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1939 Aerial Photography

The oldest statewide, historical aerial photography for Illinois was acquired during the period 1936 - 1941 as part of the U.S. Department of Agriculture's Agricultural Adjustment Administration program (AAA), which is now known as the U.S.D.A. Farm Services Agency (FSA).  This aerial photography was originally used for the assessment of the nation's agricultural lands and served as the basis for the first national soil surveys.

Lake County aerial photography was obtained in July and August of 1939, a few weeks before World War II began in Europe with the German invasion of Poland.  Although still very isolationist, and preoccupied with recovering from the great depression which began in 1933, there was sufficient concern with events in Europe that the Great Lakes Naval Training Station in North Chicago was blacked out of the photography.

The population of Lake County in 1940 was 121,094.  Other than established communities along the shore of Lake Michigan, most of the county was agricultural.  The 1939 photography captures an image of landuse and land cover prior to the rapid suburban growth which began in the late 1940's after the end of World War II. The population had risen to 179,097 by 1950, an amazing 47% increase in an 11 year period, marking Lake County's experience at the start of a long term trend in suburbanization which resulted in a population of 644,356 in the year 2000.

The 1939 aerial photography is not only the oldest countywide coverage, it took place at a pivotal time in history.  Aerial photography of this type was unknown or unavailable during much ot the 19th century, which marked the transition from presettlement times to the predominant agricultural landuse reflected in historical atlases of the late 19th and early 20th centuries.  The transition from farms and open spaces to suburban development in the 20th century has been an equally dramatic change, this time vividly documented through extensive aerial photography.

Despite the importance of this historic resource it was by no means certain that it would survive.  The original project resulted in 7 x 9 and 9 x 9 inch silver nitrate negatives, from which prints and enlargements could be made.  However, silver nitrate negatives proved to be unstable and even dangerous because they were extremely flammable, and they also deteriorated greatly over time.  All of the negatives were destroyed by the National Archives in the 1980's.  Prior to the destruction, the National Archives and the U.S. Navy attempted to make copies, but the copies were of very poor quality and were essentially useless.

This meant that only the paper prints remained.  In Illinois there were collections of these prints in several state agencies and libraries, including the Illinois Department of Natural Resources Office of Water Resources and the University of Illinois Map & Geography Library in Champaign/Urbana.  Several Lake County departments had copies locally.  Many of these collections were in open circulation, meaning that they were frequently handled; as a result, there was general deterioration, cases where people had written or drawn on them with pencil or pen and even marks caused by spilled coffee or other beverages.

As a result, eventually it would have been impossible to assemble a usable complete set of these photographic prints covering Lake County or any other county.  A priceless resource would have been lost forever.


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