John Philip Wymer

October 19, 1904 – January 12, 1995

Wymer was a California native who moved to the Washington area in the late 1930s. He worked as a statistician at the Bureau of Standards and was a resident of Cleveland Park. As a non-native Washingtonian, Wymer embarked on a city-wide photography project as a way to document his new home.

A driven and methodical man, Wymer organized his project by dividing a map of the city into equally sized areas. He then meticulously photographed sample blocks from each area, resulting in over 6,000 black and white photographs taken on a Pentax camera.

John P. Wymer (WY 4000). Image courtesy of the Historical Society of Washington, DC.

John P. Wymer (WY 4000).
Image courtesy of the Historical Society of Washington, DC.

The areas of the city, as divided by Wymer. Image courtesy of the Historical Society of Washington, DC.

Dissatisfied, he discarded over 2,000 of the images and pasted the remaining photographs into photo albums. Additionally, he hand-drew a small map as well as compiled a summary of his reflections on each area. These were also put in the album along with the photographs, arranged by area.  In total, the project lasted four years, from 1948 to 1952, completed during weekends and vacation time. Visit the Map and Area Description page for a complete listing.

Area 35, the area east of Dupont Circle, as drawn by Wymer in 1949. Image courtesy of Historical Society of Washington, DC.

Description of Area 35 as Wymer viewed it, circa 1949. Image courtesy of the Historical Society of Washington, DC.

Wymer recognized the powerful utility of his photographic collection for future Washingtonians as a lens through which to study the city as it was in the mid-century. He included the following poem on the first page of the album:

To a Young Historian
~
If Washington tonight were hid
In ashes as was once Pompeii,
Some one, as Bulwer-Lytton did,
Would sometime have a word to say.
And he would always seek, of course,
An excellent primary source.
~
On looking back to 1950
This future Toynbee, Beard, or Scott,
Would find that Jack’s three books are nifty
And he would use them, like as not,
To see our town, as it appears
Across the intervening years.
~
So don’t give up, Jack, gifts I bear,
Procured by this, your humble rhymer.
And all salute that noble pair,
Herodotus and John P. Wymer.
Littera scripta manet. Paucis verbis:
Nosce te ipsum. Ars longa, vita brevis.

For several decades, these photographs were largely unknown to Washington historians. Finally, Wymer and this collection got the recognition they deserved when, in 1978, Dr. James Goode, the noted DC historian, got word of the collection and persuaded Wymer to donate the albums to the Historical Society of Washington, D.C.  Since that time, the Wymer Photograph Collection has been one of the most used research collections at the Society.


Information for this page was gathered from Goethe Institut and the Historical Society of Washington, DC.


For more information on the life of John P. Wymer, please refer to Sarah S. Amsler's article in 1997 issue (volume 9) of Washington History called, "Washington in the Mid-Century: Wymer's Photo Survey, 1948-1952." Available through the Historical Society of Washington, DC and JSTOR.