There is a place on Facebook—beyond the endless photos of newborn babies and your annoying friend from high school who updates her status exclusively in ALL CAPS—where something quite interesting is happening.
It’s a Facebook page called Old Images of Philadelphia, and it’s exactly what it sounds like: about 21,000 images of Philadelphia from the 1990s and earlier, each presented with a snippet of historical context. Photos of wasp-waisted ladies from the 1890s in Edwardian dresses. Shots of a luncheonette in West Philadelphia before it was destroyed by Penn’s expansion. A head shot of Grace Kelly. An aerial view of Veterans Stadium from 1971.
While the images are often mesmerizing, it’s the hundreds of comments and the conversations they stir that are the real draw. Commenters exclaim in wonder, mourn the past, make confessions and share family history, all with perfect strangers.
“It’s sort of like therapy,” says Carl Manley, the 48-year-old local-history buff, born-and-bred West Philadelphian and self-described “History Channel freak” who started the page. “It was never my intent to make something that would touch people emotionally and spiritually, but the feedback is remarkable and overwhelms me. My page is tying into their memory banks.”
Manley is something of a mystery to Old Images fans. They know him as a tireless poster of photos from contributors, phillyhistory.org and the Temple archives, and as a deep font of Philly knowledge, but as he says, “Many people are surprised to find out I’m African-American. They’re like, ‘Wow, a black guy did this?’” Most are also unaware of his financial situation. A sheet-metal worker for 19 years, Manley was forced into early retirement in 2008 after a diagnosis of heart failure that left him unable to continue working at a job he loved. In 2009, he launched the Old Images page due to the catalysts of, as he puts it, “depression, boredom and free time.”
While Manley is surprised Old Images has struck such a chord, it’s his careful curating, affable voice, and occasional cheerleading status updates—“37000+ likes and climbing!!!”—that make the page so endearing. The request he gets most often from fans is to put the photos on an actual website in addition to Facebook. But as he says, “It costs money to have a web domain. Facebook is free.”
The seeming randomness with which the photos are posted is another hot topic among the readership. But for Manley, it’s an editorial decision that makes sense. “People want me to group the photos by neighborhood,” he says—a move he’s resisted because he believes not doing so encourages people to look at other areas. “Otherwise, Northeast people would only look at the Northeast, South Philly people would only go to South Philly. Sometimes I get emails accusing me of not putting up photos of housing projects or high-crime areas. I don’t have any problem posting them, but they’re difficult to get; you can’t just go to ‘housingprojects.com’ and find them. Then, when I do post them, people start asking me why I’m putting up photos of high-crime areas. My answer is: I show all parts of the city. I post pictures of all of Philadelphia.”
[PHOTO: Broad Street in 1955, courtesy PhillyHistory.org]
This article originally appeared in the January issue of Philadelphia magazine.