day work in a museum!”

Braeden uses the State Archives as a resource while he conducts research for his master’s thesis.

Braeden uses the State Archives as a resource while he conducts research for his master’s thesis.

Belcher brought some archival experience with him on his research trip to the State Archives.  While in college, he worked as a research assistant in his university’s archives.  In this capacity, he was in charge of researching and developing displays that highlighted the archives’ collection and, according to Braeden, he “loved it!”

Braeden’s master’s thesis explores how Floridians celebrated the 200th anniversary of the American Revolution in 1976.  Braeden is using the records of the Bicentennial Commission of Florida (Series 787), which was the group responsible for planning bicentennial celebrations and activities throughout the state in the 1970s.  These archival records are helping Braeden “get a picture of how Floridians were planning for America’s 200th birthday, and what being an American meant to them.”

To plan his research trip, Braeden made frequent use of our online catalog and the Florida Memory website, as well as consulting archives staff in the research room.  “The finding aids available online have a lot of useful information about the collections, but the staff is always willing to help me if I have extra questions,” he says.

Through consulting the archives’ catalog, website, and staff, Braeden acquired the materials he needed for his research project.  He also has this advice for potential researchers: “Make sure you have a general idea of which documents you want to look at, the more information you can give to the staff the better! They will always be able to help you out and answer any questions you have, so feel free to ask!”

If you’re conducting research at the State Archives of Florida, remember that the reference staff is always available to answer questions and to help point you in the right direction. The Archives reference room is open Monday through Friday, 9:00 a.m. to 4:30 p.m.

Florida Net Maker: The Strangest Catch

Every year, staff at the State Archives of Florida gets ready for the Florida History Fair by searching out primary source documents and compiling a list of resources for students and teachers. One of this year’s suggested Florida-related topics is “Commercial Fishing Net Ban: Economics, Ecology, and Responsibility.” That topic led us to this story.

In 1980, folklorist Peggy Bulger interviewed net maker Billy Burbank III as part of her research on the fishing industry in Florida. Burbank told Bulger the tale of a fishing boat that accidentally caught something very strange in its trawl nets.

Burbank family at Burbank Trawl Makers, Inc., Fernandina Beach, 1986

Burbank family at Burbank Trawl Makers, Inc., Fernandina Beach, 1986

Billy Burbank and the Strangest Catch

B: My name is Billy Burbank, III. I was born in Fernandina Beach, Florida, October 2, 1951.

P: Now tell me something about your grandfather, William Burbank.

B: Well, my grandfather was born on Cumberland Island which is in Georgia. He started shrimping oh back in his early years when he was 15-16 years old. He got into the shrimp business, oh just starting shrimping and started making his own nets.

And when oh his nets seemed to out produce everybody else’s nets. Then everybody decided to get him to make their nets and then that’s when we got started in the net business in about 1915 and been in it ever since.

P: […] Oh, what is the strangest catch you’ve ever heard anybody catching around here?

B: Strangest catch?

P: Yeah.

B: […] Probably be oh, submarines. An actual submarine in someone’s net started towing the boat backwards almost sinking the boat didn’t even realize they had the shrimp boat caught. It was the— not a Navy submarine. It was a German, I mean a Russian submarine.

P: Here?

B: Well, it was off this coast, yeah. They didn’t even realize that they had the submarine in the net at first. They were towed one way and all of a sudden started going backwards of the cable popped. And just a little while later they saw the submarine surface with the shrimp net on top of ’em. I guess I’d have to say that is the weirdest catch.

Learn More About Net Making

Burbank nets have been used by people in the U.S. from North Carolina down to Florida and up the Gulf Coast through the Texas Panhandle area. Their nets have also been exported to Central and South America and Africa. At the time of the interview, Burbank Trawl Makers was the largest producer of fishing nets in the United States.

In the interview, Burbank also describes the different net types and uses – including flat nets, four seam balloon nets, two seam balloon nets, and a modification that Billy Burbank III developed called the Mongoose, which is actually two nets in one.

Read the full interview in Netmaking and Net Fishing in Florida.

Close-up view of net made by Billy Burbank III, Fernandina Beach, 1980

Close-up view of net made by Billy Burbank III, Fernandina Beach, 1980

Kona Vernacular

Skateboarding originated in California in the 1950s and swiftly moved east to Florida. Kona Skatepark, located on Kona Avenue in southeast Jacksonville, opened in 1977 and is the longest-running skatepark in the United States. In the world of skateboarding, Kona is legendary. The picture below features one of the park’s most popular features that still remains firmly upright and imposing today: “The Tombstone,” a vertical wall measuring 6 feet above the rim of the bowl.

Ben French riding on "The Tombstone," Jacksonville, 1988

Ben French riding on “The Tombstone,” Jacksonville, 1988

In 1988, Gregory Hansen interviewed skateboarders Ben French and Shawn Roden as part of the Folk Arts in Education Project in Duval County. At the time of the interview, both French and Roden were high school students who spent every spare moment on their skateboards. Of course, Kona Skate Park was their venue of choice.

Skateboarder Ben French at Kona Skate Park, Jacksonville, 1988

Skateboarder Ben French at Kona Skate Park, Jacksonville, 1988

While you’re looking at the photos, listen to an interview excerpt of Ben French and Shawn Roden explaining some of Kona’s features for a glimpse into the life of young skateboarders in Jacksonville in the 1980s.

Excerpt from an interview with Ben French and Shawn Roden

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Take a listen to this interview excerpt to enhance your vocabulary of skateboarding tricks as French and Roden give in-depth descriptions of a wide range of tricks.

Excerpt from an interview with Ben French and Shawn Roden

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Oystering in Apalachicola

Oyster tonging

Oyster tonging

Oystering communities around the world take pride in the quality and freshness of their succulent bivalves, and Apalachicola is no exception. With its brackish waters and calm winds, Apalachicola Bay is a prime setting for both oysters and the industry built around them to thrive.

Young boy enjoying oyster at the Florida Seafood Festival - Apalachicola, Florida

Young boy enjoying oyster at the Florida Seafood Festival – Apalachicola, Florida

The people of Apalachicola possess skills, beliefs, and a spirit of generosity and perseverance that make the community unique. Crafts such as boat building or oyster tong making are passed down through generations, as are techniques for harvesting and shucking the oysters. Successful seafood distributors make the product available to the many restaurants and retailers in the region, and the community celebrates its heritage during the annual Florida Seafood Festival.

Miss Florida Seafood 1974, Rosalie Nichols, at the Florida Seafood Festival

Miss Florida Seafood 1974, Rosalie Nichols, at the Florida Seafood Festival

Read more »

Lois Duncan on the Steinmetz Collection, Part 2

Award-winning author Lois Duncan is the daughter of photographer Joseph Janney Steinmetz. She is the author of 50 books, ranging from children’s picture books to adult novels, but she is best known for her young adult suspense novels. Seven of Duncan’s books have been adapted into films. Recently, Stephanie Meyer, author of the Twilight series, optioned Duncan’s Down a Dark Hall.

In this series of blog posts, Duncan gives a behind-the-scenes glimpse into the making of some of her father’s most famous photographs.

Lois Duncan Steinmetz in a field of daisies in Taos, New Mexico.

Lois Duncan Steinmetz in a field of daisies in Taos, New Mexico.

Florida Memory: Joseph Janney Steinmetz was a world-renowned commercial photographer whose images appeared in such publications as The Saturday Evening Post, Life, Look, Time, Holiday, Collier’s, and Town and Country.

His work has been referred to as “an American social history” that documented scenes of American life as diverse as affluent northeasterners to middle-class Floridians. He often used friends and family as subjects in his photographs. Tell us about this one.

Duncan: There I am, standing in a field of daisies in Taos, New Mexico, getting eaten alive by chiggers while my father kept waiting for “the light to be just right.”

The slant of light was one of the most important things I learned from him about photography. Whenever we took a photo trip on a magazine assignment, he would have the script of the photos he was to take, and before he ever started work, he and Mother would visit each location, determine the angle from which the shot should be taken, and the direction the light should be when the picture was taken.

Then they’d register the time of day when they should try for that shot. (Unfortunately for me, this daisy field shot was not planned beforehand–Joe just stumbled on a “pretty field of daisies” and I happened to be in the car–so the lighting was overhead and he had to wait for a cloud to come over so he could shoot without shadows.)

Lois Duncan on the Steinmetz Collection

Award-winning author Lois Duncan is the daughter of photographer Joseph Janney Steinmetz. She is the author of 50 books, ranging from children’s picture books to adult novels, but she is best known for her young adult suspense novels. Seven of Duncan’s books have been adapted into films. Recently, Stephanie Meyer, author of the Twilight series, optioned Duncan’s Down a Dark Hall.

In this series of blog posts, Duncan gives a behind-the-scenes glimpse into the making of some of her father’s most famous photographs.

Florida Memory: Joseph Janney Steinmetz was a world-renowned commercial photographer whose images appeared in such publications as The Saturday Evening Post, Life, Look, Time, Holiday, Collier’s, and Town and Country.

Steinmetz lived in Sarasota, Florida. He fell in love with the Ringling Brothers and Barnum & Bailey Circus which wintered there and photographed performers for 20 years. This photograph of clown Emmett Kelly in a bubble bath is one of the most famous of his circus images. How did it come to be?

Ringling Circus clown Emmett Kelly in a bubble bath.

Ringling Circus clown Emmett Kelly in a bubble bath

Duncan: Joe was good friends with many of the Ringling Brothers Circus performers. He took this photo of Emmett Kelly in the bathtub as a favor to Kelly, who wanted the image for his Christmas card.

Joe’s wife, Lois Foley Steinmetz, was crouched down out of sight behind the chair that held Kelly’s clothing, with an egg beater in her hand. After every shot Joe took, Lois would leap out of hiding, use the egg beater to increase the foam in the tub, and conceal herself once again.

Penny Richards and the Flying Car Case

We first noticed the artwork of Penny L. Richards when she created beautiful upcycled cases using vintage Library of Congress images posted on the Flickr Commons. We were thrilled when she used two images from the State Library and Archives of Florida, which she found on our Flickr Commons photostream. We decided to interview Penny Richards to learn more.

Tell us about yourself.

Penny Richards: I’m Penny Richards, I’m a mom at home in Redondo Beach, California, and a research scholar affiliated with UCLA’s Center for the Study of Women. I sometimes teach art in my kids’ school, and I run or contribute to about 10 blogs (but most of them aren’t mine).

How did you become interested in vintage photographs?

PR: My PhD is in Education, but I’ve always done historical projects, and I’m currently president of the Disability History Association, so it’s mostly from my academic work. I had been gathering disability history and women’s history images from the Library of Congress holdings for a while before the Flickr Commons project started, so it was easy for me to get involved there when it did start.

How do you convert a purse or case into a piece of art?

Well, each one is different, but the basic steps are in this tutorial.

What drew you to these particular photographs (the flying automobile and the woman with camera)?

A good image for my purposes is clear and has all its edges—meaning, I can cut out a person or an object without losing any of the outline—and it’s a good shape for the bag. Most portraits are vertical, but most bags and cases are square or horizontal, so that’s always a challenge.

The flying car just made me smile, and I knew it could be printed onto different papers and cut into pieces for more definition, almost like the anatomical sections of an insect. I also didn’t mind the blurry propeller because that was easy to paint in. The woman who owns that case is a crafter based in Orange County, who loves strong color and offbeat images.

The woman with the camera is just lovely, she has a pleasant expression and she’s looking straight at the viewer (in so many older portraits of women, that’s not true); I’ve used that one a couple times, because I figure a lot of people who’d like my bags would also like photography. The woman who bought that case works in animation, so I guess I was on target there!

Flying car case

Flying car case

 

Jess Dixon in his flying automobile

Jess Dixon in his flying automobile

 

Upcycled case, back

Upcycled case, back

 

Young smiling woman, holding a camera

Young smiling woman, holding a camera

 

Photographer purse

Photographer purse