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Breathtaking Ausable Chasm
The world of postcards means many things to many people. For some it means being an armchair traveler. However some places shown on the old postcards catch our fancy so intensely that we are no longer satisfied with looking at the pretty pictures from a distance. We must experience them first-hand! For me such a place was Ausable Chasm found in northeast NY State between Keeseville and Plattsburgh.
Two mountain streams, the East and West Branches of the Ausable River, rush down from their headwaters on Mount Marcy, which is the highest point in NY State at an elevation of 5344 feet. The West Branch of the Ausable River originates on the south side of Mt. Marcy. Waters from other Adirondack High Peaks are also carried over mountain terrain into the West Branch. It flows northward, east of the village of Lake Placid, emerging from the wilderness along NY State Route 86. Confined by high mountains, the West Branch Ausable River begins a steep descent including a series of waterfalls. It moves quickly and dramatically through to the town of Wilmington and then turns in a northeasterly direction towards the confluence at the village of Au Sable Forks, over 35 miles from its start. Here it merges with the East Branch to become the Main Branch of the Ausable River and also the boundary between Clinton and Essex Counties.
The East Branch of the river starts at the outlet of Ausable Lakes, high in the Adirondacks, descending to the tiny hamlet of Saint Huberts. Here it collects the drainage waters from some of the Adirondack High Peaks. As it moves on to Keene Valley, the East Branch levels off, broadening and wandering parallel to NY State Route 73, a designated scenic byway. Upon reaching the town of Keene, the East Ausable River cascades downward, flows towards Upper Jay and on to the town of Jay, settled in the late 1770’s. New York State Route 9N follows the river’s course. The Jay covered bridge, which crosses the East Branch of the Ausable River, has inspired innumerable artists, historians and writers. Some notable examples are James Thurber, the notable humorist, and Rockwell Kent, painter and illustrator.
From Ausable Forks the River continues in a northeasterly direction for another 22 miles, to Keeseville. It then barrels through Ausable Chasm and finally merges into Lake Champlain. The erosive power of the river over the ages has indeed been a powerful tool! Ausable River is the second steepest river in NY State, dropping nearly 4000 feet over a forty-mile distance. Besides having magnificent scenic falls and gorges, it is a paradise for fly fishermen and boaters.
At the River’s mouth, where it empties into Lake Champlain, the turbulence of Ausable’s waters has carried sand to form a point in a manner quieter waters would never have done. It was here that the French explorer Samuel de Champlain first saw the Chasm 400 years ago when he first explored the Champlain Valley. It was here that he gave the place its original name of Aux Sable, French for of the sand. What’s in a Name? According to the US Department of Geographic Names the spelling today could be either Au Sable or Ausable depending on the usage. For example, the town is called Au Sable Forks, while the river is Ausable. The accent however remains on Sab, from French pronunciation. Since the region is not far from the French Canadian border, many signs in the area are bilingual as well, in both English and French.
Nature has spent more than 500 million years creating Ausable Chasm within a fault. This deep crack in the earth’s surface rests in the Potsdam sandstone strata, which was once the bottom of a prehistoric ocean. Beginning in the Ice Age the weathering erosion of water running through the path of this fault created the chasm. As the Ausable River rushes for 50 or so miles from its headwaters at Mount Marcy to Lake Champlain, it churns through Ausable Chasm, its turbulent waters surging between sandstone cliffs towering several hundred feet high. The walls of the Chasm are formed of natural laminae of sandstone, laid in precise and regular order, which can be easily seen in many postcards.
The Chasm is an isolated formation, wholly independent of and disconnected from any other similar structure. It begins at Rainbow Falls, where the descending Ausable River is hemmed into a narrow channel about 10 feet wide, called the Flume. Old postcards of the Flume depicting this narrow gorge lit by moonlight create the mood even more effectively. Perhaps we are just intruders between the cliffs, which are reaching out to each other across the water! Walls of rock vary from 100 to 200 feet high. Lower down, the walls of the chasm gradually spread apart as much as 50 feet in some places. Lateral fissures, both narrow and deep, project from the main ravine at nearly right angles. Many of the crevices in these sandstone walls are filled with a thick growth of hardy pines and cedars.
The trip through the chasm may be made in a small boat or on foot. For the accommodation of tourists, stone walks and stairs have been constructed. Through one fissure a staircase of over 200 feet reaches down into the abyss. Breathtaking vistas can be enjoyed from the cliff tops, or by floating on rafts, tubes, or canoeing in kayaks. Great blue herons, blue jays, robins, and possibly a peregrine falcon or bald eagle can be seen here. Wildflower Meadow is a newer vista at the Chasm.
During the 1820’s in NY State, tourists along the fashionable or northern route encountered totally new experiences Saratoga Springs and Niagara Falls. Ausable Chasm followed this tradition and was established as a tourist attraction in 1870. As in other places, a fashionable hotel sprang up in the town of Ausable Chasm. Travel to such places had been encouraged by writers such as Ralph Waldo Emerson, who was at the center of the New England movement of Transcendentalism. In his famous essay, Nature, written in 1836, he articulated the new intangible product, the landscape, a property of the horizon.
The following quotation from Nature seems especially relevant to Ausable Chasm. “Geology has initiated us into the secularity of nature . . . her large style. We know nothing rightly, for want of perspective. Now we learn what patient periods must round themselves before the rock is formed, then before the rock is broken, and the first lichen race has disintegrated the thinnest external plate into soil.”
For the consumer, scenic tourism softened the hard features of an industrializing society with a veil of romanticism. On the other hand, the business of scenery was undisguised capitalism. It is from both these attitudes that the hundreds of postcards depicting Ausable Chasm were born.
When my husband and I visited Ausable Chasm a few years ago, we fulfilled a long-time wish of mine. The towering cliffs, cliff walk, nature trails; the pure invigorating air of the primeval forest made me feel very far away indeed form the real world. I would have happily found a suitable rocky ledge to call home and remained in the chasm.
In my fantasy life there, I would cook and drink at the Devil’s Oven and Devil’s Punch Bowl, which are fanciful rock formations. I would communicate with the outside world by means of mail at the Post Office. For diversion I would visit the zoo, symbolized by the famous rock formation, Elephant’s Head. Still another famous rock formation is Jacob’s Ladder. Bird watching, studying the native flora, hiking and boating would delightfully fill my days.
Over 10 million visitors have explored Ausable Chasm. Today a tour of the Chasm is an education in Adirondack natural history as well as a recreational vacation. The gorge is about 2 miles long. Its rapids, waterfalls, and curious rock formations have made it a popular tourist attraction. However, its majesty and feeling of timelessness are truly magnificent and awesome!
The Clucking Clerk
Les Nouveaux Distributeurs were one of the very early types of postcard vending machines manufactured in France. Customers could view up to 500 different cards one at a time through a glass window. When the proper amount of money was inserted and a crank turned the selected postcard would then be dispensed through a slot. These elaborate mechanical marvels however were very expensive to manufacture and the cost of installation made them prohibitive to the casual postcard retailer.
Not to be outdone by this European marval, Americans used their ingenuity to come up with a cheaper alternative. Instead of utilizing complicated mechanics subject to break downs, it was decided that a live dispensing agent was the practical way to go. The problem was that no living wage was low enough for such employment that could still generate a profit for the seller; that is until they discovered a birdbrain willing to work for chicken feed. There had already been a tradition of placing chickens in arcade booths to battle opponents in such games as tic tac toe. As in casinos were the odds are stacked in favor of the house, these highly trained chickens usually won prompting ever more coinage to be poured into the arcade machines by red faced loosers in an attempt to get even, and perhaps even save some pride. Chickens therefore seemed to be the natural choice to work as postcard clerks.
The first Clucking Clerks were trained by the animal psychologist Keller Breland in Hot Springs, Arkansas. After the customer made a selection and inserted money there was no need to turn any cranks as on the older machines; now it was the chicken who would dispense the chosen card. These feathery employees were compensated for all their labor with food treats, as if not ending up as dinner on someone’s table was not compensation enough. Though paid a poultry sum, they usually only dispensed cards in two hour shifts, for when their hunger was satisfied they refused to work any longer. Perhaps a lessen for us all.
A House in the Woods
Old postcards do not only preserve views of the past but many times what we called places as well. The names of towns, communities, and especially streets are subject to change with contemporary taste or use. Many old names simply fall by the wayside under urban sprawl where numbers have replace names for the sake of efficiency, and rapidly shifting populations have little long term memory. Occasionally one may find a view-card depicting a scene from Waldheim on Long Island, but most would be hard pressed to tell you where it lies, even by those who currently reside there.
Flushing, New York is an old town, founded in 1645 when the land beneath it belonged to Holland’s New Amsterdam. While its downtown developed, the lands surrounding it remained largely made up of farms, plant nurseries, and large estates well into the 20th century. One of the largest landholders was Nathan Sanford, the Chancellor of New York State. In 1822 he began to purchased a number of farms until his property lay south of what is now Sanford Avenue down to Kissena Creek between Parsons Boulevard and the Flushing River. By 1836 he had erected a large mansion house, Sanford Hall, on his estate, but by 1844 it had all passed on to two doctors, John and James MacDonald. These brothers were ahead of their time in their studies of psychiatry and the belief that those with mental illness should be treated with human dignity. They turned Sanford Hall into an insane asylum for the wealthy and the property afterwards was referred to as a private park. Over the years peripheral sections of the old estate were sold off. One such parcel was a ten acre section between Bowne and Parsons Avenues (now Street and Boulevard). Except for Flushing Hospital, built in 1883 on Forest Avenue (now 45th Ave.), only one other home stood here. The remaining land was covered with a forest predating the American Revolution. This parcel caught the eye of George S. Appleton, a developer for the Wallace-Appleton Corporation who promptly bought it up for the purpose of building the first planned community in Queens County.
Construction began on Waldheim, meaning a home in the woods, at the turn of the century. Three straight connecting streets, Ash, Beach, and Cypress (now Cherry), were constructed between Bowne and Parsons. Smaller curved streets were built between them giving the area a suburban feel. Lots were then divided and sold but most owners were responsible for constructing their own homes. Ash, the northern most street, filled up first with houses of Arts & Crafts, Colonial Revival, Gothic, Greek Revival, Romanesque, Spanish-Moorish, and Tudor styles. As many of the old trees as possible were left standing giving the impression that this brand new neighborhood was around for ages.
It was a mere ten minute walk to downtown Flushing where a train could be had for a ride into Manhattan. The trolly line running down Bowne Avenue was a convenient alternative for those not inclined to walk to the station. This peaceful environment was very enticing to the ever increasing number of entrepreneurs doing business in the heart of the hectic City. Large numbers of the well to do were now looking for more suitable places to live within an easy commute to the dirty noisy businesses that created their wealth. Members of the Hellman family of condiment fame, and the Steinway family who had their piano factory in Astoria built homes here. Arthur Douglas Nash who ran Tiffany’s glass works also built a large home complete with the famous stained glass. The owners of the Brown Shoe company built their home here in 1902. Two years latter they were introduced to a local artist, Richard Felton Outcault, who was well known for his comic strip the Yellow Kid. Outcault had based another comic character on a local neighborhood kid who he called Buster Brown. The Brown Shoe Company quickly adapted this figure to their shoe line, which became such a success that Buster Brown Shoes are still sold today.
Flushing Hospital, which had originally consisted of a number of wooden structures was also expanding under stress from being the only such facility in Queens. They built their first large brick structure in 1900 and ten years later an even larger brick hospital replaced it. As many physicians moved into Waldheim the street nearest the hospital became known as Doctors Row.
In 1906 there was a slump in the economy and the sale of Waldheim’s lots slowed considerably. By 1916 the Dime Savings Bank foreclosed on the property and it was soon purchased by J.W. Doolittle for a fraction of its real value. But the war years prevented any additional construction between 1917 and 1921 as many materials were reserved for the Military.
In the years following the War the visionary concept of Waldheim along with its name had vanished. In the great propaganda effort initiated during WWI all things German became unpopular. The Frankfurter was changed to the Hot Dog and the name Waldheim fell out of use. The first of a number of apartment buildings was constructed in 1926 and the remaining southern portion of the parcel was filled with more modest colonial type homes. The neighboring asylum closed and Sanford Hall was torn down in the 20’s. Their large open grounds were filled with densely packed homes on newly constructed streets. Flushing Hospital continued to expand and the grassy lawns where patients once were wheeled out for fresh air were replaced by an even larger brick structure.
Despite these changes the old streets of Waldheim remained an attractive and desirable place to live for many years. But by the 1980’s as new developers encroached on the neighborhood the old houses and beautiful trees began to disappear only to be replaced by generic multi family brick homes and parking lots. The Nash residence has been raised along with about 15% of the old homes. As residents banded together in attempts to create a Historic District the old name of Waldheim was resurrected. The City’s bias toward Queens, where decay is viewed as progress, has yielded no real results so far except for more destruction. While zoning laws have recently been changed in favor of the community, the City’s greed for real estate revenue have made them turn a blind eye to their own regulations. As the fight continues I think of all the other communities across the Country that have disappeared or are now threatened. Human Beings are habitual creatures who soon forget the past; old postcards are a good way of remembering what has been taken from us.
The Poison Brush
For a history that is not too old, it is surprising that the stories surrounding postcards seem to be made up of as much fiction as fact. Because of the absence of much definitive information regarding postcards some have taken it upon themselves to extrapolate what is known to explain what is not. There is nothing wrong with this practice per-say, for this is how much of history finds us. But there are too many obvious errors to have been repeated without scrutiny for so long. I have come across numerous references stating that hand colored cards disappeared after the Golden Age due to the lead poisoning suffered by the women who colored these cards from wetting their brushes with their lips. While I do not know where this story originated I do know it flies in the face of all common sense.
When not printing each distinct hue of a multi-colored postcard individually as in a chromolithograph, red, green, and blue were most widely used according to additive color theory. This same limited pallet was also used for the hand coloring of postcards. While paints of these colors can contain heavy metals, none of these paints contain lead. Lead is only used for an opaque naples yellow and some forms of white paint, colors that were never used on postcards. The alizarin, cerulean, and chromium green pigments that were most commonly used are not nearly as harmful. The toxic elements that are found in watercolors are difficult to digest in quantity do to the dilute nature in which this paint is used in normal practice. This was an age of little concern to worker’s safety and many were routinely injured or killed at their jobs. It is difficult to believe that there was such concern over the hand coloring of postcards that this profitable practice would end back then when lead based artist materials continue to be made today. Even if working with these paints happened to be poisonous a simple remedy would be to inform workers of that fact and instruct them not to put brushes in their mouths. Lead poisoning is highly preventable if one takes precautions not to breath it in or ingest it.
The notion that a brush may be wet with saliva may seem reasonable, but while a few brushstrokes may be placed this way it seems nearly impossible for this method to be employed in producing the large quantities of cards required on a production line. Secondly if a card is examined one will find that many areas are applied as broad washes, a technique that requires a brush to be loaded with water. While these women were poorly paid and employers always mindful of cost, it is difficult to imagine that a popular product line would be discontinued from denying workers a cup of water that would cost nothing.
Even though postcards were only hand colored for a short time before this claim of poisoning was made, the same watercolor paints had been commercially used for over a century to color prints with no ill effects noted. Another problem with this argument is that hand coloring did not cease at the end of the Golden Age, only imports of hand colored cards from Germany ended due to the collapse of German printers from embargoes and war. Since many postcards originated in German printing houses and most colorants were produced there it should come as no surprise that the hand coloring of cards were centered there as well. After WWI much of this industry moved to Belgium and France, and in the years between the two World Wars many cards were hand colored in the United States as well.
The most costly aspect of producing postcards is labor. As labor costs rose in the post war years the ability to hand color cards became more prohibitive. During the years of the Great Depression when excess labor drove down cost, hand colored cards were given a reprieve and they remained a common sight. But by the end of WWII they completely disappeared from the market, not from poison control, but because they were now too expensive to produce. The modern chrome made on high speed offset presses became a much cheeper alternative.
While many artist materials are highly toxic, these paints, commonly used by children, remain on sale today and are considered some of the safest to use. It is still advisable however not to put them in your mouth.
April 10, 2007
My Life in the Dunes
When the last of the great glaciers retreated northward and freed the American continent from its blanket of ice, it left behind at its outermost edge a huge mountain of debris scraped from the earths surface. The rising ocean’s attacked this pile mercilessly tearing off soil, sand and clay. Cape Cod in Massachusetts is a remnant of one such mountain. It once fell into the sea at what is now called Pilgrim Heights but the ocean’s currents have extended its tip for miles in a spiral band of sediment. Two small fishing villages were founded on its bay side. Its location placed it close to good fishing grounds while the great expanse of sand behind it protected it from the Atlantic’s fury. The inhabitants of these villages considered the dunes behind them to be a wasteland. It was rumored that the devil himself sometimes walked these hills, a dangerous place for lost souls and men. The land was held in common use for the entire community becoming known as the Provincelands.
If it were not for the presence of Provincetown there would probably be few if any postcard images of the area. The town formed from the consolidation of the two smaller villages as they grew into each other. Provincetown would increasingly turn its focus away from the whaling and fishing industry that created it to attract tourists. Before it became the last stop on the Cape Cod Railroad it was already a popular tourist destination due to its proximity to Boston and its easy access by steamer. Few visitors however wandered beyond the town and so the vast amount of postcards produced did little more than capture scenes of its streets, hotels, and waterfront. The local newspaper, the Provincetown Advocate became an important postcard publisher ad seller. They would even print public notices announcing new postcard issues that were always in demand. Some photographers did venture out into the Provincelands, no small task in this difficult terrain, to capture unique images that might have an edge in the competitive postcards market. While cards were produced depicting sand dunes most publishers created images of its sparse but discernible structures.
Cape Cod was a very treacherous place for a ship to get caught in a storm. The shifting offshore rips were a constant hazard to the shipping lanes between New York and Boston before the Cape Cod Canal was constructed. Ninety-three wrecks lie offshore or buried beneath its sands since they started counting. The true number is in the hundreds. Many postcards depict these wrecks, even modern chromes. While many of the older cards were made to be generic, I have found some with ship names in their messages definitely placing them on the Cape. The U.S. Life Saving Service set up many stations along our nation’s beaches on the lookout for ships in distress, and rescuing those in need. Those that went up on Cape Cod in 1882 were some of the first ever built. These stations and their crews were also widely depicted on postcards. Because it was difficult to take photos in foul weather most cards show the surfmen drilling. While a good deal of these cards are generic many seem to have their actual origins on the beaches of Cape Cod. It is also the only area I know of where a full set of surfmen in action were turned into postcards even if they are only artist renditions.
It was difficult to spot a sinking ship during a storm and many went down without notice. The stations tall towers allowed them to look far out to sea but they were limited in their views down the Capes curved beaches. Surfmen would go out to patrol at night and in bad weather in search of floundering ships or survivors of an unnoticed sinking. Halfway houses were constructed, often from debris washed ashore, so the men on patrol could extend their reach. They were built halfway between two stations where the patrols would meet guarantying the entire beach would be covered. The Humane society had begun building small shacks as far back as 1794. They were stocked with supplies for anyone washed ashore in a condition to use them. Henry David Thoreau made use of them on his long walks down the Cape. These shacks also provided informal rendezvous points for the Surfmen and their girlfriends. As artists and writers came to Provincetown many were drawn to the isolation of the dunes and rented these small dune shacks or paid the Surfmen to construct new shacks for them. A romantic image of life in the dunes emerged from their work as books and paintings spread out across the country, a vision shared by all but the locals who lived here. In Provincetown this Devil’s dominion was largely viewed as a place people went to engage in activities they could not be caught at in town. For some this reputation has not changed to this day.
When the National Park Service started taking over the Provincelands to create a National Seashore many shacks were dotting its sands. To ease the acquisition of this land the Government granted many owners squatter’s rights so they could continue to live there. With no right to sell the land it eventually passed on to the government as they died off, and their shacks were summarily burnt to the ground. This policy of removing the hand of man from the landscape continued for many years until there were only eighteen shacks left. But eventually the Park Service had a change in philosophy and began to view these structures as part of the social history of the Cape. They decided to leave those remaining standing and in 1989 they were submitted to the Historical Register. Only one still remains private as the family somehow managed to provide an original deed and refuses to sell. The others are now administered by non-profit organizations under Park supervision. The National Park Service regulations however are as changeable as the sands these shacks rest on and their ultimate fate is always left hanging.
I had spotted my first dune shack climbing down from Pilgrim Heights when hiking to Provincetown. I was confused at the sighting for I knew this was National Seashore land and I could not understand why people were allowed to live there. I never expected that years latter I would be living in one of these shacks myself. It is an interesting concept for at most Parks you can only view historical buildings. Perhaps an interior may be restored to period for viewing with a costumed guide providing scheduled tours. Here I did not observe structures that once played a role in our history but had the actual experience of being an artist of the dunes. My presence there has become part of that places continuing tradition and history.
My dune shack was named C-Scape, leased by the Provincetown Compact. It is one of the more luxurious accommodations out in the dunes being made of two structures. They were taken from the eroding dunes near the Coast Guard Station and reassembled a mile eastward in a hollow amidst the peaked hills. While within a days walking distance of town it seemed worlds away. The occasional glimpse of the top of the Pilgrim memorial was the only reminder that this wasn’t a true wilderness. Had I lived there years earlier one of my neighbors would have been the playwright Eugene O’Neill. While many well known artists such as Jackson Pollock to Jack Kerouac roughed it out in the dunes like myself, O’Neill bought the old Peaked Hill Bars Life Saving Station after it was abandoned and lived there in comparative luxury with his wife. This station became the social center for the dune dwellers and their partying. Over the years the restless ocean waves undercut the building and it toppled onto the beach. I found an unmarked real photo card of this event and recognized its significance right away. A new taller station had been constructed behind the dune line but it too has since been destroyed, not by waves but by demolition after its abandonment in 1938. Its concrete foundation remains a ghostly figure seemingly out of place in these wild environs.
The Peaked Hill Bars Station was a favorite subject for postcards in all its incarnations. Another favorite was the Race Point Life Saving Station, close to where my shack originally stood. After the Life Saving Service evolved into the Coast Guard a new concrete station replaced the old wooden structure and a state road was built to access it from town. In 1978 as the Coast Guard moved its lifesaving services to Provincetown’s West End to be close to its modern ships a new structure appeared nearby. It was the Old Harbor Life Saving Station that had stood in Chatham, moved to National Seashore Lands to be used as a museum. Many postcards were made of the Coast Guard Station from the parking lot at the end of the State Road, but I finally found one with a view in the opposite direction. It clearly shows the many dune shacks that once rested here before they were all removed and the Old Harbor Station planted in their place. I prize this ordinary card for it is rare to find any postcards of dune shacks, as they were deemed unsightly and generally unfit as subjects for tourists.
The only other structure that continues to sit out here is the Race Point Lighthouse, about two miles further east of the Life Saving Station. I could just about make it out there and back from my shack without getting caught in the dark of Autumn’s failing light. A road leads to it from the parking lot, now open only to four-wheel drives and hikers like myself. Constantly churned up by vehicles the normally soft sand of the Cape is excruciatingly soft here making the road of little aid to walking. The long line of electric poles that once ran alongside the road made this journey seem endless as they stretched to the horizon. I have gained much more respect for the photographers that trekked out here all for the sake of a postcard. It also explains why of the many postcards produced of this light relied on only a handful of different images. It was not easy and probably not cheap to send someone and their heavy photo equipment out here. The light keepers house is now renovated and leased out but in earlier years when the light was first automated and the keepers left it took on an erie presence. After being derelict for years the moss growing on its once white clapboards started to match the green of its shingled roof. Its quiet silhouette set against the wide open landscape stood as a reminder of how lonely this place can be and the transience of our lives.
I had first arrived in the Provincelands by way of the airport near Race Point. Its single runway sat in filled marsh land between a wide expanse of dune lines, one of the few flat areas in this highly broken landscape. I had a room waiting for me in Provincetown, and while the other passengers were picked up by friends and relatives I headed off by foot. It wasn’t long before I passed near the visitor center for the National Seashore and I decided to drop in. They had a lookout tower which I couldn’t resist climbing to the top of to survey the view before I continued on through the woods. It was quite a panorama stretching down to the Race Point Light in one direction and over miles of dunes and scrub towards the south. I wasn’t that impressed. In the harsh hazy afternoon light the spotty landscape and the vast ocean and sky behind it melted into a single dull gray. It seemed a land without distinction.
I returned to the dunes with my camera a few days later giving them a second chance to win my respect. This area was much more wild and the dunes of mountainous size. As the sun headed down and the light grew warm I was drawn further and further in past my better judgement. But I couldn’t help myself for with each passing minute the dunes glowed more and more passing from a bright gold into a soft pink. The air itself seemed to be alive with color. It became nearly impossible to disengage myself from this sublime experience and deal with the reality of having to leave. I made a connection with the Provincelands on that day that would keep me returning over the years. But for now as I shot my last photos under the rising moon I began hurrying back before the last light disappeared. While the expanse of the forest between the dunes and the town is not is not great, the terrain is extremely broken and the ground covered with dense undergrowth of thorned bushes and vines. I made the mistake of wandering off the trail and barely made my way out in what was now pitch blackness. As much as I was drawn to the beauty of the twilight hours I realized the danger of such late visits and resigned myself to the knowledge that I could not get much photo work done under these conditions.
It would be a few more years before I discovered the dune shacks, but I quickly realized this was the key to my needs. It would place me in the middle of the Provincelands with no need to find a way out as night fell. I was living there later that year. The dune shacks have been described in many terms, none of them complimentary. Living in a structure pieced together with tinder, teeter tottering on stilts above shifting sands is an act of faith. I once heard it said that “The first rule of building in the dunes is don’t”, and “The second rule is don’t build more than you can afford to lose”. With no electric to provide familiar distractions one must be comfortable being alone with ones self. At times mice or weasels may make their way in. Their scurrying across the floor becomes a reminder that you are never quite alone and this home is a shared one.
I would bring as much bottled drinking water as I could in from town for the water from my well was full of iron and unpalatable if not poisonous. The once clear gallon jugs that I used to carry in well water had turned an opaque brown from repeated use. There is a saying in Provincetown that you can tell who is connected to the water supply tanks and who has well water by how red their laundry looks when it is hung out to dry. In low spots between the dunes deer dig through the sand to find water. I could always spot these holes for if the deer were successful the high water table would leave behind a rusty scar in the white sand.
While the great expanse of sand makes the Provincelands reminiscent of a desert it is not. Water lies close to its surface and as the deepest valleys between the dune lines fall below the water table shallow pools appear. These are not easily discernible to an untrained eye for they are often obscured by rings of pines that have taken shelter there. The pools within look more like grassy fields until it is realized they are bogs of wild cranberries. Rarely did a day pass that a handful of this tart fruit did not become part of my diet. Every inch of ground that can support life here does so. Delicate grasses send there runners through the sands holding it in place the best they can. Years of accumulated leaves create a foundation for bayberry and beach plum. One of the strangest sights is that of mushrooms sprouting from an otherwise bare sandy dune. Nourishment is gathered from a tree or bush swallowed long ago.
As my old life fell away familiar preoccupations disappeared as I became more involved with matters closer to earth. I needed to go out every day to gather kindling to ensure a warming fire at night. While at times a fire was only a comfort, by November it could be a matter of life and death. The first time I awoke at night with frost in my hair I realized that maintaining the stove was a serious matter. While I had a good stock of firewood propped up against my shack my wood stove had a rapacious appetite for kindling. Gathering dry wood in this near empty environment was no small chore. Most came from bushes killed years ago by shifting sands that buried them, their white bones now exposed as the sands shifted once again.
The Provincelands are about sand and about wind. These elements form, drive, and move everything that is out there, creating an environment like no other. As taken as I was with this place it was the most difficult I ever encountered to photograph. I had seen many postcards of these dunes over the years, most in fifty-cent boxes because of their bland unattractive nature. It is the rare card that captures anything close to the reality of this place. I had always blamed the photographers but now that I was here I wasn’t doing much better. The constant movement of sand created a land of visual chaos unlike any I was familiar with. The visual clues that one looks for to make sense of things were missing here. There were few boundaries to measure out a composition as the entire land formed a continuous wrinkled blanket.
The longer I stayed here the more my own boundaries began began to fade between me and this place. I thought of little beyond my needs for that day, misguided concerns having long dropped away. Most of my days were spent walking in the silence of the dunes. It was in this silence that the dunes began to speak back. As time went on the land’s subtle characteristics began to fall into place. Eventually I learned a new vocabulary to read this remarkable landscape and understand its moods. Postcards of this place rarely capture it for what is not understood cannot be properly photographed. They often show its openness its vastness and individual dunes but it is the parts that are seen and not its wholeness. While the landscape in America has long been romanticized it rarely included one such as this. But there have always been those who understood. Thoreau did not approached the Provincelands with the prevailing attitudes that saw this place as a wasteland. He made not one but numerous trips to this disparaged land for it took hold of him.
All the postcards of the Provincelands I have seen seem to been shot midday. Besides providing more light for slow film I am sure most of these visiting photographers had the same fears of getting caught out here at night. But one of the most beautiful times of the day out here were in the hours preceding sunset. The harsh bleached white sands would turn a myriad of colors. The dunes took on a more solid consonance resembling the eroded volcanic formations on the Western prairies. Every good photographer knows there are two sunsets, the other commonly called sunrise. While one might think they look the same except for their progression being mirrored they are not. The sunsets were always a slow fade. Sunrise hit the cool blue dunes with dramatic effect, for as soon as the sun peaked over the horizon the peaks and ridges would be transformed into circles if fire. This only lasted for minutes before everything turned bright, giving little leeway for moving about to find new compositions. While I adapted to this environment in many ways my sleeping habits remained tied to city life. Hiking out into the dunes before sunrise to set up a shot was not something I would look forward to. My bed faced a window to the east an I could watch the sky grow lighter as morning came. My fatigue from the day before, combined with the air still the temperature of night, made me reluctant to leave my covers behind. But as the sky filled with ever more hues I could not resist any longer, and with no time to lose I would run out with my camera half dressed and often barefoot to get some shots. Half frozen I would return for some breakfast and properly dress for the day before heading out again.
By November the summer people were all gone. Only countless footprints remained in the sand to show that this place had ever been a popular playground. Even the other dune shacks were now empty as their inhabitants sought out warmer climates. Occasionally I would hear the pop pop of a distant hunter but I no longer saw anyone. Despite the disappearance of mankind most animals remained out of sight but their footprints spread out in all directions. One evening I came home to see the prints of a coyote who had walked by minutes before me. I had only known him from his distant night howls. I was comfortable here until one evening while returning along the beach. The wind that had been blowing out of the northwest for days had shifted to the northeast. Standing before the ocean as the day drew to a close I could look up and down the long stretch beach without seeing a soul. Passing straight over me off the ocean were the darkest clouds I had ever seen. It was the only moment that I ever felt alone out there. That night when the Nor’easter finally hit it sounded as if a freight train were running across my roof. While the roof held, a window popped out of its frame. Luckily it bounced off a chair on its way to the floor and didn’t break. Putting it back in under a strong wind and pelting rain was no pleasant task. The next morning the sky was speck-less but my daily round of photographing the dunes proved fruitless. I could not hold my camera steady enough to take a single shot and had to content myself by watching the high winds form waves across the salt grass from my window.
The sand here is very soft even on the wet strand of the beach. I always needed to carefully calculate how many miles I strayed from my shack to get back before nightfall. Even out from the canopy of trees in this open terrain night becomes blacker than anyone from the city would believe; and the softness of the sand prevents traveling at any great speed regardless of urgency. In the evenings just as the sun fell I would be confronted with a strange roaring sound. I called it the ghost plane of the Cape for it sounded like a low flying propellor craft, only it never came closer or went further away, it just could be heard for hours and then it was gone. The local airport being closed for maintenance work just added to the mystery. Everyone I have told this story to has looked at me as if I had spent way too much time out there. Others have related similar stories from dune fields around the world, but it has always been considered a myth. It was only recently that I heard an explanation from a scientist who finally unraveled the mystery of the singing dunes. Apparently when sand of a certain type combines with the right temperature and wind, the top surface of the dunes move rapidly. If the dune is large enough it acts as a giant amplifier to the sands vibrations giving off erie sounds.
Even as more pieces of this puzzling land fall together it has not decreased the innate mystery of it for me. If the old postcards of the Provincelands had captured the true nature of this place they might be selling for record prices instead of sitting in discount boxes. But for this to happen it is not only the photographer but the buyer that is required to observe cards with an open mind, unfettered from everyday expectations. This should be a rule for every card we collect. Too many of us only look but we do not see.
The link below will take you to a special added supplement of selected photographs taken by Alan Petrulis out in the Provincelands of Cape Cod.
March 5, 2007
Birth of the Modern Postcard
Beginning in March of 1907 postcards were allowed to be mailed with both the address and a message on the same side of the card often separated by a line. Previously only the address and stamp could appear on a card’s back forcing the front image to share its space with a written message. Correspondence too long for the small space allocated for it was routinely scribbled across the picture. This simple law made it possible for the entire front of a card to be dedicated to a picture. It was the birth of the modern postcard as it is the same format we use today.
To commemorate this event the Metropolitan Postcard Club has published a divided back postcard of its own. While not issued as a limited edition only 500 cards have been made and the image will not be reprinted. These cards were first offered for sale during the Club’s show on March 11th at the New Yorker Hotel. They will continue to be available at Club meetings and shows for the remainder of the year. All proceedes will help support Club activities.
February 22, 2007
Most of us are familiar with pneumatic delivery systems from watching old movies, where endless tubes would whisk messages around large office buildings. But they played a much larger role in delivering mail than most realize. If you are a collector of New York cards there is a good chance that many of them spent time in a pneumatic tube. At least 30 percent of of the city’s first class mail traveled this way when the system was in operation. And if you lived in Boston this percentage was more than doubled.
While different pneumatic systems contained variable specifics, they all worked on the same principals of shooting a sealed cylinder through airtight tubes. This concept was developed by the Scott engineer William Murdoch, inventor of gas lighting and a specialist in steam dynamics. While air generators would propel the capsule forward with compressed air, there was often a device creating suction to pull it from the opposite direction. If there were branches in the system, rotary switches would be installed. The capsules were about two feet long and covered in felt. The felt helped create a good air seal while lessening tube friction. When they reached their destination a deflector would pop up and stop this high velocity projectile traveling at 20 to 40 mph dead in its tracks. Needless to say deflectors wore out quickly adding to high maintenance costs.
The first pneumatic system was constructed by the London Pneumatic Dispatch Co. between the telegraph office and stock exchange in 1853. Even back then brokers could not transmit crucial information for their dealings fast enough. While the new telegraph added great speed to communication over long distances, it still needed to be transcribed from its dots and dashes and written down. With pneumatics original document could be transfered in minutes. Berlin built a pneumatic system in 1865 totaling 250 miles. Paris would follow with an even larger 269 mile system the following year. Vienna built theirs in 1875, and Prague in 1887. London however still held the distinction of pneumatic mail delivery to individual homes. By the First World War 2500 miles of tubes existed worldwide with large systems in such cities as Hamburg, Munich, Marseilles, Milan, Naples, Rome, and Rio de Janeiro.
In the United States it was Postmaster General John Wanamaker who saw pneumatics as the wave of the future, and the first 20 mile system was built in Philadelphia in 1893. Bostonï¿½s 13 mile system followed in 1897 along with New York. In 1904 another 20 miles was built in Chicago and finally 4 miles of tubes in St. Louis. New Yorkï¿½s 55 mile pneumatic system, run by Western Union, connected the Central Post Office with all of the smaller local offices up to 125th street. In 1898 the system was extended over the Brooklyn Bridge. Grand Central and Pennsylvania stations were also connected to the system as large amounts of mail were carried between cities by rail. Part of this official postal railway were the cityï¿½s trollies that carried mail from one post office to another. A forty minute streetcar ride was now replaced by a seven minute shuttle through the tubes and the trollies quickly lost their relevance. In 1900 the new Postmaster General, Charles Emory Smith, shared his vision with the Brooklyn Eagle of a day when pneumatics would not only deliver mail to every resident of the city, but across the country as well.
Many of Europe’s pneumatic tubes were three inches wide and special postal stationary was designed to be used in them. New Yorkï¿½s tubes by contrast were eight inches wide allowing for larger capsules that could contain at least 500 ordinary letters or even small parcels. There is even a story of a live cat being shot through the tubes. It is said that he arrived safely but quite dizzy. Only Chicago regularly used a special Pneumatic Mail cancelation to distinguish it from other mail. Bostonï¿½s story is a bit more mysterious as there are only five known pneumatic cancelations. While the system was fairly efficient, carrying 200,000 pieces of mail per hour, it was also expensive to run. The tubes were laid and owned by private companies to which the Government paid rent. It was expensive to dig under city streets and the equipment suffered from much wear and tear. Extending the system also meant building costly compressor stations along route. In 1918 Congress toyed with the idea of buying the entire system but opted to terminate funding instead. It was believed that the ever more reliable automobile could be a cheeper solution to transporting the mail.
Cheaper or not, no one took the cityï¿½s congested streets into consideration and mail delivery speed suffered. By 1922 New Yorkï¿½s pneumatic mail system was back in operation but dark days lay ahead. The tubes to Brooklyn were closed in 1950 while repairs were being made to the bridge and they never reopened. Three years latter the Cityï¿½s entire system was shut down in favor of delivery trucks. Many have looked upon this as the inevitable march of progress but much evidence points to a conspiracy. Postmaster General Arthur E. Summerfield who ordered the expensive new fleet of trucks also sat on the Board of Directors for General Motors, the corporation that supplied the vehicles. Other systems shut down due to age, Paris in 1983, and the last system in Prague in 2002 due to flooding.
There has been talk of reopening the Prague system but the tubes may be damaged beyond repair. In New York there were proposals to run fiber optic cables through our lines but many pneumatic tubes have been ripped out over the years with endless street repairs and its prospects remain unknown. And those office pneumatic tubes from the old movies, well there still going strong and still being installed in new construction, only now they are controlled by computers.
February 11, 2007
Historical Views of the Rockaways
To commemorate the creation of Greater New York City (January 1, 1898) the H.A. Rost Printing & Publishing Company of New York City created a line of souvenir postcards. This set was officially called the Greater New York Souvenir Postcards featuring an image or images of places and buildings of interest within the new Greater New York City.
As the Rockaways are my main interest in postcard collecting, and Cony Island is a secondary interest, yours truly has found two of the souvenir cards from the Greater New York set. Each one has two lithographic drawings on the front, with a small space for a short message. The back of these cards were only for the address of whom the card was to be sent to in the mail. These cards were the first illustrated postcards for Coney Island and the Rockaways. One card features Coney Island and the second features seaside amusements in Rockaway Beach in the boroughs of Brooklyn and Queens respectively. These places were two of the new City’s favorite watering holes in summer.
Shown on the Rockaway Beach souvenir card is the old seaside amusement attractions of the time. From right to left are the old Grant’s switchback coaster, the bath houses of Morrison, Vollmer and Wainright & Smith, and finally Sandford Murray’s hotel, dancehall, and baths, all between Beach 102 Street (on the right) and Beach 105 Street (on the left) with the view drawn from the ocean pier. At the bottom is a beautiful 1890’s bathing beauty!
The Coney Island Greater New York Souvenir Card has a litho of the many Coney Island baths at that time. They can be seen starting at the right where the old Coney Island Iron Pier (opened 1879) is shown at about West 5th Street. This pier became the Dreamland Park Pier in 1911 when Dreamland Amusement Park was officially opened. The view then pans westward to Steeplechase Park near West 16th Street. In between were a few carrousels, scenic railways, and the famous baths and restaurants such as Feltman’s, Stauch’s, and Henderson’s. At the bottom left is a small grouping showing Balmer’s Baths, the new Iron Pier built in the early 1800’s, and the 300 foot observation tower (1877-1911) brought to Coney Island in 1877 from the Philadelphia Exposition and Centennial celebrated in 1876 at Philadelphia, PA.
Coney Island lost its first Sealion Amusement Park in 1904, Dreamland Park in 1911, Luna Park in 1947, and finally old Steeplechase Park in 1965. The Cyclone coster (1927) and Astroland Park, plus the old giant Wonderwheel and long dormant Parachute Jump are still at Coney Island. Their future is a little murky at the present time; Astroland is to close for a redevelopment plan on the old amusement mecca in Brooklyn. It is said that the remaining attractions will be kept running and the Parachute Jump reopened, but whatever developerlola wants, developerlola gets these days!
Rockaways’ Playland survived Coney Island by two decades in an amusement area that had its humble beginnings in 1857. There were four amusement parks in the Rockaways, Seaside Park, Steeplechase Park, L.A. Thompson Park, and Roackaways’ Playland.
Editors’ Addenda: H.A. Rost was a shrewd businessman with an eye closely watching the postcard market. Rost had anticipated the Private Mailing Act of 1898 and to gain an edge over his competitors he began printing up mail cards before they were officially authorized. Unfortunately he did not expect the new regulations to carry a new size requirement. These souvenir cards, that were copyrighted in 1897, were too large to be mailed and many were trimmed down before being reprinted as private mailing cards. Of the 18 different views in the Greater New York series these were the only two cards, except those of the Brooklyn Bridge, that showed scenes outside of Manhattan. This testifies to the great significance that Coney Island and the Rockaways once had to all New Yorker’s.
December 2006 (revised September 27, 2017)
Who the Hell?
While recently browsing through postcards I noticed many of the cards filed under the category of Krampus were not of Krampus at all, but pictures of the Devil, Pan or other strange creatures. Though Krampus has horns and a cloven foot or two, he is not a devil. So if not from Hell who is is he?
The rugged mountain region of central Europe is similar to the deep forests of Lithuania and the broad moorlands of the British Isles where remnants of paganism survive in small isolated communities. Since practitioners have always ben fearful of persecution from the larger Christian community, very few of these pagan traditions come down to us intact. Most are hidden in the form of folk customs rather than religion. In the region of Salzburgland there exist stories of a hairy demon living in the high mountain passes, known for dealing out pain and punishments. It is not known with any certainty if this is the precedent for Krampus but it is most likely at least part of his story. Like St. Nicholas, to whom Krampus is associated, they are both Christianized forms of much older pagan figures of the Solstice season.
So of all the pagan figures to resurrect, why this strange continence? It probably has less to do with a specific ancient tradition than the need created by the idealistic tenants of Christianity. In a world divided between good and evil, it is difficult to find ones place when full of human flaws. While the goal may be to be more Christ-like, most if not all must settle for simply being who they are. While St. Nick is a man, his idealistic behavior makes him the embodiment of Christ. There are few ways for men of imagined impurity to connect to this Christmas story when good behavior is at a premium; and placing oneself in the hands of the devil is not a satisfactory alternative. With there being little middle ground in the teachings of Christianity, the spirit of Mercurius is sometimes dredged up where it has not been completely forgotten. The Catholic Church has tolerated such events as the medieval Feast of Fools and Carnival because they recognize these can work as safety valves within their controlled parameters. Krampus serves the same function. He does not represent evil but the darker side of the human spirit that most can relate to. In this way Krampus comes out of the more general tradition of the Trickster, a character known for spreading confusion and strife in every culture.
Krampusz, from the high German Krampon (claw), or Krampus as we’ve come to know him is the sidekick to St. Nick. Some would call him his alter ego. He also goes by Klaubauf in Bavaria, Schmetzli in Switzerland, and various other names depending on region. When the tradition arrived in America he was first called Pelznickel and he is still referred to as Belsnickel in Pennsylvania today. Together they would roam the countryside, towns, and villages, to visit children and check up on their behavior. In some traditions the children are asked to perform, which is rewarded with candy from St. Nick. However a poor performance or tales of bad behavior would lead to a beating by Krampus who was always lurking close behind.
If a whipping wasn’t bad enough, children who were behaving really badly would be loaded up into his sack, and then Krampus would bring them back to the forest where he would drown them in a river. While postcards do not depict the killing of children, many do carry scenes of genuine terror. While it may seem odd today to place such images on holiday cards, their shear numbers tells us this was not an aberration. There were few attempts to separate children from violence back then, and these cards were looked upon as applying the proper moral tone. This attitude can be seen to a greater extent during World War One when postcards helped to teach children that hatred for the enemy was their patriotic duty.
In the United States we are familiar with hanging a stocking on the fireplace mantle. The Alpine version was for children to leave their shoes by their door or window, and if St. Nick should come by the shoes would be filled with fruit and candy. (This is also common practice in South America.) But if a stick was found in a shoe instead it meant that Krampus would return with a bigger rod to beat them if their behavior did not change. While this story was long looked upon as good incentive to keep children in their place, it has largely faded in a more consumer oriented society where it doesn't encourage people to buy presents.
Krampus has taken on many vestiges of the Devil because he is a product of a Christian culture. Anything not fitting into the Christian paradigm like all pagan figures, real or imagined, is demonized. His appearance may differ a great deal in different lands but he usually covered with dark hair, sports horns, and has one cloven hoof. He carries a sack or basket on his back to place small children in. It has been noted that the Devil also carries such a sack in some depictions. He is also pictured with a stick to administer beatings. In later depictions a birch rod, made of bundled twigs for flagellation takes the place of the stick. This is often erroneously referred to as a broom. Another error concerns the chains he is often draped in. While some have noted that these were to constrain him from hurting children, his primary purpose was to inflict pain. There are more appropriate stories of how the chains were used to trip children in the snow or beat their ankles.
Perhaps the best known variation to Krampus is Black Pete who is the dark foil to Sinterklaas in the Netherlands. While Sinterklaas brings gifts for good children; Black Pete whips naughty children with a bundle of twigs. There is much controversy today surrounding Black Pete, with some calling him a symbol of racism while others try to defend the tradition by associating his blackness to the occupation of chimney sweep. While chimney sweeps were often depicted as black silhouettes with brooms in popular culture, blackness here is obviously used symbolically. Black Pete is not an African but the darker side of all human beings, which can be easily seen when comparisons are made to Krampus. Associations of light and dark with good and evil were ingrained into European culture long before racism was ever an issue.
Another feature of Krampus is his extremely long tongue. This is part of his sexual nature that might be tied to early pagan fertility traditions surrounding the season, but no clear connections can be made. It is always women in-particular, both young and old that seem to be his first choice of attention. This part of his character was often difficult to overtly display within popular culture. Instead, he is often portrayed in traditional romantic situations that tend to be more comic than lustful to soften the edge. These types of depictions are most likely just an extension of his irreverence toward strict social control, which mirrors the inability of postcard publishers to address sexual issues. Modern Krampus cards, produced in a setting with more liberal social attitudes are more likely to make associations with vice.
What is very noticeable is how his persona evolved over the 20th century. Rather than a single depiction of Krampus becoming dominant, he has taken on more forms. Children can sometimes be seen getting the upper hand on him, or he is the one punished by St. Nick. There is of coarse the romantic and sometimes handsome Krampus. There is also a female variation in which women whip the man. While a lot of these depictions are non-traditional, they still deal with some sort of transgression. In other cases there are clear attempts to disarm him. All these changes are no doubt driving by commercial attempts to exploit this holiday tradition. Postcards may have been the prime mover because they dominated popular imagery for many years. In attempts to find a wider audience for their product, postcard publishers approached many topics in a variety of ways.
One of the reasons publishers could easily tamper with the way the Krampus tradition was presented, was because its original symbolism had become very distant from modern living. The more it his image became popularized, the less potent a symbol it became. There is much confusion over the meaning of Krampus today because he was already reduced to a mere trope a hundred years ago. Even on many antique postcards, Krampus does not appear as a figure that terrorizes children, but a doll that sits at their bedside or as part of a holiday display, though not all children seem to be amused. These dolls continue to be made and are now sold alongside all sorts of Krampus themed paraphernalia.
Since most today think of postcards as souvenirs picked up on vacation or sent to family and friends while traveling, It is easy to forget the major role they once played in celebrating holidays. Before the folding greeting card became dominant in the 1920’s, most people sent out Christmas postcards. Greetings from Krampus cards were also produced in great number and with great variation. While this brought Krampus into the realm of popular culture, many of these cards were designed by the finest illustrators of the day, which shows it still carried some importance beyond kitsch.
Come December 5th, the Eve of St. Nicholas, Krampus Day is celebrated in Austria and other mountain communities. Large groups wearing masks roam the streets in Krampus Runs searching for children to scare and shins and thighs to beat, especially those of young women. Speculatius breads and cookies are baked in the image of St. Nick and Krampus. Attempts are now being made to spread Krampus traditions to American cities such as San Francisco. One can only imagine what may happen to poor old Krampus who is already ostracized here. After all it was largely ads by Coca-Cola that turned St. Nick into Santa Claus.
Samuel Chamberlain and
Passing an old shop in Salem one day, a book in the far corner of their front window caught my eye. Missing its jacket I could just make out the hand lettering Old Marblehead embossed across its faded blue cover. “Its just about the right size,” I said to myself, “could it really be another one.” I hurried through the door, the overhead bell left chiming behind me as I sought out the shopkeeper. She was polite but seemed a little annoyed at having to climb through her carefully arranged display, setting things awry to retrieve the book I coveted. Sure enough, it was another in the series of American Landmark photo impressions by Samuel Chamberlain. I remarked that I was collecting these books for a few years coming across only one now and then. She replied “Oh, you’re on a quest then.” I stood there in quiet contemplation for a moment, and eventually agreed; it was a quest.
410 DWIGHT MEMORIAL CAPEL, YALE UNIVERSITY
The first Chamberlain book I bought was of Nantucket. The unique quality of the printing attracted me to it as much as the images inside. Published in the late 30’s the illustrations were made in photogravure, a popular way of reproducing photos then, but no longer used in commercial printing. It is a very time consuming process, not cost effective when compared to offset lithography. The basic photogravure method evolved from experimental reproductive photography in France and England during the 1820’s. Joseph Nicephore Piepce and William Henry Fox Talbot contributed much to this knowledge until a workable printing method was finally developed in the 1850’s. In 1864 J. W. Swan found a way to transfer an image onto the surface of metal plates though the use of a dichromate gelatin tissue. A photogravure starts off with this tissue being exposed to a positive transparency, which is then adhered to the surface of a highly polished copper plate. The areas exposed to light harden into an acid resist, while the remaining gelatin is developed out causing the dark areas to be washed away in proportion to their exposure. In 1879 a Czech, Karl Wenzel Klic, added a step in which an acid resistant powdered resin is adhered to the metal before the gelatin is applied creating a finer random grain structure. The plate then proceeds through baths of acid in decreasing strength, each bath dissolving the surface of the plate between the gelatin and rosin granules down to different levels. The first areas etched will relief the plate the deepest as to hold the most ink and print the darkest. Eventually the thin areas of gelatin will wear away to produce lighter tones. The plate may be hand printed like an etching leaving an embossed plate mark around the image due to its thickness. More commonly many images were transferred to a single large plate and the press would feed paper over it to be cut down later. Either way the results are a velvety continuously toned surface. It has the same contrast yet high detail as that of a fine art intaglio print. Later books of Chamberlain’s photos were printed using a halftone screen rendering the image in a series of discontinuous small dots. They pale in comparison with the older publications and are ultimately less than ordinary.
76 CONGREGATIONAL CHURCH, KILLINGWORTH, 1807
At yet another bookshop the owner noticed my latest find and mentioned that there was an exhibition of Samuel Chamberlain’s prints nearby. I had been collecting his photo books for years and hadn’t a clue he was a printmaker. His architectural studies at the University of Washington and Massachusetts Institute of Technology gave him a good background in drawing and perception. While there he dreamed of going to Europe under the MIT Traveling Fellowship but as a lower classman he stood no chance of winning it. By 1917, with war raging across Europe, he saw his opportunity and volunteered for the French Army as part of the American Field Service Ambulance Corp. Stationed at Reims he used his leave time to travel as much and as far as possible sketching many great buildings of France. After the war he returned to MIT to finish his degree in architecture only to discover his real interest was in drawing. He tried his hand as a commercial artist but it wasn’t for him. He soon returned to France to pursue his passion. While in Paris he picked up skills in both Lithography and Etching. By 1925 he illustrated his first book on Spanish architecture. Even though several more books were to follow the tough economic times of the 30’s made life in Europe difficult. When the noted etcher John Taylor Arms invited him to return to the States to produce a piece for a portfolio on the Life of George Washington, he felt the need to accept despite his disinterest in historical depictions. Chamberlain was unhappy with this print but the project provided an introduction to George Parmly Day, the treasurer of the Yale University Press. Chamberlain approached him with a proposal for a new portfolio depicting the Gothic buildings of Yale. Day took him up on his offer and this series of twelve etchings was printed and sold. Chamberlain lobbied for a second portfolio but Mr. Day had something else in mind.
89 CONGREGATIONAL CHURCH, ROCKY HILL 1805
After my collecting habits changed to include postcards, I found a beautiful photogravure image while raffling though a box at a show. Turning it over I noticed the copyright by Samuel Chamberlain. While adding many of his cards to my collection I assumed the images were reproduced from his numerous books. It was only when I found my first card of a Connecticut town that the pieces began to come together. The card back showed it was made for that state’s Tercentenary in 1935, a year before his first New England book was released. Chamberlain had often complained to Mr. Day about how awful American postcards were when compared to those of Europe. Day decided that the Yale University Press should publish a series of high quality cards to commemorate this upcoming anniversary and he wanted Chamberlain to provide the photographs. Having never done commercial photography before he purchased a brand new Orix camera with a Tessar lens and headed out across Connecticut in his car. An initial set of 60 postcards depicting Yale was published in March. By June four sets of thirty postcards each were issued for the Tercentenary. The first was of early meetinghouses numbered 61-90, historical houses 91-120, public buildings 121-150, and the Connecticut countryside 151-180. Published under the name The American Scene, they were printed in sheet-fed gravure by the Photogravure and Color Co. of New York. He continued his travels and issued four more sets of New England the following year. They are of Boston, numbered 181-240, Concord, Lexington and Cambridge 241-270, Plymouth 271-300, and Cape Cod 301-330. By the summer of 1936 he photographed New York City and added cards 331-390.
304 AN ARTIST’S SUBJECT, PROVINCETOWN
I do not consider Chamberlain a great photographer but one who produced a solid body of good work. His images can seem quite ordinary, but they capture a sense of place even if idealized. He himself admitted he was a sunny day photographer avoiding more moody weather as well as less attractive subjects. He and others like him created an image of New England in the American psyche that resonates so strong that even in the face of today’s unbridled development few realize how much has vanished. Ironically his work encouraged many to visit these places, helping to change them beyond recognition. Instead of creating a vision for preserving the country’s future, his images have become a nostalgic look into its past.
345 PARK AVENUE
The postcard series was a failure. Too few Americans cared enough about quality and were unwilling to pay a higher price. Black and white images were also going out of vogue as cheaper color printing methods evolved. Only the Yale cards saw reprints and a last set of Yale 391-420 finished off the series. This may explain why most of the cards in my collection are in mint condition. Only one has writing on it, a note that it was a gift from Samuel himself.
333 MID-MANHATTAN FROM THE EAST RIVER
With photography now in his blood, he ventured out further into the New England countryside. The results were depictions of New England homes that he sent to the Architectural Book Publishing Company of New York. He hoped for another illustrated book but was turned down. Despite this rejection the timing could not have been more fortuitous. His work caught the attention of the publisher’s grandson, Walter Frese, who was eager to launch his own company. Thus in 1936 A Small House in the Sun became the first book to be published by Hastings House. Fifty one more volumes featuring Chamberlain’s photographs followed until his death at his home in Marblehead in 1975. By now I have most of his books, but with only two hundred or so postcards in my album there are a lot left for me to collect. The quest continues.