For the past few weeks, I’ve been searching for images to use in the bayou book—combing the digital holdings of the Library of Congress, the Louisiana Digital Library, the New Orleans Public Library and about a billion other institutions, not to mention desperately attempting to track down details about unattached (but often wonderful!) historic images on Wikimedia Commons and personal blogs.

In my travels, I came across a heap of digitized WPA photographs at the NOPL. The photos cover a huge variety of WPA projects unfolding all over the city in the 1930s and 40s, and many of them are fairly mundane—but a seemingly equal number are totally fascinating.

I hope everyone will forgive me if I stray a bit from the bayou in this week’s post….

The photos took me on an adventure, and I couldn’t resist!

I clicked around, and decided to present some gems I found—of women and children in particular.


Photo #1: June 1941, from the series entitled, simply, “Mattresses.”

The finding aid explains a bit further: “WPA workers manufactured 17,682 mattresses and quilts to be distributed to the needy during 1939.”

I love how tangible this photo feels—those slats, the piles of fabric, the aprons!


Photo #2 & #3: September, 1937, from a series called “Archaeoconchology.”

I know, right?! Who is this amazing woman! To whom is she calling?! So it turns out “archaeoconchology,” when entered into the Google search bar, turns up a grand total of 9 (obscure) entries. One hesitates to say it’s not a real word…. The only quasi definition I was able to turn up said it was a branch of archaeozoology.

Basically, someone was collecting some sea shells, perhaps studying them, and otherwise having this woman in her amazing dress pose with them.


Photo #4: From September 1940, from series called “Household Aide”

The finding aid explains that these photos feature a “training center for household aid workers. Photographs show Mrs. Eva Blackwell, assistant supervisor, with workers in the ‘carpentry’ shop and Mrs. Leila Schneidau teaching workers the proper care of patients.” In this particular shot, we see what I assume is a “worker” leading a little boo into another room. This child has completely won over my heart! But what makes this photo *extra* special is what I believe is a mannikin lying in bed in the background. There were other photos of mannikin patients, so I think it’s a safe bet. Also, just look at her.…


Photo #5: From January, 1940, from a series called “Music.”

The following description confirms what you think you’re seeing: “Harmonica class at Robert C. Davey School, 1307 Dryades Street. Jimmy Dillon, 14, 1621 Dryades; Rita Van Court, 13, 1824 Terpsichore; Gladys Luc, 13, 908 Howard; Anna Paladino, 15, 1400 Baronne.” Why aren’t harmonica lessons a part of music class in public schools nowadays?! Practicing my scales with my classmates at the front of the room, with that wand waving about in front of me—what could be better?! What’s also wonderful is we have names and addresses for some of the students. If any readers recognize grandparents or addresses, please comment!


Next post, it’s back to the bayou—I promise! But I seriously recommend clicking around this collection at the NOPL in the meantime.


All photos from WPA Photograph Collection, Louisiana Division, New Orleans Public Library.

1. Mattresses, 27.03 “Matress Making Project,” 6/12/1941, #10.

2 & 3. Archaeoconchology, 04.02 , “Shell Project Story at the Louisiana State Museum,” 9/29/1937, #7 & #8.

4. Household Aide, 22.01, 9/18/1940, #10.

5.  Music, 30.07, “Federal Music Project,” 1/10/1940, #1.


While attending last week’s July 4th boat parade on Bayou St. John, led by the Krewe of Kolossos, I was reminded of a letter I came across last summer. The flotilla’s preamble was not merely the spreading of picnic blankets along the bayou’s shore, or the adjusting of raft decorations, you see. It also involved several surprising aerial feats!

Like this backlit bike flip, facilitated by a wooden ramp on the bayou’s edge:

Or these guys climbing to the top of Magnolia Bridge (aka Cabrini Bridge) and hurling themselves off:

These guys were the ones to remind me of that letter I came across while doing some bayou research at the New Orleans Public Library last summer. The letter was written by a certain Walter Parker, Chairman of the Bayou St. John Improvement Association (and future mayor of New Orleans), to Honorable George Reyer, Superintendent of Police, and dated April 10, 1934. It read as follows:

“It would help a great deal were some of your men to pass along the Bayou as frequently as practicable. Some boys who do not have bathing suits, do not hesitate to bathe in very scant underwear. At the Dumaine Street bridge many boys make the dangerous practice of climbing on the bridge structure. At the Magnolia Bridge (Harding Drive) boys dive from the top of the bridge pretty much all day.” [1]

Boys in their undies, jumping off bayou bridges “pretty much all day”!

What complicated this practice (aside from the boys showing a lot of skin) was that, at the time this letter was written, quite a few houseboats still occupied the bayou. Many of them had electrical and even telephone hookups, but virtually *none* were equipped with any kind of on-board “sewage management.” Meaning…the sewage went straight into the bayou. The four-foot-deep, barely-flowing bayou. Walter Parker was not only perturbed by their rowdiness, but also apparently concerned for their health.

The letter goes on to cover another issue we’re all familiar with when it comes to outdoor festivals, particularly those along the bayou: litter!

“In so far as I know, people have a right to fish [and organize flotillas] on the Bayou. But when they leave crab bait, old papers and remnants of lunch behind, they create a nuisance. I have found that such things usually are the result of thoughtlessness rather than viciousness, and a simple request or word of warning brings a correction….”

Does this tension between recreational use of the bayou and concerned bayou residents sound familiar? I hope none of you left any crab bait behind when you packed up to head home last Monday evening. Or old papers! Or remnants of lunch! Or jumped off the bridge scantily-clad! But if you did, you’ve simply joined the ranks of the bayou’s many nuisance-makers throughout our city’s history….