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Postcards from the River’s Edge: Doug Smith Explores Davenport’s Past Through Photos PDF Print E-mail
News/Features - Literature
Written by Mike Schulz   
Wednesday, 09 January 2008 02:19

Doug Smith ephemera Authors who'd kill for a publisher to even consider their works probably hate Doug Smith.

The Davenport native, a bio-medical equipment technician at Genesis Medical Center, is also a noted collector of local photographs, papers, and artifacts, and has written a regular feature column - "Doug's Q-C Collectibles" - for the Quad-City Times since February 2007.

Yet finding a company willing to publish his first book, says Smith, wasn't a struggle: "They actually found me."

Arcadia Publishing - which, with more than 3,000 titles in print, stands as North America's largest publisher of regional history works - contacted Smith with an intriguing idea for book: a photo-heavy guide to Davenport's early history. But before you struggling writers start sending him hate mail, know that, as Smith himself admits, the deal did come with its share of caveats.

"The problem with the book, I guess - if you can call it a problem - is I was kind of handcuffed with a form that Arcadia Press has developed," he says. "Basically, they laid out a bunch of things for me such as: ‘Okay, you will have between 180 and 200 photographs, and you can have one on a page or two on a page, and if you have one on a page, then you have to limit your word count to so many words, and if you have two, then you have to limit it to a smaller word count.' So there was a lot that I wanted to say that I couldn't."

Consequently, says the author, "I couldn't really take the book too seriously as a written history of Davenport. It's basically a collection of - I hope - interesting and rare photographs."

Doug Smith ephemera That it is. The 128-page work in Arcadia's Postcard History Series, simply titled Davenport, features 181 beautifully preserved pictures and postcards of the city's people, houses, and businesses dating from the mid-1800s to the early 1900s; in the captions, Smith provides history and commentary.

And in addition to being an entertaining, and frequently illuminating, light read, it's a most impressive one, as all of the reproduced inclusions come from Smith's personal collection of Davenport memorabilia.

Even as a child, recalls the 49-year-old author, his future as a collector was hinted at. "When I started getting toys, probably at the age of four or five, my parents noticed that I always wanted to put 'em back in the boxes," says Smith. "I wanted to store 'em away - in perfect order, and stacked in my closet. I was really born with something different than the other kids, I think."

Yet Smith says that "I really discovered I was a collector right about the age of 10," when he began frequenting local flea markets. "I'd buy whole boxes of stuff for 50 cents," he says, "and in these big boxes there'd be postcards and old photographs and all kinds of things that people just had in their attics, that they just thought were junk. And that's when I got started in collecting local history."

Doug Smith ephemera Nearly four decades later, Smith's childhood passion hasn't waned. "I get about four or five items, on average, delivered to my door every day," he says, adding that at present, "I have about 100,000 phonograph records, and about 100,000 other items, and many of those are what's called ephemera - paper collectibles such as postcards and documents, bills from old companies that were in the Quad Cities back in the 1800s. And I like to collect signatures from the early settlers - people like Antoine LeClaire, and some of the other founders."

Smith is fortunate enough to also have others doing the collecting: "I buy things from eBay, and there's a lot of people that know I collect things, so they're out there looking for me, and they're all over the United States."

He continues: "It's neat to get things that originated in Davenport and now, you know, they've found their way to Texas or California or wherever, and they're making their round-trip back home."

Doug Smith ephemera The Davenport author's name was so familiar to fellow collectors nationwide that, by the spring of 2007, it had reached the publishers at Arcadia. "They were looking for somebody to do a book on Muscatine," he says, "and through that search they heard about me and my knowledge of Davenport and my collection, and so they contacted me to see if I would want to do a book on our town.

"And when they told me about it," adds Smith with a laugh, "Their next line was, ‘And you've got four months to start and complete it.'"

Despite the time constraints, though, Smith was excited by the project. "They [Arcadia] had already done a book on Davenport about eight or nine years ago," he says, "but they thought it was time that that could be updated ... and I thought I could come at it from a different angle, and maybe show some rarer items."

Smith accepted Arcadia's proposal - even with its word- and photo-limit restraints - and says that from that point on, "basically all I did in my spare time was try to sort through thousands of photographs and postcards and pull the things that I thought were the most interesting - the rarest things, and things that maybe weren't quite so rare but had to be in the book to make it better-rounded."

In addition to amassing photos, though, Smith also wanted to compose accompanying historical descriptions, which required exact knowledge about the years in which the photos were taken and the postcards printed.

Doug Smith ephemera "I think probably the best way to authenticate things is to go back to the original accounts in the newspapers at the time," Smith says. "Then there's less of a chance to get an erroneous story that was manufactured later from memory." And luckily for the author, his collection of Quad Cities ephemera included hundreds of period newspapers, and other written works that proved equally beneficial.

"One of the things I'm most proud of is my collection of original city directories," he says. "I have a pretty extensive collection, dating back to the very first one ever issued in the 1850s. I probably have, I dunno, maybe 75."

While his collection is enormous, Smith admits that it isn't exhaustive, and so additional library research was also called for. "Even though you have an idea of what you want to say and think you know the facts," says the author, "everything has to be kind of double-researched."

And Smith recalls that "the one thing that sticks out in my mind about everything else, in doing this book, is how much erroneous information is out there" concerning dates. "Hopefully I've cleared up some things, because you can go back into some of the history books that have been written on the area, and some of the misinformation has just been perpetuated from book to book to book."

Doug Smith ephemera He also admits that finding photographs and finding correct dates was frequently simpler than finding arresting things to write about them. "If you think about it," says Smith, "you have a bunch of photographs of scenes of businesses downtown or wherever, and so you pretty much say, ‘Okay, well, this business is here, and this business was there ... ,' and then it gets rather difficult after a while. What else can you say about a bunch of businesses?

"I tried to do my best at making it interesting," he adds. "I just hoped that my book would be able to, as I like to say, create images or reminiscences of our own pasts, based on the pictures that we see in the book."

And is Davenport's author happy with the results?

"I think so," says Smith. "For a first effort, and considering the hoops I had to jump through, I was pretty pleased with it."


Doug Smith's Davenport is available at area and online bookstores, or through Arcadia Publishing at (

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