This small volume (published in 1956) was a record of the look and feel of the City of Johannesburg in the 1950s. There are more than 60 marvellous black and white photographs of Johannesburg sights, scenes and people. Joburg was still dominated by mine activities in the fifties and the presence of the familiar fine sand mine dumps was a dominant feature on the horizon.
The book was produced by the talented couple, photographer Ezra Eliovson and his wife Sima, the horticulturalist and author of many standard texts on South African flora. It was meant to be a souvenir of the city.
The haunting photographs remind one how much has changed in Johannesburg in 60 years but much is still recognizable. Escom house was imploded and the Colosseum is no more but the Anglican Cathedral is still there. St John’s college and the Central Block of Wits still stand as solid educational edifices.
Escom House from above
The pace of life was slower in those days, and one of the pleasures of this souvenir of Johannesburg in the fifties are the scenes with people... the awe struck migrant workers arriving in town, the weekend mine dancers, the stock brokers on the trading floor of the Stock Exchange, 4 o’clock tea in a city department store with a mannequin moving between the tables. You had the choice of sports... rugby at Ellis Park, genteel bowls at the Wanderers and leisurely golf at the Parkview golf course and for the children elephant rides in the Joburg Zoo.
Interior of the Johannesburg Stock Exchange
The corner newspaper vendor, a uniformed white traffic cop directing cars outside the Rissik Street post office, the mealie vendors with their brazier on the street, the Indian flower seller outside the tram terminus near the City Hall, the audience watching the geisha girl in a performance of “the teahouse of the August Moon” at the Brian Brooke theatre. You might have heard a street musician playing a Chopi piano.
It was a time when the Johannesburg Public Library was the “hub of culture” and various societies held their monthly meetings in the lecture rooms (I learnt public speaking at the Arnold Smith Public speaking union meetings in the library. Buying curry ingredients at a Diagonal Street shop, perhaps enjoying a meal at the Little Swallow restaurant in Commissioner Street’s Chinatown, dropping by for a “kaffir beer” at the Mai-Mai market, the then new Queen Elizabeth bridge with hardly any traffic, the Newtown produce auction, the trams on Market Street, Ndebele women with a stall on a pavement selling beadwork to white uniformed nurses. It was a time when the modern blocks of flats of Hillbrow were admired as filling “one of the Empire’s most densely populated areas”.
The Johannesburg Public Library
What about some Saturday excitement backing your favourite to win at the Turfontein Race course. The crowds flocked to the Gallo stand at the Rand Easter Show, with long playing vinyl records decorating their exhibition. Modernity in the fifties was the new Johannesburg Station off the Rissik Street bridge, taking a wide bellied Pan American flight or boarding a South African Airways flight to London (and you refuelled on route).
In the fifties Ciro’s was the night club for the sophisticated set and if you went to an early or a late show on Commissioner Street you would find a hot-dog man with his pie cart. The Zoo Lake, the Wilds, the Zoo and Joubert Park were all places for white south African’s to relax. Black South Africans in the fifties led separate lives in other places such as jazz in Sophiatown or simply eeking out an existence on city streets.
You could catch a show in the theatre district on Commissioner Street
These are evocative enduring moments making this book worth acquiring for a Johannesburg collection. It is a social commentary of a different kind and for me brought back memories of my childhood in Johannesburg. It is a book that parallels Dennis Herson’s gem I remember King Kong (the Boxer).
2017 Price Guide: Out of print but you may find a copy at an erratic price online (from under R100 to well over R250)
Kathy Munro is an Honorary Associate Professor in the School of Architecture and Planning at the University of the Witwatersrand. She enjoyed a long career as an academic and in management at Wits University. She trained as an economic historian. She is an enthusiastic book person and has built her own somewhat eclectic book collection over 40 years. Her interests cover Africana, Johannesburg history, history, art history, travel, business and banking histories. She researches and writes on historical architecture and heritage matters. She is a member of the Board of the Johannesburg Heritage Foundation and is a docent at the Wits Arts Museum. She is currently working on a couple of projects on Johannesburg architects and is researching South African architects, war cemeteries and memorials. Kathy is a member of the online book community the Library thing and recommends this cataloging website and worldwide network as a book lover's haven.