Monday, April 22, 2013

J.D. Toloff - a Biography

Joseph David Toloff was born April 24, 1888. Sometimes he said he was born in Bialystock, sometimes in Grodno. Borders meant little in those days; a town might be part of Russia, Poland, Lithuania, or some other country depending on the year.  Although the towns stayed in the same place, the countries they belonged to kept changing. When Toloff filled out a census form, his country of origin changed - sometimes it was Poland, sometimes it was Russia.  Today Grodno is a major city in Belarus, and Bialystock is in Poland. When J.D. Toloff was born, this area was heavily Jewish.  Approx. 1/2 of the 50,000 population of Grodno was Jewish; 63% of Bialystock's 66,000 population was Jewish.  On Toloff's immigration papers, he listed his nationality as "Hebrew."  

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

Joseph emigrated to the United States on December 19, 1908 when he was twenty-one years old.  He arrived at Ellis Island on the SS Scharnhorst, sailing from Bremen, Germany on December 5, 1908.  Here is his entry from the ship's manifest:

He is listed as "Josef Tolotschko."  He was 21 years old, was a photographer, and had been living in Bialystock "Russia".  His father's name was David Tolotschko. New York was his final destination.  He had paid for his own passage.  He had never been in the US before.  He was going to his cousin Itzel Levin's who lived at 12 Jefferson Street in New York. He swore that he was not a polygamist nor an anarchist, and that both his physical and mental health was good.  He could both read and write.  He was single.  He had $12.00 with him.  He had never been in prison or an almshouse.  He was not crippled or deformed.  He had a fair complexion, was 5 feet 7 inches tall with black hair and brown eyes.  His body had no identifying marks. 

The 1910 Census shows him as "Joseph Toloff" living in Philadelphia and working at 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 said that he had emigrated in 1900 and that he was a naturalized citizen (neither of which was true).  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. (Elias) 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.  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

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.  He enlisted in the United States naval reserves as chief instructor of a school of serial photography to be established at the Great Lakes Naval Training Station.  

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.

J.D. Toloff photographed everyone from the famous to the ordinary.  He photographed noted Evanston resident Vice President Charles Gates Dawes.  From the world of dance he photographed Ruth St. Denis 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 such as Wanda Carlyle.

He also did the usual commercial photography of weddings, portraits, etc. 

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

516-520 Davis Street, Evanston

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.

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.

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.  It is amazing that, after all these years, Toloff's sister, 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.  

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

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

All other photos are from the author's personal collection


  1. I really enjoy these posts. Where do you get the photos of Joseph Toloff from? Do you have an email address I can contact you at? I wanted to ask you some questions about Evanston history.

  2. I have a beautiful portrait he did of my grandmother and her musical trio!