The American Colony in Jerusalem, 1870-2006


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A Community in Jerusalem

Enterprise & Social Service

A crowd outside a store watching a street performer
descriptive record icon enlarge image icon Man dancing with swords at Vester & Co.–The American Colony Store, near Jaffa Gate, Old City, Jerusalem, ca. 1915. G. Eric & Edith Matson Collection, Prints & Photographs Division.  LC-DIG-matpc-07444

The Vester and Co.-American Colony Store was just one of the enterprises operated by members of the American Colony that had a significant impact in Jerusalem. In its first five decades of existence, the American Colony developed important auxiliary functions in the realms of commercial photography, business, and medical and social services.

The American Colony Photo Department began operation in 1898. It was headed initially by colony member Elijah Meyers, a Jewish Indian originally from Bombay, with a staff of primarily Swedish and American photographers and darkroom and print assistants and apprentices. Those behind the camera included Furman Baldwin, Lars Lind, Erik Lind, Olaf Lind, and Fareed Naseef. The visit of Kaiser Wilhelm II to Jerusalem was among the first of the many ceremonial and political events documented by American Colony photographers.

Water and rocks          Street scene
descriptive record icon enlarge image icon Jaffa and environs: The rocks in a storm. American Colony Photo Department. Image from hand-colored photographs from Jerusalem and Palestine photograph album (page 7, no. 4). Visual Materials of the John D. Whiting Papers, Prints & Photographs Division. LC-DIG-ppmsca-18417-00004
descriptive record icon enlarge image icon Bethlehem street scene (street leading to the Church of the Nativity. American Colony Photo Department. Image from hand-colored photographs of Jerusalem and Palestine photograph album (page 5, no. 3). Visual Materials of the John D. Whiting Papers, Prints & Photographs Division. LC-DIG-ppmsca-18417-00003

American Colony Photo Department staff also created images of urban life, geography and architecture of ancient sites, the landscapes of the Holy Land and the activities of its people. Swedish American Colony member Lewis (Hols Lars) Larsson, later Swedish Consul in Jerusalem, ran the photo service in its most prominent years and was the department’s principal photographer. Larsson produced images of the 1915 locust plague and of World War I Palestine that remain iconic today. In the waning period of the photo department, feuds between Swedish and American colonists over financial leadership of the colony reached a crescendo. Larsson and his wife Edith left the colony. The younger G. Eric Matson, who had apprenticed under Larsson, took the helm. Matson marketed hundreds of former images originally produced by the photo service under Larsson, and took on new assignments, pioneering in aerial photography and other new approaches to photography. Matson traveled extensively in the 1930s with John D. Whiting, and he and other American Colony photographers collaborated with Whiting in a series of illustrated articles written by Whiting for National Geographic.

A camel          Group portrait
descriptive record icon enlarge image icon Red Crescent Hospital at Hafir Aujah, 1916. Image from World War I in Palestine and the Sinai photograph album (page 12, no. 42). Visual Materials of the John D. Whiting Papers, Prints & Photographs Division. LC-DIG-ppmsca-13709-00043
descriptive record icon enlarge image icon Matson family, Jerusalem (G. Eric Matson, standing, back row). Image from members and activities of the American Colony (Jerusalem) photograph album (page 73, no. 301). Visual Materials of the John D. Whiting Papers, Prints & Photographs Division, LOC, LC-DIG-ppmsca-15830-00311

In the first decades of the 1900s, American Colony members helped administer sewing schools and economic co-operatives with Palestinian women who worked in lace-making, handicrafts, and the needle arts. Multi-lingual young men from the American Colony, including photographers with the Photo Department, offered their expertise as tour guides to visiting archeologists and geographers, biblical scholars and parties of religious pilgrims eager for memorable treks of the Holy Land. An increasing number of travelers found room and/or board available to them at the Colony during their time in Jerusalem. They enjoyed garden receptions, listened to music played by the American Colony band, and joined in communal prayer services that were famed for their inspired choral singing.

As World War I brought dramatic changes to the city, the colony expanded its charitable outreach. Colonists addressed the serious problems of hunger and poverty by running a supper kitchen that provided hundreds of meals a day. They served as advocates to help meet the needs of women and children who remained behind when men were drafted into the ranks of war or to work as laborers. The second-generation members of the Colony formed a volunteer nursing corps, the American Colony Nurses. They helped staff Jerusalem hospitals and worked with Turkish-Red Crescent and British-Red Cross medical personnel alike.

A baby sitting in a low-sided tub          A woman holding a loaf of bread as a nurse looks on.
descriptive record icon enlarge image icon Baby at the Anna Spafford Baby Home, Old City, Jerusalem. G. Eric & Edith Matson Collection, Prints & Photographs Division. LC-DIG-matpc-13965
descriptive record icon enlarge image icon The raising of the siege of Jerusalem (bread distribution by nurses of the Anna Spafford Baby Home). G. Eric & Edith Matson Collection, Prints & Photographs Division, LOC, LC-DIG-matpc-18871

In the aftermath of the war, American Colony leaders founded a baby nursing home for orphans and young children, primarily girls, whose families were suffering trauma or want as a result of the war. They named it in honor of Anna Spafford. This facility in the old house near Herod’s Gate evolved over time into the Spafford Children’s Hospital, and finally into the Spafford Children’s Center, a pediatric clinic and social service center with programs that serve youth in the Old City and West Bank.     

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