On an unseasonably warm spring day in 1913, the Westfall Drugstore on Main Street received a special delivery from Kodak in Rochester, N.Y. — a brand-new “Vest Pocket Kodak” that had wowed customers since it was introduced the prior year.
Retailing at $6 at Westfall Drugstore, the camera was the size of a modern-day iPhone. Temperatures leading up to Friday, April 18, 1913, had hovered in the 40s, but on the day the camera arrived, skies were clear and sunny and the temperature hit a high of 82 degrees shortly after the lunch hour.
It was then that the camera was carefully removed from the box and used to snap eight shots of the city. The film was developed — and then returned to the camera where they would not be seen until last week where they stunned researchers at the Oklahoma Historical Society who are continuing to find surprises from last year’s opening of the “Century Chest” at First Lutheran Church, 1300 N Robinson Ave.
Chad Williams, research director at the Oklahoma Historical Society, has spent the past 10 months digging into the contents of the 100-year-old time capsule. The meticulous congregation leaders of 1913 gave a detailed list of its contents, but finds like the developed negatives continue to catch Williams and his staff by surprise.
“It was in a package, and it said it was the smallest Kodak camera available, shipped to the Westfall Drugstore,” Williams said. “The reason we’re just finding this now is it was packaged in Westfall Drugstore wrapping, and it was a wrapping material that doesn’t exist anymore. So we wanted to preserve the paper.”
Once the package was opened last week, Williams and his staff found not just a camera in mint condition, but film negatives that had been developed after that warm spring day and then returned to the camera in time for it to be added to the time capsule.
As with everything else found in the time capsule, the photo negatives and camera were in pristine condition.
“They had already processed it — they weren’t taking any chances,” Williams said. “That’s how incredible they were in 1913.”
The photos include a much earlier glimpse of the original Carnegie Library — with a fountain in front that doesn’t show in other known photos. The library, 131 Dean A. McGee Ave., was one of at least 24 built in Oklahoma with assistance from steel magnate Andrew Carnegie, and was built at a cost of $60,000 in 1899. The library was razed in 1951 and replaced with a bigger building that is currently being converted into apartments.
Another photo shows a stretch of buildings along Main Street that later became home to the sprawling John A. Brown’s department store.
Only a few of the structures shown in the photos exist in 2014, including the original U.S. Post Office, now home to the city’s federal courthouse. A photo taken that looks west on Main Street at Robinson Avenue shows the Oil and Gas Building. The building at 108 N Robinson Ave. still stands, but with a new brick facade, at the northeast corner of Robinson and Main. The space shown as the Savoy Cafe in the 1913 photo is now home to the Sweets and Eats Cafe.
Williams’ favorite photograph, however, is one that did not immediately make sense to him.
The Putnam Co. Real Estate Exchange shown prominently in the photo was owned by Israel Mercer Putnam, an early day Oklahoma real estate developer and legislator. Putnam platted 2,000 acres for a separate city but never filed incorporation papers with the state that would have made it official. A year after the photo of his building was taken, a group of parents west of Oklahoma City decided to form their own school district in the area — creating the Putnam City Public School District.
“He is an important name in telling the story of city neighborhoods,” Williams said. “But if you look below that sign, you’ll see Westfall Drugstore — which donated the camera and where the film was processed.”
Williams notes the photos were not taken by a professional photographer but rather were shot in the same way people visiting or working downtown might take shots with their phones and cameras in 2014.
“These are very important,” Williams said. “Personally, I love them because this is an average Oklahoman taking the photos with a new $6 camera.”
AT A GLANCE
The Century Chest
The Century Chest stayed sealed under concrete for 100 years before it was unearthed and opened on April 22, 2013. The time capsule was created as a fundraiser for First Lutheran Church of Oklahoma City. Organizers wondered what people would think about the items in the chest in the future. Organizers also wondered what people 100 years earlier in 1813 would have thought of the gadgets they were burying with the chest.
“Those who open the chest 100 years from today, what will be their feelings? Will they look upon the wonders of 1913 as crude?” an editorial in The Daily Oklahoman read. In addition to the Kodak camera, other cutting-edge innovations of 1913 in the Century Chest included a 1913 Pioneer telephone and a phonograph with three recordings. One of those recordings is of ’89er and historian Angelo C. Scott, whose voice will be broadcast as part of an upcoming larger exhibit of the Century Chest at the Oklahoma History Center.