Uncovering Lost History in the Galleries of Stone and Wilcox
Photos have a special place in our understanding of the world in which we live. And as it turns out, some of the early Georgetown photographs recently uncovered in Southwestern’s A. Frank Smith, Jr. Library archival holdings have a very special place in Texas history.
August 27, 2019
When Megan Firestone joined Southwestern’s Library Services - Special Collections team in January 2019, she immediately rolled up her sleeves and went to work conducting a comprehensive assessment of the library’s collection of over 20,000 rare books, more than 1300 linear feet of manuscript, and countless photos and other items. Since the Special Collections’ archive began in 1939, it is not surprising that Special Collections includes numerous holdings that date back to the late 1800s. As Firestone gently began digging around in the Library’s physical archive holdings, she soon uncovered several photographs taken by Robert J. Stone and Nathaniel Wilcox, two Georgetown residents who each maintained a portrait studio and were photographing concurrently in the Georgetown and Central Texas area between 1897- 1946. Knowing that it would have been highly unusual to have a single studio photographer, let alone two, in a town the size of then-Georgetown, Firestone’s interest was piqued.
Photographs are often favorite archival items because, as Firestone says, “Unlike one-dimensional documents, photographs allow us to see the evolution of time and material changes” and as a result, are imbued with a deep sense of mystery. With no other documentation to accompany the photographs, Firestone realized that making the Stone and Wilcox photos available to a broader public might provide additional insight into the histories of these two Georgetown photographers. First, however, the deteriorating photos required better preservation and translation into a digital format that would be easier to share with a broad public.
Because of their age and fragility, use of a flatbed scanner would have further degraded these photographs’ image beds, so Special Collections needed to acquire a quality digital camera and stand in order to digitize the photos. To accomplish these project goals, Firestone applied for and received a grant from the Texas Historical Foundation to defray part of the equipment and archival rehousing costs. After digitizing, these historic photographs will be permanently rehoused into stable, appropriately sized archival enclosures and added to newly cataloged boxes.
Firestone hopes to solve some of the mystery surrounding Stone’s and Wilcox’s photos by hosting two publicized open house viewings of the photos and associated materials in early 2020. The digitized images will be added to both Southwestern’s Digital Texas Heritage Resource Center and the Portal to Texas History website by spring 2020. Promoting public engagement may solicit significant additional details about the work and personal lives of these two photographers, particularly in light of the fact that Robert Stone consistently billed himself as “the Southwestern Photographer.” Perhaps as the layers of mystery are peeled back by an engaged public, some of the secrets of life in early Georgetown —and the life of these special images—might be uncovered as well.
As part of the Stone and Wilcox archival project, the development of an in-depth search engine for the Library’s growing digital archives is underway that will make all archival materials more readily available by linking keywords to specific, individual contents rather than just to storage box labels. Scholars both on and off campus will soon acquire greater searchable access to a much larger quantity of Southwestern’s historic archival materials.
Firestone earned a BA in History and an MA in History with a specialization in Public History from Texas State University, and an MS in Library and Information Science from Drexel University. She has since completed additional training at the National Archives in Washington D.C., the National Museum of the United States Air Force, and the Air Force Historical Research Agency and has worked in preservationist roles with museums, oral histories, and archives.
Since its incorporation in 1954, The Texas Historical Foundation (THF) has been “providing funds to preservationists who are saving the buildings, artifacts, documents, and traditions of the Lone Star past.” In addition, the THF also publishes the quarterly magazine, Texas HERITAGE, to highlight stories of the people and events that continue to shape Texas. Over the past thirty years, the THF has given over $1.7 million to fund 295 projects.