FAQ HISTORY OF THE COMPANY

The following are excerpts of an interview with Snapshots of the Past founder James Lantos. This interview acts as the company FAQ and outlines its past, present, and future path.

1. Why did you decide to start Snapshots of the Past?
2. How did your genealogical pursuits lead you to start a historic print business?
3. Do you consider yourself a historian of this era or of these works?
4. If these images are already available for free at the Library of Congress, what is the purpose of building this website?
5. How has the business been going?
6. What does the Library of Congress think of what you are doing?
7. What do you see in the future for Snapshots of the Past?

Q: Why did you decide to start Snapshots of the Past?


A: Snapshots of the Past was founded in May 2001 in Pittsburgh. We were one of the first companies to make available some of the rare collections of images held at the Library of Congress as fine art, reproduction prints. We have come to where we are today through the efforts of hundreds of hardworking people over the past 14 years, not to mention the efforts of the Library of Congress for a decade or two before that. The original images available for viewing on this site were formerly held for over 100 years on the shelves of the Library of Congress, accessible only to librarians, researchers, and visitors with special permission.

A year before I founded the business, around 2000, I began working on a family genealogy project. I had been a programmer in the previous decade and had an interest in art and history. These areas coalesced to not only help me with my genealogical pursuits but also to later found this business. My interest in family history arose from the fact that I had spent some of my youth in Johnstown, a small city in Southwest Pennsylvania. My ancestors came to the region in the early 1900s.

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Q: How did your genealogical pursuits lead you to start a historic print business?

A: As I began to look back at my family’s history, I spent a lot of time roaming the back roads of Western Pennsylvania, northern West Virginia and Eastern Ohio. I saw many towns that once had thrived at the end of the 19th century but which had since gone into decline. When you drive through Monongahela or Braddock, this is evident. You can see it in the town’s main streets where many shops are shuttered. Johnstown has a similar look to it. Once the fourth largest city in Pennsylvania and at one time in the late 1800s a leader in global steel production, it began to decline after World War II when domestic steel production began to be overrun by foreign competition.

I traveled from Erie down to Morgantown, West Virginia where I had gone to camp in my youth. I visited libraries, courthouses, and cemeteries to find information about relatives. I took pictures, found obituaries, gravestones and articles, and I copied, scanned, and photographed everything and put it all onto a CD. This was my first foray into digital archiving and historical research.

 

Around the same time, someone who knew of my historical interests pointed me towards Ebay. There, I discovered an old map of Uniontown, Pennsylvania, located in Fayette County, a place in Southwest Pennsylvania where some of my relatives had lived.

Once a prosperous industrial town, Uniontown is now located in one of the poorest counties in Pennsylvania, 40 miles south of Pittsburgh. I did some digging on the town and learned a few historical notes of intrigue:

  1. Uniontown was located at the western perimeter of the original 13 colonies on the far west side of the Allegheny Mountains—a formerly impenetrable barrier that defined the "Far West" in the Colonial era.
  2. George Washington slept near here on one of his first trips to the area serving as an emissary to the British on their way to what is now Pittsburgh.
  3. He fought a battle (and lost) at nearby Fort Necessity on his way back.
  4. The city lies along US 40, the old "National Road," America's first superhighway. Built in the early 1800s, the road was traversed by countless numbers of Conestoga Wagons for almost 50 years prior to the arrival of the railroads in the 1850s.
  5. The famous Frank Lloyd Wright mountain home "Fallingwater" is located nearby.

But the main reason I was interested in this map related specifically to my family history. This was the town where my father's parents met, working in a drugstore together in the 1920s. Because of this, I decided to purchase the map.

When it arrived, I realized that it was not a cartographic map, per se, but an artist’s hand-drawn, bird's-eye-view of the town, c. early 1900s, reproduced beautifully on canvas. The details were as crisp as an original and it looked similar to a famous Currier and Ives print of New York I had seen before. I immediately became curious about where it came from. And it was this curiosity that was the tipping point that set me on the path to where I am today with Snapshots of the Past.

What I learned is that the print was created from a high resolution scanned image that came from a broader collection of over 4,000 "panoramic maps" and photographs held at the Library of Congress. I was amazed to learn that there were a group of panoramic artists roaming the country in the late 1800s producing these hand drawn maps of towns to promote civic pride, small businesses, new development, etc.

I also learned that this collection was in turn part of an even larger collection of millions of pieces of art, photographs, and other ephemera that the Library had begun scanning a decade earlier as part of a national preservation project that intended to make these archival works more visible to the public.

It was also around that time I came across an article in the Washington Post which stated: "Vintage maps from second-hand stores, estate sales, flea markets and Web dealers are being hung everywhere, from nurseries to bachelor pads to the living rooms of Washington's establishmentarians."

 

In the summer of 2001, I began acquiring digital copies of the entire panoramic image collection. I then set about learning about the technical aspects of a relatively new artistic process--that involving the creation of archival, reproduction prints using modern digital printing technologies. I felt inspired about wanting to make these images available to others as I felt they would make wonderful art which people could use for research or just to enjoy in their homes. I was particularly interested in showing some of the prints to fellow history-minded Pittsburghers as many people in this area are familiar with the towns in surrounding Western Pennsylvania. In fact, there is a great sense of pride that arises from these old maps and how they are able to convey what bygone era towns looked like in their heyday.

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Q: Do you consider yourself a historian of this era or of these works?

A: I'm not a historian by training but I certainly have become one through the study of these images the past decade. Following my panoramic inquiries, I spent over a decade acquiring copies of other major collections from the Library of Congress. Civil War. Stereoviews. Theater posters. Early Newswire photos. My inquiry led me to study and sort through over 100,000 images from some of the Library's most popular collections.

Malcom Gladwell, in the bestselling 2008 book "Outliers", notes his theory of the 10,000-hour rule. It states that this is the necessary amount of time one needs to achieve "world class expertise in any skill." Gladwell mentions that Bill Gates put this much time into programming an early computer he had access to in 1968 at the age of 13 and that the Beatles did over 1,200 shows in Hamburg, Germany, in the early 1960s, putting in their 10,000 before they returned to England to become global superstars.

If I had to estimate the number of hours I've put in studying and working with these archival images, in mastering the art of digital and archival print making, and in creating and in running this business since its founding, I'd guess that number to be about 20,000.

This organization has always been self-financed and we are grateful to the efforts of many individuals who have worked often for little or no pay in keeping this enterprise running due to their inherent love of history. Dozens of programmers, writers, researchers, graphic designers, web developers, sales people, historians, publishers, college bookstore owners, galleries, set directors, interior designers, printers, and others have contributed to the effort. We are also incredibly grateful to the Library of Congress for their efforts in curating, researching, and preparing these images for public display and use.

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Q: If these images are already available for free at the Library of Congress, what is the purpose of building this website?

A: The Library of Congress website is a world-class research facility for scholars and genealogists. It is one of the largest libraries in the world and has one of the most heavily trafficked sites on the Internet. But when you are looking at an image of a photograph or a piece of historical artwork on the Library's website, they do not give you easy choices on how to order a museum quality, archival reproduction print, for example, to enjoy in your home or office.

On our site you can purchase an archival reproduction of Library of Congress images made with archival papers and pigmented inks—the same kinds used by leading museums and artists who sell reprints of their own works.

But we aren’t just doing print making. We are also doing other things to extend the archiving and cataloging work of the Library of Congress further.

In 2009, we began collaborating with a local company in the Boston area, Applewood Books (www.awb.com), a 40-year-old niche publisher of out-of-print books. Applewood wanted to publish picture books based on the Library's image collection but wanted the books to follow specific themes. So we started looking at themes of interest in the vast collections we had acquired and began organizing images into subcategories following a generalized classification system.

As we are from Boston, we decided to prepare our first book around a locally popular subject and called it Boston Baseball. You can browse the Boston Baseball gallery on our site (see "Discover Historic Americana"). The collection of images we chose consists of a range of different kinds of material, including photographs, baseball cards, advertisements, artwork, and ephemera.

Following this, we spent several years hand-categorizing large numbers of images into hundreds of different categories. Snapshots will make these images available in online galleries free to the public over the next several years. The first 16 of these categories have been published by Applewood (pictorialimages.com) and are now being prepared for display on this site.

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Q: How has the business been going?

A: Snapshots began selling prints on the Internet in 2001, then sold for several years to a range of brick-and-mortar wholesale customers including the National Park Service, The New York Public Library, Cracker Barrel Old Country Store, hundreds of gift and bookstores, TV and film set directors, designers, and others.  Since 2006, we have been selling prints through our store on Amazon.com.

For over a decade our material has been available at national landmark sites such as the Lincoln Memorial. We were selected as one of the print vendors evaluated for the White House redecoration effort (led by Michelle Obama) after President Obama’s first election victory. We’ve sold a print to the president of Panama and to the mayor of Miami Beach. We have also sold to tens of thousands history enthusiasts and nostalgically minded people including professionals, schools, museums, libraries, college students, historians, reporters, writers and genealogy researchers. We’ve even sold to a customer in Greenland. In general, we've sold to a lot of people who just want to decorate their homes, apartments or offices with a bit of history.

A curious fact about all this is that until now the only way one could find our images on Amazon was if one happened to stumble upon something as a result of a keyword search. On this website, for the first time, people will be able to locate a category or theme of interest, browse hierarchies of galleries of images by theme, or search the entire collection by keyword.

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Q: What does the Library of Congress think of what you are doing?

A: Snapshots of the Past was granted approval as a certified third party vendor of prints by the Library of Congress. Prior to building the site, we operated under several other brand names including: the Olde Yankee Map and Photo Shoppe and Library Images. Snapshots was formerly one of the largest sellers of historical artwork and photography on Amazon.com, where it listed almost 500,000 works.

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Q: What do you see in the future for Snapshots of the Past?

A: One of our lasting goals is to build on the Library of Congress's extensive digitization project to create a broadly categorized, searchable, unique, and free gallery of American history. We also plan to create a site where anyone can purchase beautiful, museum-quality prints for personal use. A long term goal is to create an online community focused around the images in order to satisfy the large and growing public interest in historical information and imagery on the Internet.

We welcome feedback and input on any of the images displayed here and invite visitors to leave comments or questions. To date, we have received a large number of comments relating to many images on this site, which you can read about in the "Testimonials" section. Many people have written to us about images they have found of long-lost relatives, family members who fought in the Civil War, etc.

These images have been a rich and unique source of learning, and I continue to be fascinated by them. My hope is that by building this site the images shown here will help to serve others as an endless source of learning and will remain a valuable tool for public inquiry for years to come.

 

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