The Museum of Art & History at the McPherson Center

Keyword Site Search

Blog posts by Marla

Artifact of the Month: Soldiers in Santa Cruz, The Camera Shop Collection

Posted April 2, 2014

Every Thursday, two local historians join me in the MAH Archives to index a collection of photographic prints and negatives from the 1940s-1960s. Stanley D. Stevens and Barbara Keeney Clark are meticulous volunteers, carefully identifying and labeling each image. I love watching them work together as they decipher handwriting, research the spelling of a last name, and wonder about the people who sat for their portraits.

Some of these soldiers are from Santa Cruz County. Others might have been visitors to the area, stopping by the Camera Shop to sit for a portrait before shipping out to war. We do know that Freddy Alnas is the Filipino soldier wearing the U.S. Army uniform with the Sun Setters VII patch. Writer and historian Geoffrey Dunn wrote about Freddy in his book, Santa Cruz Is in The Heart.  Geoffrey told me that Freddy kept a copy of this portrait at his bedside throughout his life.

Freddy Alnas, 1944

Freddy Alnas, c. 1944

The Camera Shop was located at 119 Walnut Ave., Santa Cruz and owned by Violet “Vi” Park in the 1940s. Her son John took over the business in the 1950s and 1960s. The prints and negatives in the MAH’s Camera Shop Collection date from the mid 1940s-1960s.

No Comments »

Artifact of the Month: Everything Shut Up Tight, 1918 Flu Mask

Posted March 5, 2014

Flu mask from the 1918-1919 Flu Pandemic

Flu mask from the 1918-1919 Flu Pandemic

At the start of fall when everyone was getting their cold and flu shots I thought, “Wow, I’ve been lucky; I haven’t been sick in years. I guess I don’t have to worry.” Well of course, I’ve had a cold for most of the winter. It’s a tiny, irritating one that comes and goes, is bothersome enough to keep me up coughing at night, but not serious enough to turn into anything else (yet).

I recently looked through the MAH’s collection of medical artifacts (Dr. H.H. Clark’s wooden stethoscope, Dr. Benjamin Knight’s medical’s bag) and I zoomed in on an archival envelope labeled “mask from 1918 flu epidemic.” The small artifact–a thin scrap of gauze–is a heavy reminder of a time when the Spanish Influenza plagued this County.

The 1918 flu pandemic infected 500 million people worldwide and  killed mostly young, healthy adults (ages 20-40 was the target group). Hundreds of residents in Santa Cruz County died from the flu. According to historian Sandy Lydon, Santa Cruz’s first victim was 31 year old Loula Jones, who died in her sister’s home on Pacheco Street on October 15, 1918.

Soon after the first Santa Cruz County death, flu masks were mandatory wear in the area; if you look at photographs taken at this time, you can see many citizens following the rules and wearing their mask. Did anyone decide to chance it and go without their masks? Well, apparently they did.

According to Lydon’s research, two Santa Cruz women wore their masks on their arms since the law didn’t explicitly say it had to be worn on the face (there’s always a loophole—and masks certainly are a fashion risk. But these were scary times). Alas the City Council changed the law, making it mandatory to wear the flu masks on your faces (sorry ladies).

Looking at this artifact today, I wonder how effective this light strip of fabric was as protection against the flu. In a world before the invention of hand sanitizers and flu shots, I suppose you had to do what you had to do.

The local epidemic peaked in October 1918 and lasted until February 1919. I recently searched the Lund Family diaries (a fabulous donation to the MAH from last year) for more clues about how wide-spread the flu was. Mary Ann True, who lived on Ocean View Drive, mentioned the flu scare in one of her daily posts. “There are 54 cases of flu in town,” she wrote on December 6, 1918. “Everything shut up tight.” This may allude to the stores, movie theatres, restaurants, and bars that were closed. Santa Cruz must have seemed like a ghost town as people hunkered down in their homes to tend to afflicted loved ones, hoping that they could escape this malady.

Mrs. True ends her entry with her requisite “All well,” but of course it really wasn’t the case for everyone. Stay healthy, Santa Cruz.


No Comments »

Artifact of the Month: George E. Stone Stereograph Collection

Posted January 14, 2014

Archives intern Renata McRee has completed some fantastic work on some of the MAH’s collections. Here’s her account of working with and researching the stereograph collection.

Tracking the Elusive Mr. Stone

(Written in the style of 1930s and 1940s detective novels)

George E. Stone Collection

George E. Stone Collection

The archives were dusty, but with a pleasant aroma of old books. It was my first day on the job, interning in the Archives at the Museum of Art and History, Santa Cruz. “Find something that interests you,” I had been prompted as a place to start, and my eyes wandered to an assortment of boxes sitting alone in a corner of the shelf. I suppose it was the fact the boxes were in a corner by themselves that attracted me. How long had they been sitting there? What secrets did they hold?  Stereographs, was the answer my fellow workers in the Archives told me. Yet what exactly was a stereograph?

My mind went back to University courses on the subject, remembering a Professor that had mentioned these early forms of entertainment. The “first 3-D movies” she had called them. The class had marveled as curiously and fantastically two photos mounted on a card side-by-side became one when seen through a special hand-held viewer. This was a stereograph. Still a marvel even in the age of television.

My task was to sort through these marvels and categorize them. The name on several of the boxes identified the stereographs’ creator as George E. Stone.  Although he seemed to have been a prolific man, the museum knew nothing about G.E. Stone. Something drove me to identify or find a face for the elusive man who made these objects packed away on a shelf that I was now holding. So now I found myself faced with another task: Find the man called George E. Stone. All I had to go on were the clues that were given me. A name—George E. Stone Laboratories—and the words, Producers of Motion Pictures and Stereographs.

G.E. Stone proved to be an elusive fellow to track down. Based on some text c.1927 volume present on the back of some of the stereographs I could deduce that many of the stereographs dated from that time or thereabouts.  I was therefore looking for a G.E. Stone who was active in that time and an adult in the nineteen-twenties.

Thinking this information was gold, I began my research. George E. Stone proved a rather popular name. I was left with four potential G.E. Stone’s that fit the profile. One lead proved a dead end. An actor, the Hollywood sort, and his online profile proved him very unlikely to be G.E. Stone, stereographer.

The second—an Amherst University, Massachusetts Professor. He was also a botanist and photographer. No definitive evidence of his having created stereographs, but the botany sketches and photos suggested an interest and ability to create them. Many of the museums stereographs were botany related. Birth and death dates of this man were adequate to suggest a period of activity in the nineteen-twenties.

The third G.E. Stone was the Library of Congress entry for George Edward Stone. A picture of a stereograph on the entry made this man seem a promising candidate. But wait—birth and death for this man were the same as the Amherst Professor. Worth checking out.

The fourth candidate was a George E. Stone who was an author of some letters sent to me by the Harrison Memorial Library in Carmel, CA when I inquired about him. They had no biography on him though. Neither did libraries in San Francisco and Monterey, other areas the mysterious stereographer had worked. Mr. Stone seemed to have moved like a ghost through these places. Or had he?

The letters from Carmel revealed a different G.E. Stone. A Professor of photography for twenty-four years. San Jose State had a G.E. Stone.  They had a photo of him—a jolly looking man with round glasses and thinning hair. Posed with a camera of course. And yet there was no bio.  Was he the right Stone?

I went back to my leads. Now I had to see whether I could cross G.E. Stone candidate number two or number three off my list. The fourth—S.J. University Mr. Stone, the writer of my letters had written them in the late nineteen-fifties. He could not be the same G.E. Stone as candidate number two the Amherst Professor. Amherst Professor was deceased by then.

Yet what about the Library of Congress Stone? His dates were the same as Amherst Stone’s. Meaning that the letters I had were written by an altogether different man. A nineteen-twenty-nine Sunset Magazine article, the aforementioned letters, a Berkeley Heritage post on a women named May Gray, an AFI Feature Films entry and an search, proved to me that the George E. Stone  who was San Jose State Professor and the writer of the letters were one and the same. And these sources placed him in San Francisco, Monterey, and Carmel during the same time as the stereographs were made.  The Sunset article even stated that this Stone had worked for a motion picture company in Carmel and Monterey during the twenties. Seemed like a pretty fair bet that the stereographs could have been made during that time. Also, AFI Feature Films had an entry reading: George E. Stone Laboratories as producer for a nineteen-twenties dated film. Same laboratories as on some of the stereographs. Mr. Stone S. J. State Professor was looking like a pretty good candidate for the stereographer.

Though I cannot go back in time and ask this Mr. Stone if he did make the stereographs, what I do know is that through perusal sometimes puzzles start to fall into place. As I tracked down this elusive moniker, a trace of what the man’s life may have been like started to form. Suddenly I could imagine him on the rocks of Carmel making stereographs.

A close-up of one of the stereographs

A close-up of one of the stereographs

When I finished my last day uncovering the mystery of Mr. Stone, a fellow researcher came into the archives. Snowy white hair, glasses, name of Stan. I’d seen him before. Today he asked me what I was working on. I told him about G.E. Stone. Mentioned he may have been an S.J. State Professor. To which Stan replied: “I think I remember having a Professor of photography with that name when I was a student there in the nineteen-fifties.” Could Stan identify him? I showed Stan the picture of G.E. Stone from S.J. State. “That looks like him, but a lot younger. Well, maybe it is him,” was Stan’s reply. Now I had a face to put to the stereographs. And I definitely had a story. But was it the right G.E. Stone? Well, everyone loves a mystery.


Artifact of the Month: Candy Hits or Miss? Taking a Recipe out of ZaSu Pitts’ Cookbook

Posted December 16, 2013

ZaSu Pitts' candy recipes and life lessons

ZaSu Pitts’ candy recipes and life lessons

I’m more of a savory cook. I enjoy making dinners rather than baking something sweet. But sometimes you have to be brave, even use a candy thermometer, to see if there’s magic in an old recipe.

A couple of years ago, my daughter had to do a school project on a biographical figure. I encouraged her to find the extraordinary in a local hero. Sofia chose to research ZaSu Pitts, the local actress with the not-so-ordinary name. 

Many already know that ZaSu Pitts was an actress, known for her comedic timing and large, expressive eyes. She was born in Parsons, Kansas in 1894 but moved to Santa Cruz with her family when she was nine. ZaSu’s childhood home at 208 Lincoln Street is still there (looking fantastic thanks to recent landscaping), sandwiched between the Nickelodeon Theatre and Jack’s Hamburgers. ZaSu’s real name was Eliza Susan (named after her aunts) but she preferred to be called her nickname, the mash-up of her two monikers.

ZaSu attended Santa Cruz High School and was active in the theatre department. She left Santa Cruz in 1916 at the age of 22 for Los Angeles and was cast in The Little Princess (1917), a silent film whose leading lady was Mary Pickford. ZaSu starred in Greed (1924) and was featured in numerous movies; she was at the top of her game in 1930s B movies. ZaSu performed on Broadway and acted in T.V. shows in the 1950s and early 1960s.

Candy Hits was written by ZaSu Pitts and was published in 1963, the year she died. It’s a recipe book sprinkled with anecdotes about her life. Making candy was a life-long passion of ZaSu. It connected her to her past and kept her grounded while she pursued her career. ZaSu was known to bring her sugary concoctions to Hollywood parties and gatherings.

“Many people have asked me how I happened to choose candy-making for a hobby,” ZaSu wrote. “It really began in my childhood, and if I close my eyes, I can still see the kitchen in our Santa Cruz home, smell the fragrant odor of spice cookies baking in our iron stove and molasses candy bubbling in the iron frying pan…I stood by, all eyes, waiting for that exciting moment when my mother would give me a piece of the taffy to pull into sticky strings.”

My daughter finished her report on ZaSu Pitts, and I suggested we try one of ZaSu’s candy recipes. This would be great–Sofia could present her report and as an added bonus, treat the class to homemade candy. So in our Santa Cruz home, we attempted to make ZaSu’s chocolate fudge. Three times I tried, but it didn’t turn out quite right. I’m convinced it’s me–I think ZaSu would have made it just fine. We ended up buying Marini’s fudge and taking it to school. And yes, we told everyone it was proxy candy.

We didn’t recreate the magic that occurred in the Pitts kitchen almost a hundred years ago, but at least we tried. “You must gamble on that precise moment when your candy is about to ‘set up,’ and pour it out into a buttered shallow pan just before that critical split second arrives” ZaSu wrote.

Candy-making’s a lot like many things in life: sometimes you get it right and sometimes it ends up a sweet mess.




No Comments »

Artifact of the Month: Photograph Preservation and the Paul Johnston Collection

Posted November 19, 2013

Last summer, MAH archives intern (and San Jose State Library Science graduate student) Greg Gardner processed the Paul Johnston Collection. He writes about his insights in tackling this photographic collection, and how we here at the Museum preserve our collections for generation to come. Thank you Greg for all your diligent work in making the archives accessible. 

By Greg Gardner

Libraries, museums and archives preserve items from the past so the community of the present and the future use can learn and enjoy them.  All of these institutions make a major commitment to preservation.  Most people when they hear preservation first think about saving paintings like the ‘Mona Lisa’ or protecting documents like the ‘Declaration of Independence.’  But because photographs are relatively new, less than 200 years old, and so commonplace, most people are carrying a camera phone, preserving them is not an immediate thought.  Photographs have had a profound impact on society.  The photos of Matthew Brady, Mark Gardner and others from the battlefields of the American Civil War provided a stark reality of death and destruction in war, this influenced public attitude towards the war and how it should be waged.  Then there are the photographs of W.H. Jackson, the first person to photograph Yellowstone.  He captured the natural beauty of this area.  Without these photographs Congress may not have created the first national park.  There are many other instances in which photographs have captured a moment that energized a community.  All institutions must take action to preserve these historic resources, historic treasures, our heritage, for the present and the future.

One of the special collections at the Santa Cruz Museum of Art & History archives was donated by Paul Dombey Johnston in 1986.  He was born in Vancouver, Washington in 1889.  He moved to Capitola, California with his family in 1899, finally settling down in neighboring Aptos in 1905.  He worked as a cherry and apple picker, in an apple drying shed, and sold popcorn at the Capitola Beach.  He later became a mail carrier and then an owner of a gas station and garage.  He married Christina Henrietta Jensen in 1913.  They were both avid sportspersons travelling extensively across Northern and Central California.  Another passion they both shared was photographs and photography, they collected and captured almost one hundred years of history that included the people, places and events that helped to shape Santa Cruz County.

Paul and Christina Johnston were strong community supporters.  As a mail carrier Paul travelled throughout Aptos and the surrounding region.  He probably knew every resident in the area.  Christina was an active member of the Parent Teachers Association and she supported her community by collecting for the Red Cross and even sewing clothes for those in need during the Great Depression.  This strong sense of community led to their desire to carry the history they had saved forward to future generations.  There photographs have been used to help tell stories such as the book “Forever Facing South” by David Heron or in photograph exhibitions like “I’ve Seen It All” organized by Paul Johnston himself.


The photographs in the Johnston Collection illustrate many issues faced by preservationists today.  These issues are not unique to the Johnston Collection.  For example, in Deadwood, South Dakota a professional photographer’s, Josef Fassbender, photo collection from the early 1900s was recently unearthed in 2011.  The staff and volunteers who are processing this collection are already discovering issues of photographic paper deterioration and exposure to moisture and dust.  Photograph degradation can be broken down into three categories: biological, mechanical, and chemical.  Biological degradation is most often exposure to mold but also includes bug or rodent infestation.  Fortunately, the Johnston Collection did not show any signs of biological degradation.  However, there are signs of mechanical and chemical degradation.


Mechanical Degradation

Mechanical degradation occurs when a photograph is exposed to a mechanical force that stretches, pulls, contracts, expands, tears, gouges, or scratches.  Most often this is an unintended consequence of poor storage

Paul Johnston Boardwalk, 1907This photo from the Johnston Collection is of a group of friends on the street outside the Santa Cruz Beach Boardwalk about 1907.  The lower left corner shows the effect of bending and flexing a photograph.  The vehicle on the left side in the background is difficult to identify due to this distortion.  Also, along the creases some of the photograph medium itself has sloughed off, these locations can also provide a pathway for other forms of degradation.

Paul Johnston woman and man by cattle gateThis photo is of two women and a man on a set of railroad tracks alongside a cattle gate.  This photograph shows a more subtle form of mechanical degradation.  Many photographs are kept in photograph albums or scrapbooks using corner tabs.  These corner tabs can over time, through constant pressure on the same spot, distort the photograph.  Looking at the corners of this photo one can see the obvious signs of flattening in comparison to the rest of the photograph.  These corners can be weakened to the point that they can easily break or tear off.

Paul Johnston Neptune Casino, c. 1905This photo shows the Neptune Casino about 1905.  In this instance, the Johnston’s saved this photograph by gluing it in a scrapbook.  At a later date he wanted to use it for some other purpose so he attempted to remove it from the scrapbook.  The process of removing the photograph resulted in corners being torn off.  This issue is still prevalent with the newer forms of albums in which the photographs are mounted on self-sticking paper.

Chemical Degradation

A photograph is created by a chemical process.  In some cases these processes may not be the most stable so they can deteriorate over time without any outside influence.  However, in most cases there needs to be an exposure to an outside source for chemical degradation to occur.  This outside source can be exposure to light or varying levels of moisture.

Paul Johnston, Rio Del Mar Beach

This photo is of the Rio Del Mar Beach near Aptos most probably from the early to mid-1950s.  This is an early Kodacolor photographic process; unfortunately this early process was not the most stable.  These earlier Kodacolor photographs over time tended to fade to magenta.  This naturally happened as they aged; they did not have to be exposed to any outside element.  A few years later Kodak perfected the process so this type of fading no longer occurs.

This photo is of a group of people, including Paul and Christina Johnston going on Paul Johnston, honeymoontheir honeymoon, outside the Aptos Train Station in August 1913.  The band across the middle of the photograph clearly demonstrates the effect of extended exposure to light.  Usually there is not a band like this but there must have been books or other objects stacked on the photograph.  Photographs will usually not show fading effects as long as there is a reasonable light intensity and a reasonable length of time.  It is the combination of light intensity and time that causes photographs to fade.

This photo is of Christina Johnston with a group of her co-workers from the Hihn Apple Packing Shed in the 1910s.  This is a good example of the silver oxidative-reductive deterioration, otherwise called silver mirroring.  In the dark portion lower right of the photo there is a bluish-silver speckling, the silver molecules are clumping together.  Photographs from about the 1890s to the 1920s can show this silver mirroring.  The mirroring will usually start on the outer edges of the photograph and work its way towards the center.

Paul Johnston, Hihn Apple Packing Shed


Preservation is the process of saving an item for as long into the future as possible.  The most important preservation step that can be taken is to control the environment.  Extreme temperatures and/or humidity, or extreme daily variations in the temperature or humidity, is a major culprit in the biological, mechanical, and chemical degradation of photographs.  For photographs the rule of thumb is colder is better.  But, there is also a practicality to photograph storage, not every organization can have a freezer storage facility.  The Library of Congress Audio Visual Conservation Center at Culpepper, Virginia is a freezer storage facility for over 1.1 million motion picture films, television and videos.  A specialized facility like this is expensive to build, to maintain and also requires very strict protocols for moving the film to and from the storage area to prevent mechanical degradation.  So, for practical purposes the optimum storage temperature is 18€ C (65€ F) with a relative humidity of 35-50%.  Proper storage temperature and humidity are the most critical components of the preservation process.

Proper storage materials are another important component of the preservation process.  Storage boxes provide the next line of defense for photograph collections.  Boxes provide protection from dust and other pollutants, accidental mechanical stress, and most importantly from exposure to light.  The last line of defense for photographs is the enclosures.  These enclosures can be made of paper or plastic, with plastic enclosures the photograph can be held and looked at through the enclosure.  Enclosures provide extra stiffening thus reducing the likelihood to bend, flex, or fold the photograph.  They also protect the photograph from dust and other particulates.  Finally they prevent handling damage, the oils from fingers are kept away from the photograph (finger oils are acidic, attract dirt and can help promote chemical reactions in the photograph).  These enclosures, since they are in direct contact with the photograph, must be non-reactive.  All storage materials used should pass ANSI IT9.16 Photographic Activity Test (PAT) to ensure they do not cause fading or staining.  This multilayer storage provides the best protection possible for photographs.

Digitization is another tool that can enhance the preservation of photographs.  Creating digital scans of photographs can increase access to these historic and artistic resources while at the same time reducing the handling of these resources and their exposure to the environment.  Digitization involves more than just taking scans of photographs.  There is also the collection of information called metadata.  The descriptive information of the photograph such as the dimensions, the condition, the photographic process, and even whether it is the original or a copy are important to maintain the identity of the photograph.  As with all photographs it is also important to collect information on the subject of the photograph – the who, what, where, when and why.  This metadata is critical to maintain the context of the photograph.  Another area in which digitization is demonstrating its usefulness is the preservation of scrapbooks and photo albums.  There is no longer the need to attempt to gently separate, or cut, the photograph from the glued or sticky pages to get access to single photographs.  The photograph can be scanned while it is still in the scrapbook and the digital copy shared.  Digitization is powerful tool that can help with the preservation of photographs.

Preserving our heritage is an important function for museums, libraries, and archives.  Preservationists have to balance the preservation of an item with the access to and exhibition of that item to promote learning.  As an individual, as a community, as a society, we will not know where we are going if we do not know where we have been.  We must learn from our past, what was done right or what was done wrong, to prevent mistakes in the future.  All of us can take some basic common sense actions to preserve out photographic heritage for many years to come.




“Care, Handling, and Storage of Photographs,” Library of Congress.  Accessed August 15, 2013,

“How should I store my photographic prints?” National Archives.  Accessed August 15, 2013,

Reilly, James M.  Care and Identification of 19th-Century Photographic Prints.  Rochester, NY: Rochester Institute of Technology, 1986.

Ritzenthaler, Mary Lynn and Dianne Vogt-O’Connor.  Photographs: Archival Care and Management.  Chicago: Society of American Archivist, 2006.


1 Comment »