Reading Photographs Differently: Re-Viewing an Image of the Inglewood Earthquake of 1920

by Paul R. Spitzzeri

A number of posts on this blog have highlighted many of the fascinating photographs found in the Homestead’s collection, with some attention given to what can be read into a photograph (as well as beyond the image, such as the history of people shown in it or that of a building, for example).

This came up with recently with one of the several images provided for a post a couple of months back on the Inglewood earthquake of 21 June 1920, which caused a significant amount of damage in that growing suburb of Los Angeles and was a precursor (being on the same fault) of the 1933 Long beach quake.

That is, while one person could focus on the significant destruction done to the Hotel Inglewood and adjacent structures, or another wonder why there were piles of dirt next to a trench in the street (gas lines broke and had to be repaired), or a third be curious about the number of people who gathered to gawk at the scene, someone looked to the lower right of the image at something that drew their interest.

Specifically, there is an automobile there that caught the eye of loyal Homestead supporter Jim Crabtree.  Being an auto enthusisast and owner of a couple of snappy 1920s vehicles (one of which I had the pleasure of driving, with Jim’s tutoring, a while back), Jim saw the car and immediately posted the image the day after the post on the photo and video forum of the Antique Automobile Club of America.

RPPC Earthquake Damage At Hotel Inglewood 2012.706.1.1
This photo from the Homestead’s collection was part of a 21 June post about the Inglewood earthquake of that date in 1920.  Whereas many of us would be drawn to the dramaged buildings, the crowd gathered to gawk at the destruction, or the piles of dirt and trench in the middle of the street, one museum regular was attracted to the car at the lower right.

Jim’s opening comment to the car buffs and experts was whether this was a “hopped up car,” a term for a vehicle altered to give it more power and speed.  It was missing its fenders and turtledeck, or rear half of the chassis.  Jim felt this was pretty early for a “hot rod” and a few people chimed in on the thread over the following week.

One commenter wondered if it was a Kissel, based on the radiator shape and the emblem (crest) atop it and other elements, including the structure of the windshield.  The Kissel company began manufacturing cars in Wisconsin in 1906 and the business was sold in 1942.  Another member, posting a blow-up of the vehicle from the photo, replied that the front axle looked like that of a Ford Model T.

This was followed by others who observed that it was Model T, noting that the radiator may have been influenced by the Kissell, with one providing a link to information about an Indianapolis firm, Morton and Brett, that sold “high-grade special bodies” from 1918 onward.  Another member added that his grandfather had a “cut-down” Model T about 1920.  The poster who speculated about the Kissel then responded, noting that the car was too small to be a Kissel.

Then, someone who knew Morton and Brett bodies was not sure if it was one of the firm’s products used for this vehicle and added that there were a few other companies that provided after-market bodies for Model Ts, noting that the former are rare to find today, while there are more examples of those from the other firms, including Mercury, Faultless and Paco.    He also added a comment about the use of steel discs over the wooden spoke wheels—a common, and inexpensive, accessory for the day.

When Jim posted the photo, he used the term “gow job” to describe the car, leading one commenter to ask what that term meant.  It was explained by others in reply that this was the phrase used before “hot rod” came into bring, with one person explaining that the latter term did not appear until after World War II and was popularized in the 1950s.  Another person wondered if “gow” stood for “Get Out of the Way”!

RPPC Earthquake Damage At Hotel Inglewood 2012.706.1.1
This detail of the photo shows what is probably a “gow job” Ford Model T; that is, a “hopped up” version with the fenders and rear part of the chassis removed.  In other words, a “hot rod” thirty or so years before that term came into vogue.  Note, too, the stares elicited by the car from a group of a half-dozen envious youngsters at the left, while most everyone else is focused on the quake damage!

There are a couple of other notable comments in the thread about the photo.  One is the effect of earthquakes on brick buildings, especially when fronts go crashing forward onto sidewalks and streets.  The other observes another interesting element of the image.

Note how to the left of the “gow job,” there is a group of a half-dozen youngsters, a few of them with bicycles, staring at the hopped-up car, whereas just about everyone else is gazing at the damaged buildings. As he put it, “the adults are surveying the damage, the kids are checking out the car” adding a popular 1920s exclamation of “23 Skidoo!!!

When Jim sent me a message telling me about the thread and the comments, I immediately thought this would make an interesting post for this blog, because of its variation of crowdsourcing.  In this example, these knowledgeable and enthusiastic car buffs used the AACA’s forum to share their insights into what Jim posted.

For museums that have artifacts in their collections about which they need to know more, crowdsourcing can be a useful way to solicit that information, provided there is a way to manage the responses and sort out the “wheat from the chaff” in terms of the information offered.

In this case, the participants in the thread came up with a consensus that the “hopped up” vehicle was a “gow job” in which a Ford Model T was converted into what we now refer to as a “hot rod.”  It stopped by the scene to check out the damage the earthquake caused and, not suprisingly, drew the admiring gaze of a half-dozen youngsters standing nearby.

This is an excellent illustration of how posting museum artifacts on the blog can lead to learning more about the artifact and the period in which it was created.  Hopefully, there’ll be more opportunities to see this process in action here.  In fact, Jim added that, if there is a photo in the collection showing a car that needs to be identified, we should post it on that forum and see what we learn!


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