Mills and Mill Villages Photograph Collection

This is a guest post from Spring 2014 intern, Taylor McNeilly.  Tyalor is currently in the MLIS program at Simmons College in Boston.  

So I just finished processing my first good-sized archival collection here at the Providence Public Library’s Rhode Island Collection. When I first started here, I had processed the Frank Sayles Photograph Collection (VM 004, check it out!), which was pretty small – just a sort of training exercise to get my feet. After getting through that (maybe a bit more slowly and carefully than a professional, but hey, we all start somewhere, right?), Kate let me sink my teeth into something a bit bigger: Joseph McCarthy.

Unfortunately, no, not that Joseph McCarthy. The McCarthy I got to work with (I’m going to call him Joe from here on out) was a photographer in the ‘30s who later taught at Babcock Junior High in Westerly. The collection I just finished processing is a little over 200 photographs Joe took in 1940 for the Works Projects Administration (or WPA)(Fun fact: before 1939, WPA stood for Works Progress Administration.) These were taken specifically for PPL and funded by WPA. The collection is made up of black-and-white photos, primarily of mills and mill villages around Rhode Island. That’s why it’s called the Mills and Mill Villages Collection!

So, Joe takes these photos in 1940 as part of a work relief effort by Congress to  slow down the Great Depression. He donates the photos to PPL. And this is where it gets super interesting, ladies and gentlemen. The next thing that happens is Joe, who falls sick and becomes bedridden, asks a fellow teacher to deliver the negatives to PPL for him. Which is when, in Joe’s own words, “a feeble Fate laid its finger on the Project.” Joe seems to have a bit of a flair for the dramatic in his writing, but he’s right about fate: the negatives were incinerated by Joe’s fellow teacher. Accidentally, Joe says, but I have a hunch that this teacher might have been a wee bit jealous of Joe’s photographic fame!

Regardless, the “priceless negatives” (that’s Joe again) were destroyed. With a heavy heart, Joe wrote to inform us (this was in 1967). While the library staff were clever enough to create negatives out of the prints still in our possession, we have lost a few items out of the collection. RISD, who had worked with Joe to do some architectural photography work in 1939, loaned us a few negatives to make new prints (thanks, guys!). Then the collection sat, deep within the vast depths of PPL’s Rhode Island Collection (it’s not that big, it’s just one room) until February of 2014, when Kate loaded it all up onto a cart and wheeled it out to me.

I sorted through it all, figured out what we had and what we didn’t, and the whole story behind it. Then, I wrote the brand new finding aid you’ll find on our website (VM 005!). This part was pretty boring for the average person, so I’ll skip the details. But here are some of my favorite photographs out of the 210+ in the collection!


This is a cottage in Hope, RI, built around 1810 (as the label says). It just seems so homey, doesn’t it? A little small, but nice. Reminiscent of Dorothy’s house in the Wizard of Oz. I think it needs some roof work done, but still! There are a lot of photos like this one, although with varying architectural styles, so if that’s your thing, you’re in luck!


This one looks really similar to the cottage above, right? Well, not quite. To start with, this is a two-family house, as cleared shown by the two doors. Also, this one is home to two slightly creepy girls. Of course, this wouldn’t be the purpose of the collection, and it’s not fair to judge even this one photo that’s focusing on the house by the girls who decided to spy from an open door, but I’m doing it anyway. This is a great photo, because it’s a little terrifying.


This is a store in Hope, RI (again). What I like about this one is all the people in it! Also, Hope is a pretty cool place, I think. See if you can find all the men sitting on the porch, I count at least six. And remember that much larger photos are available in the collection itself!


This one is my favorite. It’s in Manville, up around the Lincoln area (right off 146 by the Drive-In). Joe seems to have taken most of the photos in winter, or else in areas with less green spaces. This photo, on the other hand, is chockfull of trees! Of course Joe was trying to get all the mill dwellings into one photo, but what he ended up with was a wonderful tree-centered photo! I think it’s just spectacular.

So those are a few of the photographs in the collection, showing off some of the things you can find in photos – even if they’re mainly focused on buildings. There’s also a really cool one of an abandoned kitchen, another ghost kid (two, actually), and some great shots of old cars, old shop fronts, and things like that. If you’ve ever driven up 44 into Chepachet, that building right by the bridge with the wooden horse is photographed (and it’s before the wooden horse!). It’s really fantastic, and while some of these pictures can be found on the PPL Flickr page, it isn’t the whole collection – and you’re missing a lot of the detail. So if you get a chance, come take a look! And tell Kate how great a job I did with the collection, too, ok?

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Kate Wells

As the Rhode Island Collection librarian at Providence Public Library, Kate Wells helps bring Rhode Island history to light by increasing access to the collection and providing research assistance to patrons. In the “Rhode Island Red” blog, Kate showcases interesting materials from the collection, provides research tip & techniques, and highlights local history. Feel free to contact her if you have any Rhode Island related questions; she is always happy to help. Email:


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