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Wednesday, January 30, 2013

Cold Cases and Archival Mysteries

"Archivist" is a very broad term describing what we in the profession do on a daily basis. We wear many hats: a master staple-remover hat, a scanning robot hat, and a metadata wordsmith hat are amongst the many ready to be plucked off our racks. My favorite accessory is my deerstalker hat, which has the obvious effect of increasing my powers of reason and deduction.

An archivist must often step into the role of detective: we work with a whole lot of old stuff, and not all of it comes with a convenient label or explanation. Most of the time (though not always) we know where our mystery materials came from, in archives-speak, the acquisition. But sometimes, that's all we know. Who wrote this letter? What's happening in this photograph? What is the strange black powder in this box (that mystery was solved: it was powdered vinyl)? WHY is this HERE?

So we dig. We take what we do know about the mystery object and start following the clues. We compare handwriting samples, photography styles, other materials with similar subjects. Sometimes the trail leads to something, and we follow it (holding a comically large magnifying glass, of course) and give our now not-so-mysterious object a proper home. Sometimes materials remain a mystery for a very long time. Let's call these cold cases.

Cold cases are a frustrating dilemma for an archivist. They are hidden in the collection, making them difficult for researchers to use (or even locate), and we have no way of knowing how these mystery materials could impact scholarship.

Thank goodness for the internet.

As the old saying goes, hundreds of brains are better than one. Let's solve some mysteries!


These mystery photos were found scattered across multiple "miscellaneous" boxes in the Moses and Frances Asch Collection. What's shown here is just a sampling from one of the rolls found. Here's what we know about them:
  • They were developed by Moses Asch.
  • There are hundreds of photographs to parse through, but the majority appear to have been taken in New York City circa 1949. This date is based on a campaign poster for Franklin Delano Roosevelt, Jr. in one of the photographs.
  • The negatives have an aspect ratio of 1.33 (30 mm x 40 mm), though the closest film format to this ratio and time period is 828 film.
As far as we know, Asch was not a photographer, but this could be proof otherwise. If he didn't take them, who did? And why so many New York City street scenes? Do you recognize any of the locations? Was this an artistic endeavor or simply an effort to document the New York of 1949?

What do you think?

-Cecilia Peterson, Ralph Rinzler Folklife Archives and Collections


  1. Well, in the next to last photo, if that's "Annie Get Your Gun" the movie, it would have to be sometime after May 17, 1950, as that's when the film was released.

  2. It appears to me that these photographs are just an attempt to document life in New York during circa 1949. By the look of the composition of the photographs, if Asch took them he was not a professional photographer. If a more sophesticated professional camera was used, the photographs would have been of much better quality.

  3. Looking closer at that next-to-last photo, it is the movie version of Annie Get Your Gun: the sign over the door references Technicolor. And next to that theater is the Times Square location of Bond Clothing Stores, with the sign that was there from 1948-1954. Per Wikipedia (, that store was located "on the east side block of Broadway between 44th and 45th St."