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This page contains both original essays and comments on postcards as well as articles formally published in Metro News, the bi-monthly bulletin of the Metropolitan Postcard Club while I served as editor. Many of these reprinted articles have been enhanced on this website by adding additional content.
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I am often confronted with postcards that hold what looks like an interesting narrative but I cannot make heads or tails out of them. The artist has assumed that just because his illustration deals with the hot topic of the day that it will automatically be understood. While I cannot vouch for this reasoning, I assume it is probably correct. The only problem is that hot topics tend to grow cold and fade deeper into obscurity as time passes by. This often imbues these cards with a new aura of surrealism, which is not necessarily a bad thing but it adds nothing to our understanding. The ability to comprehend the original intent of a card is always a bonus that should be strived for.
Presented here are four lithographic postcards that are part of a set drawn by G. Ritzer. Both the artist and his German publisher, only known as RV. seem to be rather obscure, but the work is certainly of high quality. It is also obvious that these were meant to be comic cards, though some strange cipher seems to be needed to understand the humor. The key behind the meaning of these cards is actually not as well hidden as one might imagine. All it requires is some basic knowledge of history coupled with an educated guess regarding the date of publication.
My guess is that these cards were produced 100 years ago during the First World War. While they seemingly have no direct connection to warfare, one must not fail to remember the severe food shortages caused by the conflict. By this time the Germans had already created a War Food Office to deal with shortages, and by 1916 ration cards were needed to buy butter, meat, milk, potatoes, and sugar. As food in German cities grew more scarce, rumors began to spread that those in the countryside were living high off the bounty of the land, and many city folk decided to take a look for themselves. Train stations were soon filled with an exodus of the hungry.
Meat and produce bought through the black market posed a threat to the careful distribution plans of the War Food Office, and they made efforts to curtail it. Police did not have the means to scour the entire countryside so they were posted at train stations on the lookout for suspicious activity. The four postcards shown here illustrate a city woman begging a farmer for meat in front of a nervous cow, another woman arrives at a train station under the watchful eyes of authorities while carrying a pig ready to roast disguised as her baby, a desperate struggle over the possession of a vey distressed goose, and finally a successful getaway back to the city with loot in tow and frustrated authorities in pursuit. Comedy tends to favor the underdog.
When we look at the problems we face this Thanksgiving Day, it is important to remember that troubled times are nothing new. A hundred years ago the Great War disrupted food production and distribution to the point where nearly everyone around the globe was hungry to some degree if not starving. Even amidst desperation people still found ways to face it with humor. Humor may not be the solution to our problems but it is a sign that we still possess resilience and hope. It has helped to sustain us though the hundred years that have past since these cards first brought a smile to someones face. There is always something to be thankful for if we just open our eyes.
Queens, L.I. or is it N.Y.?
As a very young child growing up in Queens, my understanding of geography was little more than rudimentary. I knew I lived in New York City, and that it was a port on the east coast of the United States, but that is where my knowledge ended. One day wile riding in a car with my father, he asked me if I knew what direction we were traveling in. Seeing the Manhattan skyline in the distance, I proudly answered east. I was astounded when my father told me I was wrong, that we were headed west. This made no sense to me. Even with my limited knowledge I knew that the ocean lay beyond the city, so how could we be traveling from that direction? After challenging my father’s answer with my own logic, he gave an explanation outside of my myopic perspective that shocked me. In all my meager years I never realized that I was living on an island off the mainland. Now in my defense, Long Island is a pretty big island, so big that no body of water ever came into view during my normal day to day activities. My limited perspective skewed my world view. Just because we carry some picture of where we live in our heads does not mean it is connected to reality.
By the time I began buying postcards, my grasp of geography had increased dramatically. Despite my newfound knowledge, it did not always seem to help when searching for cards of Queens County. While I now understood that Queens was part of Greater New York even though it sat on Long Island, I noticed that many dealers did not follow set rules when sorting these cards. Some were segregated out of New York State boxes and placed in a category called Queens, while others drifted into boxes containing Long Island towns. When I inquired why they were separated this way, I was usually told that when they were not familiar with the exact location of a community, they just sorted the card by its printed title. Looking over my own collection of Queens cards I noticed that for every three cards marked N.Y. there were four marked L.I. Apparently I was not the only one whose sense of place was a little off kilter. This had to be more than simple confusion, so I began an investigation into a very unsettled history.
When the Dutch ruled New Netherlands, they laid claim to Long Island and all territory east to the Fresh (Connecticut) River. The major problem facing them was finding enough settlers to hold these lands against English expansionism. Even in the 17th century Holland was considered a rather liberal nation and few wanted to leave except for fortune seeking adventurists. On the other hand many were leaving Great Britain for New England because of religious quarrels. As Puritans from Massachusetts sought new lands, they began filling the Connecticut Valley. Some came directly from England, setting up the Newhaven Colony that eventually straddled both shores of Long Island Sound. Though these new settlers placed themselves in uncomfortable proximity with the Dutch, growing tensions were not addressed until 1650 when Dutch Governor Peter Stuyvesant manipulated the British into signing the Treaty of Hartford. Stuyvesant ended up ceding land, but only territory he was no longer able control. In return a recognized border between the two colonies was established, which divided Long Island about ten miles east of where the current Nassau-Suffolk County line now lies.
The Dutch felt more comfortable allowing Englishmen to help populate their North American colony once a firm border was agreed upon. On Long Island the English began moving into the towns of Oyster Bay, Hempstead, Jamaica, Flushing, and Newtown. Their allegiance however would be tested after the Royal Restoration when John Winthrop finally received a charter for his unsanctioned Connecticut colony in 1662. King Charles II not only granted official recognition to the colony, he expanded its territorial claims all the way down to Virginia without any regard to the Dutch presence. After Winthrop absorbed the Newhaven Colony, he began demanding the allegiance of the Dutch settlements within New Netherlands along his former borders. The settlers of western Long Island remained split on this issue. While many were happy to join up with their fellow Englishmen, others had come here to escape life under Puritan rule. All this was rendered moot in 1664 when an English naval fleet crossed the Atlantic and forced the surrender of New Amsterdam.
Winthrop was just as surprised by this military takeover as Stuyvesant. Though it was only the beginning of a wider global effort to seize all Dutch colonies, it had the immediate effect of nullifying the expansive land grant previously given to Connecticut. King Charles II now gave these lands along with all the islands of southern New England to his son James, the Duke of York and Albany. While the old Dutch administration was largely left intact, an English system of land division was put into place. All the territory between Staten Island and Nantucket was turned into the Shire of Yorkshire. For legal administration the Shire was further divided into three Ridings with all the old Dutch-English towns on Long Island, with the exception of Newtown, falling into the North Riding.
Despite the peaceful transition in North America, the mercantile rivalries between England and Holland led to a series of bloody wars. In 1673 a large Dutch fleet sailed into New York Harbor and the city capitulated in much the same manner as it did nine years earlier. After renaming it New Orange, the Dutch reinstated their own oversight, but this only went on for fifteen months. With the Netherlands in possession of valuable new territories producing sugarcane and nutmeg, they were willing to return New Orange in exchange when the Third Anglo-Dutch War came to an end. Tensions however remained high between New York and Connecticut over disputed land claims. When all of New England became preoccupied with the Indian uprisings of King Phillips War in 1675, Governor Edmund Andros of New York took this opportunity to force Long IslandŐs populace into swearing their allegiance to New York at the point of a gun. A permanent border between the colonies was later agreed upon in exchange for his help in ending the uprising.
King Phillips War was relatively short but it proved to be a disaster for New England. Unhappy with the conduct of his overseas subjects, all were eventually placed under direct royal authority. Afterwards Thomas Dongan was dispatched to New York as a provincial governor to bring some order to these royal lands. On November 1st, 1683 a General Assembly of Freeholders was held and an official county system was established. The West Riding was divided into Richmond and Kings Counties, except for Newtown, which was added to the former North Riding renamed Queens County. The lands of the East Riding remained whole in the form of Dukes County until the reign of William and Mary who passed Nantucket, Martha’s Vineyard, Nomans Land, and the Elizabeth Islands on to Massachusetts in 1691. These transferred islands retained the name of Dukes County, while the lands remaining with New York were renamed Suffolk County.
The fate of Kings and Queens counties diverged greatly over the next two centuries despite the fact they were neighbors sharing the same island. Both remained largely rural for quite some, but simple geography would dictate the changes to come. As old Indian trails turned to roads, produce started to funnel down to the village of Brooklyn where it was easily ferried to New York. With its position as a supply terminus guarantied, Brooklyn’s growth took off. When the railroad came, the terrain was from Brooklyn was more suitable for expansion than the irregular swampy coast of the north shore. By 1834 Brooklyn had grown large enough to incorporate into a city. Williamsburg would followed suit in 1851. After the Brooklyn Bridge was completed in 1883 the connection allowed for a massive increase in development. Talk of uniting Brooklyn and New York into one great municipality also increased, but fears of the loss of independence still outweighed the promise of economic benefits at this time.
Even though Queens County was not growing as fast as Kings, a noticeable divide had developed between its towns oriented toward commerce with New York City and those of more rural character where agriculture still dominated. By the late 1850’s these divisions in interests were already fostering efforts to divide the county. They only grew stronger after Long Island City was incorporated in 1870 and the county seat moved there two years later. Having grown more isolated from governance, the three townships of eastern Queens began making plans with two towns in western Suffolk to reconfigure themselves into a new unit to be called Ocean County. When these efforts failed in 1877 it became clear that interests of the more populous towns of western Queens would always dominate.
While the arguments over creating Greater New York remained the same, more people came to be swayed by the economic benefits of such a move. After this changing sentiment was noted through a non-binding referendum held in 1894, negotiations began on a charter that would create united municipal boroughs. In Queens where public opinion over consolidation was much more divided, New York City made the opening move by annexing its western towns on May 4, 1897. An arbitrary line was then drawn from the southeast corner of Flushing at Floral Park to the Atlantic, which placed the towns of LIC, Newtown, Flushing, Jamaica, and portions of various villages of Hempstead, including all of the Rockaways into the new city municipality. Although Flushing was a commuter town, it voted against consolidation but was annexed into the municipality anyway. The more rural townships of Hempstead, North Hempstead, and Oyster Bay were still recognized by the State as part of Queens County but they were excluded from the City’s administration.
All five boroughs were only able to consolidate on January 1, 1898, once some accommodations had been made. Since the City of Brooklyn had already annexed all the towns of Kings County by 1896, its transformation into the Borough of Brooklyn went forward easily. The same could not be said of Queens where controversy reigned. Its strange administrative situation was only solved by finally allowing the eastern townships of Queens to form their long desired independent county. After giving existing communities more consideration as to what side of the line they should lay, a new boundary with the Borough of Queens was drawn that created Nassau County.
Just months after Greater New York was established, Congress authorized the use of Private Mailing Cards. While many problems were associated with their use, card production still increased along with representations of the newly enlarged city. Cards picturing Manhattan continued on as before, but those representing the outer boroughs had many traditions to contend with. Brooklyn’s identity was already firmly established and nearly all cards from this borough proudly said so in print. Most exceptions seem to come from the small communities situated on the harbor or on Jamaica Bay that catered to tourists. Perhaps the addition of Long Island to their place name insinuated a more relaxed setting that might draw in more visitors to their hotels and beaches.
For the towns of Queens, many residents still saw themselves as part of Long Island to where they shared a longer history. Local town halls continued to function as usual and kept their own records for some years after consolidation. While publishers may have only been providing their customers with the descriptions that were used to seeing, it is difficult to say if any of these captions represented a real resistance to the idea of a Greater New York, even if only on an emotional level. If the printing of the words Long Island on a postcard of Queens was once considered a subversive act, it probably became little more than a mindless habit over time. New real estate developments that had little to no connection with the County’s history had postcards of them titled with Long Island for decades. This of course raises the question of whether place designations were primarily used as a marketing ploy.
There may have been many complicated reasons not to drop Long Island from Queens postcards, but perhaps the most obvious answer is a simple one. Until the U.S. Post Office Department introduced a two digit Zoning Improvement Plan Code (ZIP Code) in May 1943 to help match address to location, there was no set standard for addressing correspondence. Low volume had previously allowed for more personal service that often allowed mail with an imprecise address to be correctly delivered. It is not uncommon to find postcards with little more than a name, town, and state on them. By adding Long Island to an address, the odds of the card reaching its destination must have improved dramatically. As long as the public continued to define their world through this designation, publishers matched it with what they printed on their cards to meet expectations and ensure sales.
After World War Two the postcard market changed. Tourists were still purchasing cards, but local scenes of streets and buildings were disappearing rapidly. In this diminished market it is difficult to say when the few remaining publishers stopped placing the words Long Island on their Queens cards, but this habit must have been seriously curtailed once the Postal Service became more stringent on enforcing address codes. Postal regulations may have settled the question of how to properly address a postcard, but the way in which people create their own sense of place cannot be legislated. Personal identity usually incorporates places that provide meaning to an individual or to a nation. By doing this we also project our moral and historical baggage onto a landscape, which in turn becomes part of its memory and myth. The divide between corrupt city living and the virtues of a more rustic life pervade Western society. It should then be of no surprise that these myths form a basic undercurrent when those living on Long Island attempt to define themselves.
The growth of the intercity transportation network turned many residents of all five boroughs into commuters, which also reinforced the idea that all are New Yorkers. Even when most of those living in the outer boroughs feel that City Hall treats all outside of Manhattan with contempt, this alienation has not completely prevented this shift in identity. Those who fled the City for a suburban life often ended up absorbing the memories of old regional animosities that never completely vanished. What has happened in the post World War Two years was not a new paradigm in identity but a shift in perceived boundaries. Long Island is no longer defined by its shoreline, but the invisible line separating Queens from Nassau County. It does not mater that this divide is indistinguishable to the eye. To this day the county line runes right through homes; residency determined by the location of the front door. We create our reality and define who we are through the bias of our perceptions. As residents of Queens grew to feel they were no longer a part of Long Island, postcard captions shifted from L.I. to N.Y.