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The Midnight Message
Listen, my children, and you shall hear of the midnight ride of Paul Revere. My generation was not the first to have these words written by Henry Wadsworth Longfellow drilled into our heads. Millions of other school age children were exposed to this poetic tale after Paul Revere’s Ride was first published in the Atlantic Monthly in 1861. The poem was presented as a lesson in history rather than literature. Once the story of this lone brave man who took on great risk for the sake of liberty became a part of popular culture, it proved too powerful to relegate to fiction. With Revere depicted as the perfect ideal of a heroic patriot, the storyline was enthusiastically incorporated into the American myth.
The basic history related through the poem recounts the events of April 18, 1775, when Paul Revere asks a friend to set signal lights in the belfry of Boston’s Old North Church. One, if by land, and two, if by sea, will tell him which way British soldiers were advancing so he could ride and spread the alarm through every Middlesex village and farm for the country folk to be up and to arm. After Revere’s friend hears the British marching for their boats, he sets the signal and the gleam of light sets Revere off on his fateful journey. He gallops into Medford just after midnight, Lexington at one, reaching Concord by two, all the while sounding a warning with a cry of defiance and not of fear, a warning that still echoes. This is followed by the battles of Lexington and Concord where simple farmers gave them ball for ball, and British Regulars fired and fled.
Full of tension and heroic tropes, Paul Revere’s Ride is a stirring poem. It is not surprising it became one of America’s best known. I may not have given a it a second thought had my school years not coincided with the counter-culture of the 1960’s. America’s involvement in the Viet-Nam war not only led to a questioning of why we were fighting, the systematic lying accompanying it resulted in a questioning of everything my generation was taught. The war was actually more of a catalyst than a cause as cracks in our saccharine perfection were already growing too big to ignore. How could we describe ourselves as perfect when it was obvious that so much of America’s wealth came by way of land seized from native inhabitants and from the labor of slaves. If we professed freedom for all, why were those asking for civil rights met with hatred and violence? The myths I was taught seemed seriously mismatched to our actual history. Paul Revere became an early casualty of revisionism. I was told his legend was a fabrication, that he never made the famous ride he was given so much credit for. I was told he was arrested while trying to leave Boston, that his mission was actually completed by an unsung hero, William Dawes. Disillusioned over so many things, I was ready to believe.
So why was I lied to? Why is Longfellow’s poem full of so many historical errors and omissions? To blame the poet is to miss the point. Although I was the target of Cold War propaganda meant to boost patriotism, Longfellow did not write to deceive but to inspire. We must understand that his poem was published at a time when the nation was at its most divided and in desperate need of voices that might carry it through troubled times. As an admired and recognized figure, Longfellow had a voice that carried some weight. While his motivations do not appear to be singular, his long history as an ardent abolitionist cannot be overlooked. Did he suspect that our divisions over slavery were irreconcilable? His Poems on Slavery published years earlier were already a dire warning of the dark perils this nation faced if unable to heal our divide. Was his poem on Revere aimed at his fellow New Englanders, reminding them that they could not sit out the coming storm? In the hour of darkness and peril and need, the people will waken and listen to hear the hurrying hoof-beats of that steed, and the midnight message of Paul Revere. He reminds us that we all have choices to make and how we choose to act can make a difference.
If Longfellow distorted history, it was in the service of literature and his personal convictions. Then if presenting facts was never part of his agenda, why has this poem been taught as history for so long? The answer lies in the very problematic way that all of American history has been traditionally viewed. It is naive to believe that history is an unbiased collection of facts from the past. It is only the way we look back at the past, which is always based on incomplete information. This is why historians have traditionally viewed there craft as one of interpretation and reinterpretation, an argument with the past. Considering the original thirteen colonies were founded on different principals with competing interests, it was inevitable that we would never all see eye to eye. Disagreements over interpretation began as soon as independence from Great Britain was won. In a letter to Elbridge Gerry from 1785, John Adams bitterly complains that the history of the Revolution will be one continued lie from one end to the other. It took about forty more years before our population could even come together and celebrate Independence Day as Americans.
In the years immediately following the American Revolution, it was quickly realized that our loose confederation could not survive without a unified effort to work for the common good. Against all odds, the men assembled in Philadelphia to solve this problem found enough common ground to write the United States Constitution. The inspiring words of rebellion found in the Declaration of Independence were not repeated here because the foundation of a nation cannot be built on unbridled passions. While no one at the Constitutional Congress arrived expecting to compromise, they were all persuaded to make concessions so that a governing document that might actually work could be written. While it seemed the product of wise minds, there remained the question of whether a diverse population would ever agree and work together for the whole rather than self interests when freed from the dictates of a despot? We still have no answer, which is why we are known as the great American experiment.
TDespite all the middle-ground found, one issue proved so divisive that it could not be resolved when the Constitutional Congress concluded its work. Slavery was left to fester in the nation’s soul until pro and con arguments grew beyond the political arena to become the focal point of self-righteousness. When there were no points left we were willing to debate, we began killing one another instead. When the American Civil War ended, it was only out of exhaustion. Divisions remained and the conflict went on through other means. Constitutional amendments could only settle written law, not change mindsets. The belief in white supremacy continues to shape the social fabric of our nation to this day. A story like Paul Revere’s Ride might seem to have little relevance to this matter, but it must be remembered that Longfellow tried to remind us that as Americans, we held a glorious past in common and this heritage was much too important to set asunder because of our disagreements. If this message was left unheeded under the high passions reigning on the eve of civil war, it was very consciously revived in the postwar years when it became essential in efforts to heal our most serious differences. By creating an American myth that all could rally behind, it was thought we might grow to see ourselves as one nation. Informal applications of this concept eventually turned into official standards that suggested history be taught in ways that would inspire optimism, exceptionalism and of course, patriotism. If this meant glossing over or completely ignoring our flaws, those in power deemed it an acceptable price to pay for cooling tensions.
Many businessmen took up the cause of unification out of honest civic concerns, though it was often carried out through means that increased their bottom line. Nowhere can this be seen more than in efforts to promote national tourism built upon the American myth. The preservation of Paul Revere’s home in Boston’s North End is a good example. Few had ever heard Revere’s name outside of Boston before Longfellow made it famous. When his family home was sold in 1800, it just became another tenement, better known for its ground floor shops than anything associated with the American Revolution. It served as a candy store, cigar factory, bank and fresh produce market until it grew so dilapidated that it was scheduled for demolition by 1902. When purchased by Revere's great-grandson, John P. Reynolds, Jr., there was a new paradigm in place, one resting on tourism and cultural politics that allowed him to preserve his family’s legacy in a novel way. The creation of a national myth does not rely solely on facts, personal connections need to be established so ordinary people can relate to the story presented to them. This resulted in a surge in hero making that turned the homes of patriots into shrines. When the Revere home was restored and opened to the public in 1908, it was as a house museum, one of many such places newly designated all across the country.
As a house museum, Revere’s former home better represents the social climate of the time it opened than the time he lived there. A place, previously regarded as unimportant suddenly drew throngs of visitors intent on capturing a glimpse of what it was that made America. By paying a visit, tourists might discover who they were as well. All such homes were a manufactured story of an uncomplicated life and time, designed for those longing to escape from the demands that a changing industrialized culture threw at them. Supported by tourism, the museum promoted simple truths that kept tourists happy and kept them coming. Postcards designed for tourists were a mainstay of the industry, and publishers were only too happy to embrace pre-established storylines. Postcards needed to re-enforced the well established belief system of their middle-class audience to ensure sales. Postcards not only depict the Revere home but fictional excerpts from his midnight ride, some even including popular snippets from Longfellow’s poem. This created a self-sustaining loop, ingraining the Revere myth further into the American imagination, which in turn increased the demand for images embracing it. While it proved a successful business model, profits came at the cost of truth.
Inconvenient truths have always been withheld from the teaching of American history, but sometimes this was just an act of convenience rather than calculated avoidance. The story of April 18th was just simpler to tell without elaboration. Dawes was a man whose history is full of gaps. He rode to Lexington without warning the countryside, leaving behind a far less romantic tale. An old history book of mine shows the route taken by both men but only mentions the exploits of Revere in its text. An antique postcard displays the spot where Revere was captured without providing specifics that might challenge the myth. While not every fact can be taught, what we choose to omit is often telling. While postcards published since the 1940’s are more apt to present a historical based story, this format is not sufficient to introduce critical insight. Exposure to conflicting pieces of information eventually led me to question my own understanding of events. I eventually came to see that I only replaced an old falsehood with new one. This was an act of laziness, accepting explanations without question just because they reinforced what I wanted to believe. After digging deeper, a third narrative emerged, one that actually relies on historical record.
By April of 1775 tensions between the colonists and British regulars stationed in Boston were running high. Problems began a decade earlier when the crown attempted to cover its debts by collecting taxes from its colonies. This inspired Samuel Adams to form the Sons of Liberty, a movement that resisted taxation without representation. They engaged in various acts of civil disobedience and intimidation cumulating with the Boston Tea Party in 1773. Authorities reacted by increasing the military presence in the city, which only inflamed resentments further. When General Gage concluded he had to act before militias grew bolder, he organized an expedition to seize the arms and powder being assembled at Concord. Preparations were hard to keep secret, especially from men like Dr. Joseph Warren who was helping to raise and arm local militias. With prices recently placed on the heads of Samuel Adams and John Hancock, Dr. Warren mistakenly believed the primary mission of the expedition was to capture them at there hideout in Lexington. He then made contact with Paul Revere and William Dawes to deliver a warning message. They would each travel by a separate route to increase the odds of success in case one of them were captured. They were then to proceed to Concord, making sure the weapons stored there were safely hidden away.
Both Revere and Dawes were members of the Sons of Liberty. Revere had already been monitoring military movements while working as an express courier for the Boston Committee of Correspondence and the Massachusetts Committee of Safety. After being rowed to Charlestown where he was lent a horse, sympathizers confirmed they had seen the signal Revere had prearranged. Two lanterns had been hung in the tower of Christ Church (now Old North Church), indicating soldiers were crossing the Charles River into Cambridge rather than marching out through Boston Neck. After narrowly avoiding capture at the edge of town, Revere was forced to abandon his planned route and headed up along the Mystic River to Medford instead. He would finally arrive in Lexington a little after midnight where he delivered his message to John Hancock. Dawes, having taken a more southerly route through Roxbury arrived in Lexington minutes later. When the two of them left together they were joined by Dr. Samuel Prescott who was returning home to Concord on the same road.
Fearing messengers might reveal the approach of Gage’s expedition, mounted patrols were sent out on the Lexington Road and the trio were intercepted soon after leaving town. Dr. Prescott was the first to escape, making his way back to Concord where he warned the militia and everyone else he could that regulars were approaching. Dawes was the next to escape but after falling from his horse he was left in no condition to continue his ride. Revere also tried to escape but a wrong turn led to his swift recapture and extensive questioning. He only managed to escape hours later after his captures wandered off to investigate distant rifle fire. Now horseless, Revere managed to walk back to Lexington where a battle was already underway. He then assisted John Hancock and his family escape to Woburn.
Not only did Revere deliver a warning to Adams and Hancock, he informed all along the way that a column of regulars were on the march. As ordinary farmers heard his cries, at least forty of them rode off into the countryside to further spread the alarm. By the time the slow moving column reached Lexington, a line of armed men stood across the town green to meet them. Though brushed aside in a brief but violent encounter the regulars met far more resistance at Concord Bridge were their crossing was bared by hundreds of aroused militia. Heavier casualties were sustained by these troops on their retreat back to Boston as every angry farmer within miles seems to have been inspired to come out to take potshots at them. A revolution had begun.
Although Revere’s story becomes a more complicated narrative when loaded with facts, it is not a bad story. It still relates how three ordinary men freely took up the call to fight oppression while under considerable risk. So why the lies? There is nothing here that needs to be hidden. In retrospect, distorting the story seems like a mistake. The American myth could have survived even with more truth telling. When we look at postcards used as greetings, we find that they only contain simple sentimental tropes to get their message across. Postcards dealing with historical subjects largely worked the same way, through tapping into emotions rather than confronting the complexities of fact that might paint a broader but more confusing picture. Content is not questioned when the emotions evoked are real. In this way postcards became the perfect tool for disseminating propaganda. Since the audience for postcards was largely white and middle class, they reflect the dominant national myth. Anyone exposed to countless cards will no longer see them as descriptive, only normative. If simplicity became the model used throughout society to create myth, including in education, it was because it worked so well.
The creation of simplistic illusions had indeed worked well in manufacturing a new American identity. It helped us become more future oriented society, only delving into the past when needed to propel us forward. Forgetfulness helped close devisions, but it came at the price of hollowing out our history. This was no trivial matter because there were plenty who understood that when facts are lost to memory, the myths we accept can be easily molded to fit political interests. George Orwell put it distinctly; He who controls the past controls the future. He who controls the present controls the past. The most egregious use of this opportunity came after the former Confederate states to be written out of the American story by those resenting the rebellion. Unwilling to let their beliefs fade, the dangerous myth of a noble lost cause rose to fill the vacuum. Revisionism would see that sedition and racism were painted in a favorable light. The creation of this myth ran parallel with the one already in place in that they both were exclusive, serving only a portion of our nation. This ensured illusions of exceptionalism could only be maintained by directing hatred against those living outside the myth. Hatred is a weapon of exclusivity, which is best used in ignorance. Anything that challenges the order that holds up one’s perceived superiority is an affront to perceived normalcy and can be turned into what seems like a legitimate grievance. When all those left out of the American myth began finding places from where questions could be raised, the very idea of introducing a multicultural perspective became a real threat to those who live comfortably under the reigning myth’s umbrella.
Cultural trends need not be as dramatic as the rewriting of Southern history to have long lasting effects. They just need to tap into natural tendencies such as fear of the other to take hold. Nearly every American has come to think they know the story of Paul Revere’s ride but I expect few can offer any significant details. His famous call, the British are coming is a well recited line even though it makes no sense. Few have the perspective to realize all citizens were British before the revolution, even Revere. He would have warned his countrymen of the approaching Regulars, meaning the standing army of the British crown. While Longfellow may have only been using the common language of his own day, this does not mean the words he chose do not carry deeper significance. By differentiating between Americans and British, the threat posed in the poem comes from a foreign source. There is no longer a disagreement between coequals, only danger imposed by outsiders. The timing of this poem insinuates that the danger posed by Southern slaveholders is the same as that of British tyrants because both hold ideas that are antithetical to America’s commitment to liberty. The concept of legitimacy has long been infused into cultural wars as each side accuses the other of introducing concepts that are too alien for this land that go against what we stand for. This argument reinforces the idea that there is only one legitimate perspective that must be blindly followed. As this perspective gains ground, all other viewpoints become intolerable. They are seen as an effort to steal out history or worse, a foreign assault on our nation. One can no longer disagree and still be an American.
When the culture wars reignited in the 1980’s and 90’s, they became more than a debate of who history serves. Republicans used differences over cultural perspective as a tool for retaking Congress after a long absence from the House. This can be seen in the heavy resistance that greeted efforts made to infuse the standards of teaching of history with greater scholarship. Polite discourse was routinely replaced with vitriolic accusations. At the prospect of having Paul Revere’s story deemed too trivial for inclusion in textbooks, critics vehemently claimed that children were being robed of stories that inspired patriotism. The arguments presented were never over facts; only the need to preserve illusions that supported patriotic myths. By purposely tapping into peoples fears that their way of life was being threatened by uprooting the traditions that upheld the power structure, it was hoped that the indignation and resentment raised would be turned against political opponents. It worked. Congress flipped, but long standing effort to unite our country through a common history are now discarded for political expediency. We are still paying the price with ever rising discord.
There was never a time in America when everyone found themselves in agreement. It is certainly not a land where everyone has ever been seen as being equal. The black experience in America has for the most part been tied to slavery. Women, seen as the property of men for so long still struggle for equality. While Catholics are no longer viewed as a threat to Democracy, our fears of religious allegiance have since been lashed onto Muslims. Those who stare bigotry and hatred in the face and say this is not who we are seem to be trapped in myth. They lack a clear understanding of our real history, and that understanding is needed to move forward. Abraham Lincoln warned us that The dogmas of the quiet past, are inadequate to the stormy present. He understood that we could only preserve our union by disengaging from those myths we love but have outlasted their utility. That does not mean we do not need myths. If we come to see ourselves as nothing more than beasts who walked out of the African savanna, then where are we? The problem is that storylines that leave out large portions of a populace inevitably fail. Without an agreed upon narrative that makes sense of the past, a nation cannot be held together. We must seek the truth while being wary of those who have become overly self-righteousness while trying to correct historical wrongs. Those who cannot accept the flaws contained within the human condition will never be happy until all our heads are rolling across the floor.
The voices that claim the January 6th storming of the United States capitol displays the failure of democracy largely come from dictators and would be tyrants. It should be no surprise that those who retain power by holding a tight grip over others are repulsed by the inability to maintain strict order. It is too easy to forget that Democracy by its very design must be both messy and fragile. It is how we manage to maintain the promise of a better future even while struggling with our deficiencies. It is easy to stop trusting a system meant to serve us when it meets legitimate needs with benign indifference. It is easy to understand why so many do not feel their voices are being heard. Correcting this is a fight worth fighting for, but we need to be careful that we don’t throw out the good with the bad while passions ride high. Anger is often more powerful than reason, and nothing is more dangerous to a Democracy. There is no denying that representational government comes with flaws. It requires the acceptance of the type of compromise that will never leave everyone happy. It does however eliminate the need to have perpetual bloodshed accompany change, at least when it is done right. This is why even the hint of insurrection is a real threat to the delicate covenant we live by because it is based on trust.
Critics are only right about one thing, Democracy is fragile. Its future cannot ever be guaranteed. There are constant dangers posed by ignorance and those who relentlessly feed it with lies. Some have even seem to prefer terrorism over discourse with one face, while using the other to cry for votes and campaign contributions so they can benefit from the very system they claim to despise. It is a dangerous game to believe the blows leveled at Democracy will not prove fatal while trying to profit off the idea of its demise. We have achieved what Democracy calls for, a free and fair election, and yet in this poisonous climate there are critics who cannot accept facts over delusion because they are fueled by so much deceit. When we look at the number of people who have given up on Democracy, who seem to welcome insurrection, it must give us pause.
People should not believe in lies just to feel good about themselves, yet that is what they are inclined to do. We will not survive by retreating into self-serving micro-narratives nor by heeding the call of demagogues who steal our fervor for justice for their own ends. We must also be wary of letting pain, fear and disappointment force us back into the old habits that failed us. While these are troubling times, I’m not yet convinced we have painted ourselves into a corner. There may still be a narrow opening remaining to find what we really need, a sense of community. We must demand an inclusive American dream that allows all of us to aspire without the need to distort the truth. If we stop lying to ourselves, perhaps we can find that evasive myth. This is no small task but it is the one before us. Midnight has arrived once again and we are standing at the crossroads. A warning fills the air as the hurrying hoofbeats of a rider grow closer. This is no tall tale. A familiar message awaits. Our nation is in great peril if we don’t all take heed and rise to the occasion.
The Machine Behind the Card
Despite the preponderance of guide books, the pricing of postcards is more of an art than a science, and then often a guessing game rather than an art. As with most collectables, condition plays a huge part. It is a factor that is both observable and quantifiable. Subject matter is also influential though a card’s desirability can be debated and demand for particular subjects are always in flux. The most difficult piece in pricing is determining rarity. While some cards are obviously rare and others very common, the exact status of the vast majority in between is always questionable. There are certainly more opinions on this subject than concrete records that could provide reliable answers, a situation that usually translates into wide differences in pricing.
Real photo postcards seam to suffer from scattered prices much more than printed cards. This is no doubt due to the lack of common criteria possessed by dealers and collectors alike. While some are very attuned to the intricacies of these cards, other rely on generalized notions. For a long time, collectors had very little interest in real photo postcards and they were sold on the cheap. As their popularity grew, the prices they could demand grew even faster. Bland cards of unknown locations with unknown dates were suddenly priced higher just because they were manufactured on photo paper. Normal standards used to price cards were suddenly discarded. While the market has since grown a bit more rational, there remains a basic lack of understanding of how these cards were made, which in turn affects one of the most crucial elements of pricing, their rarity.
A romantic mystique has grown around the lonely amateur photographer who prints no more than a handful of his images as real photo postcards. While thousands of people like this did exist, the strong willingness to embrace such figures seems to be based on a deeper archetype, the rugged individual, as much as a desire to acquire something rare. The proliferation of easy to use inexpensive cameras made the production of homemade cards very assessable, and now there is no telling how many families produced their own postcards. What must be remembered is that few of these cards were made for mailing. The great popularity of postcards encouraged manufacturers to create most photo papers with pre-printed postcard backs, and they became the most widely available and the cheapest to buy. Most real photo postcards probably never met a post office, as they were only made to be shared between family and friends. Individual images may be very scarce but as a category, they are not. Most are as boring as a typical family snapshot, which in fact are all many were intended to be. It is only when the artistry of these cards shine above the ordinary do they achieve real value.
Nearly every sizable town across America had a photo studio, and those that did not were often payed visits by itinerant photographers. The introduction of postcards added a new dimension to their business, one that provided too much extra income to be ignored. Many of these real photo cards tended to be a continuation of traditional studio portraiture work. Growing interest in tourism however opened up opportunities for capturing landscapes. Events ranging from local fairs to fires also had an audience. Since these cards were made for profit, they exist in much higher numbers than those produced by individuals, though how much higher is hard to say. Only a few tended to be produced at a time in the photographers own studio with reprints made on the basis of market demand. Shots covering events of local interest were usually produced as fast as possible while demand remained high. Shots made for tourists are usually only found in high numbers if sold over a long period.
After photography was first introduced, many explored ways to use it as an alternative to printing images from inked plates. The problem was technological advances continued to be made in both mediums so that photography always remained the more expensive of the two. Even when real photo postcards were introduced in 1899, halftone photomechanical transfers were already in common use making it cheaper to print cards. Postcards however provided some unique opportunities for photography that fell outside of normal market trends. Individuals could make real photo cards for limited personal consumption. Photo studios found they could produce cards for a small local audience where the cost of printing in quantity was prohibitive. Large publishers could get around higher cost of real photos by finding subjects they could print in volume. These could be view-cards of places that were perennial tourist attractions, art reproductions for museums or portraits of famous personalities, especially actresses for which there was always a large audience. In many ways these postcards mimicked the older but still remembered buying habits of cabinet cards and carte-de-visite. In general, there were always customers willing to pay a little more if the card suited their particular wants.
By 1903, Kodak began introducing alternative methods of printing photographs. With their processing machines, even an amateur could make their own postcards without the trouble of learning darkroom skills. Since early printing out paper was already rather easy to use and these machines offered little advantage in speed, sales were limited. The idea however caught on, and by 1910 a Minneapolis photographer, Glen M. Dye, was manufacturing higher speed photographic processing equipment that could contact print up to 1,200 cards an hour. Founded as the Photo Advertising Company, he later added a K to the firms name when it was incorporated as PAKO in 1918 in a cross promotional agreement with Kodak.
With production taken out of the darkroom and placed in the hands of machines, these mechanical processors revolutionized real photo postcard production. Far from rare, real photo cards produced by large publishing houses were typically manufactured on a massive scale, often in quantities that surpassed their printed counterparts. Even when printed cards were based on photographs, the plates they were printed from wore out and so a limited number were made at a time. A typical press run might be two to four thousand cards. To make more, the process would restart from scratch, which is why there are so many variations to be found of the same image. Variations however give us a clue to a card’s popularity and how many may have been printed. There is no equivalence in photography, where the negative is always the negative and an endless supply of similar real photo cards can be theoretically produced.
The growing influence of processing machines can be seen in the postcards issued during the First World War when shortages of ink and skilled labor often necessitated their use. Even though printed cards were made in larger numbers, an enormous number of propaganda cards were produced as real photos. In addition to numerous posed studio shots, a great deal of military themed artwork was also placed on photo paper. Illustrations and satyrical cartoons originally published in newspapers were routinely reproduced as postcards on photo based stock. The printing trades never fully recovered in the postwar years, allowing the production of machine made real photo cards to remain competitive. Faster photo processors continued to match advances made in printing presses. When continuous paper processors based on motion picture technology were introduced in the 1940’s, the rate of photo card production was doubled.
It is not always easy to distinguish a real photo postcard made by an amateur from one by a professional photographer. Composition, subject matter, and quality of printing are all clues but prove nothing in themselves. Real talent can turn up anywhere and did. Cards produced by small studios usually carry additional information like the photographer’s name. They were also often titled so potential customers could better identify the subject. If not titled they are at least numbered to better keep tract of inventory. And of course there were lots of exceptions. If photographers back then were not as fanatical about ownership rights as we are these days, it was less true of larger firms who were more likely to place their name on their cards. While the output from these large publishers are certainly the product of processors, those from smaller studios or individuals is like deciding if the photographer eats his stew with a fork or a spoon; there is no way of telling. Here subject matter provides the best clue. The more personal the image, the more likely it only exists in small numbers.
Even though borders could always be found on real photo postcards, they became more numerous after World War One once the use of processing machines became more widespread. Borders provided cards with a margin of error when being automatically trimmed by machine. Another difference between hand and machine made cards is in the paper used. Unlike unstable printing out papers that often changed color and were usually toned to produce a more pleasant hue, those produced by machine have a more consistent look. While the fast bromide papers that were usually used provided a stable warm to blue-black color, they have unfortunately shown themselves to be very susceptible to tarnishing.
The look of real photo cards changed dramatically by the late 1930’s when new faster papers made specifically for enlarging smaller negatives produced brighter and glossier cards. These hold far less detail than early cards that were contact printed from large format negatives, but they had little competition since few were using large format cameras anymore. This alone dramatically reduced competition from homemade real photo cards. While todays collectors tend to look upon old handmade cards with a nostalgic fondness, many of their endearing qualities were considered flaws in their day. Though less personable, the more reliable and consistent output of processors was considered a vast improvement.
Collectors take much interest in photographers and the publishers of cards, but rarely do they consider the seemingly unglamorous yet essential elements that made their production possible. Although postcard production has always been in the hands of changing social and economic forces, it is no less a product of reproductive technology. Without understanding the hidden as well as the obvious factors that lay behind them, postcards are only pretty pictures. Presented below is a closer look at one significant firm that manufactured photo processing machines and the man behind it. As with many ideas, they are often the product of their times as much as the individual, and in 1909 Ellis Graber of Tunbridge Wells, England patented his own version of a film processor.
Ellis Graber, born in 1869, was a Polish Jew who emigrated to Tunbridge Wells at a young age. There he would settle, marrying his neighbor, Alice Waters, and finding employment as a bookbinder with Lewis Hepworth, a local printer, stationer and publisher. The binding trade by this time was divided into two distinct groups, the letterpress binders who put together printed books and stationers who ruled out blank ledgers and notebooks. Although the practice of ruling dates back to the craftsmen of the Middle-Ages, the process had become mechanized by the 1880’s. Ellis Graber and Lewis Hepworth were not to be left out of this trend and jointly applied for seven different patents on ruling machines between 1894 and 1901. Ellis & Co. was set up around 1895 to market their products. Graber, took charge of day to day operations while Lewis ran the business. Two years later they formally established a limited company, Hepworth Printing & Ruling Machine Co. to manufacture and sell their machines.
Despite their close relationship, Hepworth’s poor management sent their joint venture into bankruptcy and the ongoing dispute led to civil litigation in 1901. Graber tried to salvage things the following year by applying for new patents under the Graber Printing & Ruling Machines Company Ltd and the Graber Printing & Ruling Machines Syndicate Ltd. Both companies were listed at the previously address of Lewis Hepworth’s firm. Times however had changed, and when it became easier for stationers to buy ruled paper than make their own, demand for ruling machines dropped significantly. The last reference to Ellis Graber as a bookbinder is in 1913.
While all sorts of businesses tried to make money off of the postcard craze by becoming publishers, Graber used his skills as a master engineer to manufacture machines that could produce postcards. There had been many advances in the printing trades that increased speed and efficiency, but the production of real photo cards was still largely stuck in the darkroom. Taking advantage of the need for faster production, he designed The Graber Automatic Exposure & Cutting Machine in 1909, which could be fed fifty foot rolls of bromide or gaslight papers.
This was followed by The Graber Automatic Developing, Washing and Fixing Machine, which he claimed could turn out 50-70,000 cards per day. Unlike most processors that were fed single sheets of paper, his utilized fifty foot webs of bromide or gaslight paper that were automatically cut into sections, greatly increasing production speed. When first marketed in 1910, ads claimed it was the cheapest and simplest on the market, occupied only a small floor space, could be powered or worked by unskilled hand and could print cards up to 12 by 25 inches in size.
Only a year later, Graber introduced The New Graber Combined Automatic Exposing, Type Printing, and Cutting Machine that did not require pre-printed paper for the postcard back. This machine that combined photographic and letterpress technology provided publishers with the ability to place anything they wanted on a cards back be it from type or line block. This highly desirable feature allowed for the inclusion of a logo that could turn generic looking cards into ones easily identifiable with a specific publisher. Exposed paper could either be cut into sections to be developed in trays or fed continuously into an automatic developing, fixing, toning and washing machine. Fully automatic processing promised 1000 postcards an hour from a single negative even with the extra printing step.
Innovations kept coming. A faster Graber Combined Automatic Exposing, Type Printing and Cutting Machine, introduced in 1913, could process 1500 postcards an hour. The Graber Acme machine that expose more than one negative at a time could produce 6000-8000 postcards an hour. Another machine, The Presto, was used to print custom postcard backs on rolls of photographic paper. These long rolls could then be divided up for small card lots produced by other means since it was not economical to use a processor when making less than fifty cards.
Although all three of these machines continued to be sold through the 1940’s, the manner in which they were marketed changed over time. Originally focused on postcards where every photographer may become his own publisher, Graber began promoting other uses such as the production of cigarette cards, Christmas and birthday cards, and calendars. This is not to say he was lacking in customers who produced postcards for there were many. Some notable British card publishers that used his products were the Aerial Photo Co, Francis Frith, Judges, the Photochrom Co, Rotary Photo Co, R. Turnbull, and Valentine & Sons.
When the First World War broke out, Graber continued to take orders that he optimistically promised to fill once the conflict was over. He was now concentrating on setting up automatic photo plants for the British and Allied governments as his contribution to the war effort. While not officially documented, it is believed he also invented a number of devices for the Royal Flying Corps to improve on aerial photography. Up to date maps of enemy lines drawn from photo surveillance were in constant demand. The unexpected length of the war caused both his business and his family hardships. Both his sons enlisted, Ellis Alexander losing a leg in a training accident, and the younger Dyson dying on a French battlefield in 1917.
While Graber continued to patent improvements on his processing machines after the War, business was not what it used to be. He made ends meet with other jobs, and around 1931 he took on regular employment as a night telephone operator. Although his firm remained in operation during the Second World War, it seems he was no longer taking orders for processors after 1942. It might be assumed he was providing the same photographic services for the British government as he had in the previous conflict or his facilities were taken over for another type of war related production.
When Ellis Graber died in 1946, the future for real photo postcards looked dim. Despite constant improvements in production, they never came close to surpassing printed cards in number. Innovations had kept them competitive for decades, but the printing trades were not standing still. When customers began caring more about price than quality, the introduction of linen cards filled the bill. After photo-like process printing was introduced, real photo production could no longer compete price-wise against the volumes of chrome cards produced and they nearly disappeared from the market by the 1960s. When subsequent advances allowed printers to produce lookalike images that rivaled the most expensive real photo cards, the market for them died altogether. Today, just when the reproductive quality of printing is at its apex, the demand for imagery is quickly migrating to a digital format. It is hard to conceive what will come next, but I’m sure something will; there is always a next.
I would like to thank Les Waters for his generosity in making his research into Ellis Graber available to me. His original and more extensive article, Ellis Graber, an Unsung Hero of the UK Postcard Trade, was posted in the blog section of Fading Images on June 15, 2020.