As I was browsing through the collection of photographs of old schools from the South Carolina School Insurance Collection, I noticed something odd. The same car started showing up in photo after photo.
You don’t notice it while viewing the images one by one on the archives website, but when you look at them en masse, it’s one of the things that jumps out.
Obviously I assumed that it belonged to the agent who was responsible for inspecting and photographing the schools. Stands to reason. I can see it going something like this…He (and I’m most definitely sure it was a “he” given the time period) would park the car in front of the school, do his inspection, then step out front for a photo. Including the car in the photo also proved that he was there, and that he had been the one to take the photo.
That part made sense. However, I had other questions. Joe Bartolini, on his most excellent Vintage Images of SC Schools website, made note of the cars as follows:
The gray cars in the first two photos are of a 1941 Plymouth. The black car (the one to the left) in the last photograph is either a 1938 or 39 Ford. The other black car may be a 1937 Buick. Based on this information it can thus be assumed that a school photograph was taken in 1940 or later if one of the gray sedans appears in the photo and possibly after 1936 (?) if a black sedan shows up in the photograph.
Armed with this knowledge I waded into social media to see if someone else could provide more details. I posted the question with sample photographs to the “Abandoned, Old and interesting places in South Carolina” group on Facebook, along with the collage and several sample enlargements.
One very knowledgeable commenter said that the tail lights were the key. If they were horizontal, then it was a 1942 Plymouth. If vertical, then it was a 1941 model. So, this one was obviously a 1942.
I started going through, tagging each instance of the car. Of the 1537 photographs in the collection, the gray Plymouth shows up clearly in 163 of them. I started perusing those photographs, paying particular attention to the tail lights. That’s when it hit me…we had two different cars. One is a 1941 Plymouth and the other is a 1942.
Many of the photographs show the cars indistinctly, from the front, or only partially. It’s easy to assume they are all the same. The other thing to keep in mind is that these are black and white photos. While Joe has labeled them as gray, there’s really no way to tell what color they were. In the sample above the top car looks like it’s a little darker than the bottom one, but that could just be a trick of lighting…or, the top one was green and the bottom one was yellow, for all we know. In any case, both cars appear all over the state, and it doesn’t look like they were confined to one area.
So, we either have (1) one photographer who liked his 1941 Plymouth so well that he got a 1942 model the next year, or (2) multiple agents, two of whom just happened to have similar cars, or (3) one or more agents that select from a state-owned fleet of similar looking cars. That last option is not so far-fetched. This was just prior to World War II. My Facebook car expert, Samantha, mentioned that this model of Plymouth was popular as a fleet car for the US army.
Regardless of ownership, this does let us date the photographs with these vehicles to sometime after 1940. That would place them about mid-way through the School Insurance Photograph program. I’m curious as to whether or not the program continued through the war years, or if it was interrupted. Apart from the general architecture, this is the only other outstanding clue as to when these photographs were taken, and the presence of the cars in these photos just lends a bit more mystery.
2 thoughts on “The Mystery of the School Car”
Hey there – It looks like Joe Bartolini’s site for South Carolina Schools is no more. Did he move to a different address or is it gone completely? I’d love to check out what he collected – i have a local history site for Johnsonville SC and I’m always looking for new images!
It looks like it has gone, or, at least, the domain name hasn’t been renewed. I know Joe has had some serious medial issues over the last year, so perhaps the site just got to be too much. I know he’s a regular reader of this site, so perhaps he’ll see the comment and give us an update.