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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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18. Aug 2015 - June 2016
17. Jan 2015 - June 2015
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
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1. Aug 2006 - June 2007
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The Biggest and the Best
It seems very ironic to me that many of the people who strongly disapprove of relativism seem to easily embrace false news and alternate facts as long it supports their singular view of the world. This position has made itself so evident during the recent presidential campaign that many have claimed this to be a post-truth era. This however is by no means anything new; exaggeration and hyperbole seems to have always been a quintessential part of the American character. The propensity to stretch the definition of facts is evident in mediums of popular culture such as postcards dating back over a century. While superlatives and exaggeration are abundant on these cards, there is no easy path to trace in explaining their strong presence. The origins of this habit predate postcards themselves, making their dynamics more difficult to uncover.
When searching for the reasoning behind our strange fascination with superlatives, we must first consider the importance of associations in creating identity and explaining the world before cause and effect permeated our thinking. A good example is the long standing policy of the Catholic Church that discouraged if not outright prohibited burials within churches but had little effect on its adherentís behavior. Since ancient times it was believed that admittance to heaven was more likely to be granted the closer you were buried to a saint. If the body was unavailable then a relic might take its place. Cathedrals holding relics were eventually filled with tombs interning those powerful enough to defy official policy, and the churchyards beyond their walls were turned into sanctified graveyards. Through this mindset, the inconvenience of leading a moral life could be put aside in favor of taking shortcuts to heaven. This desire to get something for nothing seems to be ingrained in the human psyche for it permeates almost everything we do.
Today we play the lottery, and take selfies with celebrities to share in their fame without having to do anything to earn it. We can see this same attitude expressed in competitive sports, not through the players but the fans. Without any personal involvement in a game, an individual's sense of self worth can rise and fall with the fortunes of the team they associate with. There also seems to be a natural tendency for people to develop a sense of self worth and identity from where they live. To be special means the place you live must also be special. Those who cannot make this connection often leave their hometown for destinations that might better provide the desired associations. Once comfortably reestablished they might even become embarrassed of their origins. Those that stay behind usually rationalize their remaining by adding meaning and importance to the place they live even if these virtues are hollow.
The empires of Europe that created overseas colonies tended to only see them in terms of an economic model. There purpose was to increase the power of empire by increasing the wealth of merchants that partnered with government. The British developed a mercantile policy in which cheap raw materials gathered in its colonies would be shipped to England where they would be turned into finished goods. As these expensive products were sold at a good profit to the captive market back in the colonies, the trade deficit filled Britain’s coffers. Since most of the wealth accumulated in the mother country, the colonies were destined to remain permanent backwaters. This economic model mirrored British society where class meant everything, and an exaggerated form of status was drawn through associations. A man of distinction living in London might be a Gentleman, but not so if he moved to Boston. All Americans were simply second rate by virtue of geography, if not their character.
The original thirteen American colonies were founded for different reasons and populated by those of divergent backgrounds. If the new nation formed after the American Revolution was to remain united, it would have to find itself a unique identity based on common beliefs rather than the ethnicities that kept Europe divided. In Common Sense, Thomas Paine was one of the first to express the belief that Americans possessed an identity apart from their British cousins. We were not just different; our differences caused us to reject the folly of hereditary right in kings in favor of rule by the people. By rejecting old world values, at least in regard to republicanism, we were not just different but better. The concept of American exceptionalism would grow from this basic idea.
Although Americans took pride in their new republic, it was still a bold experiment that had little time honored substance to rally around. A unifying national identity based on a deeper source was needed, one with more history behind it. This path was rather obvious; the very settlement of the New World had created a unique American experience that broke with Old World paradigms. The discovery of the Americas was not just about finding a place previously unknown to Europeans, it was an introduction to an inconceivable world. Most confronting this new reality seem to have clung to Old World views, fitting new facts into their beliefs as best they could while ignoring the inconvenient. This proved harder for those forced to confront this new environment on a daily basis. The real discovery was not of a new world but that old definitions could not all be maintained in it. Even though the aesthetics of the sublime as espoused by the English Romantics had already closely tied culture to the landscape, the experience of settlers added a new dimension on to these beliefs from which a new unique American character developed. When Romanticism began to fade in Europe, the expansion of American frontier allowed the pioneer spirit to flourish and grow into an essential part of the American myth.
From early on there were those who saw that the response of settlers to this new land was culturally separating us from Great Britain. New York’s governor, De Witt Clinton recognized this as the foundation of a uniquely American identity, and his voice was added to the many who saw how this could help foster a united county. At the opening ceremonies of the American Academy of Fine Arts in 1816 he stated, “And can there be a country in the world better calculated than ours to exercise and exalt the imagination - to call into activity the creative powers of the mind, and afford just views of the beautiful, wonderful, and the sublime?” When the American landscape tradition finally came of age in the mid-19th century, painters presented views not as true to life renderings but as manifestations of the most idealistic form of the American spirit. While romantic in nature, these were cultural landscapes borrowed from the attitudes created by the settlement of a new world. If America lacked the cultural background of Europe, we had an unparalleled landscape that spoke beyond square miles and resources. Even when the land they painted was beautiful, they would render it as magnificent as they saw the new republic.
After the revolution the American colonies broke free of mercantilism, but there remained a strong undercurrent of inferiority as the new nation still lacked the ability to produce fine goods at the warís end. This situation was only made worse when craftsmen favoring British rule were forced to flee, which broke down the apprenticeship system slowing economic independence. For decades afterwards the finest furniture continued to be imported from England, the latest fashions from France. The only artwork to hold any status was produced by those who studied at European academies. Those with money have always wanted to show off their wealth, and this could not be accomplished by acquiring second-rate goods that were made in American. Even if elites were satisfied with the status quo, it was a thorn in the side of the average American trying to prove himself to the world. In Democracy in America, Alexis de Tocqueville stated, “When the inhabitant of a democratic country compares himself individually with all those about him, he feels with pride that he is the equal of any one of them; but when he comes to survey the totality of his fellows, and to place himself in contrast to so huge a body, he is instantly overwhelmed by the sense of his own insignificance and weakness.” He also noted that, “Democratic institutions strongly tend to promote the feeling of envy.&rdquo: This long standing contradiction between notions of American exceptionalism and egalitarianism blurred traditional distinctions of status, which may have suited the nation but not necessarily the ego of the citizen. In this environment, any advantage perceived or real was seen as beneficial, which in turn seems to have infused much bragging and boosterism into this nation’s culture.
By the time of the U.S. Constitution was being written, there were already calls to officially recognize the American version of English. This effort to politicize language may have been focused on vocabulary but it would eventually be extend to the way words were used. Noah Webster was a champion of American English and his influence on unifying spelling was unparalleled, but the language itself was derived from common usage or as Walt Whitman put it, “its basis broad and low, close to the ground.” The British were horrified at these corrupt deviations of the language they held so dear, but perhaps their revulsion had more to do with the thumb placed in the eye of British imperialism. Even though regional differences in the way English was spoken in America were far less different from the dialects found back in Great Britain, the isolated lives that many lived here helped to foster the formation colloquialisms. While these took on many forms, they naturally lent themselves to exaggeration, which fostered a less strict interpretation of the truth. The influx of black story telling into this mix must also be recognized because of the edge it added to exaggeration through the way that slaves satirized their masters. Mark Twain, a master of the vernacular picked up on this type of speech and played with the notion of stretchers in his mostly true Explanatory Note at the beginning of Huckleberry Finn. He not only recognized shades of meaning in American English, he elevated it into an art form.
By the early 19th century, American manufacturing was beginning to flourish. This was bolstered by a flood of highly skilled workers emigrating from Europe after a series of failed revolutions. Habits however are not quick to change and American manufactures still had trouble convincing potential customers that products made here were as good as any imported from abroad. The need to change the public’s mindset just happened to coincide with a number technical advances that made the promotion of products much easier. The industrialization of paper manufacturing and introduction of faster presses allowed printing to grow beyond the small shop and into a factory setting. The volume of cheap printed material could now increase in relation to the demand created by growing rates of literacy. This became increasingly important when the growth of the middle-class created a great demand for consumer goods. While attaching superlatives to advertisements seems like an obvious approach to attract customers, their prevalence may have never reached the proportions they did without their strong roots in language. Boosterism is easily accepted because it addressees a deeper need to feel good about being an American.
The American Civil War was a watershed point in which the nation was not just held together but redefined. A true national identity was finally being formed that subverted provincial concerns for a broader agenda. Bitter divisions remained after the war and they continue to plague us to this day, but there would be a continuous effort from this point on to strengthen a singular identity. This often involved reinforcing myths that connected all Americans to the land. Language has been bent in the service of promoting travel for a long time. It is believed that Greenland was so named to entice colonists to its cold rocky shores. Early stories of the true natural bounty found in America were unbelievable to many, and so embellishing them a little further was not hard to do. This exaggerated boastfulness became a hallmark in descriptions of America. Even notables like Thomas Jefferson in his Notes on the State of Virginia claimed that the Alps have no more beauty in them than the Blue Ridge. This trend to exaggerate was further encouraged by those promoting territorial expansion. As migration into the western territories continued, the optimistic myth of the frontier gripped the American consciousness furthering a sense of unity. Realities that didnít match up to who we now believed we were no longer mattered because we lived off the myth, not reality. Hardships and the failure of dreams greeted many struggling for a better life, but this is not part of the frontier myth. Everything needed to be promoted as the biggest, highest, largest, longest, and the fastest if they were to meet up with expectations. These superlatives found common application in everything from political rhetoric to hucksterism and yellow journalism; and they can be found in abundance on trade cards published throughout the 1870’s and 1880’s.
Superlatives were not always needed when depicting the American landscape because its greatness was implied by its mere inclusion on a postcard. This can be seen in depictions of Niagara Falls; one of this nationís oldest tourist destinations, and one of the first images to be placed on postcards. As Americans found more leisure time in the 1820’s, the prestigious Grand Tour of Europe was refashioned into this nation’s own Fashionable Tour that took tourists up the Hudson River. Since the few historical sites dating from the American Revolution barely compared to the cultural heritage of Europe, emphasis was placed on scenery and even on industrial wonders like the Erie Canal. While impressive, they remained subordinate to the grand finale of Niagara for which there was no known equivalent. As scenic wonders took the place of classical ruins, they became a symbol of America’s greatness and were turned into national shrines. Just like those who once believed that proximity to a saint in death brought one closer to heaven, many pilgrims to Niagara Falls felt the experience would bring them closer to God. It was only a matter of time before this relationship was commodified through the mass production of mementos such as postcards. Companies like Shredded Wheat that harnessed the power of the falls were also able to cash in by associating their product with the virtues of this special place. The very simplicity of postcards lends itself to this type of promotion. Since there is a need to quickly grab attention and the inability to explain things in detail, postcards rely heavily on shared myths, sentimentality, and hyperbole to get their message across.
Railroads had been the first major promoters of tourism, and their carefully laid our advertising campaigns like See America First called attention to specific American wonders and turned them into tourist attractions. While profit was the driving force behind the promotion of national tourism, some saw it their patriotic duty to use these advertising campaigns to help create a stronger sense of unity in a country still scared by civil war. By creating shared experiences through the careful selection and promotion of tourist sites, they hoped to accentuate particular ideals at the expense of inconvenient historical truths. By reinforcing the national myth, the profane could be transformed into something sacred that all could rally around regardless of cultural or religious differences. As travel became a marketed commodity supported by the production of postcards, these cards came to play a significant role in promoting unifying ideals. Postcards picked up as souvenirs could create a sense of participation in history or a connection to a sacred place. When they were mailed, they had the added bonus of demonstrating the sender’s ability to single out the best places to visit, thus increasing personal status. The belief that status can be bequeathed by association has made the addition of superlatives to postcards an important ingredient in this exchange.
Exaggeration or tall tale cards, commonly called freaks at the turn of the 20th century, treated America’s propensity for greatness with far less reverence than those promoting national tourism even though they both draw their power from the same myth. These amusing cards seem to be an outcrop of colloquialisms and the tendency to gap and stretch. Though expressed in different ways, freaks are most successful when presented in the pictorial language of real photo postcards. While it may seem that illustrators were best suited to convey exaggerations since they had no limits on what they could express, this very freedom weakened their results because artwork was seen as biased at best and depictions of anything unusual generally fell into the realm of fantasy. Photography by its exacting nature always conveys some sense of truth, which makes it the perfect medium to distort reality. The ease by which photomontages could be produced was also a deciding factor in making these cards so common. While we are not meant to believe in the narrative posed to us on exaggeration cards, they are presented as if they depict real situations. It is through contradiction that their humor is revealed.
While the production of exaggeration cards peaked around 1910, the use of superlatives seems to have only expanded in the years that followed, spurred on by the growth of motoring. As more ordinary Americans acquired automobiles, the railroads that traditionally guided tourism could no longer control where tourists went. Large ad campaigns continued, but they steadily lost their audience to the hawking of fast-food, theme parks, and every little roadside attraction that sprung up across the country. After pictorial media grew more common, postcard publishers primarily focused on satisfying the needs of tourists and those trying to make money off of them. Postcards flourished because they became the great marketing equalizer. Our desire to be associated with something special meant that it only took a superlative to make us give the mundane a second look. Postcards allowed anyone with a large rock on his farm to promote it in the same manner as a National Park. If this boulder was indistinguishable from millions of others across the nation, adding particulars could make it the largest boulder on the west side of Smith Mountain. Often there was no way of really knowing if such claims were true, and conflicting claims often showed they weren’t. Truth however did not seem to matter as much as being able to associate with celebrity and fame, even if only in the form of a rock with dubious credentials.
It seems as if there is a clear distinction between superlatives that provide measurable facts like the highest mountain, and those that are subjective like the most beautiful mountain, but this is not always the case. What often passes for a factual claim on a card is simply made up to increase the possibility of a sale. A noted example is photographer William James Harris who after joining the St. Augustine Historical Society in Florida began using his newfound credentials to make many unsubstantiated historic claims on his postcards. Since such activity could always be called into question, it was easier for most publishers to make subjective claims that were impossible to dispute. Finest, greatest, and, and best or most of anything you can think of became the new superlatives of choice. Postcard publishers in other nations also used superlatives, but far less frequently. They usually only pertained to measurable truths rather than questionable claims. The practice of stretching the truth can meet up with cultural and official resistance in some societies. In 2015, China banned the use of superlatives in advertising, which of course can also be read as an attack on the type of relativism that has overtaken much of politics in the postmodern world.
American politicians have long espoused how good things are in the United States compared to other places even when our rankings in education, healthcare, poverty, and incarceration are truly abysmal. Truth cannot be acknowledged because our national myth infers that everything is better in America; so instead we address the problem by redefining truth and letting people only hear what they want to hear. I am often angered by the breakdown of civil discourse since I am not without sympathy for divergent outlooks. After the first World Trade Center was built and surpassed the height of the Empire State building, I never really adjusted to the change. I had grown up seeing the Empire State Building as an iconic structure, defiantly built during the great depression. Its height was defined by my emotional attachment to it, not a measuring stick. The construction of even taller buildings around the world has not diminished its status in my mind; if anything, the title of tallest building has lost some meaning to me instead. Despite all this, I do realize that feelings are not facts and I ultimately bow to the measuring stick when making practical decisions, but in the absence of hard facts my feelings remain relevant. If we can never know what things are like in themselves, is truth always relative to the individual? This is a dangerous position to take in a society that sees most things in black & white terms. Relativism is anathema to those who believe in absolutes; so when there are two divergent ways of thinking, there is little room for compromise. Complicating this matter is the lack of recognition that the bedrock of most positions is based on the emotional reaction to facts and not facts themselves. This creates the illusion that there is some real golden age to return to when all that ever existed were dreams for a better future.
While our national mythologies seem to provide a moral foundation from which we can project lies, and that superlatives and exaggeration are used to commit fraud, their widespread presence in American culture has not created a fraudulent nation. Mythologies may not represent facts but they do represent the truths a society cares most about. They would not live on without our close attachment to them as well as our need for them. Our boisterous spirit has carried us through difficult times as well as projected us forward spawning great art, literature, and music in its wake. These tendencies however should not be conflated with the idea that truth is a political stance that can serve any personal agenda in a post-truth world. While we must recognize that history is no more than the interpretation of facts, facts we rely on have often been purposely distorted throughout history to better meet political needs by reinforcing prejudices. When there is no truth we can agree upon, then anything can be true as in an Orwellian nightmare where the Ministry of Truth spins whatever lies are needed to suit the day. As many critical issues now rise up before us, the news media seems consumed with hyping competitive nonsense like which President had a larger inaugural crowd in attendance. In a society where stardom counts for everything, nothing is as important as confirming who or what is the biggest and the best. This obsession trivializes the importance that metaphor and myth have always had in shaping societal values. When taken too literally these mechanisms can become the tools of despots cloaked in popularism.
Old postcards have a way of reminding us that the issues of our times are not as new as we like to think. Our concerns over truth today certainly have their unique twists, but these problems go back for some time and their origins are older still. Without knowing how ideas evolved it is impossible to move forward with any clarity. Postcards may have stopped offering us clues into our culture for some time now as they no longer play the important role in communicating ideas that they once did, but we must not let our modern eyes cloud the insights that reside in the most ubiquitous card. Very often the overt message of the card is not nearly as important as understanding its understated message through the way it is presented to us. Postcards after all are not as innocent as they look. Superlatives represent an ideology, their use tells us more than what they describe. These old cards may not accurately portray our past, but perhaps that was never their point. What they do capture is what we yearn for as we attempt to forge a coherent identity. Even if postcards have lost their relevance to the expansion of digital media, we must confront the same issues that they played such a crucial role in supporting. They were born from the American myth, promoted it, and we now face the consequence of it.
In 1835 Alexis de Tocqueville wrote, “The American lives in a land of wonders, in which everything seems to be in constant flux, and every change seems to mark an advance. Hence the idea of the new is coupled in his mind with the idea of the better. Nowhere does he perceive the limits that nature may have imposed on man’s efforts. In his eyes, that which does not exist is that which has not yet been attempted.” Let us hope that this forward looking spirit lives on and continues to make us ask more from our nation. If perfection is beyond human grasp, then ideals are not to be realized but strived for. Only by giving up on the idea that we are the best can we endeavor to create a better world.
Days That Will Live in Infamy
In the days following the terrorist attack on New York City on 911, I found myself drawn downtown to where the World Trade Center once stood. I had been in the North Tower that very morning, quite by an accident of fate, but I was already on my way uptown when the first plane made impact. Not having a camera with me that day is one of the few regrets of my life. My only consolation is in knowing that my inclination to run in for the shot would have probably gotten me buried alive had I had one. Like people from all over the country who poured into the city afterwards, I too wanted to lend a helping hand. Like so many others I was also disappointed when my help was spurned. While I understood the danger involved and the need to control the scene, the rejection still hurt. This was my home that was attacked, and in this pivotal moment I was treated as if I didn’t even belong.
A couple days later with a camera around my neck I began my trek downtown to see what I could belatedly capture. Police checkpoints tried to deny people like me entrance but I still managed to filter through. Burning debris was still sending up clouds, but it was the chalky smell to the air that dominated. Every visible surface was dulled with grey dust that made everything look dead. No traffic was allowed in but the streets remained busy with utility trucks and crews frantically laying cable right over the sidewalk to replace underground lines that were destroyed. Open trucks carrying soldiers would intermittently roll by stirring up dusty clouds and apprehension. Security around the immediate site where the buildings came down was much tighter; no one was getting through here. I could just manage a glimpse of what little remained standing.
It took a few more days for me to begin understanding what was really going on. There were certainly reasons for keeping people at a distance, but there also seemed to be a concerted effort in place to take complete control over defining the meaning of this event. While a devastating blow to all those who lost loved ones and the city at large, attacks even of this scale are only pinpricks to this nation. There is however real power inherent in tragedy that can be easily harnessed to manipulate public opinion. A clear message would be spun on how the attack was to be interpreted, and anyone taking photographs that might create an alternative interpretation was not to be tolerated. While the mayor made secret arrangements with a handful of select photographers to record the damage and recovery work, he publicly called the rest of us ghouls. Police allowed to act by whim rather than clear guidelines created perpetual fears that cameras could be confiscated or destroyed regardless of First Amendment rights.
I took far less photographs than I might have, but security was only part of the reason. Already feeling low, my spirit was further dampened with every step closer I came to the center of things. In the months that followed I became more focused on my work and continued to sporadically return to ground zero. New fences however were erected not only for security, but to prevent me and the hordes of pilgrims flocking downtown to pay homage from seeing anything of substance. During the Second World War, a popular rallying cry was, Remember Pearl Harbor. How much poorer would our memories now be if the attack on Pearl Harbor was not supported by visual images, mostly captured by those who just happened to be nearby, camera in hand.
Generals may have always hated newsmen, buy official efforts to tightly control all news emanating from the battlefront only began being put in place at the beginning of World War One. Americans were not exposed to the true cost of the war in the Pacific until 1944 when the first images of those killed at Tarawa were published. By that time we were gaining the upper hand in the conflict and officials could afford to expose the public to some of the real hardships our troops faced. The empathy this created helped sell war bonds, but sales would still fluctuate with every victory or defeat. To keep a war weary publicís support meant that propaganda was just as essential to victory as any battle. Imagery the public was exposed to had to be continually controlled if the official message was to be kept on track.
There are many American made postcards that capture the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor; some are photo-based and others are artist drawn but nearly all were made well after World War Two ended. At the time, it was difficult to get photographs off of this remote Pacific island in a timely manner. Only local papers ran pictures of the attack with their headlines. By the time photographs began being released, we were already at war and their use was being monitored. If the disaster of Pearl Harbor occurred a year further into the conflict, it is probable that the public would have heard little of it and only be exposed to images of individual valor. Disguising losses through bravery and heroics is a time proven strategy. At the time we needed a tragedy, one that would anger Americans enough to demand war. Nearly all the subsequent photographs the public got to see of the war came from the U.S. Signal Corps. They did a good job of recording, but censors promoting the propaganda war filtered out anything that might discourage support for the war. Images of the destruction at Pearl Harbor only now appear on American postcards in quantity because it is America that ultimately won the war. Pearl Harbor can now be interpreted as a setback, not a defeat.
There are however many contemporaneous Japanese postcards that depict the raging battle at Pearl Harbor. While American cards printed during the war tend to only make reference to the attack in terms of seeking revenge, Japanese cards depict the sinking of American ships in heroic terms. While these artist drawn cards are sometimes shy on facts, they still serve their purpose as part of a larger effort to celebrate and promote the successful expansion of their empire. News out of Tokyo defined their successful attack as proof of Japanese superiority over Americans. We should not be surprised by any of this; victors always enhance their victories with exaggerations of might while those defeated try to hide any real or perceived weaknesses. While this approach may suit propaganda concerns, it eventually harms perceptions of the past. What would our visual history tell us if Japan won the war? Would their numerous postcards provide the entire historical record in the absence of ours? There may be danger in losing control of the official message, but there might be more danger in not having a record of events beyond rhetoric.
On this 75th anniversary of the day that will live in infamy, many American veterans complain that the battle, their own history, is being forgotten by a younger generation. This is undoubtedly true because the past has always faded from current concerns despite all our great monuments and grand commemorations. As the needs of our society change, so do the stories we live by. What largely remains over time are the myths that continue to resonate with us. The problem is that people often give little consideration to what they chose to remember.Convenience and pleasure usually take priority over facing unpleasantries or hard decisions. To make matters worse, these bad habits are usually encouraged by those more powerful in order to promote their own agendas. While we tend to leave facts for historians to debate, we still need events to be properly recorded so that everything we come to know is not just a product of spin. The billion images posted daily to the Internet does not guarantee that the significant will rise up from the trite or that it will even be captured in the first place.
On this December day we must not only be grateful to all those who fought and sacrificed their lives to protect our nation, we ought to remember those who risked their lives by exposing themselves to the danger of battle, not to seek fortune from the pictures they took, but to make sure that infamous day cannot be totally forgotten.
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 Island’s 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.