It started as a pastime, something to keep Jim Lyons occupied in his retirement. Eventually, however, the Los Altos resident’s vintage photo posts on Nextdoor.com acquired a following, an informal fan club whose members eagerly awaited the next treasure shared online.
“You are drawn into the pictures because of the expressions on the people’s faces,” said Lisa Gefken, a Mountain View resident. “You can’t help but wonder, ‘What’s going on with these people?’ So much more so than photographs of people you see today.”
A passion for history
Lyons was born in 1938 at the Palo Alto Hospital. He graduated from Menlo-Atherton High in 1956 and worked as a printer for 12 years, followed by a stint in the U.S. Army and then at a Palo Alto bank. For 25 years, he sold historical newspapers full-time, issuing 40 or so catalogs. In 1989, he published a book, “Collecting American Newspapers,” a spiral-bound guide. He also started amassing antique photos, the images he now shares on Nextdoor.
“I wanted to do something with my time, and I thought that might be something that would entertain people,” Lyons said in a recent interview. “I started out by copying old articles, but I ran out of them – well, the best ones, put it that way.”
His Nextdoor contributions, a collection of more than 200 posts, include newly married brides, pickle-faced senior citizens and Civil War soldiers. There are tintypes and daguerreotypes, early photography formats. Lyons uses Photoshop to digitally color some of the images.
Invented stories and pithy captions often accompany the posts, and Lyons encourages his fans to contribute their own thoughts in the comment section of posts.
“I ran all the way, have they taken the picture yet?” Lyons wrote as an accompaniment to a July 7 post that depicts a blur of a man as he races to join the line-up of a portrait shot.
In the early days of photography, most cameras were limited to excruciatingly long exposure times, and the subjects of compositions needed to remain perfectly still to produce a crisp image.
One particularly poignant image is a portrait of four children. The eyes of one child, a boy, seem to be closed, as if he were sleeping. Lyons cast the boy as “Leslie, age 6,” and the boy next to him as “Cheslie,” Leslie’s twin.
“All I can say is that it doesn’t look good for poor Leslie,” Lyons wrote. “I wonder if that’s a black mourning tie he’s wearing with his otherwise matching outfit.”
Some fans took this to mean Leslie was dead and the photo served as a memento mori, or a reminder of death and of a loved one who has passed away. (Other memento mori relics from the 19th century include “mourning jewelry” featuring artistic swirls of human hair snipped from the heads of family members and friends after they died.)
On a lighter note, there’s a young woman with a distinct “come hither” look and, in another portrait, an exceptionally busty lady balancing two saucers and teacups on her ample bosom. Lyons posted her photo June 9.
“Lady with a grand sense of humor (look for it), 1870s,” Lyons wrote. “I can’t tell by the dress, but the hair and brown color are giveaway for dating.”
In addition to the Nextdoor posts, Lyons emails copies of his photos to friend Darla Secor, a historian for the Palo Alto Historical Association, where he volunteers.
Secor said she first met Lyons approximately four years ago in the association’s archives section.
“He knows a lot about preservation and repairing things,” Secor said. “So he would do a lot of things like that for us, like taping things, making sure that photographs were covered properly or put in sleeves properly.”
He’s also donated images related to Palo Alto history and has digitally scanned two sizable scrapbooks assembled by an amateur Palo Alto historian.
“Hands down – maybe I shouldn’t say this – he’s my favorite volunteer here,” Secor said. “He’s very enthused about history; he wants to share what he’s learned.”
In January, the association honored Lyons with its Steve Staiger Award, recognition for those who have made significant contributions to Palo Alto history. Due to the COVID-19 pandemic, he has yet to collect the award, but he participated in a virtual award ceremony.
“I was kind of hoping I would get it,” Lyons said. “I’m not above being vain in some degrees. I hoped I would get it, and I feel good about it.”
But Lyons’ favorite achievement, he said, is marrying his wife, Virginia. The two have been together for more than three decades.
Depending on one’s Nextdoor settings, it is possible for residents of Los Altos, Los Altos Hills and Mountain View to view Lyons’ photos. Search for his name, select his profile and view a list of posts he’s shared on the social network.
For more information on Lyons – including his tips for historical document and photo preservation – visit jimlyons.com.