Sunshine. Swampland. Mouse ears. What images come to mind when you think Florida?
In 1985, Governor Bob Graham, in a quest to redesign the state’s license plate, posed this exact question to Floridians. Earlier that year, the Legislature had enlisted professional graphic designers to create a a new tag, but Graham rejected the proposal. Instead, the governor initiated the Florida license plate drawing contest, calling on his constituency to share their ideas for how to best capture the Sunshine State aesthetic.
Florida license plate drawing competition entries ready for evaluation, September 25, 1985. Photograph by Deborah Thomas. Since 1905, Florida law has required all registered vehicles to display a license plate.
In an overwhelming display of public participation, the Florida Department of Highway Safety and Motor Vehicles received over 3,500 entries from people of every age, location and talent level. From the environment to tourism, the contest revealed the broad range of interests represented in the state, and especially highlighted the many factors that changed Florida after WWII. The competition also proved the auto tag’s dual purpose as both a vehicle identifier and a powerful marketing tool. As one contestant quipped, the plates acted as “a silent servant” used to “advertise Florida free of charge.”
The State Archives of Florida has since preserved this collection (S1046) of citizen artwork and Florida Memory has recently digitized a small selection. Over 30 years later, the license plate drawings are now a mosaic of how individual Floridians of 1985 visualized their state.
License plate contest entry by Pat Bridges of Pensacola. “My family and I have lived in many different places…and Florida is my favorite of all,” Bridges attested in an attached letter. Click to enlarge.
Contest participants tapped into a wide spectrum of Florida-related imagery, but one of the most popular themes was space exploration.
NASA’s opening of Kennedy Space Center on Brevard County’s Merritt Island in 1962 ignited economic and population growth in the surrounding Space Coast. By 1985, NASA officials had launched numerous successful missions from the central Florida cape, including the moon-landing Apollo 11 in 1969 and Columbia, the first shuttle to orbit in space, in 1981. The space program continued to expand into the 1980s. And many Floridians, like Bela Gajdoes of Winter Haven, a community about an hour and half west of the Kennedy Space Center, saw their home state as the epicenter of outer space innovation.
License plate contest entry by Bela Gajdos of Winter Haven. Click to enlarge.
Whereas some contestants looked to technology for inspiration, many others focused on illustrating Florida’s abundance of plant and animal species.
Perhaps no fruit better represents Florida than a bright waxy orange. Since the 19th century, the citrus industry has remained central to the state’s agricultural economy. The orange has become a common symbol used to market Florida and appeared on several of the plate designs.
License plate contest entry by 13-year-old Kim Frimowtiz of Pembroke Pines. Lawmakers did not officially designate the orange as Florida’s state fruit until 2005. Click to enlarge.
The sabal palm, Florida’s state tree, also made its way onto hundreds of the tag drawings. “[It is] what I think … best depicts our state to the world,” explained Palm Beach resident W. Stuart Gates, who placed a palm tree silhouette on the center of his tag mock-up.
License plate contest entry by W. Stuart Gates. Click to enlarge.
Though tourists might think only of beaches and palm trees when they imagine Florida’s landscape, natives know all about the dangers lurking just beneath the surface of Florida’s swampland. In a design perhaps too graphic for the interstate, Loman O. Parent of Auburndale, a town near the central Florida Everglades, illustrated this tragic scene of a friend’s encounter with a Florida alligator.
License plate contest entry by Loman O. Parent. It is unclear if Fred made it out of the gator’s belly alive. Click to enlarge.
The Everglades are critical to Florida’s ecology, and environmentalists of the 1980s were concerned about the negative impact of unchecked draining and pollution on the fragile natural resource. The Florida Audubon Society saw the license tag as an effective means of promoting land conservation. They enlisted a professional graphic artist to design this plate emblazoned with a call to “Save the Everglades.”
License plate contest entry by Florida Audubon Society. Click to enlarge.
But those same development techniques that environmentalists opposed, incidentally helped to shape Florida into a desirable place for out-of-staters to move after WWII. Moreover, a sizeable wave of Caribbean immigrants (majority Cuban) fleeing political instability arrived in Florida between 1960 and 1980, further diversifying the populace. In fact, as of 1980 a reported 69 percent of Floridians had been born outside the state, up from 49 percent in pre-WWII 1930.
These demographic shifts likely inspired contestant Harry Gates of Lake City to scrawl “U-MEET-SOMEONE FROM SOMEWHERE,” on the bottom of his plate entry.
License plate contest entry by Harry Gates. Click to enlarge.
Retirees made up a large portion of Florida’s rapidly expanding transplant population in 1985. 75-year-old Richard Allen, who had relocated from New Jersey to Bradenton in the late 1970s, submitted a proposal to change Florida’s nickname to the “Senior State.”
License plate contest entry by Richard Allen. Click to enlarge.
Along with the big increase in new permanent residents after WWII, the opening of Walt Disney World near Orlando in 1971 amplified Florida’s longstanding identity as a major tourist destination. Several proposed license plate designs paid homage to the beloved Mickey Mouse.
License plate contest entry by Frank Ambrose of Cross City, Fl. Click to enlarge.
After reviewing thousands of entries, state officials narrowed it down to six possible picks and published pictures of them in the newspapers, soliciting public input on selecting the winner.
The Florida Cabinet initially named this stylized drawing of a blazing Florida sun but rescinded their decision after it sparked backlash for its resemblance to the Japanese flag, still a contested symbol 40 years after WWII. “It has a white background with a rising sun in the middle of it. All we need now are Japanese characters on the tag and we can send it to Tokyo,” snarked one Orlando resident.
License plate contest entry finalist. Click to enlarge. Note: A note on the back of this plate credits Ocala art teacher Marion F. Lenon as the designer of this plate, but newspaper articles printed this design and credited Hollywood’s Chuck Ax as the artist. It is unclear what the relationship between Lenon and Ax was.
When it came down to choosing a winner of the license plate contest, the Cabinet ultimately chose not to accept any of the contest drawings. In an anticlimactic turn of events, they decided to simply invert the colors of the existing plate and add two orange blossoms. That same tag design is still used today.
However, the Florida Legislature remains aware of Floridians’ many interests and has approved over 100 specialty plates since 1999.
Rep. Fran Carlton (D-Orlando) lobbying Rep. Dale Patchett (R-Vero Beach) to pass the Space Shuttle Challenger license plate bill, 1986. The bill did not pass until 1999, when it became the first of Florida’s specialty plates.
Did you participate in the 1985 Florida license plate drawing contest? Share your story in the comments section below.
Today, the State Archives of Florida reached a major milestone: Resident cataloger Tony Conigliaro officially cataloged the 200,000th digitized photograph from the Florida Photographic Collection on Florida Memory. In commemoration, we are digging into the Archives for a look back at the colorful history of the Florida Photographic Collection. We also interviewed Tony, and he explained more about his role in expanding digital public access to one of the most-used photographic collections in the country.
200,000 Copyright-free Images Online
All photographs available on Florida Memory are now offered under the Public Domain Mark Creative Commons license. Members of the public are encouraged to download and share the digitized archival images, provided they credit the State Archives of Florida. Higher resolution scans or prints of images can be ordered online using the shopping cart feature or by contacting staff at the Florida Photographic Archives via email FloridaMemoryStore@dos.myflorida.com or by phone at 850-245-6718.
About the 200,000th Photograph
For the symbolic 200,000th image, Archives staff selected this print of Harriet Beecher Stowe walking up the steps of Florida’s Old Capitol on April 10th, 1874. Though a copy negative of this photograph has been repeatedly used in publications, the original image was only recently discovered in the State Library. Stowe was an author and abolitionist who wrote the anti-slavery novel Uncle Tom’s Cabin in 1851. After the Civil War, Stowe purchased a winter home in Mandarin, Florida, on the east bank of the St. Johns River, now a neighborhood of Jacksonville.
Harriet Beecher Stowe walking up the stairs at Florida’s Old Capitol to greet Governor Marcellus L. Stearns. Governor Stearns is center front and Stowe is the woman in black to the right on the 6th step, April 10, 1874. Photographer A.G. Grant.
In April 1874, Stowe traveled with a group of Northern businessmen to the capital city of Tallahassee to encourage development and investment in Florida. Floridians graciously welcomed Stowe to the capital despite their general disagreement with her political opinions. This meeting on the Capitol steps was meant as a gesture of the South receiving the North. The photograph of the occasion was taken by Irish photographer A. G. Grant, who was hired by a Boston publishing company to capture images of interest for an upcoming publication about Florida.
A closer look at the photograph shows Governor Stearns (left) on the stairs and Stowe (bottom right) walking towards him. Governor Stearns lost his right arm in the Battle of Winchester while fighting for the Union army during the Civil War.
The Florida Photographic Collection
Florida State University, 1952-1982
The Florida Photographic Collection dates back to 1947, when Allen C. Morris, the self-taught historian and well-known Associated Press political columnist and reporter, started writing the Florida Handbook as a reference for the Florida Legislature. The biennial publication, which is still published in a digital format today, contains current information on the history and government of Florida. Tasked with compiling an inviting and educational manual, Morris found himself on a constant quest to illustrate the book with corresponding pictures.
He sought out new images of all types whenever and wherever he could, often using his vast network in journalism, state politics, and industry to make new acquisitions. Within a few years, the collection had exceeded 50,000 photographs.
“The helpfulness of people, both in Florida and elsewhere, has been extremely gratifying,” Morris told the Miami Herald‘s Jeanne Bellamy in 1972. “[Donors] have cooperated to an unusual degree, placing their facilities at our disposal because of the rather general recognition that we are racing against the erosion of time to preserve scenes of lasting human value.”
In an effort to better preserve and organize the many priceless photographs, Morris established the Florida Photographic Collection at the Florida State University Library in 1952. There, Morris, along with other faculty and graduate students, began cataloging the photographs. He soon became known among the press, academic publishers, and the general public as the go-to-resource for printed images of Florida history. The video clip below documents officials from the Florida Development Commission donating promotional films to the archive at FSU in 1964.
Morris continued his oversight of the Florida Photographic Collection throughout the 1960s. In the middle of the decade, his first wife, Dorothy, who was dying of cancer, urged her husband to take a job with the Legislature. She reasoned that a change in careers would ease the longtime journalist’s transition after her death.
In 1966, Allen Morris became clerk of the Florida House of Representatives. That year, he also met graduate student Joan Perry while working in the photographic collection. The couple wed shortly thereafter. Wanting to focus more of his attention on his responsibilities at the Capitol, Morris eventually stepped down from his role at the archives. In 1970, archivist Joan Perry Morris became the director of the Florida Photographic Collection.
Joan and Allen Morris working in the darkroom at the Florida State University Photographic Archives, ca. 1972.
State Archives of Florida, 1982-Present
During Joan’s tenure, the collection grew to include over one million images of Florida-related people, places, flora, fauna and other items of interest. As the collection continued to grow, Morris sought a new space for the photographs. In 1982, the State Archives of Florida acquired the entirety of the Florida Photographic Collection.
At the state repository, Joan Morris, her photographic assistant Jody Norman and many other archivists on staff continued the work of building and preserving the photographic record of Florida’s history and culture.
The Florida Memory Program, 1994-Present
By the early 1990s, the photo collection had become so popular that requests for copies and scans of photographs accounted for over half of all reference requests at the State Archives. The solution? The internet and its unprecedented ability to provide remote access to information.
In 1993, Joan and her team applied for federal grant funding from the Library Services and Construction Act (now known as the Library Services and Technology Act) and launched the Florida Photographic Collection Electronic Imaging Project in 1994. They developed a plan for digitizing the Florida Photographic Collection and making the photos searchable online. During the digitization project’s first year, over 5,000 images from the Florida Photographic Collection were scanned and put online.
In 2000, the project was renamed the Florida Memory Program, and it has been hailed as one of the state’s best resources for connecting Floridians with their history.
Florida Memory has received several awards in recognition of its public value, including the Society of American Archivists’ 2015 Archival Innovator Award.
As the speed and precision of technology improves, Florida Memory continues to increase access to the historically significant holdings of the State Library and Archives of Florida.
Today, the program keeps an impressive pace, digitizing 100 new photographs each week. And in addition to featuring 200,000 searchable Florida photographs, the website has also expanded to include over 300,000 documents, 250 videos and 2,900 audio recordings, as well as online educational units. Because of Florida Memory’s wide reach, the Florida Photographic Collection receives daily requests from newswires, magazines, interior designers and average citizens from all every corner of the country. They even have a large international customer base.
Our Cataloger Tony on the Ins and Outs of Florida Memory’s Photographs
The ability to quickly search through our online catalog of images is a huge time saver, especially compared to the tedium of thumbing through a traditional card catalog. But, real-life archivists like Tony Conigliaro are usually sitting on the other side of the screen, researching, fact-checking, and cataloging images to optimize your search results on Florida Memory. Here’s what he has to say about how it all happens:
How long have you been working as a cataloger for the State Archives?
[About twenty years.] I started work as a part-time scanner in 1997 until I became a cataloger in 1999.
What is your academic background? How and why did you first become interested in cataloging work?
I have a master’s in library and information science from Florida State University.I think my interest in archives [grew] over time. I’ve always liked libraries since my youth (they’re so quiet and clean!) and I enjoyed scanning images and learning Photoshop.
But when I began cataloging I thought of myself as kind of an information conduit/provider and more data-entry librarian than archivist. I’ve never done any collection/preservation work but appreciate the fact that these historical items are being made more readily available for researchers and the general public.
I suppose [that as my] appreciation grew, my interest in archival work and the great efforts of archives staff also grew. I’ve heard a few times of patrons who have come across an image, of an ancestor, they never knew existed which just makes my appreciation and interest grow all the more!
Tony Conigliaro in the process of cataloging Florida Memory’s 200,000th photograph, April 24, 2017.
What steps are involved in cataloging a photo on Florida Memory?
It’s really just a matter of filling in each field with appropriate data and adding additional fields when needed or subtracting fields if there are too many. For instance, every record should have data in the fields for “Title” & “Date”, and they do, but each record ought to have data in the “Subject” field to describe what the photo is about and provide keywords, based on a controlled vocabulary list provided by the Library of Congress (or other authorized source), for users to retrieve the digitized image.
How do you identify people and places in photographs?
Fortunately the overwhelming majority are identified by donors. [O]thers are just from familiarity — once Jody [my former boss] was weeding through some political images and held one up to ask me who it was, I looked over and said “Dewey Macon Johnson,” who was State Senate President in 1959.
Florida Senate President Dewey Macon Johnson, ca. 1959.
[Sometimes] I’ll also grab the loupe (a small magnification device) to look for clues, like road signs, store signs, or any other identifying information. Then I scour the internet, check out the city directories, newspaper microfilm or other library resources. The loupe also helps [to determine] the date of the image as well, especially if it shows an automobile as I can find out the date it was first manufactured. I also make extensive use of the expertise of the smart people around me!
How many photographs do you think you’ve cataloged for Florida Memory?
I think I have scanned about 88,000 photos. I’ve never done less than 5,000 per year since 2001.
What is the biggest challenge of your job? What do you like most about your job?
The most challenging aspect is researching images with a lack of accompanying identifications or cryptic/incomplete info. These sometimes also happen to be the most fun.
I suppose I find getting answers to be the most satisfying. Fitting in pieces of information like a jigsaw puzzle. Sometimes just tracking down the make and model of a car to pinpoint the earliest start date of an image, other times locating a store’s sign in the city directory to pinpoint the street location. I like getting the answers most and being able to provide that information to interested users.
What is your favorite photograph in the collection, and why?
[That’s] like asking me to pick my favorite kid – no way! I have a bit of fondness for Political, specifically 1950s, as that’s where I began and was trained. They’re real concrete with bios and dates and over the years some of the faces have become somewhat familiar. Some of the humorous/odd photographs are interesting: C660217, Rc04621 (diner title), C003016 (not where I’d want to find myself!) The Tampa skyline and aerial shots I think are attractive. Appears to be a good looking city. The Dale McDonald collection – it’s the first collection that I’ve been the sole cataloger of so it’s kind of special to me and he was a great photographer. Festivals & parades come to mind as they seem to be held just about everywhere in the state so they kind of include something for everyone which I find to be rather special.
Why do you think the photographs in the Florida Photographic Collection are so significant? In your opinion, what are the benefits of digitizing so many of them on a website like Florida Memory?
They are unique, irreplaceable, one-of-a-kind treasures documenting historical facts! I don’t think I can even fathom all the ways they may be able to touch or affect users if given a chance.
I believe digitization improves accessibility immensely and each image can present a new perspective and provide additional information for users. I don’t think there can ever be enough digitized photographs.
For more information about Stowe’s visit to Tallahassee see Harriet Beecher Stowe, “Stowe’s Visit to Planter Florida,” in Calling Yankees to Florida: Harriet Beecher Stowe’s Forgotten Tourist Articles, ed. John T. Foster Jr. and Sarah Whitmer Foster (Cocoa, Florida: The Florida Historical Society Press, 2011), 85-91.
Florida Maps is the newest addition to Florida Memory’s ever-growing document collections. This is a selection of over 300 maps from the State Library of Florida’s Florida Map Collection. In addition to the standard cataloging included in all of our digitized collections, these maps have been indexed for all place names, counties, business entities, forts, lighthouses, land grants, and more. A new zoom feature allows users to view each map in full detail.
With over 70,000 place names across the more than 300 maps, this collection offers an extensive presentation of the cartographic history of Florida. A great resource for researchers, genealogists and map lovers, these maps are browsable by their geographic scope, temporal coverage, thumbnails, format, and subject terms.
The popular shopping cart feature, previously only available for the Florida Photographic Collection, is now available for Florida Maps. Now you can purchase high-resolution scans or prints up to 16″ by 20″. Explore the new Florida Map collection on Florida Memory today—what will you discover?
Show your love for Florida Memory, and your four-legged friends, by requesting a Paw Prints: Florida Pets, Remembered wall calendar! This complimentary 15-month (Oct. 2016 – Dec. 2017) calendar features photographs from the State Archives’ collections depicting special moments between Floridians and their pets. Each image has been carefully tinted to recapture the original living colors of its time.
The calendar features 15 unique images.
Individuals and organizations alike may request our calendar. Send your request to firstname.lastname@example.org, or contact the State Archives Reference Desk at 850.245.6719. Quantities may be limited depending on supply availability. All items are shipped free of charge.
Looking for more ways to help spread the word about Florida Memory? Visit our promotional items page to request posters, mousepads, CDs and brochures.
Interested in volunteering with Florida Memory? We’re looking for digital volunteers to transcribe county histories, which will make information more easily accessible for researchers using our website.
Our newly digitized collection, WPA County Histories, contains brief county histories and related notes collected or written during the Great Depression by agents of the Works Progress Administration’s Historical Records Survey. Encompassing 63 of Florida’s 67 counties, these documents are incredibly valuable reference guides for researching the history of particular Florida counties. Unfortunately, these documents aren’t searchable unless they are transcribed, which is where you come in! By helping us, your transcriptions will be benefiting researchers everywhere who use Florida Memory to learn more about the history of the Sunshine State.
The process of transcription is simple. These instructions will give you an understanding about the steps involved in transcribing the documents.
First, go to the WPA County Histories collection and choose from the list of counties. You can select a county you’re familiar with or choose one you know nothing about.
Select a Florida county from the map.
After choosing a county, find a document in need of transcription. These documents will have a “Transcribe This Item” tab.
Under the document you will see a “Transcribe This Item” tab when documents have not been transcribed.
Once you have chosen a document, you can begin to transcribe it. Remember to transcribe the item exactly as it appears. Any change or corrections to spelling should be encased in brackets [ ].
Sample text from a WPA document.
A transcription of the above WPA document. Note the spelling corrections appear in brackets.
Upon completion, click on the “Transcribe This Item” tab to find information about saving your transcription and how to submit it to us. Transcriptions should be saved and submitted as a plain text file using text editors such as Notepad for Windows or TextEdit for Mac OS X.
View of the “Transcribe This Item” tab with instructions for digital volunteers.
Please be aware that although the WPA field workers included extensive citations for the factual information contained in these county histories, these historical narratives were produced in the 1930s by federal government employees, and might reflect the inherent social biases of the era.
Wilbur Wightman Gramling carefully penned these words in the back inside cover of a small black pocket diary sometime between May 6, 1864 and June 21, 1865. He was a Confederate soldier from Florida, taken prisoner at the Battle of the Wilderness in Virginia after being wounded in the arm. Soon after he was transferred to a Union hospital in Washington, DC, he acquired this small volume and began writing about his experiences. Click here to view the full diary on Florida Memory.
A page from the Wilbur Wightman Gramling Diary, showing entries for June 1-3, 1864 (Collection M88-70, State Archives of Florida).
Gramling filled every entry in the diary from May 6, 1864 to May 5, 1865, sharing details about the hospitals he was assigned to, the people he met and corresponded with, and what little information he could learn about the war. In July 1864, he was transferred to the Union prison at Elmira, New York, where he would remain until the war ended. While there, his diary entries were filled with descriptions of escape attempts, concerns about the approaching winter, illicit markets among the prisoners, and the meager news he was able to pick up about friends and relatives.
Map showing parts of Pennsylvania and New York – Elmira is located just north of the border shared between these states ( Asher & Adams’ New Statistical and Topographical Atlas of the United States, 1872).
Owen Irvin Gramling, Jr., a great-nephew of Wilbur’s, donated the diary to the State Archives of Florida in 1988. It is now available on Florida Memory in its entirety, including a full transcription and a biographical section describing many of the people Gramling writes about. The diary can also be browsed by subject. Click here to view the diary directly or visit the Collections page on floridamemory.com.
Florida Memory is now digitizing two ledgers containing Florida’s earliest automobile registration records, dating from 1905 to 1917. Although the project is still in progress, we have already found some fascinating information to share in celebration of Collector Car Appreciation Day on July 10th.
Ranson E. Olds in the Olds Pirate racing car on Ormond Beach (circa 1896).
It’s that time of year again. The stores are quickly filling to capacity as holiday shopping gets into full swing. Do you have a Florida enthusiast on your list this year? If so, bypass the crowds and take advantage of Florida Memory’s new online shopping cart feature! It’s now easier than ever to purchase high-quality prints and digital scans of Florida Memory’s 185,000+ photos depicting the history and culture of the Sunshine State.
Buying a print or high-resolution scan of a photo is easy. Search or browse the Florida Memory website for a photo you’d like to purchase, then select the “Buy Now” tab located just below it. The tab will display the options available for that image, including size or resolution, sepia toning, and quantity of prints. Click “Add to Cart,” and the item is retained in your “shopping cart,” much like Amazon and other online stores. You may then continue browsing the site, or you can click the Shopping Cart icon at the top-right corner of the page to complete your transaction. For more information, check out our Customer Service page for answers to frequently asked questions, estimated shipping times, our policies, and contact information.
Use the “Buy Now” tab to identify the kind of reproduction you would like to purchase.
Not sure what to look for? We suggest starting with your favorite Florida community. Maybe it’s your hometown, or a favorite vacation destination. Use our search box to find historic photos of your community, or perhaps a specific building or landmark in the area.
View of a hotel in Fernandina (circa 1900).
Key West Lighthouse, photographed by Joseph Janney Steinmetz (circa 1940s).
Florida Memory is also home to a variety of photo collections created by specific photographers or agencies. The Game and Fresh Water Fish Commission Collection, for example, contains over 800 images of Florida animal and plant life, in addition to photos of Commission employees at work in Florida’s natural spaces.
View of an Osprey (circa 1960).
The Department of Commerce Collection is also popular. Florida Memory has over 30,000 images taken by professional photographers from the Department’s Division of Tourism between the 1940s and 1996. The photos cover everything from community scenes to popular landmarks and attractions to festivals and events.
Unidentified girl (circa 1990).
Performers on waterskis at Cypress Gardens near Winter Haven (circa 1960s).
Whatever Florida theme you’re looking for, Florida Memory has something to offer. We encourage you to visit our Photographs page to view the full list of photo collections available on Florida Memory. Happy shopping!
… I hope that ere next April we will have what is wished for a thousand times every moment. That is peace…
These words were penned October 12, 1864 by Albert Symington Chalker, a young private from Clay County stationed near present-day Baldwin during the Civil War. He was writing to Martha Ann Bardin, his sweetheart and future wife. The full letter reflects Chalker’s realization of the hardships of war, in terms of both what the young soldier observed around him, and what he was feeling within. Written “voices” like Chalker’s are invaluable for understanding historical phenomena like the Civil War, which is why the State Archives of Florida is eager to collect and preserve letters, diaries, and other documents from everyday citizens in addition to government records. Read more »
Florida Memory is funded under the provisions of the Library Services and Technology Act, from the Institute of Museum and Library Services, administered by the Florida Department of State, Division of Library and Information Services.