The Big Easy a Long Time Ago

Fabyan Watrous and Raymond Allen, Jackson Square, New Orleans, circa 1942

My grandparents visited New Orleans sometime after March 1941, at which time my grandfather was drafted.

I suspect their visit happened prior to my father’s birth in November 1942.

Were they married in this photo?

Hard to say.

But my grandfather’s emerging talent as an amateur photography is clear in a few of these photos.

I also noticed another thing.

Bourbon Street is just a street.

Look at this photo. A dry cleaners and a few bars line either side of Bourbon.

Today these business establishments have been replaced by bars and restaurants.

I’ve been to New Orleans several times and walked Bourbon Street.

Bourbon Street, circa 1942.
Bourbon Street, circa 1942. Shot by W. R. Allen

Today it is so different I didn’t recognize Bourbon in this photograph until I saw the tall building at the end of the street.

This building still stands today.

The French Quarter in my grandfather’s photo seems more like a city street in Any City, USA than a destination for drunken revelry it has become today.

Jackson Square is empty.

Look at the lack of people in Jackson Square.

I’ve never visited the Square and the Cathedral and found it void of people. Never.

St. Louis Cathedral, New Orleans
St. Louis Cathedral, New Orleans, circa 1942. Shot by W. R. Allen

And here it is, quiet as can be.

Now it may be that my grandparents visited the Square very early in the morning.

But I don’t think so.

My grandfather’s camera probably shot film with an ASA of 60, which is incredibly slow for low-light settings. He was forced to photograph images later in the day as a result.

What his camera documents are moments in a city’s history that are no more.

Family photos can document architectural and social change.

In the 1940s vacations required a car for activities like camping as car was faster than a train.

People couldn’t afford other means of travel.

In the mid 1940s, a New York to London round trip cost around $600 or $6295 in today’s dollars.

There was almost no coach class before 1948. You went first class or not at all.

The average annual salary adjusted for inflation was about 38,000/year. Minimum wage was 4.20/hour, adjusted for inflation.

People had little money to spend on travel in the way we travel today.

Family photos are important cultural documents.

They capture towns and cities and landscapes at particular moments in the past.

My grandfather’s photographs inadvertently documented how tourism has changed.

These moments may be exceptionally relevant to not only to us, but to museums and organizations.

Other people can care a great deal about our family photos.

They really do find our photos important to their archival work.

What started out as a simply project to organize and archive my grandfather’s photographs and slides has turned into a wild ride of learning about my family history and our larger American history.

I’m glad I’ve taken the time to learn what is in each photo.

I would have never otherwise imagined a Big Easy that was so empty.

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