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The Peak and Decline
THE GOLDEN AGE OF POST CARDS
An accumulation of factors led to an explosion in the popularity of postcards during these years. The American middle class had grown much larger in size, and the excess money it had to spend on nonessential goods was enough to support a large industry. Advertisements promoted and helped legitimize postcards as an alternative way to stay in touch with friends and family without the need of lengthy letter writing. Postcards however were now being purchased to collect, not just correspond. This is evident in the large number uncanceled cards of the period and the many other collecting manias that visited this time. Many families kept a postcard album in their parlor, where it became the centerpiece of social gatherings. The production of other types of paper collectables from older traditions ceased, replaced by this new desire. Postcard collecting clubs developed like the Jolly Jokers that had more than 2300 members, the Society for the Promulgation of Post Cards with 5,000 members, and the Post Card Union with and astounding 10,000 members. Those who couldn’t fathom the changing times referred to these clubs as cults.
Photography and printing technology had also advanced to a point that enabled high quality images to be produced in tremendous numbers and they were. Card dealers began to outnumber booksellers. Over 7 billion postcards were mailed worldwide in 1905, almost one billion in the United States alone; and this does not account for those that ended up in collections rather than the mailbox. Some have speculated that perhaps up to 50 percent of all postcards produced were collected.
Postcards were also providing a snapshot into the world and of its people in an age when the public had little access to pictures. In the 1890’s no more than 30 percent of all advertising contained illustrations. This absence of imagery was not so much a lack of appetite as an inability to obtain. The desire for imagery seems to be a natural human trait that cannot be completely explained by reason alone. Only the ability to produce and procure need be added to the mix. The new distribution systems available for postcards played a major roll in their growing popularity. Photographers representing printers would cross the country capturing views of many different places, both obscure and well known. They then made deals with proprietors to sell these local view cards through their local stores. German print houses set up offices in large American cities to help process orders. Anyone could send in a photograph to a printer for a mail-order postcard contract. Many postcard outlets such as pharmacies, stationers, and five & dimes suddenly became publishers. This allowed nearly every small town resident to find some cards representing their community, something that no longer holds true today.
As postcard sales shot up into the hundreds of millions certain trends among their purchasers became apparent. Of those that were mailed a good portion were sent from one collector to another not as correspondence but an exchange. When not done between friends it could take place between members of a postcard club that operated like a pen-pal service. In this way it was possible to acquire cards from faraway places without ever having to travel. The messages relayed on many other cards were often practical and strait forward that usually concerned travel arrangements. Some publishers took advantage of this audience on the move by providing interesting cards for them where they could just mark off boxes or fill in lines with a minimal of fuss. The vast majority of postcards however seem to carry messages about nothing of any particular importance. There will be complaints about the weather or the senders health, a brief comment on something seen, or even just a simple hello. From all this small talk that is barely worth the price of a penny stamp we can ascertain that the purpose of most mailed postcards was not to convey a message but to connect to another person. Postcards became a tool through which people could reenforce social and personal bonds as circumstances put more and more physical space between them.
Great Britain was the first Country to issue divided back postcards in 1902 followed by France and Germany. This quickly led to a sharp increase in card sales. To keep in step with Europe the United States released new postal regulations on March 1, 1907 that divided the back of postcards in half, the left side for a message, the right for postage and address. This date is often referred to as the birth of the modern postcard for it created the same format that we use today. On some of the earliest cards of this period the dividing line is left of center often accompanied by printed instructions of what could be written and where. The most obvious affect of this new measure is that it allowed an image to take up the entire front side of a card, though some publishers still maintained a small border tab for a few more years. Older cards also continued to be used, often seen with a hand drawn line dividing the back. The advantage to contemporary collectors is that most people of the period stopped writing messages across the card’s image.
Because halftone and gravure form images though the accumulation of many small markings, text printed with these techniques tend to look fuzzy. To solve this problem the text on most cards were printed in letterset during a second printing run after that of the image. As cards started assuming the form of full bleeds many began printing their titles exclusively on their backs where single colored solid tones were suitable. The greater available space on a card’s back side led to ever increasing amounts of narrative being added alongside the title. Although short narratives have found their way onto the backs of postcards since private mailing cards, this form became more common in the 1930’s and is still prevalent today.
Most early real photo postcards were made through contact printing because the gaslight papers they used were too slow for the enlarging process. Since contact printing did not utilize photo easels, commercially made masks were available in different forms to create a white writing tab or decorative border on the photo’s surface. Amateurs rarely would spend money for these commercial products and improvised their own. This method was not only cumbersome, it meant loosing part of the image, and few went through this trouble. After the divided back postcard was authorized in 1907 real photos became more popular for there was now a place to write a message other than on the photograph itself.
Ever since the advent of the exposition card, postcards have been sold in sets, but it would not be until the years following the private mailing card they would be widely produced as a marketing ploy. Not only were cards issued around themes such as state capitols, historic figures, or presidents, they depicted famous cities and tourist attractions on view-cards. They were often sold wrapped or in an envelope, or even sometimes in thin cardboard boxes so that the complete series could not be broken up until purchased. Few of these sets exceeded six to twelve cards though sets of over a hundred cards are known. Retailers were also creative and would often bundle postcards into their own sets to increase sales and move out those cards that sold poorly.
Many of the card sets produced for hotels and resorts attempted to capture the wide range of views that would be experienced by the guest to that establishment. This often meant that some mundane images were included in a set just to balance out the subject matter. This also allowed cards that may not have normally had enough appeal to sell on their own to be sold anyway as part of a set. This all or nothing approach brought in more money for everyone from printer to distributor. Cards that may have once been admired due to a personal connection to a place when first purchased can now seem to be out of place curiosities when sold individually to the modern collector. With most early sets now broken up there is a vast array of individual generic looking driveways, entranceways, and lobbies that when seen out of context can make one wonder why they were ever made.
The beginning of the 20th century was also the start of an age of mass consumerism. Vacations and trips had become a marketed commodity. Railroads in particular made efforts to associate travel to the proper locations, that which they serviced, with becoming a better Citizen. Lacking the multilayered history of Europe, Americans had long connected their identity to this country’s vast landscape and its scenic wonders. With the frontier largely tamed the landscape was now easily approachable, where the tourist could act out nationalist fantasies in a safe controlled setting. The subjugated Native Americans could also be romanticized and cast as objects of tourist interest. Tourism was largely oriented away from the South so not to have to deal with uncomfortable realities around race when creating regional mythologies. Much of America depicted on view-cards were not ordinary slices of life, but carefully selected compositions designed to present the Country within a particular set of ideals, just as tourist destinations were chosen to reinforce national identity. Tourism as a whole creates an insulating bubble from which we can view other peoples and places without leaving the comfort of our own beliefs and habits. Postcards depict not so much how we live but how we define others and ourselves.
The wide open rural nature of our county combined with the absence of good roads made comfortable travel very difficult even in the more populated Northeast. Settlement outside of cities tended to concentrate along reliable rail lines or points that could be serviced by steamboat. It was the centralization of so many people at so few points that made the construction of huge hotels possible. Large hotels in the mountains or at the shore had been an important feature in the American landscape for much of the 19th century, often viewed as a necessary refuge from unhealthy city air. As our populace grew wealthier so did the number of these establishments that catered to them. Even the purchasing power of the new middle class now allowed them to partake in the type of travel once reserved only for the privileged. The grand hotel was a subject captured by countless postcards in these years. Many hotels became publishers and more importantly large distributors of postcards. The high number of visitors their presence attracted allowed nearby businesses to join in on the sale of postcards as well. Despite their large size many of these hotels quickly became antiquated with their small rooms, and luxury suites that often lacked plumbing. As vacationers became motorists a wider variety of destinations opened up to them that increasingly siphoning off attendance at the traditional grand hotels. Many were left bankrupt by World War One. Often built completely from wood and far from help many of these firetraps burnt down and were never rebuilt, especially during the harsher economic environment climate of the post war years.
An American Queen Anne Style was adopted for many of grand hotels in the 1880’s to avoid a provincial look. With the closing of the West at the turn of the century, the American wilderness took on a popular romanticism to an extent previously unseen and hiking, camping, and hunting passed from a way of life to become recreational activities. The new grand hotels captured this spirit in the Arts & Crafts style and by borrowing motifs from Spanish missions to the Swiss chalet. This represented a growing confidence in an American identity while at the same time being part of an effort to define that very identity. The images chosen for postcards also centered on this new romanticism for purposes of commercial self promotion but they to greatly helped define America in the public’s eye. While this Country’s Spanish and Native American heritage was incorporated into the Nation’s identity far beyond hotel design and the postcards they sold, members of those the communities remained unwanted and largely hidden except when needed to demonstrate the existence of local color. These hotels allowed visitors to travel far from home without leaving behind the luxuries of city living; likewise this environment could provide for a rich exotic experience but with insurance against having to actually mingle with members of another class or race. Residing at a grand hotel was not just for relaxation or health concerns; it provided a way of confirming one’s social status by being seen at the right place with only the right people.
The first bungalow in the United States was designed by William Gibbons and built at Monument Beach on Cape Cod in 1879. While larger than what became the typical Craftsman Style bungalow with a low profile and central living space, it was still symbolic of the country getaway. The original bungalows or bengla were the traditional homes of the Bengal Province of India often used as summer retreats by British officials. The style brought back to the West became popular in America just as the postcard craze began to boom. Generally inexpensive, they provided many with a second home outside of an urban environment and were predominantly found near the shore. Their wide verandas with sheltering overhangs provided a comfortable outdoor space. This was an important feature to many in an age when Tuberculosis was rampant and fresh air thought a cure. As automobiles became more prevalent it freed those wishing to escape the city from dependence on resort hotels, and more and more bungalows began dotting the landscape. These homes and the surrounding environment they were built in became an important new focal point for postcards. Areas that were previously neglected in imagery were now being focused upon by publishers eager to attract the attention of summer people spreading out across the land.
During the 1890’s and soon after the turn of the century a number of businessmen entered into postcard publishing who would grow to become leaders in this field. The Albertype Company, Curt Teich, Detroit Publishing, Illustrated Post Card, Hugh C. Leighton, Edward H. Mitchell, and the Rotograph Company are but a handful that were in business during these years. Though they may have produced a variety of items the main output and focus of their enterprise was postcards and these publishers created the bulk of cards that found their way into the market. But as postcard collecting grew into a craze many others saw the possibilities of making a good profit. While this inspired many small speculators to become publishers for a quick buck, many large well established companies began to see the possibilities in producing postcards as well. This can best be seen amongst the firms that already had some connection to the printing industry such as fine art and book publishers; and the images on their cards were often borrowed from the pages of their books. Newspapers, with their access to images and printing facilities also began turning out postcards. Even paper manufacturers got into the business. Though many of these companies were much larger than those who produced cards alone, their total output of postcards was usually far less for it was only a sideline for them. As the economy began to falter many of these large publishing houses left the postcard business as fast as they entered it and went back to doing what they knew best. Countless others just in it for a quick profit disappeared entirely.
SAN FRANCISCO EARTHQUAKE 1906
One of this Nation’s greatest natural disasters was the earthquake that hit San Francisco on April 18th, 1906 and the subsequent four days of fire that leveled half the city. News of the event spread far and wide and the world became hungry for pictures. Many photographers rushed to San Francisco supplementing those who already had studios nearby. The fire, rubble, refugees, and cleanup were all carefully captured in the ensuing hours, days, and weeks. Postcard publishers were the primary disseminator of news images at this time as newspapers carried few if any pictures. Though San Francisco had a number of important card publishers, there facilities were damaged in the quake and it took some time for them to begin printing again. This hardly mattered as the public’s desire for imagery did not quickly fade. Other publishers from around the Country who had never produce a single view of California were now publishing cards of this City in ruins. Many postcards depicting this disaster were poorly printed; no doubt due to the rush to provide images in an environment that now lacked quality printing houses. The City was largely rebuilt within ten years but fewer cards depicted its reconstruction as San Francisco was still too closely intwined with the earthquake in the public psyche.
THE PANIC OF 1907
The production of postcards was not just greatly expanding due to ever increasing public demand for them, the publishing business was riding a general economic boom that extended across all sectors of the economy since the end of the Spanish American War. The optimism and greed of this time translated into the growth and formation of a vast amount of new companies, often propped up by unwise extensions of easy credit. At the time of the quake the U.S. economy was growing at its fastest rate and postcard sales were booming. Observing the public’s seemingly insatiable demand for postcards many profiteers suddenly became publishers creating an economic bubble. In the short term the San Francisco earthquake of 1906 was a boon to publishers throughout the country who created cards depicting the destruction but the disaster that hit this wealthy city also initiated a liquidity crunch that would eventually come back to hurt the publishing industry. In 1906 San Francisco was the center of Pacific trade and the heart of our Western economy. The loss of this wealthy city along with its important mint triggered an immediate sell off on the New York and London stock markets, which dropped about 12 percent in value. Insurance companies that could made record pay outs, others simply ran out of money. International relief funds and gold reserves would begin heading west just as extra credit was needed to help bring in a bumper harvest. The spiraling shortage of credit was quickly increasing public anxiety.
By October of 1907 fear had grown into a panic and there would be runs on the banks in New York. A month later the market crashed devaluating stocks by another 37 percent. Banks would fail, municipal bonds would go unsold, and a scarcity of money prevented economic expansion and increased unemployment. While this recession only lasted for about fifteen months the postcard bubble had burst and it stopped many new publishers from entering the postcard business as speculators and others began to disappear entirely. Postcards would still be continue to be produced in great numbers but cracks could be seen in the market for them and in a publishing industry still running on borrowed money. Few lessons were learned by the panic’s survivors who thought that the profits from postcard sales would continue to grow forever.
THE GREAT WHITE FLEET
Sixteen newly built battleships of the U.S. Navy’s Atlantic Fleet left Virginia in 1907 on a 43,000 mile, two year voyage around the world by order of President Theodore Roosevelt. They were to make a demonstration of American might in an age of conflicting territorial ambitions. The existence of navies had grown in importance with the expanding imperialism of European nations. With the defeat of the antiquated Spanish Fleet in Manila Bay at the hands of the Americans in 1898, and the destruction of the Russian Fleet by the newer Japanese Navy in 1905, the need for modernization became imperative to all. These wars and the sudden race to construct larger and better armed ships inspired great public interest in warships, and nearly every craft afloat from every nation found its way onto a postcard. As the Great White Fleet made its voyage around the world many postcards were published not only of its ships but their ports of call both in this country and by the nations it visited. Like many other postcards they expanded the public’s interest in international affairs. Navel subjects had already been a growing genre for postcard publishers for it was attracting many men into card collecting, a hobby that had been previously dominated by women.
Ships have been carrying United States mail since 1845, and even mail arriving from overseas was transferred to small mail boats when ocean liners stopped for inspection at quarantine stations in the years between 1897 and 1937. One on land all this mail was then carted off to a post office for processing. An act of Congress of May 27th, 1908 provided an exception to this procedure when it authorized the U.S. Navy to establish post offices aboard their vessels so seamen would always have a reliable method of sending mail home. One month latter the battleship U.S.S. Illinois joined the Great White Fleet with the first navel post office aboard capable of canceling letters and postcards. These cancels carry the name of the United States Ship they originated from within them. The ability of seamen to have access to a post office not only expanded the use of postcards but increased the demand for naval subjects. Most postcards with ship cancels are dated between 1908 and 1914.
As Europeans colonized the world, the many businessmen, soldiers, and civil servants that found themselves in foreign lands have always sought to communicate the unfamiliar sights they encountered with their families back home. Picture postcards not only fulfilled this demand, it provided imagery for a public at large that was starved for information on the distant world. Because the postcards produced in many non-Western Countries were not marketed for the local population, who were usually too poor to purchase them, the images chosen for these cards were done so in manipulative ways. The practice of portraying a foreign land as exotic was nothing new; it was common practice among artists for ages, for the more novel a place is found to be, the more interest it will draw. Since scenery often proved to be too familiar in its general characteristics, the more common subject for the exotic postcard were depictions of the local inhabitants shown in native dress, or undress. On European cards these people are often referred to as Types.
While the United States had produced similar cards of its own Native Peoples, its interest in the exotic grew as it began to seize new possessions overseas. Many publishers began adding images of American colonies to their inventory even if they never carried cards beyond local views of their own town before. The term exotic can be applied to any place, culture, or people different from oneself, rendering its definition fairly relative. Ironically while most cards depicting Types were made in Europe, Europeans in their traditional dress were being purchased by American tourists for their exotic flavor. While that which is different will often stimulate a natural curiosity, presenting it in exotic terms is one way of creating a safe mastery over it. It allows other cultures to be only partially engaged at a safe distance without seriously facing realities that may force a questioning of one’s own beliefs or superior status. The exotic is meant strictly for the observer for they are more about reinforcing the viewers’ superiority than displaying foreign lands. People that are presented as exotic never see themselves in those terms.
Even though locals dressed in native costume may be viewed in exotic terms by those outside of that culture it does not necessarily follow that all such cards were created for that purpose. Postcards grew up in an age of Empire beset by many different ethnic groups struggling for their own national identity. Postcards of people in their tradition dress were often printed as a display of pride amidst these newly found nationalistic urges or even as a symbol of defiance against a real or perceived foreign authority when open rebellion was not possible.
While voyeurism is often associated with pathology, there is an argument to be made that all our interests into the lives of strangers, whether it is through the form of books, movies, or even postcards is a type of voyeurism. Some of this behavior in fact may be an inescapable part of our evolutionary heritage. From the stand point of our visually saturated society, it is difficult to comprehend the appeal the sudden influx of postcard imagery had a hundred years ago. For many it was their first contact with a world outside of their own isolated community. In many ways the images we seek out, or those that are provided for us, are not snippets of reality, but a means of creating standardized precepts that can provide a safe barrier between the viewer and the subject. Postcards are attractive because they provide the necessary distance for the observer to feel safe from the object of desire. This can often be seen in ethnic postcards that give no true insight into people’s lives, but present them in a manner that is comfortable to our eyes. By limiting viewpoints and reducing them to objects of interest, ethnic peoples become as two dimensional as the cards they are printed on. Many postcards of East coast Native Americans show them wearing the headdress of Plains Indians because that’s what they where expected to look like. Those from other cultures could also be used to provide a socially acceptable outlet for erotic fantasies as they could be publicly presented in ways that no proper Westerner could ever be.
Beaches of the late 19th century were usually sexually segregated even though there was little flesh to see. Woman’s beach attire, complete with bathing shoes, differed little from street cloths where no more than face and sometimes hands in the absence of gloves could be shown. Few women dared stray from the secure grip of bathing lines extending out into the water in fear of drowning while being weighted down in layers of heavy wet fabric. It wasn’t until the 1890’s that the women’s bathing dress started to show some forearm. While the trend toward covering less and less flesh continued, its progress was much slower than implied by the postcards of the age. Seaside postcards often deal with the sexual nature of voyeurism much more overtly as many were designed to be risqué. Swimsuit styles, often based on costumes of the burlesque theater rather than anything found at the shore tended to be twenty years ahead of what was considered socially acceptable. While this trend continued to narrow fashion would not catch up to postcard images for decades.
Many small town newspapers could not afford to print illustrations even after the new halftone process was introduced. Local photographers often filled in this gap by capturing local events on film and quickly producing real photo postcards that might be sold soon afterwards if not the same day while interest was fresh. Real photo postcards ended up capturing many of the non-picturesque social concerns of the day, along with dramatic events such as fires, floods, shipwrecks, and lynching. These photos however have an appeal well beyond documentation, as there is also a strong voyeuristic connection to violence. The tragedy of others demands our gaze. As more newspapers and magazines took on the responsibility of printing this type of imagery, postcards began to confine themselves to more tourist oriented subjects.
POST CARD RACK 1908
As the public’s desire for postcards grew, it was not only the printing trades that expanded along with it but whole new category of businesses that supported their collecting habits. Decorative metal storage boxes, and finely decorated albums of all kinds flooded into the market. Many clever devices were also made for the display of postcards. The most enduring of all of them has been the revolving metal card rack, invented by E. I. Dail in 1908. It allowed for self-service of merchandise while taking up less space than conventional wall racks. Dail managed to sell 5,000 racks in the first nine months of production. A rival to the rack was introduced from Europe in 1911 in the form of a card vending machine. While these machines and all of the other newer innovations have come to pass, it is the simple basic low tech design of the postcard rack that has endured over time.
In ever increasing attempts to sell more postcards, methods of adding metallic fragments or mica to its surface were introduced to catch the buyer’s eye. In this process metallic powder is dusted over glue printed onto a cards surface after the image has dried. Silver was traditionally used, but as it grew too expensive cheaper substitutes were found in a variety of colors and textures. Unlike the fine powders used in bronzing that lied flat on the card’s surface, this method produced raised and rough sparkling lines. Publishers would sometimes add tinseling to stocks of slow selling or monochrome cards in the hope of increasing sales. Kits with glue pens were eventually marketed to the public that allowed tinsel to be added to postcards at home. The Post Office Department considered these cards hazardous as clerks often cut themselves and began requiring that they be mailed in an envelope. It reached the point where twenty thousand tinseled cards a day were sent to the Dead Letter Office for want of a cover. Tinseling is still widely used on folded greeting cards.
To gain an edge on competition, publishers often designed postcards outside of the expected norms. Their roots are in the printed paper novelties that were popular before the advent of postcards though many innovations also began with the advertising cards issued in the 1890’s. Some used flexography to print on unusual substances such as wood or leather; others were die cut into strange shapes or puzzles. Images of volcanoes were charred on the edges while other images were adorned with delicate embroideries of silk. Windows were colored with metallic paints while others were cutout and filled with transparencies. Many had moveable parts (mechanicals). Objects like coins, feathers, or real hair were pasted on, and some began to make sounds. Many of these cards were so delicate it was necessary to mail them in envelopes for protection. As postcard sales started to decline many more novelty cards were issued in more wildly elaborate forms in an attempt to attract attention and renew the public’s interest. Novelty cards still exist today but they are rarely as creative as those made at this time.
Postcards were usually printed in quantities of 500-8000 at a time. For large contracts the printer might hold cards in storage for the publisher, sending them out in lots bit by bit as requested but this was rare. Most printers only produced small quantities but some cards were always more popular than others requiring its reprinting a number of times. Whenever this was done new printing plates were created which could be a near match to far away in duplicating the characteristics of the original image; it was never the same twice. The most common differences to be found are in the sky and in coloration. The sky’s appearance on most cards was derived from an artist’s imagination by necessity. Between poor exposure latitude and the inability of most film to capture anything more than the blue spectrum of light, the sky in photographs was often very light to completely washed out forcing the retoucher to make one up. When an image was later remade there was usually nothing on the negative to refer to, so clouds were drawn in differently each time. Very often it’s the styles that the clouds are drawn in that create the greatest distinction between printers, since they are derived from the stylistic temperament of the company’s artists rather than static negatives. With rare exception the negatives or photos used to print color cards were also in black & white. While the customer would sometimes request specific colors, they were most often made up by a retoucher or his manager. Again these qualities were rarely ever duplicated and can vary wildly between reprinting.
There were many other factors that created variations in postcards as well. After postal regulations allowed for divided back cards, many early cards that had been printed with a writing tab were reissued as full frontal bleeds. Cars and people on older images were sometimes removed or changed to match more current fashions. The images typically taken from large format negatives needed to be cropped down to postcard size for contact printing and when reprinted the compositions were almost always cropped differently. Sometimes the negative was just taken to a different printer that used another technique in production. Because it was difficult to photograph in low light many night scenes on cards used the same negative as the midday version; they were only printed in darker colors with a moon added for effect. Of course some variations were printed on purpose for it was an easy way to give an old image a new look and perhaps even to find new customers. In later years, publishers reprinted old negatives to save money. Others printed variations in an attempt to disguise stolen images protected by copyright laws. This can all be confusing when attempting to date a postcard. The card’s printing date and the photograph it was produced from could have been created decades apart.
With millions of different images being produced it was inevitable that mistakes in their printing would be made. Colors printed out of registration with one another was probably the most common of all problems. This is usually a sign of poor workmanship and oversight because it appears more often in cheeper made cards of three colors than in twenty color cards of fine printing houses. The second most common error to be found is in spelling, which can be carried further to include grammar. While these errors could occur anywhere, having text in English largely set by German printers led to more confusion than usual. Sometimes foreign printers lost the entire concept behind a title and mangled their meaning. Whole titles were occasionally misprinted and they would be struck through with a heavy dark line and reprinted. Strikes were also used to change place names on cards. While this became necessary to get more life out of cards from places that changed their names, it was sometimes used to purposely reset the scene depicted on a card to a more sellable location. Errors were not limited only to text as imagery can be erroneously altered during retouching. Parts of objects or scenery were sometimes accidentally removed and not replaced while separating colors by hand. It was not uncommon for flaws or vague features in a negative to be misinterpreted by the retoucher into something wrongfully concrete. Low lying clouds were sometimes turned into a mountain range or distant islands on the horizon. It was a common practice to add cars and boats into scenes by transferring preprinted decals to the drawing surface. They were often not accurately fit into the spatial plain leaving them noticeably out of scale with the rest of the image. Postage stamps with these types of mistakes usually fetch high prices because strict quality control procedures make them rare. Privately printed postcards with errors on them were usually all thrown into the market as no one wanted to take a financial loss. Though cards with errors are collected as curiosities they are not very rare and do not tend to demand higher prices. Most often errors make these cards even less desirable.
It is difficult to determine when the first generic postcard was made but it is safe to say they have been around a long time. Probably the most common use of these cards has been in wartime. They allowed many sought after views of military camps, fortifications, and equipment to be illustrated without giving away any crucial information as to their location. When the local was specified on a card it was usually only to increase the sales at a given post that it did not really depict. Generics were also widely used at amusement areas and beaches where demand for cards were high and tell tale features were low. It was much less expensive to just print a caption over a card than to send a photographer out to capture an actual scene. Many Greetings From cards did not even attempt to hide their generic nature. It was not uncommon to find a depiction a Midwest prairie labeled with the name of a big city or a scene from the Rocky Mountains that was presented as an Atlantic beach resort. It is now impossible to tell if such cards were a foolish attempt to save some money or to make an actual joke. Many seem very amusing today. With other cards it is difficult to tell if they are generic or not. Wood lined roads with no discernible features are often labeled as the Lover’s Lane of a particular town, but there is never any way to truly know. The only thing for certain is that the images on all generic postcards are true to the one place they actually come from even if unknown.
As much as it may seem that every small town had a publisher who produced postcards, there were plenty of places that lacked the population or visitors to make card production profitable. This problem was solved with the introduction of stock cards. These cards would be produced in the same quantities of a normal press run, but they would contain no text beyond a greeting and their imagery would be so generic they could pass for anywhere. This allowed stores or even individuals to order cards of their hometown in numbers less than an expensive press run would require as long as small local printers had the capacity to print place names onto them with a hand press. Another type of stock card was the pennant card. These usually contained little or no imagery at all, just a general greeting. A place name would be printed onto a piece of felt, cut into the shape of a pennant, and then glued onto the card. This practice eventually took on various forms. Although blank stock cards were printed in number, the nature of the hand press makes it impossible to determine the quantity of finished cards printed for any one location.
PAYNE-ALDRICH ACT OF 1909
Many had thought postcards would just be a passing fad but with every passing year the demand just grew greater. As postcard sales approached nearly a billion a year many others came to believe it was only the beginning of continuing growth for the industry. To gain an edge over foreign competition American printers petitioned Congress for price protection and in 1909 when the Payne-Aldrich Tariff imposed taxes on many foreign items it included postcards. Stores and jobbers quickly began stocking up on as many cards as they could before the tariff took effect. This glut in supply wound up severely depressing the price of cards. In this climate the extra cost imposed by the tariff nearly eliminated the imports that supplied the bulk of our inventory. Only the best quality imported cards still found customers willing to pay a higher price. American printers, who boasted, we can make it here, soon found themselves unable to produce enough cards of the same quality to fill the gap of lost imports. At the same time alien contract laws prohibited German printers from bringing their skills to this Country. Instead of protecting their market printers had created a downward spiral as the public’s interest in postcards waned.
In 1912 the industry made attempts to stabilize price-cutting practices as postcards were dumped on the market at five cents a dozen, an all time low. They accomplished little as other factors continued to drive down demand forcing 25 percent of publishers out of business. The following year the French-fold greeting card was introduced which was an immediate success. Postcard racks were emptied to make room for this new hot seller. The Post Office Department added to publisher’s woes as they initiated a new crackdown on risqué images by allowing individual postmasters to confiscate cards they personally deemed unfit to be mailed.
Same day mail delivery had allowed quick messages to be sent via postcard, but the ever expanding use of the telephone was cutting down on its usefulness. Movie theaters were now open in most towns, siphoning off more collectors who found this animated media more entertaining. What was once the largest collecting craze to seize the world was nearing its end.
TRUTH FROM FICTION
There are many stories of famous Americans and important events that are so ingrained in our culture that we now take it for granted that they have always been held in reverence. Many parts of our nation’s history however are just pure fiction, some of which our ancestors would be astonished to hear. As tourism began in earnest there were many budding entrepreneurs who saw there was much money to made in this fast growing industry, and if they had nothing of true historical value to offer the public they simply made it up. The phrase, “George Washington slept here” was so widely employed it became a joke on historical falsehoods within its own time. Postcards were widely deployed in creating this fictional history of the United States and the millions of cards printed only helped create an identity that was based on myth. As these stories became generally accepted they found there way into textbooks and were taught in schools for decades as legitimate history. In some cases this was done knowingly for heroic myths better fostered the status quo than the controversies truth could bring.
The year 1911 marked the 75th anniversary of the start of the American Civil War and it was remembered in encampments, oratory and through the publication of numerous postcards. By this time however the telling of this conflict was colored by political agendas, personal rivalry and long standing vendettas, plus personal attitudes not just of the War but towards history itself. Monuments honoring individuals to the recruits of entire States had sprung up all over this Nation, but while some simply acknowledged their dedicated service the placement and wording of others were meant to skew history. Reputations that could not be made on the battlefield were now being made in granite and ink. Myths such as the High Water Mark of the Confederacy on the Gettysburg battlefield are still widely promoted to this day with few realizing that this concept was a political afterthought. The forces behind such myth making were more complicated than what can be attributed to simple tourism but postcards wound up supporting these myths in much the same way.
LYCHING LAW 1912
At the time postcards depicting lynching were made, many did not see them as depicting a heinous crime but as glorifying justice served. While this view is based on the tradition of Lynch Laws that allowed the administration of justice without resorting to the inefficiencies of the legal system, it most often functioned as the ritual murder of Blacks, especially by hanging, to maintain white supremacy through the use of terrorism. Between 1882 and 1968, newspapers alone reported on 4743 cases of lynching in the United States. A lynching was usually a festive community activity that attracted local photographers. They in turn would try to produce as many real photo postcards of the event as possible with attendees posing with the mutilated body so they could be sold as souvenirs while still fresh in people’s minds. Though some of these images eventually made their way on to printed cards the vast majority issued were as real photos.
Even though President Teddy Roosevelt began making public anti lynching statements in 1903 little could be done as the efforts of those denied political and social equity only went so far in the Jim Crow South. In 1912 they managed to get Congress to officially prohibited postcards depicting lynching from being mailed, though they refused to make the act itself a federal crime. There would not be a conviction for a lynching until 1946.
While postcards depicted the scenery of many spots throughout the world, there were other cards where no location was indicated. If they were titled at all it was usually in some poetic fashion. While most were artist drawn and signed they are not art reproductions for they were usually created by lesser known illustrators for the specific purpose of being placed on postcards. These cards are also not to be confused with generics for they were never meant to pose for actual places. They were designed to be attractive to the general public by incorporating pleasant colors and romanticized subjects. The formulas that guided their creation did not lead to great art but were a very successful for mass marketing. While their lack of specificity and artistic depth makes most of them less desirable today, they were the most popular postcards of their time. They were not sold as souvenirs but for quick notes and as greeting cards.
In 1913 the publishers of greetings introduced a new type of folding card that was printed on paper instead of card stock. They were French folded by machine to give them added substance and they were designed be mailed in an envelope that was sold along with them as a single item. This novelty quickly became a popular fad and postcards that were diminishing in the public eye were removed from store racks and replaced with these folded greetings. They tended to be artist drawn and carried the same type of anonymous sentimental subjects that had made similar postcard greetings so popular.
As folded greeting cards eventually grew more complex they took on the qualities of early novelty postcards being designed in die-cut shapes, with embossing, and added paper lace. Since they were to be mailed in envelopes they no longer had to comply with postal regulations that guided postcard use, and this freed them to appear in many different shapes and sizes. These new types of cards would soon replace the postcard when sent out as a greeting or holiday card. In later years as publishers looked for ways of saving money the french fold would be abandoned for the now common double folding card.