A Christmas Wish for More History

December 13th, 2019

By John Marks, Curator of Collections and Exhibits

“More history? Don’t you have enough already?”

Not really.

Anne Dealy, Director of Education & Public Information, and I have worked for the Historical Society for 19 years. While we have many resources to use in programs and exhibits, we’re always aware of the things we don’t have. We wish we had photographs, letters, objects, and clothes that represented more people in Geneva. This month, I’ll be discussing photographs.

young African American woman

Minnie Condell, Courtesy of Hobart & William Smith Colleges Archives

Until George Eastman’s first Kodak camera in 1888, having a photo created meant going to a professional photographer. Portraits and group pictures were limited to those who could afford them.  This left out many people; it was a big occasion when people of color, immigrants, or working class people sat for a photographer.

When local newspapers began using photos, they focused on achievement, crime, or disaster. P.B. Oakley, who covered Geneva for the Syracuse Herald-Journal from 1939 to 1971, took thousands of such photos. The people in these photos are overwhelmingly white and middle class or above.


two men in suits shaking hands

PB Oakley photo of two unidentified men


The Historical Society has hundreds of professional photographs, and about 11,000 images taken by Mr. Oakley. It also has albums, scrapbooks, and individual photos donated by families. We’re part way through a formal inventory and plan of what we have and where we need to fill gaps, but we have some sense of what we’re lacking.

Recent history is one weakness of our collection. We have few images from the 1980s to the present. A stumbling block in soliciting recent history is the belief, “If I can remember it, it’s not old enough to be in a museum.” However, people in their early 30s want to see the Geneva they remember from their childhood in the late 1990s and early 2000s. Many businesses and buildings have changed in the last 20 to 40 years. Pictures of Hamilton Street showing Burger King and Pudgies Pizza, both now gone, are historical to a younger audience.

single story building in a parking lot

Pudgies Pizza, 1980s

We wish we had more pictures of non-Christian and cultural holiday traditions.  For decades Genevans have celebrated bar and bat mitzvahs, Hanukah, and other events of Jewish life but we have very few photos.  Likewise, there are cultural traditions around milestone birthdays, commemorations, etc. Do you have photos from a quinceañera party, or the Feast of Seven Fishes?

Identified family photos are important because they do several things at once. They capture people and events of personal meaning. They show creative choices – why this scene and not another? They have a lot of background information – a house interior or exterior, cars, neighbors, etc. We wish we had photos of Genevans from all neighborhoods regardless of race or class.

This is the first of several appeals we’ll be making for more history. If you’re unsure if we would want something, please give us a call. While we are happy to take original photos, we can also scan and return them.

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