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Mystery Photo: Football Edition

Help Identify this Photograph!

As we come into the third week of the NFL season, the Center for Local History is looking for your help in learning more about a recently-donated photograph.

This photo was found in the attic of a house on 21st Street South, in the Arlington Ridge/Aurora Highlands area:

A football team stands in front of a public school. But what team? When? And what school?

Click to enlarge photo


Finds like this are fascinating because they pose so many questions.

Who were these young men? When was this picture taken? What school are they standing in front of?

The thirteen young men appear to be high-school aged, and they are wearing turn-of-the-century or early-twentieth-century football gear. The two men in suits are presumably coaches. They stand before an arched doorway labeled “Public School.” The back row of young men seem to be standing on miniature chairs. One man holds a football, upon which is painted “04.” The “04″ suggests that they were either playing in 1904, or were from the class of 1904. But what other details back up that assumption? How do we know that “04″ wasn’t painted onto the ball for some other reason?

Figuring out the date of a photo can be tricky, but fun.

Different historians, archivists, and history buffs have preferred methods. Some like to date pictures by finding the latest-model car in a street scene. Hairstyles and clothing can be good indications, though they can be misleading. In professional sports, uniforms change slightly but noticeably over the years, but these boys aren’t wearing uniforms.

Man with nose guard around his neck

Detail showing the nose guard hanging from the player’s neck.

Their gear, however, does present some clues. The minimal padding, sewn into their clothes and not worn separately, suggest that this was from the earliest days of football– “harnessed” leather pads that pulled on over the head began appearing around the turn of the century. Likewise, their boots suggest something from football’s earliest days.

The most interesting detail to me is the nose guards several of the men are wearing.

While we have helmets with face masks to protect the mouth and nose today, there were no such protections in the early years of football. Instead, some players wore nose guards like the one seen to the right, which during play strapped around the players’ heads and protected the nose and teeth. At first I thought it resembled this nose guard, patented by Frank Wilcox in 1904, but the strap on Wilcox’s design is a bit lower. I eventually found our nose guard patented by the Morrill Company in 1891, which according to this page from the University of Michigan was for sale in the “Spaulding [sic] catalog” in 1902. Thus, we find support for the 1904 date.

But what team was this, and where were they photographed?

My first thought was that the nearby Hume School (now the Arlington Historical Society) and other Arlington-area schools from that time period have somewhat similar arched entrances. But none that I’m aware of have the stonework “Public School” over them.

More importantly, there was no public high school in the county at that time, so young men of this age would likely be going to school– and perhaps playing football for that school– at high schools in the District.

With all the above in mind, we turn it over to you, the public.

What clues can you glean from this picture? Do you recognize anyone? Can you identify the archway behind these men? Is there anything in the above post that seems off-base?

What can you tell us about this picture?


Comments (7)

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  1. eric says:

    so what do you make of the tiny little chairs that they are standing on in the second row?

  2. Mrs. R. Spalding says:

    Regarding the reference in the article to “the Spaulding catalog.” There is no “u” in Spalding.

    • Tad Suiter says:

      Good eye! We unfortunately reproduced what appears to be a typographical error on the page we linked to from the Bentley Historical Society at the University of Michigan.

      The post has been amended to reflect this.

  3. David Jung says:

    If you turn the contrast up and invert the photos there appears to be writing above the two ‘O’ s in the word school. Also if you adjust the hues it seems to be writing on all the bricks as well. I notice there is a straight line most visibly on the left side but barely visible in greay on the right side just by their footlines. The Letters in Public School seem to have had other letters written behind them at one point. Im no expert at anything but maybe this is a backdrop behind them.

  4. rockcreek says:

    I’m a former librarian for the DC Historical Society and have done photo research in DC for quite a while – I don’t recognize as any being any public school that was standing in DC in 1904.

    Do you know anything about the circumstances under which it was found? My guess is that will turn out not to be of a school in the D.C. metro area if it is identified.

  5. Trevor says:

    The large size of the football also seems to suggest the photo was taken prior to a rule change in 1913 that allowed forward passes, leading to smaller footballs.

    Similarly, the arts-and-crafts lettering befits construction between roughly 1880 and 1925 (especially 1890-1910). The school’s architectural style was most common on the upper Atlantic coast and extended into the Mid-West; it was much less common in the South and West.

    If the school was local, given its architecture, it would have been most at-home in Alexandria’s Rosemont neighborhood, which has a great deal of arts-and-crafts architecture. Also, there would have been more demand for a high school in Alexandria than in (present-day) Arlington at that time. (At that time, Arlington County was Alexandria County.) The City of Alexandria incorporated in 1870, so one might expect demand for school-building in that time period.

    The shadows lead me to suspect that the school entrance faced south (or perhaps east), especially if the photo was taken in the afternoon in the fall.

    I doubt any of that helps much, but that’s as much as I’ve been able to gather so far.

  6. Nels Andersen says:

    There were actually quite a few public high schools in the Arlington/Alexandria area in 1904. Spent some time at the Alexandria public library researching this. I’m starting to doubt that this photo is from a football team at a public high school in Arlington or Alexandria.

    I researched public (not private) high schools that would have existed in Arlington / Alexandria in 1904 and then with the help of the librarians found a picture of each one. Then compared each school photo against the distinctive arches in this photo.

    I discarded the two schools that were built to serve black students (Kemper built in 1875 and Rosslyn built in 1888) since there were not any black students in the photo. Comparing photos, none of the following Arlington/Alexandria public high schools below were the same one shown in this photo of the 1904 football team:

    1. New Columbia School (built sometime between 1900 to 1905)
    2. Old Arlington School formerly in the Union League Hall (from around 1888 to 1889)
    3. Walker School (later know as Ballston School House)
    4. Carne School on N. Glebe Rod where St. Mark’s is now.
    5. Sagemuller School
    6. Mt. Vernon Avenue School
    7. Parker-Gray High School on 900 block of Wythe Street which later became the Charles Houston School
    8 Glen Caryln (built in 1895)

    The following high schools were built after 1904 and are not the school in the photo. I also pulled up photos of each and compared them just in case and they do not match the school in the football team photo.

    1. Alexandria High School (1915)
    2. George Mason High School (1924)
    3. Lee-Jackson High School (built 1925)
    4. Ft. Meyers Heights (became Woodrow Wilson School) and was built around 1910, so too new a school

    There may be other high schools that existed that I did not discover, but this is what I have so far.


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