The story of Arthur S. Mole and John Thomas is fascinating.
Dear Helaine and Joe:
I have this “Human Shield” photo. A relative of mine was stationed at Camp Custer and the photo was taken while he was there. I would like to know if there is any value or is this just a patriotic photo?
B.P., Vermontville, Mich.
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Dear B. P:
We almost could not answer this question because the picture was so poor. As we are writing this, we are hoping we can find a better image — but if we do not we apologize for the photo.
This is something that we do not see every day, and the story of Arthur S. Mole and John Thomas is fascinating. Mole was born in England in 1889 and initially earned his living as a commercial artist in England.
Sometime in the early 20th century, Mole started making “living photographs,” in which large groups of people bunched together to form some sort of symbol or image when viewed from the top of an 80-foot tower. He reportedly began doing this with church groups whom he would assemble in religious symbols such as a cross.
At some point, Mole came to the United States and was a commercial photographer in Zion, Ill. He started traveling to various military bases around the country, assembling large numbers of officers and enlisted men, and putting them into formations that when seen from above, resembled such things as the Statue of Liberty, Woodrow Wilson, the Marine Corps emblem, and yes, a stars and stripes shield.
Some of these formations took tens of thousands of men, who stood for hours in formations that could be 100 yards in length. There are stories of military personnel passing out from the heat — and from the time spent standing in the assigned spot.
Mole’s “Human Liberty Bell” required 25,000 men and depicted the bell’s famous crack and the word “Liberty” spelled out on the shoulder. It was done at Camp Dix, N.J., and like the other Mole and Thomas photos (Thomas was Mole’s associate), it showed a view of the camp at the top of the photograph.
The “Human U.S. Shield” in today’s question was made at Camp Custer in Battle Creek, Mich. in 1918, and required 30,000 officers and enlisted men to stand in formation while the image was captured. At the bottom left, there should be printed “The Human U.S. Shield,” below that “30,000 officers and men,” and below that “Camp Custer, Battle Creek, Mich.” The last line in that block should read Brig. Gen. Howard L. Lauback Commanding.
On the bottom right there should be a copyright symbol, with 1918 below that, and “Mole & Thomas” below that. We could not read the rest of the writing.
Originals of this piece should be gelatin silver photo prints that measure 12 13/16 by 10 3/8 inches. As for the value, five to six years ago, the best of these were selling for $1,200 to $1,400 at auction. Now, the price seems to be down considerably. We believe that when the market improves, the better examples of these fascinating photographs will return to their higher values, but only if the piece in question is of one of the more interesting subjects and in pristine condition.
(Helaine Fendelman and Joe Rosson are the authors of “Price It Yourself” (HarperResource, $19.95). Contact them at Treasures in Your Attic, PO Box 18350, Knoxville, TN 37928. Email them at email@example.com.)