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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.
ARCHIVESTable of Contents
16. July 2014 - Dec 2014
15. Jan 2014 - June 2014
14. July 2013 - Dec 2013
13. Jan 2013 - June 2013
12. July 2012 - Dec 2012
11. Jan 2012 - June 2012
10. July 2011 - Dec 2011
9. Jan 2011 - June 2011
8. July 2010 - Dec 2010
7. Jan 2010 - June 2010
6. July 2009 - Dec 2009
5. Jan 2009 - June 2009
4. July 2008 - Dec 2008
3. Jan 2008 - June 2008
2. July 2007 - Dec 2007
1. Aug 2006 - June 2007
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.
REVIEW by Alan Petrulis
Early American Postcards (1868-1901)
Anyone writing about the history of postcards faces a number of inherent problems. Unlike other collectables, such as coins or stamps, there is no clear documented record of what was produced, when they were made, and in what quantities. Complicating this matter is the general lack of information on most firms who published postcards. This is especially true for early American cards, which suffers from a scarcity of source material to analyze. Despite these problems Dr. Daniel Friedman has entered this unfavorable environment to tackle the subject. By gleaning missing information from the examination of actual cards, he has painstakingly put together this ambitious new book.
While Early American Postcards is oriented toward the collector more than the academic, it still manages to provide more new information on this topic than has come to light over the past sixty years. The history of postcards we know has too often been reduced to simple catch phrases repeated over time, and now this limited perspective has finally been broadened out. The perspective however is limited; there is some discussion of printing technique but little attention is payed to the significance of the imagery found on cards. That of course is a topic large enough for an entirely new volume, and I donít find its absence here detrimental. The author clearly understands that the history of postcards cannot be divorced from postal history, something that too many of us interested in pictures often fail to grasp. Through a more singular perspective, we are given a clear path to the context needed to better appreciate these cards.
The focus of Friedman’s approach is evident from the very first chapter that gives us a brief summary of our postal system from colonial times, and how the ideals of Postmaster Benjamin Franklin were eventually subverted by a system that grew to be primarily concerned with raising revenue. The author tends to inject too much personal animosity in his harsh criticism of the postal service, which at times can seem like the underlying purpose of the book, but these comments cannot be brushed aside as a simple rant. Previous authors have only hinted at these problems, while Friedman precisely shows us how incompetence and self-serving interests hurt publishers, the card buying public, and made the United States uncompetitive in this field; arguments he supports with documentation. While knowing this history is important if we are to understand the evolution of postcards, I wish a little more attention was paid to other contributing factors that that hurt postcard production such as the depression of 1893 or alien contract laws. These may seem like minor points, but the author already clearly demonstrates that postcards did not spring out of a vacuum. This would have been a much better work even if the big picture were expanded just a little more.
Providing us with historical context is only one aspect of this book for it also acts as a catalog. Although we may never discover all the cards produced in this period, it was a time of limited production and this book manages to give us a good accounting of the earliest forerunner and pioneer cards, as well as a good sampling of Private Mailing Cards. Government issued postals are laid out with the typical identification and classifications that would accompany a stamp catalog. For privately printed cards, which are too numerous to depict all, we are given at least one pictured example from each publisher and the remaining known cards are listed underneath. Care has been given to show us the printed detail on their backs as well, a necessary ingredient to make a proper identification. Postal regulations changed often during this period, which in turn changed the appearance of cards. This is often very confusing to the modern collector but the detailed information given here goes a long way to help to identify and date early cards, understand their differences, and sometimes even explain why these changes were made. Like most collectors I have long been familiar with Private Mailing Cards, but never before realized there were four different types, not to mention unofficial variations. While the inclusion of market values is something often sought by collectors and dealers alike, I always find that the lack of consensus and shifting trends in desirability makes the usefulness of this type of information questionable.
Quality printing is always preferred but it comes at a price we cannot always pay. This is not a glossy tabletop picture book but a functional catalog illustrated with over 800 images that couldn’t all be included if not in black & white. While nearly all are smaller than life size, they are detailed enough for identification. For the purpose this book serves, the quality is more than adequate. It could however have done with more careful editing and organization. Better graphic design would have also made it much more readable. While these are not minor issues, the book ultimately does what the author set out to do, provide us with “a truly integrated, comprehensive and authoritative conceptualization about Early American Postcards.” Problems aside, this is an important new work that will expand any collector’s understanding of early cards. It is a necessity for anyone seriously interested in cards from this period.
For those of you who are familiar with Dr. Daniel Friedman’s earlier book, The Birth and Development of American Postcards published in 2003, the two volumes are not as similar as they might first appear to be. While they share much of same content in their cataloging of early pioneer cards, a number of important new finds have been added, and their classification system has been revised to be more useful. The entire section addressing Private Mailing Cards is completely new, which is a very important addition despite the short period it covers. Its inclusion truly rounds out our understanding of early cards before the golden age of postcards began. The expanded in-depth perspective on the role postal authorities played in the creation of early cards is also information that has been sorely lacking; and the book has been reorganized to better accommodate this perspective. I would advise anyone who found the first book of use to acquire this new edition as it is even more insightful and helpful.
Postcard of the Month
Even though postcards became widely popular at the turn of the 20th century, not all embraced this new innovation. The ability to dash off quick notes was a great part of their appeal, but this same quality also created many detractors. Postcards arose at a time when letter writing was not just a means of communication but an integral part of society’s fabric. While letters were considered intimate possessions that were often carefully hidden away, their messages were just as often shared among family members and close friends to relay important news while reinforcing the bonds between them. Letters were written to formalize every type of relationship, be it in love or in business. Their wording and frequency were strictly guided by Victorian etiquette, and the failure to properly adhere to this tradition could make one an outcast.
Letter writing was typically the responsibility of women who were trained in the art at an early age. Governesses or boarding schools would not only teach young ladies penmanship, spelling and grammar, they would impart the skills needed to construct suitable phrases suited to the particular occasion. Great care was put into choosing the materials used from the selection of the stationery to the proper writing implement. Manuals to improve skills were published in great numbers since the quality of one’s writing and presentation directly reflected on one’s breeding and social standing.
For the upper-class, every morning was usually set aside for writing letters. Careful track was kept of letters received so that there would be no overlooking letters owed. While such formalities filtered down to the middle-class in their desire to express their own refinement, strict etiquette began to wain. There was a growing tendency to seek out modern convenience, whether it was in a new household appliance or in the postcard. This caused a great generational shift, which is certainly evident when comparing attitudes toward correspondence. Postcards fell so far outside conventional expectations that sending them was often seen as a breach of social obligation. Eventually postcards began to be accepted as a supplement to letters but never as a replacement for them. Even men, who often only wrote letters for business, were criticized for relying on postcards to circumnavigate their social responsibilities.
One of the most common messages to be found on early postcards are admonishments for not writing a proper letter in a timely manner. Usually these are just matter of fact complaints, but sometimes they very keenly capture the frustration experienced when expectations are challenged by changing social norms. The postcard above sent in 1903 depicts an unexceptional view of the British seaside resort at Eastbourne, but it holds a charming if somewhat short bitter message. “This is to fulfill my promise. When Howard comes home tomorrow you are not to give him any tea at all until he has written to me.”
There has been much news lately concerning rights to privacy, from law enforcement efforts to break into iPhones to concern over the mass harvesting of digital information by governments and corporations. It all comes down to who gets to control our lives; a debate that has persisted for ages. While arguments over public safety are used to entice people to willingly give up their freedom, there is no better way to ensure control over a population than by knowing what everyones says and writes. We now find ourselves in a situation where the so called needs of government to secure our nation are the same things that thousands of Americans fought and died for to protect us against. Yet the story is not that simple; if it were just about the erosion of privacy such moves would never be tolerated. Part of our inability to face up to this problem may lie in our inability to define privacy itself.
It is often said that the concept of privacy is not universal; though I feel this is more over the degree to which it is acknowledged, not of its existence. Any discrepancy might derive from the accelerated way this idea evolved in the West, where there has been recorded discourse between the public sphere of life (polis) and the private sphere (oikos) since the ancient Greeks. We see these arguments revived again in 16th century Britain regarding natural law, in which certain rights or values are seen as being inherent to being human and are thus universal. While English common law is largely a system based on judicial prescient, we can see the recognition of natural law within it and in the shifting values of English society that would cumulate in their Civil War. The Church also played a significant if not a uniform role in defining privacy. Its long standing advocacy for personal modesty was far reaching, and it still causes controversy over dress and airport security screenings today. Despite this position there were also tenants that believers should look out for one another, which in this context means that you had an obligation to watch over others to make sure they are not spreading or coming into contact with heretical ideas. This position became more widespread as the Reformation gained momentum, and heresies against orthodoxy were seen everywhere.
Perhaps the idea to a right to privacy is nowhere stronger than in the United States, which should be of no surprise considering that the nationís founding is based on the theory of natural rights. While many of the early colonists to America came for the promise of financial gain or to isolate themselves from being contaminated by conflicting faiths, it was also a chance for many to find some freedom from an oppressive authoritative life. While living in these early settlements could be just as oppressive, the frontier did present opportunities to live a more private life if only because distance made control more difficult. This is not an argument for rugged individualism for America grew through communal cooperation; but entire communities were still able to separate themselves from old world rules. Americans may have inherited English common law traditions, but the isolation found on this continent allowed settlers to embrace new ideas. By the time the Declaration of Independence was written in 1776, the truths that a nation should built on the consent of the governed rather than the divine right of kings seemed self evident to many.
Further debate over privacy was scant until the idea of creating postcards was introduced in the 1860’s, with discussions centering on the profitability of launching such an endeavor. One of the constant arguments against postcards was that people would never stand for the lack of privacy inherent in this open letter format. The few who might consent would never generate enough revenue to support this service. It seemed like a logical argument, but in the end people didn’t care; they were enthralled by the quick an inexpensive way they could send a brief message. It must be remembered that in many places mail was delivered twice a day if not more, so the service must have seemed relatively rapid and extremely convenient. It can easily be compared to the rapid growth of contemporary cell phone use, except that people back then were far more discrete about what they said than they are now. When postals were first introduced millions of them were immediately sold. By the 1890’s society was conflicted by all this change and a world in which the press and photographers invaded their lives. While postcard usage greatly expanded in these years, there was also a marked effort to pass privacy laws at the same time. This now familiar scenario would repeat, continually sparked by changes in technology.
A clear sign that privacy is not completely a modern concept can be found in the long history of cryptography. Efforts to hide written information can be found on clay tablets from Mesopotamia dating back to 1500 BCE. There was a remarkable growth in the use of ciphers and codes during the 19th century for both official and personal correspondence; though some of this was just a way to improve on the transmission of messages. The first highly efficient system of coded communication was developed in France at the end of the 18th century by Claude Chappe. His semaphore system employed large rods set on top of a tower that could be mechanically manipulated into different positions with every gesture representing a different letter. Navies, which were already using signal code flags to convey words or whole messages adopted the semaphore system so that a signalman armed with a pair of flags could convey a message faster than hoisting flags up and down a line. The first commercial system of electric telegraphy was set up in England in 1838 for use by the railways, where a coded message is also passed between two parties with an agreed upon cipher, usually Morse Code. Ciphers are different from codes in that where codes substitute entire words or phrases, ciphers substitute each letter of the message individually through an algorithm. One must have an agreed upon key to unlock the encrypted message, which can either be a single word, an entire phrase. In fact any series of recorded symbols will do.
Another way to discretely send personal messages in the Victorian age was to use the secret code of floriography. It allowed for the expression of thoughts or feelings that were socially unacceptable to be spoken let alone written. This language was conveyed through a set of symbolic meanings that were applied to floral arrangements, the wearing of flowers or only their scent. As with any new language a vocabulary must be learned and numerous guides to floriography were published. Postcards under the name, the language of flowers were used both to define meanings and often employed the language itself within its imagery. These cards were very popular and they generated spin-offs such as the language of stamps in which the directed positioning of the postage relayed a coded message.
While postcard users could have just written a sealed letter to protect their message from prying eyes, the use of ciphers were already prevalent enough for many to chose this route. Some of these were home made but for the less inspired they were also commercially available for convenience. It is difficult to judge how many cards were sent this way. They turn up occasionally in dealers inventory but they are not in any way plentiful. The making and deciphering of encrypted cards tended to be a lot of work, which conflicts with the ease of sending a card in the first place. Some cards have very strange markings on them that seem to suggest that they were home spun, but if a similar card is found it most likely indicates that the cipher was purchased. The number of key books published indicate that there must have been enough people engaged in encryption to create a market for them.
One such key booklet was Chiffre Carré, which was given an exotic name to lend more mystery to the practice. The secretive and paranoid only made up a limited cliental. Sellers of these booklets needed to also attract the curious and those who just wanted to have some fun.
The use of encrypted messages in the United States seems to have dissipated around World War One, but this might have more to do with official pressure than popularity. The Espionage Act of 1917 gave the postmaster discretion over what opinions would be allowed on materials sent through the mail. Dissenters from government policy were officially denied mail delivery, and imprisonment was a possibility for anyone who interfered with the militaryís prosecution of the War. More rights were suppressed by the Sedition Act of 1918, which prohibited many forms of speech deemed disloyal, or that challenged government policy. Cards found expressing pro-Irish or anti-British sentiments were also seized and destroyed. The American Protective League was formed to turn in their fellow citizens thought to be subversive anarchists, antiwar activists, labor organizers or just too sympathetic toward Germany. While it may seem that these conditions increased the need for ciphers if personal freedom was to be protected, the mere use of one made the sender suspect as did any correspondence written in a foreign language. The use of one’s mother tongue in place of English was not seen as a matter of preference but as a deliberate effort to conceal wrongdoing, and these cards were put aside for further scrutiny. Anyone using a cipher was obviously a spy. These attitudes are reflected in today’s environment where only criminals, child pornographers, and terrorists are said to need privacy.
To use Chiffre Carré, you must first establish a key. This can be a word or an entire literary work as long as both the sender and receiver of the message both have the agreed upon key in their possession. If the message is longer than the single word or phrase chosen as the key, just keep repeating it over until it is the proper length. Your key needs to have as many characters as your message. Align your message against the key so that each letter of one matches up against each letter of the other. Then find the letter of your message on the left side of the cipher above and follow the line across until you find a new character that falls under the letter across the top that matches your key. To decipher a message just find your character under the matching letter of the key at the top and trace the line to the left until it corresponds to the true letter. Note that the image above is a centerfold, so the dark red line running down the middle is only the cord that binds this booklet together.
Have fun using this cipher or make up your own; just remember that sending an encrypted message through the mail today may get you reported to the offices of Homeland Security.
REVIEW by Alan Petrulis
The Great War
Published by Pen & Sword Books, Ltd.
There is a perennial problem with most books on postcards; either an author has a story to tell and adds pictures of cards in at the end as arbitrary illustrations or a collector decides to amass interesting cards into a book without knowing much about them. I am happy to say this new release, The Great War Through Picture Postcards by Guus de Vries follows neither of these failed formulas. What we are presented with is a narrative that actually tries to explain the role of postcards in World War One. This is by no means an easy task as the use of postcards at this time was enormous, and the range of subjects they capture represent every aspect of this conflict. This is not an in depth history of the war but a look into one narrow aspect of it, one that’s essential to anyone who truly wants to grasp this period. No one interested in history should ever be satisfied with reading only one book on a given subject, and this publication will surely help round out anyone’s knowledge of the war.
The Great War was fought through propaganda as much as on the battlefield; and postcards express much of this. Even if governments only issued propaganda cards in limited numbers, their insistence on loyalty and efforts to control all news had great influence over postcard production. It would be fair to say that nearly every postcard produced during the Great War carried some form of propaganda, if only indirectly. Since postcards touched the lives of so many soldiers and their families, these manipulations were of no small consequence. In this book the author raises the following issues, “How were the real events pictured? How were emotions and perceptions of the war communicated? Which artistic and stylistic devices were used to influence and manipulate public opinion?” To me, these are the right questions to be asked, and their documentation sets this book apart from similar publications.
I was glad to see that there is only a cursory outline of the war and that the history of postcards was also kept short. While these are areas that obviously need to be touched upon, the author does not waste our time explaining things that are covered elsewhere in great depth so he can concentrate on the subject at hand. While he follows the generally accepted narrative of events that unfortunately includes some common errors, Vries is far less jingoistic than many of his contemporaries that have shown themselves to be a new breed of apologists for past mistakes. This may not be revisionist history, but he certainly provides us with a fair interpretation of events. The focus of some of the narrative however seems a little unbalance in favor of giving details on weapons at the expense of historical context. This is fine when included in a picture’s caption, but sometimes I wish some of his other points were this well explained. This is no doubt attributable to the authorís impressive expertise on weaponry. Even so, certain topics like censorship and food shortages are happily given more mention here than by other authors. Some translations of foreign cards into English also seem a bit clumsy, but this may be due to this work first being published in the Netherlands in 2014; but this is far less problematic than one might expect.
The text is peppered with sharp and vivid illustrations throughout, with care taken to provide accurate color. They are reproduced at or near the size of the originals, but they often create the illusion of being larger than life. While this may seem the formula of a mere picture book, it should not be mistaken for one. Without clear examples of postcards to reference, we would be deprived of the tools needed to properly understand this narrative focused on imagery. On balance the author gives us the variety of cards needed to make his point. While some images will be familiar to any collector of this topic, just as many cards are rare finds. For those unfamiliar with old postcards, these illustrations are a treasure trove. I welcome the extensive and informative captions to many of these ample illustrations, but they occasionally cause problems with the visual flow. While captions and body text are set in two different fonts, they have been made close in size to be easily readable, and I find myself loosing my place as I skim across the pages. This is not a major flaw but one that is annoying since it could have been easily avoided with a better layout.
While this book provides a comprehensive look into the role of postcards during the Great War, it is not exhaustive but more of an introduction to the topic. Certain themes fail to be covered as well as I think they deserve; but with nearly 500 illustrations on 253 pages, this is not necessarily the fault of the author. This topic is just too expansive for any single volume to cover in its entirety. On a whole this is a very attractive book, and one that achieves the author’s goals. The overview is good, and significant insights are to be found within its pages. Even though I have highlighted a number of flaws, I would still recommend this book for it stands out above others that deal with this topic. While Vries has chosen to write about a niche subject of a past era, the implications of how media is used to manipulate opinion remains highly relevant today. This book may have a special attraction for those specifically interested in military or postcard history, but it has something to offer all of us if we truly wish to understand our own time.
The Great War Through Picture Postcards will be available for sale on April 19, 2016
This is Not a Magritte
We are all so familiar with using language that it is easy to forget that it is not inherent to being human, but a contrivance that we have agreed to share for our mutual benefit. Its very existence is as ephemeral as the magnetic binary codes that we use to transmit digital information today, for it could all easily disappear if not diligently passed down to the next generation. While language allows us to communicate with one another in precise and subtle ways, it is written language that has allowed knowledge to grow at an ever expanding rate by making it easy to save and disseminate the cumulative experience of others. While language has transformed our lives immeasurably, it comes at the cost of distorting our experience of the world.
The cave paintings of our most ancient ancestors are usually spoken of today in artistic terms, but we can only speculate to what these markings meant to those who created them. Some understanding may be gleaned if we delve into our own humanness while discarding the fads and rhetoric of the gallery and museum scene. With no conventions to follow, these pictures must have been drawn from an inner voice; one that might not have been conscious as much as something within attempting to create consciousness. Set into the deepest recesses of the earth, their creation mimics attempts to delve into the darkest regions of the mind as if we and the planet are one in the same. If this scenario seems at all plausible, it is only because of the disclosures made by more modern artists who have revealed their own attempts to take this inward journey.
These ancient pictures drawn in caves were not the commodities that now define the art world but were made as pure magic. As pictures evolved into letters and numerals they continued to retain much of this magic. Many once understood the power to be found in words that went far beyond mere communication. Words held even greater potency once they were written down. When different belief systems began competing for supremacy, most of these esoteric associations gradually disappeared along with respect for magic. Although certain words still engender enough power to be banned or at least disparaged while others found in holy texts continue to play a crucial role in religious rituals and rites, for the most part they have lost their authority to command us. This is very evident in our society that has grown more literate, but in which too many still fail to acquire basic reading skills. While blame can be dispensed in a number of directions, this problem exposes a more serious decline in respect for the power inherent in words. Children often fail to learn to read because they do not comprehend the real loss that accompanies this failure.
Although some artists continue to combine words and pictures as coconspirators in the creation of magic, the two have generally become segregated because of how we define them. When words are paired with images today, it is often to explain away what we no longer have the power to read on our own. When there is no inherent understanding of an image, we search for meaning to fill the void as if this were an acceptable substitute. By pursuing meaning we just drive ourselves deeper into our own abstract thoughts at the expense of experiencing the real world. Through this process words have grown paramount to the point of creating their own reality. As words have become confused with the literal, our perception of the world is shaped and limited through the structure of the language we speak.
When I stumbled upon the old postcard pictured above with the caption, IT’S A PIPE, I thought it nothing more than a strange curiosity until I read the hand written message on its back, Do you think it is a pipe? It suddenly conjured up an association with René Magritte’s painting, Ceci n’est pas une pipe (This is not a pipe) pictured below. The painting dates from 1929, and the postcard was produced about twenty years earlier; so does this make it a precursor to this famous Surrealist work? This card, published by Theodor Eismann, was most likely part of a larger set involving some common form of wordplay. At this time word games and rebus were not only popular but considered a high form of humor. Though these games are very prevalent on antique postcards, their purpose was not to impart philosophical insight; publishers were only vying for attention to make a sale. Despite the publisher’s intentions, this card with its message presents the same quandary as the Magritte painting; asking us to reexamine the way we look at pictures in relation to the written word. While Magritte may have never seen this card, It is difficult to imagine that he was unaware of this postcard genre considering how prevalent it was in popular culture.
Even if Magritte was familiar with wordplay postcards, he refocused these issues away from playful novelties to the fine arts where they would truly become subversive. His work constantly undermines the ways we perceive the relationships between the world, our visual representations of it and names we give to it. By confusing abstract thoughts with the literal when placed into language, societies fail to separate the symbolic way we present visual imagery from reality. Magritte does not present us with a pipe but paint on canvas, which creates a visual illusion that acts as a symbol for a pipe. The purpose of his art is not fidelity in rendering; Magritte actually offers us an invitation to attack his own stylistic conventions, and by doing so change the way we see.
Over time we can see how philosophers described the world in very different terms from the more ephemeral visions of Descartes to the more substantive reality of Kant. These men were not born with eyes so different from each other; it is the way they interpreted what they saw through the filter of their existing language that shaped and created their divergent thoughts. Modern behavioral scientists have now proposed that the reality we say we perceive with our eyes is only partially based on visual stimulus. An exact mirror of the world may be reflected onto the back of our eyes, but as this information is passed on for interpretation, it first mixes with preconceived notions held in our memory before forming a picture of reality in our mind. It is this trait that probably helps us recognize reality in pictures, but as a consequence we sometimes mistake symbols for reality. There may only be one reality out there, but it is different for each of us. The more we are separated by language, the greater our differences in perception. This is not only true between cultures, but within the same culture when separated by time.
The realist traditions of the West often persuade us to believe that artists can render the world in an objective manner as long as we are also blinded by the same language of vision. It is other people that distort reality; we only see the truth. While we may bring ourselves to believe that the society we live in is nothing but an illusionary human construct, the idea that our perceptions of the world are based more on pre-existing bias than empirical stimulus is much harder to accept. Artists like Magritte may try to remind us of how easy it is to become a prisoner of our own words, but these chains are difficult to break. Even if we can transcend these constraints through myth and metaphor to see the true essence of things, there is a greater tendency to forsake them for a language that places the world in more exacting terms. This may be the result of nothing more than an evolutionary tendency to find comfort in the concrete, for there is safety to be found in a world that does not change.
Magritte’s world was not shaped by determinism or chance, nor did he believe his actions had much if any effect on it. His art was not meant to change things but only open a window clouded by language through which we might better see the world. For him this required a freedom in waking life that is similar to that we have when dreaming. If vision requires more than light reaching our eyes, then understanding must come from a source beyond the distortions of logic and the accumulation of what we call facts. While myth, metaphor, and poetry can supply us depth and help us grasp what we see, we must also be careful not to forget that these too are only relative truths so we do not create another distorting lens to see through. Artists must remain true magicians, not to create illusions but to break them.
For those who dislike change, postcards may supply a pleasant nostalgic look back into a world frozen in time. Despite this stereotype, it is a mistake to believe that postcards do not present us with important insights into their time just because they are such a familiar feature of popular culture. It would be like a scientist dismissing Hydrogen as being crucial to the understanding of chemistry because it is such a common element. Postcards were once so pervasive within society that they form a microcosm of their world. The question of what to depicted and how it was to be represented is often more important than historical documentation. Through a bit of reverse engineering we can get a glimpse into the commonality of language that molded this past reality. To understand postcards, we must view them in the context of their times, but through the careful examination of postcards we might just discover the essence of these times.
Postcard of the month:
Although the condition of a postcard is always a determining factor in whether we will make a purchase or not and how much we will pay, few of us share the exact same criteria for making these decisions. There may be a universal consensus that folds, missing corners, and stains are undesirable, but we all have different tolerance levels when it comes to how much of this is acceptable. We often keep strange algorithms in our heads, so complicated that we cannot even verbalize them, that ultimately balance material damage against our ephemeral desires.
Handwriting on a card is another factor altogether. Some collectors will only buy mint cards in the most pristine condition, while others insist that it be posted before they will even consider it a postcard. Most of us sit somewhere in between, realizing that ideal cards are not very easy to find and that compromise must attend our purchases. A note of some sort is almost expected on the back of a card, but when it appears on the front it becomes more problematic. Even though many cards were designed with blank spaces on their front for writing, a heavy hand can still distract from the image or upset our notions of purity. Then there were those who refused to spend an extra penny to mail a letter, and crammed every open space, including sky and border, with a long scribbled message.
On a rare occasion the writing scrolled across a card can turn into artistic calligraphy that only enhances the image no mater where it is placed. A strange but wonderful balance is formed, not just compositionally but between image and message. It is a reminder of why antique postcards were made in the first place, which wasnít for us today. The text on the card below is neither poignant nor of great historical importance, but it resinates all the same through its simplicity. It is a sweet short Valentine sent to a child that lacks all the commercialism associated with the holiday today. It is a real photo with a Private Mailing Card back mailed from Biloxi to Chicago on February 12, 1903; but these are only the facts. Its importance lies in giving us a voyeuristic glimpse into a personal past to form a greater understanding of how people once connected with one another.
My dear little Valentine -
Forbidden but not Forgotten:
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
It was not unusual for the many small local publishers such as those in Aubenas, Lyon, and Valence to capture views along this road, but it attracted better known publishers like Lucien Levy and the Neurdein brothers as well. Capturing tourist attractions on postcards was nothing new for these large publishers as they sent out photographers all over France, so to find them here might not seem so strange at first. When we consider that the subject matter is a road, its meaning begins to take on a new dimension. It wasn’t just a popular track for tourists to travel over; the unusual qualities of this road had stirred something deep in the public’s imagination. It was a connection that would not easily dissipate even if hard to define. Most of these latter cards were produced as typical black & white collotypes.
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 FranÁaises 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.
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 donít know if these were the roadís 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.
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.
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.
A Postcard Journey
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.”
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
Boulogne-sur-Mer. Publicité locale hors concours
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
The F Word on Postcards
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.
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.
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.
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.