A Walk in 1875 Saint Louis

Compton & Dry's Pictorial Saint Louis, 1875

Compton & Dry’s Pictorial Saint Louis, 1875

Saturday was a history day for me, because in addition to stumbling upon a historical baseball game being played in Forest Park, I also went to the Missouri History Museum. There were two new exhibits at the museum. One was a traveling show that dealt with the power of Nazi propaganda and was created by the US Holocaust Museum. This show had plenty of colorful and bold imagery, but its content is so hate filled that I am reluctant to republish any of it here, we’ll see though. The other show was relatively uncontroversial and will be a source of great blog fodder. Not so much in the imagery department, even though the content of this show was almost all graphics, but more as a source for interesting factoids. It will be a source for plenty of good stories to come. The whole feel of this show was somewhat reminiscent of a local Sunday comic strip that used to run in the Post-Dispatch, at least until 1990, “Our Own Oddities”. This strip was similar to the syndicated “Ripley’s Believe It or Not” strip, but with a distinctly local emphasis. This other show at the history museum was like a collection of “Our Own Oddities” strips, but set in the year 1875, hence the show’s name, “A Walk in 1875 Saint Louis”.

The genesis for this show and its backbone too was a map folio, called “Compton & Dry’s Pictorial Saint Louis” that was created around 1875 and featured every single home, building, street and even tree in Saint Louis at the time, in beautiful black and white perspective. Think of it as sort of a 19th-century Google Maps. This folio divided the city into individual 11” X 18” plates and if assembled as a whole would create a gigantic map of 10’ X 30’. In this exhibit, many of these individual plates are enlarged to about that size and cover whole walls. While this folio by itself is interesting enough, it is only half the show. The other half is a collection of colorful illustrations by Saint Louis graphic artist Dan Zettwoch. Dan worked on his part of the show’s illustrations for four months and his drawings cover over 4,000 square feet of wall space. Checkout his blog, Zettwoch’s Suitcase.

I selected as the illustration for this post, just a portion of one plate from the folio. It features the Eads Bridge, which is one of the few features that still exist today. Saint Louis is a dynamic city that is constantly churning and renewing itself. Today, on the left side of the Eads Bridge stands the Arch and not too differently from back then, on the right-hand side of the bridge is Laclede’s landing. The levee is still there. Back then it was bustling with riverboat traffic. There are fewer boats now. Inland everything has changed since then. The photo is full-size, so that you can see every bit of detail. Checkout the statues on the Eads Bridge. They were at onetime planned, but were never installed. Compton and Dry like many of their competitors in the pictorial map business tended to embellish upon their subject matter. Their folios were sold by subscription and also acted as civic advertisement, so everyone wanted to put on their best face.

Each one of Zettwoch’s graphic murals covered some aspect of life in 1875 Saint Louis. To serve as an example here, since yesterday I wrote about 1860s baseball, let’s update the game by fifteen years. The game had evolved, but would still seem rather strange to today’s spectators. Back then, like today games between Saint Louis and Chicago still drew huge crowds. None of the players had yet to don gloves. There was only one umpire, who started the game with a coin flip. There was also only one ball that was used for the entire game, even if it had to be retrieved from the stands. (Sorry Carl, no batting practice balls.) The pitcher stood in a six-foot square box and got a running start from one corner. Pitchers likely threw underhanded or sidearm. A walk only came after nine balls and batters were sometimes given four strikes.

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