Staff members at the Naval History and Heritage Command (NHHC) in Washington, D.C., recently discovered a significant piece of naval history they didn’t even know they had.
Lisa Crunk, lead archivist at NHHC’s photographic archive, told Federal News Radio that her office at the Washington Navy Yard was preparing for a renovation. Two archivists cleaning out one of the back rooms discovered a pair of wooden boxes.
“[They] brought them into one of our main offices and said, ‘Hey, I think we found something pretty interesting here that we were not aware that we had,'” Crunk said. “We opened up one of the boxes and we found all these wonderful glass slides, all of which were wrapped in very, very thin tissue paper.”
Each of the glass slides featured images dating back more than a century. Some of the descriptions with the slides suggested they may have been used in a presentation about the war. The images would’ve been projected on the wall with light from a lantern.
“There are over 300 slides,” Crunk said. “Most of them are the Spanish-American War. You’ve got various scenes. You’ve got ship scenes, ships at sea, ships at port on the Philippine Islands, various individuals involved.”
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The photographs provide a glimpse of what naval life was like in the 1890s and shed light on a critical point in American history.
“The Spanish-American War is really the beginning of what then would become ‘The American Century,’ as the 20th century was known,” said Capt. Henry Hendrix, director of NHHC. “Even though it occurs in 1898, it’s really sort of the ‘coming out event’ as the United States emerges as a great power. And it emerged as a great power largely on the back of its naval might.”
The boxes didn’t include any documentation explaining how NHHC obtained them, but staff members conducted a little research and learned the slides were originally photographed by Douglas White, a war correspondent who covered the Spanish-American War for the San Francisco Examiner.
“These apparently belonged to him, and his name is etched on that wooden box,” Crunk said. “It says, ‘In and around Manila, Spanish-American War, Philippine Insurrection, Douglas White, War Correspondent.'”
Eventually, Mrs. Charles Dutreaux donated the slides to the San Francisco Museum of Science and Industry. Her husband, Lt. C.J. Dutreaux, appears on one of the glass slides and was on the crew of the USS Olympia, the flagship of Adm. George Dewey.
On April 27, 1898, Dewey and his fleet left China and made their way to the Philippine Islands. He led the U.S. Navy to victory over the Spanish fleet during the Battle of Manila Bay.
According to correspondence between the museum and Commodore Dudley W. Knox, NHHC staffers believe the slides were transferred to the Naval Historical Foundation on Jan. 3, 1948. The boxes and their contents stayed there until they were donated to NHHC in 2008.
NHHC’s photo archives are made up mostly of donations from Navy personnel and their families, including collections of photographs from Adms. Chester Nimitz and Arleigh Burke. Nimitz was the commander in chief of the Pacific fleet during World War II. He signed for the U.S. when the Japanese government surrendered on board the USS Missouri on Oct. 5, 1945. Burke was the chief of naval operations during the Eisenhower and Kennedy administrations.
“Incredible, high-level photographs, but also equally interesting is just the everyday sailor,” Crunk said. “Our photographs date back to the Civil War period. We do have some original, glass-plate negatives from the Civil War period. Not very many, just a few. The bulk of our collection, however, is World War II. That’s really where we’ve focused. But we also have wonderful selections from World War I and the inter-war years.”
NHHC’s primary mission is to preserve and protect the history of the Navy.
“We’ve had photographers and we’ve had artists in the Navy for decades,” Hendrix said. “Some of [the photos] are generated and sent here. But a lot of the materials we have are, in fact, donations by sailors of the past, either they themselves or the members of their family upon their passing.”
NHHC doesn’t have a lot of imagery after the 1990s, because that’s when service members began using digital photography to a greater extent. Right now, donations are primarily print photos, scrapbooks and photo albums.
The photographic archive is only part of the command’s holdings, which extends back to the beginning of the service. The entire collection consists of 260,000 individual artifacts, which are stored in three warehouses around the country.
“Part of the the History and Heritage Command, and one of the reasons why we’re called a command, is we actually have oversight of nine museums that are scattered across the country,” Hendrix said. “We manage the artifacts and we put them out on display. We get them conserved to make sure that they don’t degrade or erode. And then, we put them out on display around the country and try to change up the exhibits and the themes.”
Regarding the newly rediscovered Spanish-American War photos, the NHHC archivists aren’t certain how unique they really are.
“We have seen some of these images in other organizations, in other archives,” Crunk said. “We actually had prints of them in our collection already. But, they’re photograph prints. To find the actual glass plates intact is very unusual. It’s very exciting to find.”
An NHHC staff member has started the process of digitizing the glass-plate photos, and, eventually, they will become part of an online exhibit related to the entire collection. NHHC has already posted some of the photos on its Flickr page. In addition, the organization will be launching a new website on June 1.
“We’ve made a significant investment in trying to upgrade our website and then digitize these collections and get them uploaded so that they’re much more accessible, and that the photographs themselves will be in a higher definition than what we’ve ever done before,” Hendrix said. “So, by getting them up there, we hope that the American people come to understand their history, but also understand the investment that they make on a day-to-day basis on this thing called the Navy.”