5/03/2008

Historic Photos of Mobile

For the past, almost, three years, I have had companies ask me to do reviews of their particular product. I have reviewed everything from computer software to truck tires to HDTV’s. I have also reviewed three books, including the book with the title above. It has enabled me to have a little extra money to sock away for whatever the future holds in store for me.

Ordinarily, I don’t do any review for free. This is my one rare exception. I am doing this out of pure pleasure since it is so personal to me. Carol Ellis and Scotty E. Kirkland have put together a huge collection of turn of the century Mobile photographs. Since they are Mobilians, I decided to make my review. Without further adieu, here is my review…


When first approached about doing this review, I was reluctant to do so. Doing book reviews take up a lot of time. You have to read it, think about it and decide how you will describe it. You also have to describe points in the book to back up your opinion. It takes a lot of time. Not so with photo books. You look at the layout of the book, the texture of the paper and the quality of the picture within each chapter. So, as far as books go, it’s an easy proposition. Still, it’s not something I ordinarily care to do. But, I was willing to enter into this endeavor with an open mind.

The front cover of the book catches your attention right away. It is a picture of a man sitting on a log looking out across from Pinto Island at a panoramic view of the few skyscrapers in Mobile at the time. The white ship in the foreground appears to be one of the white merchant ships in the 1890s. It is a magnificent view, especially for a cover. So, I’m thinking this might not be so bad after all. As you turn to the table of contents, I was impressed with how well each chapter was laid out for the reader. Starting out with “New South City (1870-1899) to From Opportunity to Stagnation (1959-1979)”, it encompasses Old Mobile for over a century in photographs. If one can be impressed by a table of contents, this is the book. What little written content is available is right on the first page describing Mobile’s economic status as a port city. Mobile was a crucial port of departure for exporting “King Cotton” during its heyday. It’s a brief, yet powerful description of the population boom and decline with reasons stated succinctly.

As a native Mobilian and someone who has lived here during the majority of my 56 years, I was fascinated by the pictures in this book starting from page 3 with an unpaved Government St. (which later became part of U.S. Hwy 90). Horse drawn carriages are seen going down the main street in Mobile at the time. As you proceed you see history in the making at the turn of the twentieth century. Page 7 you witness a crowd gathered to watch the old Gayfer’s bulding burn to the ground in 1899. You simply would not see this large a crowd today. The police and firefighters would not allow it.

I continued on throughout each chapter and I would catch myself dumbstruck by sights with which I was familiar. The first picture to knock me for a loop was right on page 17. It was a picture of Barton Academy (Mobile County School Board home for many, many years). The picture of the building was enough. What was even more eye opening for someone familiar with the city of Mobile was the green, green grass growing in front of the building. “That is where Government St. is supposed to be,” I would find myself saying out loud. It takes your breath away to see a part of history that you really never thought about.

There were pictures of the old Alabama State Docks, where workers were loading bales of cotton onto merchant ships to be shipped to far away destinations before the turn of the twentieth century. You get to see the way people were dressed during this era also. On page 27 there are four southern belles in full length white cotton dresses with umbrellas to shield them from the most unpleasantness of the sun that day. It’s probably early 1900s. Looking at that picture, I’m thinking it’s summer time in Mobile. That means 90+ degree temperature and humidity in the 70-80% range. I simply don’t know how these women could dress that way under the conditions I described. But, they did it. Old Bienville Square. Back in the 1909 photo, it was a place Mobile business men would meet and talk over transactions or deals made to better themselves financially. Today, they might meet there to eat lunch. Not much has changed there. But, I was fascinated by how clean everything seemed in the square back in that day. There are pics of workers doing construction on Old Bankhead Tunnel. It seems impossible it was ever “new” Bankhead Tunnel. But, there are pics that prove it was definitely the new kid on the block at one time. The old Roxy theater pic was a real treat for me. As a kid in the late 50s, I spent a many a Saturday afternoon watching Roy Rogers ride Trigger going after the bad guys. And his cowboy hat never even fell to the ground. Great memories!

I could go on and on about the fabulous pictures throughout this book. I have to include one of the late Bob Hope on page 163 where he entertained Alabama Drydock company workers. He was a favorite of mine. I was greatly impressed and a bit taken aback by seeing this pic included. I had no idea Bob Hope had ever been to Mobile. In fact there were other pics of celebrities, including one of Mamie Van Doren. Of course, you can’t exclude pics of Mardi Gras in Mobile. They are printed throughout the book. The one on page 171 of a well put together dragon was impressive for that era.

I was impressed with “Historic Photos of Mobile.” And I didn’t think I would be. Carol Ellis and Scotty Kirkland are to be congratulated for putting together a book that follows Mobile throughout an entire century. I know many reading this review are thinking, why should I bother with a book that is strictly about Mobile. But, that’s just the thing…it’s not just about Mobile. It’s about a different time, a different era when this country had different values. Some of those values were not good, such as during the Jim Crow era. But, for the most part, this is a very interesting book. It has photos that are sure to capture the imagination even if you are from New York city and wanting to see the “Old South.” It gives you a taste of nostalgia from photos of years past. The reader is taken from the present day of high gas prices and terrorist attacks. You are transported to a day of southern belles walking across the Alabama Drydocks with umbrellas at the ready to escape the heat. It’s the kind of book you would want sitting on your coffee table whenever guests arrive. It’s a sure fire way to initiate spirited conversation. . These are pictures that you can spend an entire weekend viewing over and over. You never get tired of looking at them. You look at those people…you wonder whatever happened to them. What did they do for a living back then? What were their dreams and aspirations? Historic Photos of Mobile is a book that will make you sit and actually think. It’s a trip through time with black and white photos pointing the way. Most of all, it will entertain you.

I highly encourage everyone to purchase a copy. It’s a little pricey at $39.95. But, not out of line with cost of everything else today. Publishing is a hit or miss proposition. I think this is definitely a hit. It is worth every penny you pay. Click one of the Historic Photos of Mobile links, read a bit on it and buy a copy. You’ll be glad you did.

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