NPC in History: What was Harris and Ewing?
November 8, 2018 | By Gilbert Klein | email@example.com
Anyone who rummages around the National Press Club photo archives will come across the credit line “Harris & Ewing.” And anyone who walks down F Street across from the National Press Building will see the name Harris & Ewing deeply carved above the entrance to a four-story building.
I didn’t think much about Harris & Ewing until last week when I spoke to the downtown Rotary Club. Before my talk, a Rotary historian, May Yoneyama O’Brien, gave a one-minute presentation on George Harris, who had founded the downtown Rotary Club and who was the Harris of Harris & Ewing.
What I learned was remarkable. George Harris was not only a key figure in the Club's history, but also in the history of Washington news photography. He had been the official White House photographer from Theodore Roosevelt to Dwight Eisenhower, and he had run the first – and for a while the largest - Washington photo news agency out of that building across from the Press Building.
George William Harris was born near Cardiff, Wales, and immigrated to the United States in 1881 at the age of nine. He worked with the Hearst News Service in San Francisco beginning in 1900. During Roosevelt’s 1904 campaign, Harris joined Roosevelt’s press entourage as it crisscrossed the United States by train.
Roosevelt encouraged him to start a Washington photographic news service because out-of-town newspapers had such trouble getting timely photos of news and events in the capital. And, Roosevelt invited him to cover his administration.
In 1905, Harris opened the Harris & Ewing photo studio and international photo news service at 1313 F. St. with four employees. The company was financed largely by his business partner, Martha Ewing, who had worked with him in San Francisco and managed the studio until he bought her out in 1924.
Building from 40 subscribers the first year, providing photos to news outlets across the United States and around the world, Harris & Ewing was the largest photographic studio in America by the late 1930s. At its peak, Harris & Ewing had five studios, employed 120 people and supported a legion of freelance photographers, who produced about 10,000 photos a year. When he sold the news service part of the business in 1945, it was the busiest studio in the country.
Harris was an avid Club member, and his role in chronicling its history through his photographs cannot be overstated. For decades, Harris & Ewing took every official Club president photograph that now line the 14th floor corridor. It took photos of Club officers and Building Board members as they planned construction of the National Press Building.
We would know nothing about the interior of the clubhouse from 1914 to 1927 without his photographs – including that it had three pool tables and a rooftop restaurant. He gave us the views of the Club when it opened that year and of the parade from the old clubhouse to the new, led by Princess Alice, the Alaskan native carving that is still outside the president’s office. Indeed, many of the photographs in the Club’s 1928 history were from Harris & Ewing.
He took photos not only of news-making luncheon speakers, but also of parties, boat trips, cookouts, spoofs and parodies, not only at the Club, but also at the Women’s National Press Club.
You want to know how hot it was speaking in the Club before air conditioning? There’s a shot of GOP 1940 presidential contender Wendell Willke moping his brow at the head table in June. He caught Eleanor Roosevelt, the first woman to speak at the Club in September 1938. Acting sensation Mary Pickford shaking hands with the wife of the secretary of state? It’s there, too.
On his retirement in 1955, Harris contributed 70,000 glass and film negatives to the Library of Congress. Many of the rest of the more than 5 million images Harris & Ewing took are spread out in collections across the country. Harris died in 1964, and Harris & Ewing finally closed its doors in 1977, a shell of its former self.
But his legacy lives on. He helped found the White House News Photographers Association, which is still going strong. He was president of the Professional Photographers of America, and its highest honors are named for him.
And Harris & Ewing photos are still all over the Club and in its archives, waiting to be used to recount the Club’s storied past.
This is another in a series provided by Club historian Gil Klein. Dig down anywhere in the Club’s 110-year history, and you will find some kind of significant event in the history of the world, the nation, Washington, journalism and the Club itself. Many of these events were caught in illustrations that tell the stories.