Monday, October 25, 2010

Climbing through the Window

History can be dates and numbers. It can be stories of adventure or explanation of the most banal actions and it can be a record of business deals and governmental edicts. But real history is a 5, 500 year-old shoe found in an Armenian cave. Real history is a man in the black and white foreground, wearing a narrow-brimmed cap, glancing sideways at a photographer (at you) as a picture is clicked of a gigantic crowd at an 1894 Boston Beaneaters baseball game (source). Real history is the worn velvet of a couch in Dove Cottage where Coleridge used to sit talking to Wordsworth on cold Grasmere nights. It is the connecting of "now" to "then" in a way that chills us to the core and makes us realize that people in 1732 used to get toe-itches with their shoes on; that women in 550 AD and in 1943 sometimes had "bad hair days." History is the floor of the old Globe Theater that was made out of packed dirt and hazelnut shells carelessly dropped and trampled underfoot to the hardness of cement by the snacking groundlings, over time. Real history is a boy lying on his bed, lightly tossing a ball up and down on a lonely summer day in 1910. And it is the American quarter I once tossed into the Thames river, off of the tower bridge, just to leave an imprint of my presence in London.

Real history is the unedited film below, taken from the front of a streetcar in San Francisco, probably a week before the great earthquake of 1906 and the devastating fire it caused. Here, you can see images of long-dead people: boys riding the bumpers of cars; a man stealing a ride on the back of a cart being looked back at by the annoyed driver; people hamming it up for the new-fangled motion picture camera; women in bustles and floral hats dodging the streetcars; men who walk with the same gait as guys in jeans and T-shirts today, only in dark suits with hats; drivers of automobiles cutting in and out between horse-drawn carriages; children on the way home from school, books in tow; professional men crossing Market Street discussing upcoming meetings.

This video is history in its most staggering sense. Here you'll see people with heartbeats who are gone, but who were alive at the moment the camera crossed their paths and etched them into history's living rock forever, whether they died in flames and collapse in the 'quake or in their sleep, decades later. People like us, looking through the window of time directly at us.

(Stick with this -- there is a lot of rolling and flutter in the beginning, but it stays clear for most of the time afterward. Although it is dated 1905 in the title, historians believe this was shot perhaps a week before the earthquake.)

HAT TIP: Gina Matarazzo Stewart


  1. Hey, Mr. Matt, you left this quarter in the Thames River. Good thing I found it, or else you may have had an imprint of yourself in London or something.

    Excellent piece, by the way.

  2. I think that does some damage to the time-space continuum, Nick, but I'm not sure. Buy yourself some Swedish fish with it and enjoy devouring my immortality.


  3. I am also one of those people who are awed by history and frequently overcome by the thoughts of those who have once stood where we now stand. I watched the first episode of Ken Burns' "Baseball" the other day, which opens with the same picture you included with this post, and I sat through all 14 minutes of the attached video before forwarding it to my history department. Awesome post, as usual!

  4. Hey,Jeff! Thanks -- hope the department enjoys it. That's cool -- I first saw that pic this summer when I read the book based on the Ken Burns series -- I have to watch the vids soon.