In his own words
- Washington in Mid Century-
In the middle of the twentieth century, Washington was the undisputed capital, not only of that great continental republic, the United States of America, but also of the free world. There were many residents, not yet past middle age, who in a generation had seen the city change from a leisurely town of less than 400,000, essentially Southern in its traditions and customs, to a bustling metropolis of nearly a million within the city and 250,000 more in a ring of closely built suburbs.
The change had not obliterated the traces of the old city, however. The tree lined street, the numerous parks, both large and small, the large colored population, and the soft Southern accents heard everywhere, were only a few of the reminders of the earlier character of the city. But gone, probably forever, was the leisurely approach to life which had prevailed in an earlier day.
At the beginning of the period in which the pictures in these books were taken, Washington was essentially the city of Harry S. Truman. Fresh from an unexpected triumph over Governor Thomas E. Dewey, he was about to begin his second term as President. His reelection was in a sense a seal on the great changes that had taken place during the preceding generation. At last it was apparent to nearly everyone that the great Republican Party which had ruled the country for 56 of the 72 years between the opening of the Civil War and the depth of the Great Depression was no longer the majority party. That role had been taken over by the Democrats.
But Washington, as befitted a world capital, could not be considered a city of one man in the sense that St. Petersburg was the city of Peter the Great, or Rome of the first century A.D, was the city of Augustus. For in a democracy no man remains long dominant and many men and ideas shape its policies. This was nowhere more evident than in Washington which was the sounding board for the conflicting opinions and an arena for the contending ideasand philosophies which sought to gain the favor of the American people. Washington in the middle of the century was also the city of Senator Robert A. Taft of Ohio, Representative Joseph R. Martin Jr. of Massachusetts, Senator Scott Lucas of Illinois, Representative Sam Rayburn of Texas, Senator Hubert Humphries of Minnesota, Senator Margaret Smith of Maine, Secretary of State George Marshall, Secretary of Defense James Forrestal, Secretary of Labor Maurice Tobin, Social Security Administrator Oscar Ewing, FBI Chief J. Edgar Hoover, Chief Justice of the Supreme Court Fred Vinson, Supreme Court Justice William Douglas, columnists Drew Pearson and David Lawrence, socialite Mrs. George Mesta, to mention only a handful of the great, near great, and notorious who were leading actors on the Washington scene.
Washington also bore the imprint of that vast company of departed figures from George Washington and Thomas Jefferson to Franklin Roosevelt who had participated in guiding and shaping the destinies of the Republic through 160 years of its history. In particular, though he had been dead for nearly four years, the influence of FDR’s ideas and ideals deeply permeated almost every phase of Washington life.
Further, since Washington was the capital of a great nation, it belonged in part to everyone in the republic, even if they had visited the city only via a movie travelogue.
But every city and town, even the Petrograd of Peter the Great or the most “management dominated” company coal town belongs in final analysis to the people who live and work there on a more or less permanent basis. The 200,000 government workers- minor officials, administrators, clerks, professionals, laborers, and mechanics-, the thousands of members of the armed services below the rank of major general or rear admiral, the tens of thousands who purveyed goods and services for the city, and the wives and children of all these people, constituted the vast bulk of the inhabitants of Washington. The city in 1948 also belonged to D E Buckingham, Grace L Evans, Dock Judd, Louise Marshall, John William Phalen, Benjamin Segundy, Lewis B. Thomas, William A. Spicer, Charles R. Norberg, Capt. Alexander N. Loker, USN, William Hartnagel and Jean Crouse (to quote a dozen names selected at random from the 1948 Washington telephone directory) and to hundreds of thousands like them.
This series of books is intended to convey some impression of how Washington looked to its inhabitants around 1950. It purports to show the kind of homes they lived in, the stores they shopped in, the parks they played in, the churches they worshipped in, and the schools their children attended. Monuments, public buildings, national shrines, curiosities, historic sites and all the sights which help to make Washington one of the world’s greatest tourist attractions receive their full quota of attention. No attempt is made, however, to record the great events of these years, whether they be of national or local interest. These will be well recorded elsewhere. The project is sufficiently ambitious as it is.
Even if the author were infinitely talented and provided with the finest equipment the imagination can conceive, the task he has set himself would be impossible of complete realization. It is possible to catch only fleeting glimpses of the life or appearance of a city. It is hoped, nevertheless, that this work will be of some interest to a few present Washingtonians, and some who come later, as an indication of what Washington looked like in the middle of the twentieth century.
From one point of view, however, the project was a “howling” success. The author’s knowledge and appreciation of the city in which he makes his home was vastly increased and the planning and execution of the project brought his many hours of pleasure.
John P. Wymer
January 9, 1949
The text of this page is part of the John P. Wymer Photograph Collection; rights are held by the Historical Society of Washington, D.C.