Surging Seas of Humanity

The Victorians loved to use descriptive, poetic language. Many of them who had the money for a really nice house even named their homes. They also named photographs, and the first picture here was taken by B.W. Kilburn.

He called it “The Surging Sea of Humanity“. This is a stereoscope, which is a really neat invention that was peculiar to the Victorian era. You need a stereoscope viewer to combine the two photos and get the full 3D effect.

The picture is an oddity for many reasons. Most photographs from this era are posed, formal, and serious.


Part of what lends itself to the idea of a surging sea is how the vast crowd seems to be spilling out in all directions. I’m curious where the photographer was standing. Until 1900 or so, if someone was taking a photograph, it required quite a bit of set-up and it was still such a novelty that people would turn and stare at the camera. This particular crowd was in Chicago, at the 1893 Columbian Exposition, and they don’t appear to notice the cameraman.

A huge crowd like this is interesting to see, especially the laughing woman in the front. You rarely see Victorians smiling or laughing in photos. Having a photograph made was still a formal affair in most cases. Speaking of women, I see a few, but this is mostly a masculine crowd. Nearly all the men wear bowler hats, making the women with their elaborate hats more noticeable.

For those of you who are true crime fans, the Columbian Exposition was the World’s Fair where H.H. Holmes was at work. His “murder castle” was constructed nearby. Who knows, he might even be lurking in this crowd… He did have a penchant for bowler hats!

B.W. Kilburn’s 1893 photograph of the Columbian Exposition in Chicago “The Surging Sea of Humanity”


Thirty-three years later, and 950 miles away, another photograph was taken in New Orleans. This picture is also an oddity for different reasons. By 1926, stereoscopes were no longer commonplace so it’s an unusual choice for this photograph. Photographs were rarely named at this point, but the photographer titled this “A Surging Sea of Humanity“. The Library of Congress did not credit the photographer of the New Orleans photo, but given the name and the composition, I would guess this photograph was taken as a tribute to B.W. Kilburn.

Once again, there’s a vast crowd all headed in different directions, this time congregating for Mardi Gras in New Orleans. It looks like this is also a more male crowd, but it’s harder to tell because women’s hats were not so different from the men in the 1920s.

This picture has been better preserved than the 1893 photograph, and was definitely taken with more advanced equipment. You can see the sharp classic lines of the building behind the crowd very clearly.

This 1926 photo of Canal Street, New Orleans at Mardi Gras is atypical.  “A Surging Sea of Humanity” 1s12858 //


I always feel nervous in big crowds, so pictures like these give me some anxiety! But if I could transport myself back to one of these pictures, I would probably choose the 1893 crowd. I would feel more comfortable in the 1926 crowd, for sure, but the people there aren’t such a mystery to me.  America in 1893 – before cars, radios, and smart phones – is fascinating and mysterious. It was a very youthful place, and not so over-crowded.

One thing I love in both pictures is how nice everyone looks. I saw a picture the other day of some people waiting for a bus in the 1960s, and they were so dressed up and lovely! The men were wearing suits and the women wore pillbox hats.

When I look at old photographs, I wish we could go back, and reclaim a little of the glamour. I have a theory a lot of the problems in society would dramatically lessen if people were dressed nicely.

3 thoughts on “Surging Seas of Humanity

  1. In light of the Spanish Flu the years prior and after tell us that people again will gather in masses, but with more reservation because of the Covid as well as mass shootings etc. I agree seems to ominios to be “trapped in this sea!”

    Liked by 1 person

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