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The Plainfield Public Library

Chronicles of Plainfield, 1870-1970


The Plainfield Public Library has selected four photographers whose works comprise the heart of the Library’s photograph collection and document the history of Plainfield as it changed from the 19th to the mid 20th century: Guillermo Thorn (1837-1920), Reina Lawrence (1869-1949), Paul Revere Collier (1886-1952), and Irving Georges (1933-).  To emphasize the diversity that is Plainfield, included in this group are one woman and an African-American.  Though their works differ in content and context, together they offer a continuum of history for a New Jersey community that has undergone dramatic change.

Exhibit Curator
Sonja Sekely-Rowland

Exhibit Installer
Jeff Wassen

Thanks to the staff and volunteers
who helped realize this project:

Sheila Bose
Leonard Cummings
Sandra Gurshman
Sarah Hull
Michele Leeming
Jessica Myers
Donna Rajcevic
Michelle Rausa
Jane Thoner

Library Director
Joseph Hugh Da Rold

Assistant Director
Mary Ellen Rogan

Funding made possible by the New Jersey Historical Commission,  a division of the Department of State, through a grant administered by the Union County Office of Cultural and Heritage Affairs.

The Plainfield Public Library Local History Photograph Collection

The Plainfield Public Library's historical photograph collections include over 60,000 individual photographic prints, negatives, slides and glass plates by over a dozen local photographers from the 1870s to the present. Different in content, significance, and chronological coverage, together they form a rare continuum of local history. Other photographers with major holdings in the collection include: John Hoffman, Lloyd Grimstead, Howard Johnston, and T. J. Lowe.  The Library owns an additional 300 photographs of Plainfield and New Jersey from the turn of the century to the early 1960s, taken by miscellaneous photographers, known and unknown. Included is a set of photographs of the early mayors of Plainfield.  The Library also sponsors an annual photo contest. All entries become part of the Plainfield Library’s photography collection and further enhances and expands the photographic resources by adding current images of the Plainfield community.

If you would like to donate photographs or other historic materials to the Library’s Local History Department, please contact us at 908-757-1111 ext. 136. The Library is always happy to receive donations of Plainfield area materials for its collection. Personal papers of local area families, bible records, organizational records, photographic and visual materials, maps and ephemera are welcome additions to our collection.

The images used in this online exhibit are part of the Plainfield Public Library Local History collection. These images are the property of the Plainfield Public Library and are not to be used in any manner without the expressed written permission of the Library Director.
Please see our Terms and Conditions for more information.

© 2010, Plainfield Public Library, All Rights Reserved.




Guillermo Thorn, 1837-1920

Born just two years before the invention of photography, Guillermo Thorn would have been too young to recall the ‘revolution of sight’ brought by the photograph and witnessed by his parents. Instead, Thorn belongs to the first generation to have been raised possessing an inherent understanding of the innovative potential of photography and its capacity to impact each facet of society. Like the digital economy of the today, emerging photographic technology infiltrated every aspect of nineteenth-century life; the fixed image creating new economies and new expectations, while supplanting many older industries.

Beginning as an art teacher in Saugerties, New York, Thorn’s photographic career took shape after purchasing a local daguerreotype studio in 1855. After a relatively undocumented period of work in Norfolk, Virginia during the Civil War era, Thorn relocated to Plainfield in 1864/5. Situating his family in a three-story Victorian on Second Street, Thorn quickly established himself, offering portraits and views in a variety of formats. Professional success aside, personal tragedy marred these first years in Plainfield. By 1870 Thorn had experienced the loss his wife, Alice, and the death of all five of their children. Few personal images document the family that Thorn lost to disease; commercial images from this early period prove even scarcer.

Moving beyond personal tragedy, Thorn married Helena Stephenson in 1872. Helena, and their four children, became muses for Thorn’s later pictorial work. Photographing in the late-nineteenth century Thorn was not compelled, as were twentieth-century photographers, to define himself as belonging to any particular photographic school of thought or genre. Thorn moved freely between commercial photography, a documentary style and an increasingly aestheticized point of view, consistently advertising his work as artistic while referring to himself as a “photo-artist”.

As an early photographer, Thorn’s commercial success heavily rested upon his acumen to forge a sustainable business model where no precedent yet existed. With his career spanning more than 60 years, Thorn successfully responded to a rapidly changing industry and marketplace, the financial considerations of which forced many of his contemporaries to shut their doors. His work imparts as much information about the business of photography in the second half of the nineteenth century as it does any other subject. 

Thorn’s post-1870 images reveal Plainfield at a time of enormous economic expansion as a thriving suburban metropolis and picturesque vacation spot. Vestiges of the city’s rural past confront modernity as monumental architecture is juxtaposed against tennis matches played in full-length skirts and where horses await their riders on densely built downtown streets. While still firmly rooted in the past, these images document Plainfield just at the moment that the city begins to resemble itself. Whether it is the cupola of city hall rising from behind a long-gone single-story structure, or the original Plainfield Trust still visible despite its now expanded façade, Thorn’s images capture the city as it begins to assume a recognizable shape to the twenty-first-century viewer.

Beautiful Grounds of the Netherwood Hotel, c. 1879-1899.
Tennis Group on Elm Street,
c. 1870-1899.
Boice Runyon Lumber Company Fire, Park Avenue,
December 3, 1891.
The A.C. Blair Stables, 114 West 6th Street, c. 1880-1890s.
Public Service Window, Stirling Building, Park Avenue, c. 1900.
The Big Flood of July 30, 1889, Somerset Street Looking North at 6:30 p.m., 1889.
The Old Homestead, East Front Street Home of Judge Wadsworth, 1875.
The Blizzard of 1888, Front Street, 1888.
Girls on Broadway, now Watching Avenue, c. 1870-1899.
Watchung Avenue at Fifth Street, now the grounds of City Hall, which is shown under construction, c. 1917.
The Old Fair Grounds, Park Avenue, c. 1870-1899.

Reina A. Lawrence, 1869-1948

History has passed down limited information regarding Reina Lawrence. Likewise, her photographs have entered the archives with little corresponding information; there are no journals, no scrapbooks, her images are untitled and the vast majority lack dates. As the collection is comprised of glass plates and negatives, none of the information that frequently appears on the verso of a photographic print exists.

The majority of Lawrence’s images appear to address nostalgic themes of domesticity: family portraits, room interiors and picturesque gardens — themes generally deemed appropriate for the lady amateur. Yet Lawrence’s images display a determination to overcome the logistical difficulties inherent in photographing on glass plates, difficulties made worse by the physical limitations which she endured.

Having suffered polio as a child, Lawrence wore leg braces from the age of ten. At the age of twenty-two she was diagnosed with multiple sclerosis and is thought to have spent much of her life wheelchair-bound. Lawrence moved to Plainfield from New York in 1886, eventually residing at 512 Stelle Avenue in a home that still stands today. Though she never did marry, Lawrence did work professionally for a period as a freelance writer, and as a caterer working from her home. A staunch anti-suffragist, Lawrence’s editorials appeared in local papers as well as a published volume of opinions.

Attempts to narrowly date Lawrence’s images prove challenging. Many of her images are interiors or landscapes that lack the telltale signs of fashion and trends. However, a relatively fair gauge for approximate dating is the degree of technical proficiency that can be seen in Lawrence’s plates. Positing that more technically proficient plates reveal later work, a trend emerges whereby Lawrence’s pastoral landscapes and outdoor portraits are situated as some of her earlier images. In this vein, Lawrence’s more carefully controlled studies of brilliant natural light set against somber, darkened interiors would represent her later work. The implication of which suggests that as Lawrence’s disease progressed, and as physical hardship impeded her ability to travel even small distances, that her work became inwardly re-focused and reflective of her most immediate surroundings: her domicile.

Subject-related rhetoric aside, Lawrence’s voice in the archives remains important as it provides a unique female point-of-view. Additionally, as the work of an amateur photographer, Lawrence’s personal photographs provide the archives’ only example of images not originally intended for public display. As such, Lawrence’s private photographs, while undeniably privileged, offer a more truthful glimpse of the past, if none other than specifically her own history in Plainfield.

512 Stelle Avenue, Lawrence Family Home, c. 1900-1919.
Couple Standing in Yard,
c. 1900-1919.
Woman by Window,
c. 1900-1919.
Bright Window, Dark Interior with Palm, c. 1900-1919.
Woman in Patterned Dress,
c. 1900-1919.
Hydrangeas on Porch,
c. 1900-1919.
Victorian Interior, Gallery of Artwork, c. 1900-1919.
Gentleman Sitting in Field,
c. 1900-1919.
Dining Room, Dark Interior with Bay Window, c. 1900-1919.

Paul R. Collier, 1885-1951

As a boy, Paul Revere Collier began photographing Plainfield with a camera kit purchased from a downtown shop for just 98 cents. Once begun, Collier never did stop, estimating in 1951 that his own production had reached “hundreds of thousands of pictures” having photographed nearly “every foot of Plainfield.” A life-long resident, Collier built his darkroom in the basement of his father’s Park Avenue store before establishing his own business in 1910. In 1923 Collier moved the business, then located on E. Front Street, to a specially constructed concrete addition to his Victorian home on East Sixth Street. It is from this concrete extension Collier managed his business until his death in 1951.

A prolific documentarian, Collier’s work captures half-a-century of Plainfield life. Too numerous to cite, his clients include the Courier News, the local police department, the federal government and virtually every type of imaginable local  business and organization. Family portraits, group portraits and architecture form a large portion of his extant work, as does work for the insurance industry, for which Collier recorded innumerable scenes of auto accidents.

Though Collier’s output is firmly commercial and widely varying, a highly recognizable aesthetic emerges across his work. His insurance-driven images of crushed metal wreckages display an interest in abstracted forms, while his 1939 series of Plainfield storefronts are exceptional for their strong rhythms and geometric patterning.

A consummate businessman, Collier kept handwritten records of clients, locations and dates directly on the thousands of 8 x 10 manila envelopes that held his large-format negatives. Specific histories emerge from this record keeping that, coupled with the visual information contained within the image, continues to inform researchers and historians on a daily basis. However it is the sheer volume of the Collier collection that differentiates it from others, both in general and from those in the Library’s archives. For photographers, and specifically for those working during this era and earlier, the flammability of nitrate film and developing chemicals was an utmost concern. All too frequently entire collections were lost to uncontrollable fire; businesses forever crippled. Yet Collier’s concrete building extension protected the collection as it remained, untouched, for nearly thirty years after his death.

In 1998, Plainfield resident and historian Bill Garrett donated his collection of over 15,000 Collier images to the Library. Processing of the collection is ongoing as negatives, kept frozen because of unstable chemical components, are thawed, printed and identified. Likewise, identification continues as the collection grows, image by image, as additional photographs are uncovered — a task expected to continue for some time given that the current configuration of the collection comprises less than one-tenth of Collier’s self-stated body of work.

Workers on top of City Hall Cupola, c. 1918
Velodrome, Men Racing on Wooden Track, c. 1910-1930.
Accident Scene, Intersection at Central Avenue, April 1925.
Van Ardsdale's Store Window, 127 East Front Street,
June 12, 1939.
East Front Street Storefronts,
c. 1940s.
Shiloh Baptist Church Group, 1943.
Paramount Theater Crowd, 1930.
Women Appear on Jury for the First Time, Plainfield District Court, April 13, 1921.
1928-1929 City Champs, Basketball Team, 1929.
Sewer Man, Laborer Standing in Reinforced Trench, circa 1940s.
Family Portrait, circa 1950s.
Defending the American Family, 1938.
Christmas Tree at Night,
circa 1940s.
Damaged Motor Car,
June 29, 1936.

Irving Georges, b. 1933

As the work of the only living contributor to the Library’s archives, the photographs of Irving Georges occupy a unique position within the collection. Unlike each of the other individual collections, these images have entered the archives with the specific intent of helping to create and preserve Plainfield’s visual history. Georges, a semi-professional photographer, and his wife Clotee, donated to the Library their collection of over 5,000 commercially printed color snapshots that document over three decades of life in Plainfield.

Georges’ images represent the only body of work which, centered around the African-American community, reveals the diversity that has long-existed in Plainfield, something not seen in the Library’s collections of earlier photographers. His series Ironbound Avenue Family and Neighbors provides evidence of the harmony that existed here in the years following the civil disturbances of 1968, in contrast to the stereotyped racial picture that is usually attributed to Plainfield.

As vernacular images, or snapshots, Georges’ images communicate the ubiquity of photography. Where Georges’ snapshots lack the formal constructions seen across the work of Thorn, Lawrence and Collier, they excel in communicating a casual intimacy between the subject and the photographer. One need only to consider Collier’s formal portrait of Plainfield’s 1928-1929 championship basketball team to understand the depth of the information conveyed through the vernacular image.

An interesting contradiction presents itself when one considers that, unlike each of the other individual collections in the archives, the Georges photographs have been donated by Georges himself. As a living creator-donor, Georges possesses foreknowledge of the transformed status of his work. Beginning as snapshots, having entered the archives, the images transform into cultural artifacts. It is Georges’ understanding of how these images will come to be viewed that suggests, at the very least, recognition that these images  contain a more highly charged message than first implied by their seemingly casual aesthetic.

An unmistakable vibrancy emerges across the Georges collection. Whether captured mid-action, unaware of the photographer, or confronting the camera directly for a random portrait made amidst the streets of Plainfield, Georges’ subjects are fully engaged with both a seriousness of purpose and a sense of the carefree. Viewing Georges’ images, especially those of his family, humor and joy are reflected as pervasive elements within his home. Emotions which clearly stem from Georges himself.

Downtown Plainfield,
Madison and Fifth, 1983.

The Pool by the Project, 1986.
Downtown Plainfield,1983..
Celeste, Plainfield Band at Football Game, c. 1980s.
Plainfield High School Cheerleader, April 1987.
Two Men Sitting,
Downtown Plainfield, 1976.
Three Kids, 1972-1973.
Craig Georges & Friend on Ironbound Avenue, 1972.
Girls in Pool on
Ironbound Avenue, 1975.
Ironbound Avenue
Neighbors, 1972.
Family & Neighbors on
Ironbound Avenue, 1974.
Family & Neighbors on
Ironbound Avenue, 1972.
Life in Plainfield,
Celeste Georges, 1973-1974
Life in Plainfield,
Craig Georges, 1973-1974

Life in Plainfield,
Clotee Georges, 1973-1974
Life in Plainfield,
Clotee Georges, 1973-1974
Kids with Bikes, c. 1970s.
This image does not appear
in the original exhibit.
Girls on Bench, c. 1980s.
This image does not appear
in the original exhibit.
Men on the Street, c. 1980s.
This image does not appear
in the original exhibit.
Jumping Rope, c. 1970s.
This image does not appear
in the original exhibit.
Neighborhood Kids, c. 1980s.
This image does not appear
in the original exhibit.
Kids Playing
Basketball, c. 1970s.
This image does not appear
in the original exhibit.
Kids on the Street, c. 1970s.
This image does not appear
in the original exhibit.