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This page contains both original essays and comments on postcards as well as articles formally published in Metro News, the bi-monthly bulletin of the Metropolitan Postcard Club while I served as editor. Many of these reprinted articles have been enhanced on this website by adding additional content.

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To keep the blog page a reasonable length the articles found within will be archived approximately every six months. To access this content click the links on the left side of this page.


WARNING: Some of the content to be found in this section, including the archives deals with topics of a violent or sexual nature in both pictures and text, and is meant for a mature audience. If you feel you may be offended by such content you should leave this page now.


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December 4, 2015

Forbidden but not Forgotten:
Les Grands-Goulets

By Alan Petrulis

Every society can be divided between those content with a predictable settled life and those with wandering feet. Some now believe that these traits are not arbitrary but come to us by way of our genetic disposition. About ten percent of us in fact seem to willingly throw aside the dangers of the unknown to seek new horizons. This has served our species well for it has allowed us to spread out our gene pool across the globe. While there was no need to create marked routes outside of settled areas, the continuous movement of people began creating an extensive network of paths and trails over the most convenient terrain. This was probably the first great imprint of mankind on the planet. It was only with the coming of the first cities with their surplus of good that these tracks began being expanded. These first roads not only enhanced the ability to trade, they became a tool of governance as armies could move quickly to impose order or to pillage.

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By the 19th century the world was largely interconnected though there were still many areas that were difficult to reach and even unknown. Road building had largely followed the dictates of commerce rather than convenience for it was an expensive and labor consuming endeavor. The land had to first be completely cleared of rocks and trees including their stumps, and then the roadway leveled. Most of this work was done by hand though some horse drawn tools were eventually developed. If the road were to run any good distance, then its course would have to be carefully plotted and surveyed. Grading became extremely important in road design after it was determined that a horse drawn conveyance could not climb a slope of more than five degrees, which translates into a rise of 462 feet per mile. This often meant that an elaborate series of switchbacks had to be constructed where terrain was steep. A drainage system and a hard covering were also needed to avoid erosion, but few had the means or knowledge to go this far and most roads were quickly rutted by cart wheels.

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Good roads bypassed many communities in favor of rail, canals and steamboats. While cities were interconnected by roads of a reasonable quality, rural areas usually contained an odd patchwork of byways that were only laid down in accordance with local needs. Most of these flowed like water, following the path of least resistance across the countryside. Many roads in fact were built alongside stream beds because they had already cut through obstacles and now provided a moderate grade. The most difficult terrain was often left to those willing to follow footpaths. Not all were content with the status quo for it was generally understood that there were profits to be made if goods could be more easily transported. It was just a matter of matching benefit with cost. As soon as the means of road building fell into line with the ability to generate profit, a new wave of construction began.

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The growth of road building in France is primarily attributable to one man, Pierre-Marie-Jerome Tresaguet, who put his engineering skills to work in increasing their functionality. He found that by providing an under layer of heavy stone beneath finer gravel, the weight of traffic was spread out more evenly leading to less wear on the roadbed. He also found that proper drainage insured that roads were not easily undermined by erosion. Once Tresaguet became inspector general for all French roads and bridges in 1775, his published papers on road building methods insured that standardized construction would continue for decades to come. His work inspired others to take on more ambitious projects, and roads began being constructed where no one ever dreamed of seeing one.

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In southeastern France the Alps pour over the border from Switzerland and descend into the rugged foothills of the Vercors Massif. The area is known for its dairying and forestry but getting goods to market was traditionally a difficult task. Although the Vernaison River connects St. Martin en Vercors to Pont-en-Royans, no road could be built along its banks due to the narrowness and steep cliffs of the gorge it ran through. Undeterred by this impediment, a winding footpath was worn atop the high ridges that eventually connected the two communities. This track known as the Way of the Allier saw a steady flow of pack mules, sheep and foot traffic over the centuries. The difficult terrain had long been a deterrent to making any improvements along this route, but local councils took up the idea of building a connecting road here in 1834 and ending Vercor’s isolation.

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Instead of improving the Way of the Allier, which remains a footpath to this day, it was decided to carve a road directly out from the limestone cliff face of the gorge below it. Actual work on the road did not begin until 1844 because the steepness of the gorge presented unique challenges. Workers known as firebrands would have to be lowered down the cliff face on ropes, blasting out sections by throwing dynamite into crevices. Proper timing was everything in these incredible acrobatic stunts for if the worker was unable to swing away he would not survive. After only cutting a mile’s length along the gorge the project was abandoned. Great ambitions had blinded speculators to the difficulty of this venture, which had cost many deaths and injuries in addition to funds. Most local residents thought the road builders crazy for even attempting such a project. A number of new firms would take up the task, all extending the road a little further, but all would eventually fail before completion.

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The municipality of Vercors eventually decided to take over the project and raised new funds to see it to its completion. While Les Grands-Goulets Road opened in the mid-1850’s, work continued until 1866 when the Rousset Tunnel at Pont-en-Royans was finally completed. Although this road can be considered a feat of engineering it still had a number of drawbacks. Its major problem is that it is a two way road but the roadbed is only wide enough for one vehicle for most of its length. A few wide areas were constructed for passing where possible, but should two meet in an inopportune spot, a great deal of backing up was necessary. There was also very little to nothing separating the traveler on hairpin curves from a drop of a few hundred feet to the rocky valley floor below. A low wall was eventually added to the side of the road, but this was primarily meant to secure its shoulder from erosion. This track gained the reputation of being the most dangerous road in the world.

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By the end of the 19th century Les Grands-Goulets Road had not only improved the flow of commerce, the communities along it found that it posed new possibilities in generating revenue. The very features that made this winding thoroughfare dangerous to traverse also made it attractive to tourists. The Romantic Movement had created an appetite for unique natural features, which were then added to the itineraries of those that traditionally flocked to locations of historical importance. Les Grands-Goulets Road not only passed through an area of overwhelming beauty, it was now romanticized as one of the finest balcony roads of France. Since part of the attraction was the road itself, it was much more assessable to the public than many other natural destinations. All this took place at a time when tourism began to see substantial growth, and this area received a great deal of notice.

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To accommodate the great influx of visitors, old barracks that once housed construction workers were rehabilitated into hotels. This added convenience attracted even more visitors including a number of celebrated names. While it is difficult to determine the number of visitors that came here, the vast amount of postcards that feature this road is testament to the areas great popularity. The first cards to appear were hand drawn chromolithographs in the 1890’s. Many small local publishers such as those in Aubenas, Lyon, and Valence captured views along this road; as well as better known publishers like Lucien Levy and the Neurdein brothers. Most of these latter cards were produced as typical black & white collotypes.

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While World War One only interrupted tourism, the Second War brought fighting to the region. The rugged terrain laced with caves became a popular hideout for French partisans (Forces Françaises d’Intérieur), and they were called upon to aid the D-Day landings in June 1944 by tying down German troops. Up until this point they had only harassed enemy supply routes and lines of communications, but after being supplied by Allied airdrops they directly attacked the German occupiers. The German Army retaliated the following month, opening their largest anti-insurgency operation against the French. Those partisans defending the plateau of the Vercors were encircled and destroyed, while the civilian population met with reprisals including the burning of hotels that served the Grands-Goulets.

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The hotels in Vercors were rebuilt in the postwar years and tourism returned to the region. New visitors were more likely to come in by automobile, and the roadway was given a coating of asphalt so it could better accommodate the increase in this type of traffic. Travel on Les Grands-Goulets Road was always fraught with danger, and conditions on it did not improve with age despite its repaving. A massive landslide caused two deaths in January 2004, and two more died in another landslide in November 2007. I don’t know if these were the road’s first fatalities but they came at a time when there were agencies in place to watch over public safety. When the new modern Grands Goulets Tunnel was dug between Pont-en-Royans and Les Barraques, it provided a safe alternative to the old winding road and in 2008 it was closed to both vehicles and pedestrians alike.

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There are many fine balcony roads throughout the Alps, but it was the closure of Les Grands-Goulets that made it stick out in my mind. It is not just the idea that all the effort put into building it has come to nothing; it is the idea that such a grand project now lays unseen in a hidden valley. It now more closely resembles a conceptual art piece than anything utilitarian. In the face of the long history of journeying, this idea is almost too much to bare as it seems to defy an ancient archetype. Many places captured on old postcards have either been destroyed or greatly altered but this is usually accepted, if only reluctantly as part of the natural march of time. This place still exists taken from us to be frozen in time; only its usage or lack of it has really changed. From this a new romantic aura has built up around this forbidden place, and one can almost question the very existence of this ghostly countenance. The postcards of it seem more like the fantasies of artists than evidence of someplace real.

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The first tunnel entrance to the old Grands-Goulets Road was sealed off with an iron gate to ensure compliance with the travel ban. While there has been talk of reopening the byway to hikers, there seems to be no real movement in this direction. In the meantime a few intrepid souls still manage to defy the law and hike its winding course. While they have been able to provide the rest of us with brand new haunting images, many still rely on old postcards when showing off this marvel. The road may now be a forbidden place but it is certainly not forgotten.



September 18, 2015

A Postcard Journey
By Leonard Lauder

Most people are aware of Leonard Lauder as a successful businessman, a collector of fine art and postcards, an author and a philanthropist. Few are aware that he is currently the oldest living member of the Metropolitan Postcard Club having been active in the Club since he was a teenager. When asked about this his response was as follows: “You’re quite right. I think I am the longest living member of the Club and hope to continue to be the longest living member of the Club. So, here’s my story.”

Leonard Lauder

photo by Roberto Portillo

I have been a collector of picture post- cards since childhood. Between 1938 and 1944, I lived in Miami Beach and became fascinated with the incredible art deco hotels and the way the artists interpreted them on the postcards. Ad- joining buildings seemed to disappear, leaving only open space; the beach was always in sight; the colors of the lines were so vibrant that each card was my own version of a Van Gogh. I would stroll along Collins Avenue at the age of seven and walk into each hotel. Standing on my tiptoes, I would reach over the desk and ask for or pick up a handful of postcards. They were my treasures.

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The Cadillac Hotel, Miami Beach, FL, 1940’s

I also went to a school where instead of collecting and trading baseball cards, we did the same thing with Miami Beach hotels. It was fun and cost nothing. As time went on, my parents would send me postcards from their travels, especially from their trips abroad.

Sometime in 1946, at the age of 13, I wandered into the office of a stamp dealer who was located on the fifth floor of an old building on West 42nd Street in New York City. I was on a search for postcards that stamp dealers had no use for. (The very fact that my parents had no problem in letting me wander around the city at age 13 never ceases to amaze me). I bought a number of German Gruss aus postcards for one penny each. There was a man named Walter Czubay who was looking through the same box that I was. He took pity on me and started to explain what to look for when going through a large box of postcards. I was a good and quick student, and I loved to learn.

Real Photo Postcard

Czar Nicholas II and his family in a rowboat, before 1917

Walter was the one who invited me to come out to Brooklyn to attend one of the early meetings of his Metropolitan Postcard Club. They were held in the home of one of the members, Edith Towey. I met several other members who did all they could to teach me what they knew. I came to know Ben Shiffrin, who collected old exposition cards; Ben Papell, who collected Detroit Publishing Company postcards; and Ed Rohrlack, who collected all cards published by Raphael Tuck. There were no dealers there because dealers didn’t even exist yet. No money changed hands. Everything was by exchange. Since I was the youngest person there, they sometimes forgave me if I wasn’t able to give them a proper exchange. The best gift I ever received was from our hostess, Edith, who gave me a mint Detroit of the Japanese cherry blossoms in Washington. I loved it. I loved the colors, the composition, etc. To put it mildly, I was hooked.

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Two men and a woman, about 1900

Collecting postcards in the 1940’s and 1950’s was quite a bit different than it is today. There were of course fads, some of which I embraced. I became a passionate collector of Union Oil cards, which were full-color cards that were distributed free at the Union gas stations whenever you got a full tank of gas. They were beautiful, and I vowed to collect every one I could. As I mentioned before, I collected Detroits and Tuck Oilettes. I had no interest in what seemed to be everyone’s passion: lighthouses, cats, etc.

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Ora Anderson. Horseshoer. Billings, MO, about 1910

The most fascinating collector was the Metropolitan’s founder, Joe Nardone, who collected Real Photos of main streets in the United States. Although they were cheap at that time, only costing pennies, to find one good Real Photo postcard of a main street meant plowing through thousands of cards in antique shops.

Finding, buying, and collecting post- cards during those early years of the Metropolitan Club was one of the best periods of my life. Since there were no dealers, one had to dig up cards from stamp dealers, used-book shops, antique shops, attics, heirs, etc. etc. It had the excitement of being a nonstop treasure hunt.

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Boulogne-sur-Mer. Publicité locale hors concours
(Local advertising without competition), about 1905

On my first business trip to Europe, I stumbled on the postcard collecting pastime in England and France. There were shops there devoted to old postcards. In London there were open air markets, such as Camden Passage and Portobello Road, where postcards abounded. Prices were negligible and the hunt exhilarating.

Real Photo Postcard

An actual photo of the Hindenburg disaster Lakehurst, N.J., May 6th, 1937

Since I was a European and American history buff, I managed to discover in some of these antique malls Real Photo postcards of historical events that seemed to escape the dealers’ notice.

Real Photo Postcard

Der Bombenwerfer Cðabrinović (The bomb-thrower Cðabrinović), 1914

Imagine the discovery of the assassination of the Archduke Ferdinand in Sarajevo in June 1914; the Hindenburg disaster in Lakehurst, NJ, in 1937; the entry of Adolf Hitler into Vienna in 1938, all of which wound up on postcards. Here again, although there were no official dealers at that point, these cards came from the early dealers in ephemera. To be able to find a rare card that only I seemed to know the value of was a thrill.

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Der Einzug des Führer in Wien (The Führer’s arrival in Vienna), postmarked April 1938

I left the hobby for a number of years when I enlisted in the U.S. Navy and was sent to sea. This was followed by my marriage and children. When I reengaged with the hobby, it had changed. Postcard clubs were no longer swap meets, but everyone had things for sale. Still, it was just as much fun, as we were still pioneers. And I still had plenty to learn. There was hardly a meeting of the Metropolitan Club when someone didn’t teach me something new. The Club was the foundation of my postcard passion and has never disappointed.

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Advertising card for the Mele department store, about 1900

I’ve recently donated most of my post- cards to the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, and to the Curt Teich Postcard Archives of the Lake County Discovery Museum, in Wauconda, IL, near Chicago. Both of these places are dedicated to the preservation of the gifts. A word of advice: Don’t simply give your collection away to the local public library. They soon forget who gave it to them and the next generation of librarians will clean house. Make sure that you donate your collection to a person or place that is dedicated to preserving the collection.

The amazing thing about postcard collecting is that it’s never over. There are always new categories to discover, new cards to fill in the gaps, new friends, and new horizons.



August 30, 2015

The F Word on Postcards
By Stephan Likosky

As a teenager collecting postcards, it was quite a surprise when I first saw the caption “Hunting for Faggots” on an English postcard. What the heck is this all about? I knew homosexuality was criminalized both in England and the United States, but were they actually hunting down gays in the British Isles?

The picture showed a rural couple with armfuls of twigs wandering along a path in the forest. Of course, it didn’t take much research to learn that the word faggot in England referred to small branches or twigs which could be used, say, to heat a country cottage. I also learned at the same time that fag meant cigarette in British English.

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Since then I’ve run across many postcards where the double meaning of fag and faggot can’t help but produce a twitter - like seeing the word gay on a pre 1930’s card where the word means happy. To wit, a card showing three British soldiers huddling together and captioned: Before battle, in battle and after battle, our “Tommies” are ready for a “fag” now takes on a lighter tone, suggesting that a little recreational sex with a gay guy might be just the thing straight male soldiers could use in combating battle fatigue.

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And, talking of fatigue, (or being fagged out), how about the card depicting a guy curling up in the moonlight with a gal on his lap? A doctor’s prescription form above reads: “Mr. . . Is suffering from Brain Fag. I therefore order him an entire change, new scenes, new faces and . . .” The wording leads down toward the above mentioned moonlit scene. Is this a reference to aversion therapy on the early postcard? You remember, where gays were provided with heterosexual sensory stimulation as a doctor’s cure for you know what.

Interestingly, the word faggot is said to derive from the kindling wood used in the Dark Ages to burn alive witches (uppity women who didn’t know their rightful place in society). Along with the wood, homosexual men (or sodomites) were supposedly added to the mix to start the flames. Thus, faggot came to mean homosexual. In recent times, the word has been reclaimed, as has queer, by the LGBT community and used proudly to self-identify. The idea was to deprive the word of its derogatory meaning; thus the name for a pioneering gay newspaper in the 1970’s from Boston called Fag Rag.

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And lastly, a modern postcard (1978) copyrighted by Daniel Nicoletta, showing two outrageous queens, one of whom is wearing an orange top reading “Faggots are Fantastic.” And he surely isn’t referring to twigs! Ahh, the vagaries of the English language as it crosses the Big Pond.




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