Hundreds of newly public old photos showcase everyday life in 1920s Chicago
Norwegian engineer visited Chicago —and captured candid scenes as well as landmarks in treasure trove of images now online.
Vienna “Red Hot” sandwiches cost 5 cents. Cecil B. DeMille’s “Dynamite” was playing at one of the city’s grandest movie palaces. And, it seemed, everyone smoked – playing tennis, on the golf course and even while wading in Lake Michigan.
Roar Brodtkorb Knudtzon came to America from Norway in 1926, but his was not an immigrant story. He came to Chicago as a young man to learn how to build with steel and concrete — and then he went back home four years later. But during his time here, he took hundreds of photographs of a place so different from his Scandinavian home — from the movie palaces ablaze in white lights to the skeletal frame of a rising skyscraper.
Roar’s granddaughter, Vibecke Knudtzon Gausel, recently posted those images on her personal Facebook pages as well as one featuring old photos of Chicago, drawing hundreds of curious and nostalgic viewers.
There are pictures of everyday life — of Knudtzon and his family playing along the shores of Lake Michigan, clustered around a dinner table at Christmas, pushing infants in old-fashioned baby carriages. There are photos said to be from “Norwegian Day” as well as pictures of Buckingham Fountain, the University of Chicago and Michigan Avenue, among other city landmarks.
“I think he just wanted to go to America to learn,” said Gausel, 54, speaking from her home in Oslo.
Her grandfather’s family would eventually settle in the Norwegian city of Trondheim, where Knudtzon was born. He went to the Norwegian University of Science and Technology in Trondheim, and worked as an engineer in the U.S. and France. He even was part of the Norwegian resistance during World War II, said Nils Kristian Eikeland, a senior engineer at the NTNU University Library. He died in a car crash in 1985 at the age of 85, Gausel said.
Gausel recently donated 4,000 of his images from around the world to his alma mater, which maintains a collection of 1 million Norwegian-themed photos, including 100,000 that are searchable online, dating back to the 1840s.
“What’s exciting about Knudtzon’s photographs is that they’re captured by an amateur photographer” who took “more spontaneous and candid shots than those taken by a professional photographer,” Eikeland said. “The sheer amount of photographs also provides a detailed view of the age they lived in.”