A Look Back

The 1940s and ’50s were a simple yet eventful period in the First State, as reflected by these photographs from the collections of Delaware Public Archives and the Delaware Historical Society. Join us for a nostalgic trip back.

Photograph Courtesy of Delaware Public ArchivesThis shot of Newark’s Main Street was taken on August 9, 1950. Unlike today, when the street’s two lanes carry travelers westward only, vehicles could travel in both directions. Of course, parking meters are still abundant along the busy stretch, but the landmark State Theater pictured at right was razed in 1989 and replaced by a restaurant and retail complex called the Galleria that features a Grotto Pizza. The State, which opened in 1929, was listed on the National Register of Historic Places before its demise. There’s no doubt that many University of Delaware alumni recall attending raucous midnight screenings of “The Rocky Horror Picture Show” during the State’s later years.


Courtesy of Delaware Public ArchivesDespite standing 6 feet 6 inches tall, Governor Elbert Carvel, affectionately known as “Big Bert,” is dwarfed by the now-famous giant frying pan that made its debut at the 1950 Delmarva Chicken Festival at Dover High School. The pan, made by the Mumford Sheet Metal Company in Selbyville, measured 10 feet in diameter, had an 8-foot handle and weighed 650 pounds. The original pan was retired in 1988 after cooking more than 100 tons of chicken. The first chicken festival was held in 1949 to celebrate and publicize the region’s thriving broiler chicken industry. In this photo, festival queen Jane Mustard pretends to place a chef’s hat on Carvel’s head. Carvel, a native of Laurel, served as Delaware’s governor from 1950 till 1954 and 1960 till 1964. He died in 1995, just three days before his 95th birthday.

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Courtesy of Delaware Public ArchivesThe Return Day celebration in Georgetown remains a uniquely Delawarean event. According to Delaware Public Archives, the exact origin of Return Day is unknown. Some say it may have been established as early as 1792, after the county seat was moved from Lewes to what would become Georgetown, where all voting was done at the county courthouse. In 1811, voting districts were created and a Board of Canvassers was required to meet on the Thursday after a general election to determine the returns for Sussex County. Voters would “return” to hear the results. In this photo taken in the 1950s, Jim Walls serves platters of roast ox, a tradition. The event was by then well-established and continues to draw thousands to The Circle today, where politicians perform a ceremonial burial of the hatchet, opponents share horse-drawn carriage rides during a parade, and the Town Crier announces returns from the courthouse balcony. The free ox sandwiches are as popular as ever.

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Courtesy of Delaware Historical SocietyThis exterior shot of Wilmington Dry Goods was taken January 6, 1956. Harry Rogerson, author of “Wilmington: Picturing Change,” writes that Market Street was the hub of the city and the Dry Goods was the anchor store.
Rogerson, who worked there in 1960, recalls the aroma of roasting peanuts from nearby streets. He notes that the store would open early before special semiannual sales, but no one was allowed in until after the national anthem was played. Ellen Rendle, curator of images at the Delaware Historical Society, calls “The Dry” Wilmington’s all-time favorite shopping spot.
She says that though the building appeared shiny and new outside, it was cobbled together from many smaller buildings inside. The Dry Goods opened in 1929 and closed in the 1970s.


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Courtesy of Delaware Public ArchivesTilton “Pork Chop” Holt Jr. proudly displays his 3-foot trophy as he makes a triumphant return to Wilmington. Holt had just won the 1950 VFW National Marbles Championship at a three-day competition in Eaton Rapids, Michigan. An account of the tournament and five photos of Holt appeared in the June 26, 1950, issue of Life magazine. The article said the title match “ranked with the most exciting in marble history.” Holt, who won city and state titles to qualify for the national championship, was the only undefeated player entering the finals, where he beat Gordon Rowse from Utah, then was promptly picked up and carried by his fellow competitors. As champ, Holt won a motorbike, an electric clock and a three-day trip to New York City, where he was to appear on radio and TV. Described as an “unruffled 12-year-old,” Holt was photographed with his new motorbike, saying, “Fill it up with gas and I’ll drive it back home.”


Courtesy of Delaware Historical Society



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A man dressed in a space suit (no, it’s not the Michelin Man) promotes a new movie, “Destination Moon,” to be shown at the Arcadia Theater at 500 Market St. in Wilmington. At the time this photo was taken in late December 1953, the space race was a hot topic as the Cold War heated up between the United States and Russia.



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Courtesy of Delaware Public ArchivesDocumenting a scene that played out in cities across the United States, this photo taken on May 8, 1945 (V-E Day), captures celebratory streamers and confetti falling along Tenth and Market streets in Wilmington as folks celebrate the news that the Allies were victorious in Europe in World War II. The United Cigar store in the background was a popular gathering spot for attorneys who worked in the city, according to “Richards, Layton & Finger: An Illustrated History” by William Lanouette. The store, located on the first floor of the North American Building, had a soda fountain and 12 small tables, Lanouette writes. The North American Building served as offices for many solo practitioners during the late 1940s through the late 1960s.


Courtesy of Delaware Public ArchivesLike many small towns across the First State, Lewes held annual Fourth of July festivities. The Lewes Chamber of Commerce planned the 1950 celebration, which included closing Second Street—the hub of the town’s business district—at 10 a.m. Events included all kinds of races, climbing a greasy pole, a pie-eating contest, and a baby and bicycle parade. About 500 people took part in the celebration. Winners of the 1950 pie-eating contest were Ralph Hazel, Ronald Hazel and Billy Aiken, pictured above with their fruit-covered faces.


Courtesy of Delaware Public ArchivesThese two freshmen at the University of Delaware in 1951 experience freshman week in two very different ways. UD had become permanently coeducational in 1945 when the university’s Women’s College merged with the men’s. Despite the move, life on campus remained relatively conservative throughout the decade. According to “The University of Delaware: A History” by UD historian John A. Munroe, a dress code that had been approved by the Student Government Association “was strictly enforced, and in the 1950s and early 1960s when students on many campuses were adopting an informal attire that seemed scruffy to their elders, Delaware students still went to class attired ‘properly.’” Munroe continues, “No women, for instance, could enter the library in pants except in examination periods.” By the way, 1,722 students were enrolled at UD in 1951-52. Today, that number exceeds 21,000.

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