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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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Guignol and the Great War
Postcards are basically a pictorial medium where a bold illustration draws attention and then relays a simple message. This message can be further embellished or explained with text, but writing is usually kept to a minimum. The addition of text can become more important during wartime when relaying propaganda is often its primary goal. Some of these cards are nearly given over to witting containing proclamations, bits of speeches or patriotic poems. One such set is odder than most in that hand written correspondence is printed over most of its surface. Even more odd are the small illustrations pushed to the side that contain stiffly drawn figures with hands that look as if they were carved out of wood. While this set is unusual from any perspective, it is only confusing if the cultural references are lacking. When these postcards were first published in France, there would have been little trouble recognizing that the characters names come from the Guignol puppet theater.
Guignol is now synonymous with puppet shows in France, but the name was only originally applied to the main character in a particular type of show first developed by Laurent Mourguet in the late 18th century. Mourguet was an illiterate silk weaver from Lyon who fell on hard times once the French Revolution disrupted international trade. After he failed to make ends meet through peddling, he took up dentistry, which in those days required little more than a strong hand, a pair of pliers, and medicine to kill the pain. As any good salesman knows, a good sense of humor is essential if an edge is to be gained on the competition, and so Mourquet began putting on amusing puppet shows that would attract those passing by on the street. Although his shows were modest affairs, he demonstrated a considerable talent for puppetry that slowly created a following.
Mourguet’s first puppet shows followed the classic model of the Neopolitan commedia dell’arte that arose in the early-17th century. These shows followed very simple plot lines largely revolving around the subject of love, sex, and jealousy, which had pleased crowds since similar comedies were performed in ancient Greece. Their characters’ exaggerated qualities were almost archetypal in there representations servants, soldiers, and fools. A favorite character was Pulcinella, a county bumpkin who acts without regard to consequences but always manages to win in the end. He constantly demonstrates his contradictory nature, “I am Prince of everything, Lord of land and main. Except for my public whose faithful servant I remain.” Many regional spin-offs were based on Pulcinella who turned into Polichinelle in France and Punch of Punch & Judy in Great Britain.
As time went by, Mourguet tried to increase his audience by tying his story lines to daily events, and presenting them through parler lyonnais, the local dialect of Lyon. This improvisational aspect made his shows much more popular, and by 1804 he was able to earn his entire living as a puppeteer. While these innovations were important, his real success seems to rest on the characters he developed. First to be introduced was a cobbler named Gnafron who embodied the local spirit of Lyon. He was followed in 1809 by the silk weaver Guignol, who was possibly named after a real Lyonnais canut. While Guignol also represents a local spirit, his attributes were similar to that of Polichinelle, who was Mourguet’s favorite puppet and the one that first highlighted his shows. These additions allowed Guignol to become a more complicated figure. Though always self serving and reluctant to assume responsibility, he nevertheless always manages to turn up on top of any situation in spite of his flaws. This of course is where the humor lies, but his appeal draws from something much deeper. He is generally recognized as the common working man in who the audience can recognize their own faults and shortcomings as well as their longings and ambitions. It is this ability to relate on a personal level that that drew in an ever expanding audience, one that grew well beyond the local concerns of Lyon. By the time Mourguet died in 1844, his puppet theater was a cultural tradition that lived on through his children and their descendants.
While most story lines of this puppet theater revolved around the interactions between Gnafron and Guignol, other characters like the police officer Flageolet and Guignol’s wife Madelon came to play important supporting roles. This cast allowed the stories to grow more complicated and they added variation without compromising the basic humor and respect through which the peasants and laborers of Lyon were represented. As these characters became well known in French popular culture, they became the tools of many political cartoonists; a trade that was quickly expanding with the steady rise of printed publications. The first of these satirical publications was the Journal de Guignol, established in Lyon in 1865. Though short lived, it set up a standard of using the Guignol Theater to reveal political and social hypocrisy. Though often used to attack the whirlwind of change sweeping through the 19th century, Guignol basically became the voice of the street that could be used by those holding any position. In many ways he was tied to the rebellious nature of France that remained unsettled since the Revolution.
French authorities also grew wary of the inherent power to be found in the Guignol character. While he upholds the democratic ideals of the French republic, he constantly challenges any seat of power. By mid-19th century, scripts for these puppet shows had to be officially approved before they were put on while Guignol cartoons were often censored and the periodicals publishing them even shut down. Despite these efforts to suppress dissent, political cartoons only further enhanced the presence and respectability of the irreverent Guignol Theater, as well as its creator. By the time postcards were being made, it was common to see puppet shows being performed out on the streets of Paris to the promenades of beachside resorts. On the hundredth anniversary of Guignol, funds began being raised to put a monument honoring his creation on the streets of Lyon. By 1912 a bronze bust of Mourguet stood atop this monument, and the following year saw the establishment of the Société des Amis de Guignol (the Société des Amis de Lyon and Guignol since 1947).
While the citizens of Lyon had long represented themselves through the figure of Guignol, the universal qualities of this character made him appealing to propagandists once the Great War broke out. Symbols that people can easily relate to are important in creating a unified national identity, and this spirit of unity is essential when facing the complexities of war. Individuals must be made to overlook self-interests and the subtleties of the conflict to create a single minded stance; it must only be us and them. Like a mascot, Guignol’s image was placed on a variety of military equipment including battle flags of Lyon regiments, but there was also a growing effort to make him a symbol of France. Guignol, Gnafron, and Madelon had already graced postcards for years, and they would now be required to perform in war related narratives. Even though the need for national symbols is well understood and the rush to find them understandable, the use of Guignol is a strange choice. There is always danger in using a populist platform for while it may initially help rally support, there is always the risk of loosing control over it. At a time when the government wanted everyone to support the War without question, they began promoting a mythic character famous for ignoring rules.
In 1914, the illustrator Jean Coulon produced a postcard set for S. Farges that publicized the Exposition Internaionale opening in Lyon that May. These cards featured the characters of the Guignol Theater that were so closely associated with the city. When war broke out only two months later, the exposition quickly fell into decline. Postcard sales must have plummeted as the public turned its attention to more pressing and exciting matters, but this also opened a new opportunity for both artist and publisher. Even though there had been efforts to sanitize the Guignol Theater since the late 19th century to make it more acceptable for children, Guignol still seemed the perfect character through which a new satirical magazine could confront the conflict. Not only could he speak for most Frenchmen, his continuous good fortune also represented the success of good over evil. Coulon agreed to provide Farges with illustrations featuring these puppets that would appear in print as well as on collotype postcards. This type of dual publication was quite common at the time because the great popularity of postcards could enhance sales of periodicals.
The first postcard in the Guignol war set, La Guerre, is dated August 2, 1914, and shows Guignol saying goodbye to his friend Gnafron as he leaves to enlist in the army. This forms the basic division in the continuing narrative; Guignol will represent the idealized spirit of France at the battlefront, while his wife Madelon and the older Gnafron represent the more common concerns of the home front. This card is unusual for it is one of the few in which there is direct dialogue between characters. The texts on most of the cards that follow take the form of correspondence written in rhymed verse. While the expected poetic slang of Lyon is left in these letters to add local color, it is toned down so that the cards can find a wider audience. Even though all cards are numbered and dated to appear sequential, they stand independent of one another. Guignol and Gnafron write back and forth, each addressing a new issue particular to that moment in the War without any back and forth dialogues. Each character becomes an allegory to their way of perceiving the War. By not dwelling on their relationship, this device keeps the interest of the audience focused on the relevant issue at hand.
The lack of dialogue on these cards is very representative of the two worlds created by the Great War, a situation that was generally shared by all belligerents. Despite the vast amount of correspondence exchanged between those serving on the front lines and those back home, strict censorship prevented families from knowing little of consequence beyond whether their loved one serving was alive or dead. The lack of real news created an atmosphere where people at home had no idea of the hardships that persisted at the front, which made their own deprivations loom larger in their minds. Troops returning home on leave discovered a growing disconnect between these two perceived realities. Most French postcards did little to enlighten anyoneís perceptions, presenting little more than generic narratives emphasizing bravery, endurance or victory.
News at the time was also highly censored; reporters could not get to the front lines and were forbidden to talk to soldiers. Subject to the Espionage Act, they had to worry that publishing material not approved by the military could lead to their arrest and possible execution. Civilian censors were entrusted with dealing with political problems at home while the Ministry of War directly controlled the French Press Bureau that dispensed all news. All printed material sent through the mail was further scrutinized by provincial control commissions set up throughout France to enforce censorship. What people at home learned of the War was only what the generals thought they should hear. All news was designed to aid the war effort; its relation to fact was of no consequence. Even all postcards needed to have the censorís approval number (vise) printed on them before they could be sent through the mail. Only Coulon’s first card, issued the same day as censorship laws were decreed, could be published without scrutiny. Coulon realizing the trouble that censorship might bring was careful not to work under his own name, choosing the pseudonym Gérôme Coquandier, which appears on these cards.
Even though Coulon was theoretically presenting satire, his early cards still display a great deal of patriotism and optimism for he was as much in the dark as to what was truly happening at the battlefront as everyone else. No real news was forthcoming for the entire first month of the conflict, and little more of the truth followed afterwards. This can be seen on card 3, dated August 28, 1914, that shows Guignol fighting with the Belgian army. He laments the loss of Liege, criticizes the burning of Louvain, and praises King Albert I of Belgium whose bravery at the front becomes an inspiration to his troops. While these events are all real, it overlooks how badly the Belgian and French troops were overrun, and how the French army suffered their worst casualties of the War in the opening months. It must be remembered that the individual cards of this set were issued one at a time as events unfolded. There was no retrospect to be had that might reveal all the horrors that would be forthcoming. The basic formula of this card showing Guignol fighting with the soldiers of foreign armies would be repeated as a way of introducing issues related to other Allied nations.
By the time card 5, dated September 21, 1914, was issued; the initial romance surrounding the War was fading fast. This card portrays the destruction of the great Cathedral at Reims as being unprecedented and as a purposeful act. While there is still controversy over the manner in which it was damaged, this card is presented as a one sided rant in which Guignol throws every possible insult imaginable at the German monsters responsible for its desecration. This type of vitriol was very common on French postcards, and in this sense this card is similar to the countless other cards depicting atrocities. While the destruction at Reims was used extensively in the Allied propaganda war to sway public opinion in neutral nations, the outrage expressed on this card feels more personal if not unique.
It did not take long before the censors caught up with Coulon. After criticizing the government for sending troops with summer uniforms into winter campaigning while wasting taxes that could have paid for them, the 7th card of the series, dated November 2, 1914, was banned from publication. A few day later, Coulon issued a new unnumbered card that questions the punishments that might befall those who dare speak the truth about governmental incompetence, and he depicts Anastasie, symbol of censorship, attacking Gnafron’s letter with an oversized pair of scissors. Coulon also concludes that once the War ends he will take his revenge and publish banned card 7.
More postcards in this set might have been censored had not Coulon taken advantage of Guignol’s well known contradictory nature. By arguing both sides of the same point, thus confusing the true intentions of the card, controversial themes might be approached with impunity. While it may seem that this simple trick would easily be seen trough, anyone familiar with Guignol Theater might recognize this form of confused thinking as natural to it and overlook the subversive message. Even so, Coulon sometimes seems to go out of his way to dare the censors as on card 11 from July 11, 1915, that reveals the hypocrisy of statesmen that call for war but do not fight. In the middle of this letter there is a side message that exposes the author’s tendency to write things he ought not. This taunt also indirectly exposes his contempt for censorship.
The poetic way in which these cards are written can also make them difficult to decipher. It is difficult to know how much of this was a calculated ploy to disguise intent as opposed to style. This is especially evident on card 13, dated September 15, 1915, that relates conversation from an impromptu family gathering during an air raid. Even though there is nervous talk of canon and Zeppelins, the conversation remains casual as if nothing is out of the ordinary. Worry seems to be tempered by an unspoken acceptance of the new imposed lifestyle, which can be a form of resistance. By expressing important concerns of the day through common conversation they feel more real even when coming from puppets. While this informal setting may provide some humor as well as truth, it was also a way to stymie censors. The device also makes these cards more difficult to understand today when common ways of speaking are no longer so common.
On card 15, dated January 28, 1916, Gnafron gives us an update on the changes in Lyon, which he now describes as the tower of Babel. A long rundown is given of all the allies, colonial troops, and foreigners who have taken refuge there. While many French publishers depicted Black Senegalese soldiers, few showed fashionably dressed woman flirting with them to the extent shown here. Sexual innuendo could always be counted on to help make a sale, but inferences toward interracial couples always had to be tempered in some manner. While Coulon is willing to set up the situation, he adapts a common solution by showing the Black soldier to be wounded, which renders him harmless. This card goes on to describe the deplorable conditions that Madelon now finds herself working under, even being charged a penny to go pee at he exploitive job.
Coulon’s strategy of relying on the personal judgments of censors seems to have given most of the satire expressed through the mouth’s of puppets some leeway, but when he reproached the subject of the army being ill prepared for the coming winter censors struck again. This time it was card 27, dated October 25, 1916, but they left it in circulation only redacting a portion of the offending text. Instead of leaving a blank space, Coulon replaced it with a sarcastic apology claiming he had no right to reveal the deprivations faced by soldiers fighting for France that would force such editing. This paragraph opens and closes with a pair of scissors to leave no doubt that he is responding to the actions of the censors. This in itself was a bold and dangerous move for authorities did not like the public being made aware of the existence of censorship.
Though the amount of censorship applied to these cards seems light considering their controversial content, what we don’t see are Coulon’s efforts at self-censorship. Most publishers of the day did not follow set rules for they already knew what was expected of them. Rather than being coerced, most seem to have followed official guidelines willingly if not enthusiastically because they felt it was their patriotic duty to show unreserved support for the War. Those publishers who began to reassess their enthusiasm as the War dragged on had to be careful. They could abhor the destruction the conflict wrought as long as all blame was placed on the enemy. Peace could be wished for as long as it was represented in the form of inevitable victory. Coulon’s cards are remarkable for the amount of dissent expressed. Even if he self censored his work, these cards still give us much more insight into the concerns of ordinary people than found on most other patriotic postcards.
Some of the more critical cards in the set deal with home front issues of injustice that Coulon was more familiar with. Many of these were the inconvenient truths of a society that did not live up to the ideals set out in official propaganda, and certainly not found on most postcards. Here we find war profiteers and the discrepancies between those asked to sacrifice and the wealthy that continue to live high. On card 22, dated August 8, 1916, Gnafron and Madelon witness a family being thrown out of their home by a greedy landlord while their son is away fighting to protect the country. While this sort of outrage might be seen as being nothing more than the singular viewpoint of the author, the continuing publication of these cards throughout the War shows that these messages resonated with a substantial audience.
Even though Coulon was a sharp critic of his fellow Frenchmen, he consistently showed his distain for the enemy. When the Austrian emperor, Franz Joseph died on November 21,1916, card 28 was issued two days later. Here Gnafron writes of his dream in which the emperor is confronted by the opponents he executed and the soldiers that died for his political ambitions. There is no mercy to be granted before he is descended upon by demons. Gnafron awakes and wonders if the dream can be true. The audience knows the emperor has died, so maybe his damnation is real as well or at least really deserved.
A few serious attempts made to see if a negotiated end to the War could be arranged, but they did not go far since everyone thought they would win and could then dictate terms. It was difficult keeping overtures secret, though few ever learned the reasons for failure. On card 29, dated January 12, 1917, Guignol wonders what happened to the overtures for peace, and whether the United States will or can do anything to end the War. While these lofty concerns hover overhead, Guignol and his comrades must deal with the never ending problems of everyday life in the trenches that range from the uncomfortable realities of lice infestation to the possibility of sudden of death. While we are exposed to multiple characters within these narratives, we must realize that they all represent the author’s singular point of view. As Coulon grew weary of the War, our brave hero Guignol who was once prone to bravado now wishes for an end to the fighting.
A number of these cards deal with social issues that were compounded by the War. On card 35, dated June 12, 1915, Gnafron writes of the milliners, florists, and dressmakers of town whose request for an increase in their meager wages is ignored. This leads to strikes in which Madelon takes part. While some jobs that women take over are essential for the war effort, their contributions will not be recognized through pay. Things may look different in wartime, but they are essentially the same as before. While many women did indeed flock to cities to earn money at jobs previously closed to them, unequal pay was a universal standard and many worked with hazardous materials in dangerous conditions. This card only addresses the tip of the problems that women faced, which can also be a reflection of the great resentment that existed toward working women in France.
Card 39, dated February 15, 1918, is an amusing parody on the puppet theater. Guignol shows were not only put on to raise charitable funds, they would often visit troops, especially the wounded at hospitals to help raise morale or at least be a momentary distraction. On this card Guignol comments how the entertainment turned his own thoughts of his sad fate and looming death into laughter, and how much the soldiers envy the joy of the puppets. Our tendency to become engaged with these puppet characters can make us forget that the opinions and feelings expressed are really that of the author Coulon, and this card is a reminder of the multiple layers through which truth is filtered and distorted during wartime. The importance of these shows was officially recognized in Lyon when A Day of Guignol was declared in October 1916.
By 1917 the ongoing War was taking a severe toll on morale. The poor conditions French troops were forced to live under created feelings of neglect, and discontent began to spread rapidly through the ranks. French authorities placed stricter control on censorship out of fear that subversive ideas might spread. Letters and cards were carefully scrutinized, and any questionable comments were blocked out with ink. By the fall when soldiers came to believe that their lives were being carelessly wasted they started to mutiny. In Russia, troops were already leaving the battlefront and just going home in numbers to large to control. In this dangerous environment it is odd that censors let pass card 40 in which Guignol converses with a fellow soldier over the significance of passing unarmed Russian troops. The clue is in its date, February 23, 1918, by which time Russian solders were not deserters but noncombatants. There is still dangerous talk of the Bolsheviks helping to end the War but this argument is tempered with a warning from Guignol that this may cause harm to France. Germany would launch a major offensive on the Western Front the following month supported by troops withdrawn from Russia.
Efforts were made to quell the rebellion within French ranks by a change in leadership that brought an end to fruitless attacks while improving their miserable diet. While this adverted a complete disaster, the French army could no longer be considered reliable. This perilous situation was one of the best kept secrets of the War; so secret that not only Coulon but the censors examining his work had no idea of the true situation, so they had nothing to react to. There were however changes that could be felt if not understood. The French had always executed more soldiers for cowardice than in most other armies, but did Coulon notice an increase as the ringleaders of the mutiny were shot? On card 45, dated April 17, 1918, Guignol is present at a soldier’s execution and comments on how harshly the behavior of soldiers is judged by military authority. There is no clear denunciation for the censor to question but the mood is clear. Even Guignol, famous for doing what’s forbidden, only gets to question authority in an offhanded way. Could this itself be a comment on living under fear?
On card 52, dated September 5, 1918, Guignol with the help of the British and Americans are on the attack again. They are now aided by tanks, an innovative weapon that look like furious monsters escaped from some cavern in hell. He finds these terrible machines both scary and impressive as they move across all obstacles without effort. While many tanks are pictured here, they a presented in a vague manner, which is probably due to Coulon’s own lack of familiarity with these new weapons. Their presence on the battlefield cannot be overlooked because like the addition of the Americans, their real significance is that they add up to hope. There is now a noticeable change; all cards that follow will be less critical as they concentrate on telling us how badly things are going for the enemy. After four long years of fighting, nothing loomed larger than the possibility of peace.
Once the fighting on the Italian Front ends, Guignol returns to France for the last dance. Here on card 57, dated November 11, 1918, he is witness to the signing of the Armistice that ends the War. Here his comments go to all those who wanted to be the masters of the world that now have to submit to the world on this day. He laments the Kaiser did not find himself capable of meeting the fate he deserved and escaped it by running away. This card has an unusual somber quality to it. Is this a sign that the moment is perceived of sacred or is the author fearful of it being a dream from which he could be awakened? There is no rejoicing to be found here; this will be reserved for cards that follow.
The last card of the set dated June 28, 1919, takes place on the day the Treaty of Versailles officially ending the Great War was signed. While this was a momentous event, Guignol is not present among the statesmen and dignitaries. Instead we are presented with a more intimate gathering of friends. This of course was the formula for the entire series, turning momentous events and complex issues into something that the common man could directly relate to. Gnafron salutes his friend, the humble hero with a heart full of valor. Guignol in turn decries the calamity of the conflict and reminds us of those who have suffered. He calls for the end of bloodshed, horror, and misery forever. While embracing the idea of a war to end all wars seems a bit naive for an author that was so in tune with expressing hidden truths, it must be remembered that this motto was embraced by many. The War had simply become an overwhelming ordeal that had exhausted all of Europe. Few wanted to think of anything beyond its end. In any case, who after all these horrific experiences could possibly think of ever engaging in war again?
Sixty-five postcards were published over the entire course of the Great War; most in the form of letters plus five New Year’s Greetings. They may not provide the most accurate narrative of the conflict, but they do provide a rare if narrow insight to the way it was truly perceived. They are an affirmation of real feelings. This is also an important perspective through which the War’s history can be better understood. Peopleís actions are based upon what they know not the truth; so if we are to understand why they behaved a certain way during the course of the War, we must see reality through there perspective no matter what it is based on. Coulon gets wrapped up in a lot of familiar rhetoric and no doubt has some agendas of his own to promote, but there is true value to be found here. This is but one example of what can be discovered through postcards that are not always present in more conventional histories.
Jean Coulon illustrated other color postcards picturing the characters of the Guignol Theater during the War, but his postwar sets representing popular story lines like Carmem, La Boheme, and Romeo and Juliet lack the sharp satirical bite that he became known for. Guignol continues to be strongly associated with Lyon and appears on modern continental cards made for tourists. While Guignol was used to promote the war effort, efforts to transform him into a national heroic figure was never fully achieved. Part of his charm is his local identity, which becomes bland when made generic for a larger audience. The same can be said for his coarseness, which when watered down for a gentler audience dilutes the power of his personality. He could be valued as an important part of French folklore, but it was difficult for him to symbolize all of French culture let alone receive international status like the fate of Statue of Liberty. Many could easily embrace Lady Liberty because her message was simple and clear. Guignol was not easy to define; he sent mixed messages more like a trickster than a true hero. The War postcard set demonstrates that the mythic qualities of Guignol still had the potency to give voice to the voiceless. Authority rarely embraces such figures unless they can manipulate the myth attached to them to their liking. Guignol’s independence made him too dangerous to be fully embraced for any form of popularism that might threaten the official message is anathema to those trying to stay in control.
Many of the social issues tackled in Coulon’s War Series are unfortunately as pressing today as they were a hundred years ago. Perhaps society will always need Guignol or someone like him to continue playing this role.
REVIEW by Alan Petrulis
With a Weapon and a Grin:
France suffered enormous casualties in the opening moves of World War One, and it soon became apparent that their West African colonies would have to be tapped for all the manpower they could provide. Over 140,000 Black colonial troops would fight in France during the course of the War, most taking on the title of tirailleurs Sénégalais (Senegalese infantrymen). While they played a crucial part in the conflict, they are rarely mentioned in written histories except in passing. I would expect most authors tackling this subject to either give accounts of military campaigns or provide very detailed descriptions of weapons used and uniforms worn down to the placement of the last button. Both of these approaches have their merits, but Stephan Likosky has taken an entirely different route exploring the subject from the perspective of propaganda. This perspective is already hinted at in his very unusual title, With a Weapon and a Grin. While we automatically expect the propaganda of belligerent nations to express different attitudes, even when covering the same subject, French authorities were confronted with a more complex task of satisfying divergent needs. While some of the audience for French propaganda was to be found in Germany and neutral nations, most was aimed at their own citizens. The reasons behind this is largely what this book concerns itself with.
Propaganda does not work by trying to convince people to believe something new as much as reinforcing ideas already held. It often preys on the beliefs we compartmentalize or are ill defined because they conflict with one another. This can often be seen in matters concerning race where contradictions can be ignored and particular points expressed as needed. Many postcards from World War One used propaganda to reinforce a whole range of contradictory ideas so that both could be entertained at the same time. The countless cards that depicted fierce warriors raining merciless death and destruction down upon the enemy had to be countered with images depicting soldiers as decent men that were only longing to fit back into family life once victory was achieved. This same sort of dilemma arose when depicting the thousands of Black troops that suddenly arrived on the shores of France to support the war effort. French publishers had to show that their unfamiliar presence was of no threat to the civilian population while at the same time presenting the image of a powerful warrior that would help defeat the enemy. Propaganda largely made use of stereotypes to satisfy both points of view.
This book is organized into seven chapters, as Stephen puts it, “each with an overall focus on one ore more stereotypical images of the French black African soldier,” Topics covered include the raw recruit, heroic images of the brave and loyal fighter, sacrifices of the wounded warrior, the naive continence of the grand enfant, and promoting images of the semisavage and exotic cannibal to instill fear in the enemy. It ends with a look at the longer lasting legacies of these stereotypical portrayals. While most of the cards illustrated are French, examples of the harsh German reaction to Black soldiers being brought to fight in Europe are also shown. The introduction provides a decent perspective from which this topic can be approached, along with a good account of the problems that arise in vocabulary when dealing with African soldiers. I did however find that some of the smaller introductions that begin each chapter fell short on content. While it would be better if these were filled out, the real meat of the book is to be found in the 150 plus illustrations that follow. They are not only large, sharp and reproduced in good color, most captions are extensive giving us the bulk of the book’s narrative and clear insight into what we are looking at. This type of pairing is very effective in conveying understanding, a true necessity when discussing ideas transmitted through pictures. As it turns out, postcards are a perfect medium to approach this subject. They were an important part of popular culture at the time, and as such they well represent commonly held beliefs. They were also an important instrument in the propaganda war, and the many examples help provide a clear idea of how propaganda was employed.
While the cover leaves a lot to be desired, the graphics within the book are clean and simple, and actually embellish its presentation rather than distract. Despite its large number of illustrations, the layout manages them well providing for an easy read. Overall this is a beautiful volume that is much more than a picture book. While the contents may not be exhaustive, Iím not sure any subject that deals with postcards can be. It does however provide us with a very rounded perspective and clear insights into a subject that has largely been ignored until now. Although this book seems oriented toward a niche audience of military history enthusiasts, its value extends much further. There are certainly facts to be learned that will extend anyoneís knowledge of the Great War and Black history, but the real focus of this book is in the way it exposes the mechanisms through which beliefs were manipulated and public perceptions shaped. History after all, is only important in so far that we can relate it to our own lives, and the lessons to be learned here are just as relevant today. This book is a good read for anyone, regardless of where their interests lie.
For those of you interested in a sampling of the story line with a few illustrations, Stephen Likosky was generous enough to submit a preliminary article on this subject to this blog back on April 26, 2009. See, With a Weapon and a Grin in the Blog Archives.
I’m afraid I have to use that old cliché, it’s hard to believe that ten years have passed since I put this website up on the Internet. It didn’t start off as some grand scheme or my desire to share my vast knowledge; in fact I didn’t know much about postcards at all. I just planned to write a modest little history with some information about publishers, but I soon grew frustrated at the lack of resource material I could draw on. A few books had been written, but they were limited in scope and hadn’t been updated for years. It seemed that for most dealers and collectors, postcard history stopped in 1950. Much of this information also looked unreliable, and this was what the hobby was based on. I was appalled that so many seemed satisfied with this situation. Instead of complaining I decided to do something about it myself, and as a result this website grew to proportions far beyond what I ever imagined. Even if it were met with indifference, it certainly has been an interesting journey for me in which I acquired a great deal of knowledge.
The importance of this site lies in its lack of competition, which is not a good thing. There have certainly been others who have created wonderful sites, but these tend to only delve into specific aspects of postcards, though often in far greater depth than I do. My approach has always been to establish a broad foundation from which others can expand upon, not just in presenting static facts but in challenging accepted ideas and offering new perspectives. While some entries have been carefully researched, postcards have never been the main focus of my life and I have not been able to give all parts of this site the attention that it deserves. Some have complained of my unscholarly approach, and I have to admit I wish I had done things differently from the start, but I did not foresee how much these postings would be referenced. I also think the Internet opens new ways of presenting information, and so we must view these opportunities with fresh eyes. Those who visit must remember that this website is a personal project and not my job. While I continue to add information, this will not answer every question in the world. When I started this site, I hoped it would be a more collaborative project or that it would at least inspire others to take up the pen. Unfortunately we now live in a self-serving age of greed where it is difficult to get anyone to contribute to society without compensation. While some continue to think me foolish for providing all this information for free, I am a firm believer that the free flow of information and ideas not only benefits the individual but society as a whole, which is a good thing. That said, the news is not all bad. I do whole heartedly want to thank all those who have unselfishly contributed new information to this site and pointed out needed corrections.
There are some recent changes that should be noted; the Guide to Postcard Printing Techniques has been re-edited, expanded, and reformatted. This should make it much easier to read and find information. Any links made to the old guide; except for the introduction will no longer work. Two obsolete links that top every page have been removed, and a link to this new Techniques guide has been added for your convenience. Also added is a link to the Guide to Warfare on Postcards. While these pages make up about one-third of the entire website, they have been hidden away in the Guide section for too long, and I feel they need more recognition. This guide is still a work in progress, and I hope to at least add the last seven sections to Themes of World War One before the hundredth anniversary is over. I had also hoped to announce a spruced up history section, but while it isnít yet complete, most revisions have already been posted. Likewise, I am slowly rewriting and updating the Glossary. As some of you may have already noticed my blog entries have slowed, but this is due to my allocating more time to non-postcard related projects, not my lack of commitment to this site. I still have many new posts and guides in mind, and as always there are endless corrections and updates to be made.
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.
The first great myth Americans rallied around was born from the struggle for independence. By the end of the 19th century this myth had still endured, and its strength was apparent in many pageants and organizations that tied their roots to revolutionary times. This myth however began to grow more problematic as the United States turned into a nation of immigrants that felt excluded from this story. These new settlers came to more fully embraced the other American myth; that of the frontier and the pioneer spirit, and as it did so it rose to the forefront. When national tourism began to be promoted in ernest, both myths were available to draw on. The myth of the West was further infused into popular culture by showmen like Buffalo Bill Cody and his Wild West shows until they formed an integral part of national identity. Since the purpose of tourism and entertainment is not to tell history but exploit it for commercial purposes, myth and popular culture were fused to meet this agenda until the difference between truth and fiction not only blurred, it often disappeared.
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.