This portrait of Representative John Sosnowski seems pretty standard—until you turn it over and read the back.
“Reps. Longworth and Sosnowski Vie for Title of ‘Best Dressed Man’ in House,” reads the title, promising an intriguing story. The rest of the caption delivers: Although Speaker Nicholas Longworth never before struggled to be the nattiest dresser in the House of Representatives, Sosnowski was stepping on his (fashionable) toes. According to the caption, Sosnowski, a freshman Representative from Michigan, had “21 suits of clothes, 5 overcoats, 11 pairs of shoes, 96 cravats, 36 shirts, 3 golf suits, 3 riding suits and 9 hats. Close observers of the contest say that the Speaker clings to the lead only by his supply of spats.” With snappy humor and attention to absurd apparel statistics, the caption is a stellar example of the fine art of caption writing.
Conveying information in a witty voice, limited to a short format, captions were the tweets of their day. Captions explained necessary context, such as who was depicted in a photo and why it was important news, but they frequently did not just stop at the facts. As William Hannigan and Ken Johnston explain in Picture Machine: The Rise of American Newspictures, these descriptions “tended to be far from dry, written with plenty of color and flurry, in the parlance of the day,” and could even be “sensational” in tone, stretching the truth.
Photographs and captions like this were produced by wire services. Acme, International News Photo, Associated Press and other companies provided articles and images to newspapers, which paid a high subscription cost in exchange for the ability to print the content in their next editions. To provide text and visuals that were more appealing than their competitors’, the services employed journalists, editors, photographers, darkroom staff, and some very clever caption writers.
After wire service photojournalists covered an event, such as the opening session of Congress, shutterbugs hurried the negatives back to the newswire office as quickly as they could for developing. Darkroom workers developed the prints while caption writers added colorful description. Every second counted: Because several wire service companies covered the same events, staff raced to distribute their images to subscribing newspapers first. Photographs were delivered by foot, car, airplane, train, ship, and once in a while, by dirigible—although it’s hard to imagine the dirigible as the speediest method of transportation. (In the 1930s, technology developed to send photographs by telegraph, or “wire,” eliminating the long transportation time.) The next morning, readers sipped their morning coffee or stood on a crowded commuter train, poring over the inky newspictures of Sosnowski and vivid descriptions of his many cravats and golf suits.
Photographers and caption writers sometimes turned the cameras on themselves in moments of celebration. In August 1935, photojournalists covered the adjournment of the first session of the 74th Congress. They hoped to catch a heartfelt moment such as the Speaker saying goodbye to Members, or Representatives gleefully running down the steps of the Capitol like it was the last day of school. Instead, one photojournalist snapped a crew of impish photographers horsing around on the House Floor during the revelry.
“Noteworthy talent must have been scarce during the House celebration marking the adjournment of Congress,” the caption reads, “for the Capitol cameramen were pressed upon to render a song on the floor of the House—render, in this case meaning to tear apart.” Apparently, the cameramen were not the best singers, and the witty caption writers used the opportunity to tease them. The New York Times ran two other photos of the celebration, one of which featured Members of Congress playing on the Navy Band’s instruments. Despite their moment in the photo caption limelight, these carousing photographers were destined to remain behind the lens.
Sources: William Hannigan and Ken Johnston, Picture Machine: The Rise of American Newspictures (Harry N. Abrams, 2004); Gary Hynes, Picture This! The Inside Story and Classic Photos of UPI Newspictures (Bulfinch Press, 2006); New York Times, August 28, 1935.Follow @USHouseHistory