Friday, April 19, 2013


In my genealogy research I often came upon the name of a noted Evanston photographer named J.D. Toloff.  Since he keeps popping up I thought it might me interesting to see what I could find out about the man who recorded so much personal history from my home town.

Joseph David Toloff was born April 24, 1888 in Grodno, Lithuania. Grodno was one of those cities that, although it stayed in the same place, the country it belonged to kept changing.  Sometimes it was in Poland, sometimes in Russia; today Grodno is a major city in Belarus. When J.D. Toloff was born, approx. 1/2 of the 50,000 population of Grodno were Jewish, as was Toloff.

The family name was originally "TOŁOCZKO" but there is no Ł in Latin/French/English so Toloczko. As a Russian citizen his family name in Russian must have been "ТОЛОЧКО".

In 1908 when Joseph was nineteen he emigrated to the United States. The 1910 Census shows him in Philadelphia having already taken up his craft of photography.  He said his occupation was photographer in a "Picture Parlor".  His native tongue was Yiddish, but he was also fluent in English.  He was living as a boarder at 410 South Ninth Street, in Philadelphia.  He said years later that his big break came when he began working for "Mr. Goldensky of Philadelphia who is without question one of the most able and versatile  photographers in America."

J.D. Toloff came to Evanston, Illinois in 1913.  Some of his early work there stirred up controversy as evidenced by this article from Abel's Photographic Weekly from October 31, 1914:

Apparently Toloff believed that there was no such thing as bad publicity.

By the time Toloff registered for the Draft on June 5, 1917 he was both living and working in Evanston. He was living at 616 Hinman Avenue

616 Hinman Avenue, Evanston, Illinois

and his studio was at 1623 Orrington (where the State National Bank Plaza is today). 

He mentioned on his registration form that he was the sole support of both his mother and his father, but war was war, and that did not keep him out of the Service.  From the Chicago Daily Tribune of May 22, 1918:

Evanston Photographer to be Enrolled in Naval Reserves.

Joseph D. Toloff, Evanston's best known photographer, has answered the call to the colors.  He has enlisted in the United States naval reserves and will be enrolled tomorrow morning.  It is rumored he will be chief instructor of a school of serial photography to be established at the Great Lakes Naval Training Station.  In addition he will conduct four government studios at the different camps where sailors may have their pictures taken at cost.

There was sad news for the Toloff family in the Chicago Daily Tribune of April 26, 1919:


Joseph D. Toloff, Evanston and Chicago photographer, learned yesterday that his father, David, died two years ago in Russia.

But there was happy news as well:

Evanston Photographer to Wed Her in Love At First Sight Romance

A pair of blue eyes and a demure smile have made Joseph D. Toloff, Evanston photographer de luxe for the North Shore, the principal in a romance.

Toloff met Miss Helen Weingarten on Decoration day at Oelwein, Ia., while attending the wedding of Miss Ruth Weil, a former Northwestern co-ed.  Miss Weingarten was the maid of honor.  Now she is to be the bride.

She is the daughter of Max Weingarten of Champaign, Ill., and a graduate of the University of Illinois.  Announcement of the engagement was made at Evanston yesterday.  Lester Toloff, brother of the photographer, said Joseph had fallen in love at first sight. - Chicago Daily Tribune - June 22, 1919

Here's the rest of the story from the Bulletin of Photography magazine of February 4, 1920:

Miss Helen Weingarten and Joseph D. Toloff were married on January 27th at the Hotel La Salle, Chicago, Illinois.  After the ceremony they left for a trip to Atlantic City and New York.

Hotel La Salle, Chicago

The Toloff family was featured in the Chicago Daily Tribune of December 14, 1919 with the following story:

Years of Separation in War Fade as Sisters Meet Again
Sisters Parted by Years of War Reunited Here
One Comes from Poland to Make Home in Evanston

The sisters, separated by war, were tearfuilly happy in their reunion at the La Salle street station last evening. Esther of Bialystok, Poland, and Helen of Evanston, held each other in a fond embrace while the brother, Joseph D. Toloff, a photographer in the Fine Arts building, beamed upon them.

"O, dear, I'm so relieved that you're here, " said Helen in English.  "We were so worried about the bolsheviki.  Wasn't it terrible?"

"I was so afraid you didn't get my telegram and wouldn't meet the train," murmured Esther in Polish.  "Are the bolsheviki very bad in Chicago?"

Finds Fears Unfounded.

Then it developed their fears were unfounded, for neither sister had seen a Red or the manifestation of one, to the best of her knowledge.

Bialystok?  Yes, it was in a bad way.  For one thing, there was hardly any sugar and coal was so oscarce many of the industries were closed down, said Esther.  Why, the stores shut at dusk and the street lights were turned off.  And the cost of living was out of sight.

Helen stood aghast.  But the Germans?  Yes, Esther told her, the city had been occupied by the Germans for three and a half years, and it wasn't very nice.  But every inhabitant had a job and could make a living.  The worst hardships, she said, came with the invasion of the Polish army.

Says Poles Looted.

"The Polish troops started to loot houses," she declared, "and the arrival of the American Red Cross commission was all that stopped them.  There is more suffering under the Polish occupation, because the system is poor.  A pair of shoes cost 450 marks; a woman's coat, 2,000 marks, and all other wearing apparel is almost prohibitive in price."

Miss Toloff left Warsaw Nov. 22.  The war made a linguist of the young woman, who now speaks Russian, German, and Polish and hopes to learn English quickly.

The loss of her parents, who died during the war, made the period doubly trying.  Miss Toloff will reside with her sister, Mrs. E.L. Ray, at 616 Hinman avenue, Evanston.

The 1920 Census shows all of the family living at 616 Hinman. 

But dealing with the public does have its drawbacks.  The Bulletin of Photography magazine issue of April 20, 1921 carried the following story:


Suit for $100,000 damages against Joseph D. Toloff, a prominent photographer of Evanston, Ill., was brought in the Circuit Court on April 11th, by H. Clay Beckwith, of Ravenna, Ohio, formerly of Evanston, as a result of the printing of a spurious photograph in the Chicago Tribune, Sunday April 3rd.

The case is in the nature of a libel and arises out of the action of Mr. Toloff, in giving to the Chicago Tribune a picture of H. Clay Beckwith as that of Prof. Holmes Beckwith, who killed Dr. Dean Wharton of Syracuse, New York, on April 2, and then committed suicide.  The picture of H. Clay Beckwith was printed in the Tribune under the caption "Slayer-Suicide", and in connection of a long account of the tragedy and the summary of the life of Dr. Holmes Beckwith.  This stated, among other things, that Dr. Holmes Beckwith was at one time a professor at Northwestern University at Evanston.  

The error was called to the attention of the Tribune by a friend of H. Clay Beckwith, and brief correction was made in the "Beg Your Pardon" column of the Tribune of April 4th.

The plaintiff claims the action of Mr. Toloff was either malicious or inexcusably negligent, and that by reason of the publicity has caused the plaintiff great notoriety and injury.

H. Clay Beckwith is a prominent citizen of Ravenna, Ohio, and is well known in Evanston and Chicago.  For some years he has been General Manager, Secretary and Treasurer of the John F. Byers Machine Company.  He is in no way related to Dr. Holmes Beckwith.

I could not find any further mention of the lawsuit or its outcome - perhaps they decided to settle out of court.

By 1922 the newlyweds left Hinman Avenue and moved to 1346 W. Howard in Evanston, to a building that no longer exists.

J.D. Toloff photographed everyone from the famous to the ordinary. Here's his portrait of Evanston resident and Vice President Charles Gates Dawes:

He photographed the greats from the world of dance:  Here's Ruth St. Denis from 'The Peacock':

and Ted Shawn (Ruth St. Denis and Ted Shawn were the founders of the world-famous Denishawn Dancers):

He photographed the greats from the stage:  Here are two portraits of Wanda Carlyle from 'The Tavern' (1920):

He also did weddings.  Here are two photos from the wedding of Martha Elisabeth Pape and Charles Joseph Bleidt from May 11, 1921:

Photo courtesy Amanda Pape and Bill Parker

Photo courtesy Amanda Pape and Bill Parker

Toloff did portraits as well.  Here are two shots of Martha Elisabeth Pape circa 1916:

Photo courtesy Amanda Pape and Bill Parker

Photo courtesy Amanda Pape and Bill Parker

Here's a photograph that Toloff submitted to a photographic expedition in 1919 called "Girl With Black Hat":

As his reputation grew, Joseph Toloff was contacted by local schools to do their yearbook photography.  I have seen Toloff photos in the yearbooks from Roycemore School in Evanston, all the way up the North Shore to Barat College in Lake Forest, but Toloff did his most consistent work for the yearbook of Northwestern University in Evanston - "The Syllabus".  In fact, in 1922 Northwestern asked Toloff to stroll around the Evanston campus and photograph anything that he found interesting.  This resulted in a sixteen page section called "Some Campus Views".  It is with great pleasure that I present it to you here:

My favorite is the shot of the Evanston lighthouse.

Toloff always took out a full page ad in the yearbooks he worked on. Here is his ad from the 1924 Syllabus:

Ad from Northwestern University Syllabus - 1924

In 1925 Toloff decided to move his studio from Orrington Avenue in Evanston to 518 Davis Street:

Studio Light Magazine, the Eastman Kodak magazine for professional photographers from May, 1925 featured Toloff and his new studio:

In 1925 Toloff and his wife Helen moved their residence to the Sovereign Hotel in Chicago:

Ad from Northwestern University Syllabus - 1928

The Toloffs moved their residence again in 1931, this time to the Park Lane Hotel, 2842 N. Sheridan Road in Chicago:

And in 1935 the Toloffs relocated to the Hotel Pearson, Chicago

The high point in the career of Joseph Toloff came in the late 1930s when he was named a Fellow of the Royal Photographic Society of Great Britain.  From then on, he was able to list his credit as J.D. Toloff, F.R.P.S.  This is a high honor and only comes after either a direct submission, or as was likely in Toloff's case, the evaluation of his entire body of work.

In 1955, after being in business in Evanston for more than forty years, Joseph Toloff decided to retire.  His brother Lester had retired to Miami, Florida (although he died in 1952) so Joseph decided to move south and get away from the harsh Chicago winters, once and for all.  

Less than two years into his retirement, the Chicago Daily Tribune from March, 1957 carried the sad news of the death of Joseph Toloff:

Although Toloff's only living relative was still back in Evanston, he was buried in the military graveyard in Andersonville, Georgia.  Here is his interment record from the US government:

It is amazing that, after all these years, Helen Toloff Ray was still living at 616 Hinman in Evanston.  Here is a photo of Joseph Toloff's grave:

Photo courtesy Kevin Frye

It is also interesting that Joseph's sister Helen is listed as his next-of-kin.  What happened to his wife Helen?  I don't know.  After the 1940 census I can't find a trace of Helen Weingarten Toloff.

So, that's the story of noted Evanston photographer Joseph D. Toloff - a man who photographed history.  As I was working on this story I wondered what became of all of Toloff's negatives?  Can you imagine what a treasure trove that would be for a historian?  Toloff was the premier photographer of Evanston from 1913 to 1955.  Joseph and Helen had no children, so perhaps the negatives went to other relatives or, as often happened, maybe they were just thrown out.  If anyone knows what became of Toloff's negatives I would be very interested in finding out.

Joseph David Toloff - a man who probably knew more about Evanston and Evanstonians than any other person of his era.  The Evanston photographer de luxe for the North Shore - may he rest in peace.  

Special thanks to Amanda Pape and Bill Parker for allowing me to use the Toloff photos of their family for this article.  Amanda has a fascinating blog about her family that is a must-read for anyone interested in Evanston history.  You can find it at:

Thanks also to fellow Find-a-Grave photographer and graver Kevin Frye for the photo of Joseph Toloff's grave.

All other photos are from the author's collection.

NOTE:  There is alot more material available about the life and work of J.D. Toloff.  The hardest part of writing this article was to decide what to include and what to leave out.  Because Toloff and his work are so interesting, I have started another blog "Toloff Photography Evanston" that will deal with his life and work.  I will post one item each week, either from Toloff's works or about Toloff himself.  Please join me at:

Thanks to Feliks Woroszylski for his help with the original family name.


  1. Jim, fantastic article! Please put a "Follow" widget on your new blog on Toloff as I want to follow that too! Thanks also for the shout-out for my blog. To make things easier for folks (since I write about family in places other than Evanston), I've tagged all my posts pertaining to Evanston and Chicago's North Side with the label "Cook County," and they (and future posts) can be found here:

  2. Jim, great story about J.D.Toloff! Still I have some questions:
    1. Was David his second name or rather a patronymic (The patronymic (otchestvo) part of a Russian person's name is derived from the father's first name and usually serves as a middle name for Russians.)?
    2. Was Toloff his name in Grodno or was it changed when arriving to America?
    3. Did he have experience in photography before coming to America or has he learned this profession first in USA?
    Please do contact me via my website:
    (I try to collect everything connected to city of Grodno. On my site are postcards and photos.)
    or direct:
    Best regards and thanks for all these informations - Feliks