2006 marked the thirtieth anniversary of the Birmingham Public Library Archives, recognized internationally as one of the largest and finest municipal archives in the United States. With more than 30,000,000 documents, maps, architectural drawings, works of art and 400,000 photographs, the Archives preserves the raw material of Birmingham history and makes it available to students, scholars and the simply curious.

Running throughout 2006, “Timepiece” was a Birmingham Magazine monthly feature on Birmingham history that highlighted items from the Archives’ collections.

"A Place In Time" lectures on Birmingham history were sponsored by the Birmingham Public Library Archives throughout 2006.
 

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Birmingham's Vintage Service Stations

It seems unlikely that today’s American roadside architecture will ever inspire a sense of nostalgia. Big box discount stores and fast food restaurants are interchangeable from one location to the next. Gas stations, or to be precise, convenience stores, are distinguishable only by the color of the trim on the square, flat buildings. But the builders of gas stations, or to be precise, service stations, once used popular architectural styles and whimsy to catch the eye of passing motorists.

 

Birmingham's Tourist Courts

As automobiles became affordable and reliable in the early 20th century, many Americans ventured out on long vacation trips into areas of the country not served by rail. Finding few places to stay, early auto travelers often slept in their cars or camped in tents. Enterprising residents along highways rented camp spaces in their yards or rooms in their homes. Towns and cities opened green spaces for camping, and some provided amenities like toilets, showers, drinking water and fire wood. By the 1930s, tourist courts lined American highways. Offering the comfort and privacy of small one-room cabins, tourist courts were a significant step up from sleeping on the ground or in the back seat.

The Wild West Comes to Birmingham

Founded during America’s westward migration, early Birmingham shared numerous traits with towns from the notorious Wild West. A nineteenth-century boomtown populated by many young, unattached men, Birmingham was once a place of dirt streets, wooden sidewalks, saloons and occasional gun fights.

 

Birmingham’s Victorian Bicycle Craze

Bicycles, known colloquially in the nineteenth century as “wheels,” offered a new kind of mobility that many women embraced. While some worried that having women riding about on bicycles would lead to moral decay, bicycle manufactures catered to the new clientele and Victorian era women found freedom on their bikes.

Birmingham’s Turn-of-the-Century Lake Resorts
The streetcar brought tremendous changes to the everyday lives of Americans. Beginning in the late 1800s, the streetcar encouraged the growth of suburbs by allowing people to live miles from their work. The streetcar also opened new avenues for amusement that led to the development of Birmingham’s turn-of-the-century lake resorts.

 

Birmingham’s Founding Documents

On a March day in 1872, Major William P. Barker and his team of engineers took their surveying equipment out into a Jones Valley corn field and began laying off the streets and blocks of Birmingham. In his carefully recorded survey notes and with stakes driven into the ground, he created a city.

Birmingham’s Ill-Fated Mardi GrasDetail of Mardi Gras Invitation
The mention of Mardi Gras brings to mind ancient rituals and masked revelers in old cities like Mobile and New Orleans. In those places the pre-Lenten carnival has been celebrated in various forms since the early 1700s. But for a few years as the nineteenth century came to a close, the still young city of Birmingham staged its own carnival.