Friday, July 10, 2020

Birmingham Photo of the Day (76): Brown McDowell at the Princess Theatre

In 1908 documentary photographer Lewis Hine began work for the National Child Labor Committee , a private organization dedicated to child labor reform in the United States. He traveled the country visiting mines, mills, factories and other venues where children worked and documenting conditions and their lives. In October 1914 he took the photo below in Birmingham. Hine visited Alabama in 1910, 1911, 1913, and 1914. The Library of Congress has more than 5000 photos by Hine; over 200 were taken in the state.

I came across this picture recently on the Library of Congress' Flickr site. The description there notes, "Brown McDowell 12 year old usher in Princess Theatre. Works from 10 A.M. tp 10 P.M. Can barely read; has reached the second grade in school only. Investigator reports little actual need for earnings." 

What can we learn from this photo? The BhamWiki site tells us more about the Princess Theater and includes the photo. The venue, "a small cinema" on 20th Street North, operated from about 1910 until 1930. You can see a 1917 photo of the entrance here

In October 1914 a film called The Ex-Convict was showing at the Princess; the Kalem Company had released it on September 30, 1914. As far as I have been able to determine, the film is not among the many lost silent films but I have not located a current vendor for it either. This situation seems odd, since the movie had two big stars of the day, Guy Coombs and Anna Q. Nilsson. Both were very active in the silent era and were actually married in 1916-17. Coombs left films in 1922 and went into Florida real estate; he died in 1947. Nilsson's lengthy career declined in the sound era; she died in 1974. She was the first of a trio of early film actresses from Sweden who found great success in America, the others being Greta Garbo and Ingrid Bergman. 

I've managed to find a bit about Brown McDowell beyond this photograph & Hine's note about it. The boy and his family are listed in the 1910 U.S. Census, where they can be found in precinct 22 in Jefferson County. Brown was born in 1902, making him eight at the time of the census. Their household was crowded. Father Heram McDowell, born in Florida about 1860, was a machinist in a mine. His mother Linder was 32 years old. Brown was the fourth oldest of six children; sisters Willie May and Idene were older, as was brother Alon. Brother Roy was five and Herbert just one. 

I have found nothing about family members beyond this census. Some of the names are very common and I found none of those that matched ages. The unusual names--Heram, Linder, Idene and Alon--didn't turn up in other years or locations. I looked at the original census image, and the census taker's cursive handwriting is difficult to read. The digitization technology used at's census materials may have misinterpreted them, although I couldn't do any better.  

I presume the note "Investigator reports little actual need for earnings" meant that Hines felt the family didn't require Brown's income. However, the McDowell's may have thought differently and emphasized work over education. 

Brown McDowell thus remains only a little less mysterious. I wonder about the suited gentleman whose head we cannot see [a theater employee?] and the woman in the ticket booth. 

Lewis HIne [1874-1940], a self portrait

Source: Wikipedia

Kalem Company advertisement that includes The Ex-Convict

Source: Moving Picture World 1914 via Lantern, the Media History Digital Library

No comments:

Post a Comment