Tanvi Misra is a staff writer for CityLab covering immigrant communities, housing, economic inequality, and culture. She also authors Navigator, a weekly newsletter for urban explorers (subscribe here). Her work also appears in The Atlantic, NPR, and BBC.
Statistician John P. Wymer set out to document every inch of the city in 1948. Now a young historian is trying to get his work online.
John P. Wymer was a statistician at the Bureau of Standards who moved to Washington D.C. from California in 1930. A decade later, between 1948 and 1952, he embarked on an eccentric personal project: He would extensively document the city he had come to call home.
Wymer, a meticulous man, divided up the city into 57 sections of equal size, numbered them, and mapped each of them by hand. Then he photographed sample blocks and wrote down his impressions of the demographic and architectural characteristics of each. After four years, he’d compiled 4,000 snapshots—freeze-frames of life in the rapidly changing U.S. capital.
Wymer kept this work to himself for decades, but he wanted it to serve future generations of D.C. residents and history buffs. Here’s a poem he included on the first page of his album “To a Young Historian”:
If Washington tonight were hid
In ashes as was once Pompeii,
Some one, as Bulwer-Lytton did,
Would sometime have a word to say.
And he would always seek, of course,
An excellent primary source.
On looking back to 1950
This future Toynbee, Beard, or Scott,
Would find that Jack’s three books are nifty
And he would use them, like as not,
To see our town, as it appears
Across the intervening years.
So don’t give up, Jack, gifts I bear,
Procured by this, your humble rhymer.
And all salute that noble pair,
Herodotus and John P. Wymer.
Littera scripta manet. Paucis verbis:
Nosce te ipsum. Ars longa, vita brevis.
It was only in 1978 that D.C. historian James Goode found out about the trove of maps and convinced Wymer, who died in 1995, to donate his albums to the Historical Society of Washington, D.C.
That’s where Jessica Richardson Smith discovered them as an intern in 2015. Smith had moved to D.C. a year before to start a Master’s program in anthropology at George Washington University. For her thesis, she launched her own ambitious project: Getting the Wymer collection online, in a fun, user-friendly format. “Wymer was going out and doing this for four years of his life, and I'm recreating it in the laziest way possible—with my computer,” Smith, now a librarian at the Historical Society, says. “Mine is the digital pilgrimage. His was the real pilgrimage.”
What Smith did was overlay Wymer’s photographs onto a Google map, allowing readers to explore the sights of the 1950s city. “We always describe it to people as ‘Google Street View before there was Google Street View,’” says Smith. “One day it just kind of clicked like, ‘Oh, somebody should map these onto Google Street View, and then you would have this really awesome now-and-then comparison."
It’s almost as if Wymer had anticipated this treatment of his work. For one, his collection was remarkably comprehensive. He had walked through almost the entire city with his camera, including the parts that were underdeveloped and segregated. He hadn’t just captured the famous monuments and prominent landmarks, but also mundane, overlooked details—“the stuff in the background of other people’s photographs,” Smith says. His images show sleepy neighborhood churches, warehouses, unpaved alleyways, busy intersections, and kids in their Sunday best, walking down a sidewalk. They’re little slices of life in the city.
He also included a lot of geographical detail about places he stopped and clicked these pictures, so Smith could manually geocode them. On her map, users can select the area with clusters of pins and wander around it, toggling between Wymer’s images and the contemporary Google Street View images. “I really wanted that immersive aspect of it,” Smith says. “You know you're seeing 1950s D.C. through Wymer's camera lens.”
Fulfilling Wymer’s vision will take some more work. So far, Smith has only mounted a little over half of the total images. When the rest are digitized, she intends to plug those in, with input and feedback from D.C. residents and urban wonks.
For now, one thing is certain. Wymer has certainly helped one young historian—Smith—get intimate with the nation’s capital. “I just enjoy finding out things that I didn't know existed in the city,” Smith says. “It's the things you don’t even know to look for that you can find [in Wymer’s maps].”
Below are some of these images, as seen on Smith’s website. Explore the rest of city through Wymer’s eyes here.