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This page contains both original essays and comments on postcards as well as articles previously 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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The Enduring Evergreen
The end of the year has arrived and with it the seasonal decorations that are familiar to all. In New York City giant sparkling snowflakes hang over our streets and wreaths of evergreens tied with ribbon decorate our buildings. Intermittent displays of color lights, Christmas trees, and menorahs abound. The current public appearance of the menorah alongside the Christmas tree is a reflection of the long standing debate on how the season should be celebrated if at all. Even the refusal to publicly decorate now raises accusations of our institutions being anti-Christian, conveniently forgetting that the most vehement opposition to celebrating Christmas has historically come from Christians themselves. It could even be said that the current popularity of Christmas has more to do with its older more universal underpinnings based in pagan beliefs than with the doctrines of any contemporary religion.
In most cultures around the world trees have come to attain some level spiritual significance. They have often taken on mythic form with symbolic cosmic meaning. This can be seen in the Tree of Life as used in the practice of the Cabala by Jewish mystics, or in the tree that stands over the Unmovable Spot where the Buddha attained enlightenment. Actual trees also came to be revered in many parts of pagan Europe. Specific trees were often singled out due to their species, their great age, or even the location they grew in. Sometimes whole groves were singled out or even planted for ceremonial purposes. A common belief in the Baltics was that a portion of a person’s spirit did not leave the earth after death but was reincarnated into trees. Thus the wanton harming of any tree was considered a serious offense. The Balts, Celts, and Norse also had long traditions in which they attached symbolic ornaments to these sacred trees. This was not mere decoration but used as a form of magic. While oaks were often the tree of choice, many different types of trees were used for specific purposes in ritual. The evergreen’s enduring color amidst the bleakness of winter had obvious significance. The ornaments made from acorns and pine cones that were placed on them did not just symbolize fertility; their actual placement on these sacred trees were acts of ritual magic meant to insure the turning of the Yuletide and bring about a prosperous new year.
Northern Europe had no monopoly on sacred trees. They were used as shrines in ancient Crete, and oracle sanctuaries populated the Greek countryside. Sacred groves would later become an important part of religious practice within the Roman Empire. Saturnalia was the great Roman festival of Saturn, the god of harvest that began on the 17th of December and ran to the winter solstice. Its merrymaking and revelry were accompanied by gift giving, especially that of candles. Beginning in the year 274 it was followed by Sol Invictus held on December 25th, to honor the birthday of the Roman god of the unconquered sun. By the Calends of January sacred bowers would be cut to be placed on homes. Sometimes they were woven into circular wreaths to represent the regeneration of light and with it life. In more northern climes they also served as a refuge for wayward winter spirits.
After Christianity became the official religion of the Roman Empire there began a campaign to eradicate conflicting beliefs. This became particularly viscous in the 4th century when many sacred groves were destroyed. Saturnalia was removed as a religious holiday but eliminating it as a profane tradition proved more difficult to achieve as many continued to carry on its customs. The unwillingness of most Romans to relinquish their core beliefs threatened the stability of the empire. Unable to purge this archetypal resonance from non-Christians, the Church under Emperor Constantine was forced to adopt a different tact to consolidate power. They began incorporating as many pagan rites and traditions into the Church as possible while redefining their meaning in Christian terms. By using Christianity as an extension of politics they could unify the empire’s diverse populace and lessen the threat of revolt.
Few early Christians awaiting the end of days concerned themselves with the birth of Jesus, for the celebration of birthdays as a whole was considered a pagan practice. When the world did not come to an end as quickly as predicted, religious scholars began pondering their own history. Many possible birth dates for Jesus were considered though none resided in winter. It was Pope Julius I who in 375 finally chose the pagan holiday of Sol Invictus as the birthday of Christ. This decision was not just meant to help bring pagans into the fold, but probably made to address the growing threat of Arianism. The followers of Arius, now large in number and holding high office, saw Jesus in very human terms, The idea that his divinity was a gift and not inherent questioned the core of Church teachings, which threatened the Church itself. While Arianism was eventually labeled a heresy by the Church, giving him a birth date was a backhanded way of acknowledging their beliefs, which placated many adherents. Even so it was the year 440 before Jerusalem hosted the first known Xmas celebration. To more easily compete with the long festival of Saturnalia, the commemoration of the birth of Jesus was sanctioned as Christmastide, which would last for twelve days. It was largely imbued with the same revelry, wassailing, and rowdiness that had always created a respite from winter’s darkest days.
The pagan tradition of hanging ornaments from trees remained strong in some parts of Europe, and when invented stories married pagan rituals with Christian doctrine the evergreen was added to the Xmas celebration. The first known Christmas tree decorated in red and white paper flowers, symbolizing knowledge and innocence, appeared in the free city of Riga in 1510. The tree of fertility and regeneration had become the tree of life representing Jesus and the possibility of redemption before God. It is by no accident that trees were often dressed on December 24th, which is Adam and Eve’s Day on the Christian calendar. Though pagan ornaments of bounty were being replaced with Christian symbols, they could not be completely eradicated and the two traditions often existed side by side on a single tree. During the 19th century the custom of dressing Xmas trees spread across most of Europe sometimes picking up remnants of local pagan symbols. The power of the evergreen grew to have particular meaning in parts of northern Europe where its bows sometimes substituted for the tropical leaves used by the Church on Palm Sunday. Even today in some parts of Britain, yew trees are referred to as palms.
While the Catholic Church continues to officially disavow many of the connections between Xmas an paganism as nothing more than coincidence, their argument does not hold up to scrutiny. Few ever questioned the pagan aspects of Christmas until the Church itself began to be challenged by the Reformation. This is most clearly seen in the years following the English Civil War, when the Puritan parliamentarians first turned December 25th 1644 into a day of penance and fasting, then three years later abolished any special recognition of this day altogether. Soldiers were deployed against any idolater or papist who dared to put up Christmas decorations and hauled them off to prison. These were already divisive times, so when the Roman Catholic King Charles II came to the throne, he restored Christmas celebrations to squelch rioting. Many however held firm to their anti-Christmas stance. Anti-Christmas sentiments had also crossed the Atlantic with the Puritan exodus to New England. Here too the celebration of Christmas was punishable by fine and was informally denounce as Profane Man’s Ranting Day and the Superstitious Man’s Idol Day. America however was a vast territory holding a culturally diverse population that did not even recognize the same calendar. This made it impossible for any one group to completely determine how the winter season was to be celebrated.
The Puritans and Quakers of the north generally denounced Xmas while Huguenots, Moravians, and Anglicans generally celebrated it. In semi-tolerant Dutch New Amsterdam Xmas was well received amidst a very diverse populace. Few holidays had ever been recognized in America and fewer still after the United States won its independence from Great Britain. Holidays were largely associated with red letter days for Catholic saints, which most thought should have no place in this Nation of secular laws. Independence Day and George Washington’s Birthday were the only two national holidays that passed the scrutiny of our Protestant dominated citizenry. Different regions of the country however carried different social makeups; and in 1837 Louisiana was the first to declare Christmas a State holiday. Other states soon followed as interstate commerce coupled with a growing middle class rendered communities less provincial. Writers such as Washington Irving and Clement Clarke Moore also made attempts to unify our diverse nation by creating new mythologies around the Christmas. They played off of what they saw as a public yearning for something more Romantic if not spiritual in their lives that religion was not fulfilling. Old St. Nick was revised not only as a fashionable seasonal character, but as the patron saint of New York City. The evolution of St. Nick into Santa Claus allowed this persona to represent the miracle of Christmas without treading on anyone’s religious beliefs.
Christmas trees had occasionally made early appearances in America but they only began to appear in numbers when Germans immigration to the United States increased. Americans quickly became enchanted with this custom, which was made ever more fashionable by a popular illustration of Queen Victoria with her dressed evergreen in 1846. Ten years later President Franklin Pierce put up the first Christmas tree in the White House. Early Christmas trees continued to be dressed with the fertility symbols of acorns and pine cones though popcorn and nuts soon became the American staple. This was often augmented by cookies fruit, confectioneries, toys, hand tied ribbons, and cut paper. Many of these decorations harked back to the simple trinkets given out at Saturnalia. Candles had once been shunned do to their association with pagan gift giving but by the 19th century this was largely forgotten and lit tapers began being placed on trees. This of course began a new tradition of homes burning down in increasing numbers during the winter holidays.
By the 1860’s Christmas was already being heavily marketed. The common two to three foot tree was now replaced by those that extended to the ceiling. Silver tinsel, used since 1610, was being industrially manufactured along with garlands of beads. Actual fruit and nuts were often replaced by lacquered German blown glass that was lined with silver nitrate to make it reflective. Many of these were made as simple glass balls in the tradition of mirror magic to scare away demons or reflect away bad magic. Other glass ornaments often replicated the same fertility symbols they replaced. More advanced methods of securing candles onto trees were continuously developed, and the first electric lights lit up a tree in New York in 1882. The growing commercialization of Xmas was not looked down upon as it fit into contemporary notions that profits were proof of God’s favor, but it had also added a darker dimension to these otherwise jolly festivities. F.W. Woolworth who made a fortune selling Christmas ornaments lamented that he was forced to enter the smelliest, dirtiest hovels he had ever seen in search for them. His low wages however kept ornament makers the poorest of the poor while he price gouged his customers at the other end.
After the American Civil War, many old objections to celebrating Christmas were put aside as it was seen as something that could help unify and heal a wounded nation. On June 26th, 1870 it was made into a Federal holiday. Though its pagan symbolism was largely obscured by new Christian meanings, this remaking of the holiday was never fully embraced and it began to take on a life of its own. While religious observance remained the holiday’s core, at least in principal if not in practice, it grew into something that was more about family and being an American. The Philadelphia Times reported that it was not uncommon to see Jews displaying Christmas Trees in their homes, not as a symbol of Jesus but of their Americanism. Even in the realm of the old Puritans the Christmas tree became known as the God of New England. As city dwellers clamored for Christmas trees, seasonal venders filled urban streets, becoming part of the holiday tradition themselves. To help meet this ever growing growing demand an artificial tree made of brush was introduced in the United States in the 1880’s and one of goose feathers began to be manufactured in Europe. By 1890 twenty percent of Americans had Christmas trees in their homes.
Images of Christmas trees in the United States first began appearing on the chromolithographic holiday cards printed by Louis Prang & Co. in 1875. Prang’s Illuminated Christmas Cards were not just to be used as greetings but tree ornaments as well. By the time he stopped publishing cards in 1890, the holiday postcard began to take its place. The vast amount of cards produced after the turn of the 20th century did a great deal to promote the use of the Christmas tree, and its accompanying symbols. There were numerous variations to these cards but most pictured Christmas trees, and they could be categorized in only a few ways. The most common representation of Christmas trees on postcards was in association with Santa Claus. The tree either accompanied his load of presents or it stood decorated as he entered a home. Sometimes trees are delivered by angels or Santa and angels together. Another very common motif was to combine images of children and trees. While whole families are sometimes shown, it was more common to show children alone. Very often it was just the symbolic form of the evergreen used without narrative content. This can be seen on the many cards that depict nothing more than a single branch.
While most Christmas Cards depicting trees presented them in a traditional manner, there were always illustrators looking for a new angle that would attract attention. Postcards after all were first off a commodity, and a highly competitive product at that. Some publishers concentrated on delivering beauty, others approached the subject with humor. Others made cards more contemporary by incorporating any number of the innovations that the turn of the 20th century produced from automobiles to zeppelins. Sometimes unusual social perspectives were shared as during World War One when many German postcards depicted their troops in the trenches with makeshift holiday trees.
Not all of the images on Christmas cards were as stereotypical as one might think. Many top illustrators of the day created very innovative designs with this genre. Raphael Kirchner, best known for his drawings of risqué women, produced exquisite examples of Christmas cards with the prerequisite German tannenbaum. Many of the fine illustrators that worked for the Wiener Werkstätte also produced postcards with Christmas trees. The subject may have been traditional, but the representation was captured in every style that came and went throughout the 20th century.
While postcards played an important role in assimilating the flood of new immigrants now pouring into this country, there influx also introduced growing discord over the holiday. Jews in particular were already feeling oppressed when the first public Christmas tree was erected in New York’s Madison Square Park in 1912. The irony is that the impetus for this tree was to foster a sense of community with those without friends or family during the holiday season. By this time Christmas had become so commonplace that it seemed part of the natural order, leading many of those who celebrated the holiday to forget that those who didn’t saw it very differently. As the once private celebration of Christmas moved out from the home and into the public realm, there were inefficient boundaries between church and state that caused problems between those with competing beliefs. It is interesting to note however that the Madison Park tree became a focal point for secular new years celebrations as well with special lights made for the occasion. The public appearance of Christmas trees also removed them from the exclusivity of holiday cards as they began to be added to view-card production by the 1920’s.
Evergreens also appeared on a new type of holiday card after the Bolsheviks took power in the Russian Revolution. They took a more defined stand on church state issues and banned Christmas outright, but they found themselves, like the early Church, faced with a populace unwilling to shed familiar customs. They were able to close down churches but the evergreen remained, recast as the New Year tree, which of course is what it always truly was. The New Year tree as printed on Soviet postcards usually looked no different than its counterpart back in the United States.
There are still fundamentalists today who condemn Christmas as a pagan holiday, but the truth is it never had a single meaning. Like most holidays we turn them into whatever we need them to be. No matter whether Xmas is seen as religious or profane, the enduring evergreen will no doubt continue to be found dressed up on seasonal cards in one form or another for a long time to come.
Hy Mariampolski onThe Joy of Sets
This is a slightly abbreviated article of the one that was first posted in the August/ September 2011 issue of the San Francisco Bay Area Post Card Club Newsletter, recapping the talk given at their July program. A similar lecture was given at the Metropolitan Postcard Club’s show in May of 2011.
HY BEGAN WITH A CONFESSION, “I ENJOY SETS!” He recalled his first setsual experience as an eleven year old in the school stamp club eager to complete the 1938 Presidents set. Then, a stroke of luck when the teacher handed him the 16-cent black Lincoln that fulfilled his desires. Punny business over, Hy went on as the first images flashed on the screen . . .
“I collect New York City postcards [also a “confession” here on the Left Coast!] which include about 70 NYC artist-illustrated sets. Many people used to collect by sets, and that trend may be coming back.” So, who were the artists and illustrators and why are there so many sets of New York?
New York City at the turn of the twentieth century was the center of postcard publishing. The golden ages of cartooning, illustrating and advertising converged there and then, and postcards - also at their height - played an important role in all.
Advertising had its golden age between 1890 and 1910. There was a major shift of focus from the product to the purchaser. There was also a higher level of artistry in advertisements as great artists - Toulouse-Lautrec and Alphonse Mucha, for example - became prominent through posters and other visual advertising. Through this shift, postcards became an important medium! They were a new form of advertising, as were posters, billboards, direct mail, premiums and prizes - and those prizes were often postcards. Artistic development led to the importance of advertising icons, e.g. Michelin’s Bibendum.
Through all this, postcards burgeoned and had two major boom periods. The first was 1903 to 1913 when they were still new and novel. The second boom, in the 1930’s and 1940’s, was in part a result of the GGIE and the NY World’s Fair - major expos on both coasts.
Postcard artists shared in the booms. Some worked, by contract or salary, for individual publishers. Others were freelancers, selling their work outright. Making sets - closely related or sequential images, published at the same time and often sold in packets - were a natural progression. New York City was a publishing center and a prominent venue for the scenes on the cards.
Florence Robinson was an early watercolor prodigy who first exhibited at age 17 and studied with Whistler. Her brilliant colors were scene on a Private Mailing Card set by Tuck in 1902-1903. It came in three different sizes.
Rachel Robinson Elmer from Vermont, had married well, giving her the freedom to design postcards and work for the American Red Cross. She died in the flu epidemic of 1918, and is known for her idyllic view sets of New York in a mix of Impressionism and American Arts and Craft styles.
A. Broun designed a set of Arts and Craft poster views in 1924.
Raphael Tuck, the world’s largest postcard publisher, was also the largest user of postcard illustrators. Tuck’s “Cosmopolitan New York” set showed immigrant and streetlife views. Another set pictured historic views, such as 5 Points, the gangland battlefield. The Hearst Newspaper sets of 1903-1904 were published in sheets of six that came with the newspaper. There were several sheets to collect and cut apart - inside glimpses into the lives of the upper and lower classes. They were one of the earliest and more effective uses of postcards as premiums.
Edward Penfield, “Father of the American Poster,” was a poster boy for the golden age of advertising art, well known for his work for Harper’s Weekly and the Kodak Company. Penfield’s best known postcards are the sets of unique views of New York (above, In the Head of the Statue of Liberty) he did for Hart, Shafner & Marx, the men’s outfitters. The cards were given as premiums in the stores and were mailed to lure shoppers, an early use of direct advertising.
Alfred Benjamin & Co. published postcard sets, also, but the men’s suits here were the focus, not views. Postcards were used to promote catalogs and billboard advertising. The O.J. Guide Company published a set showing how customers; billboards would look in place, and we saw the Gold Dust Twins in Times Square.
Philip Boileau designs with elegant people were popular sets. Petty girls were used to sell products contrasting innocence with active lifestyle. The Eclipse Bicycle and Motorcycle Co. put out a set of postcards in realistic style with famous people riding their bikes. Huyler’s Coffee and Chocolate Shops throughout NYC each had a postcard with a local landmark and exaggerated fruit. Bears - symbols of warmth, cleanliness and strength, a popularized by President Teddy Roosevelt - were seen, anthropomorphized, on two sets of New York cards perpetually sought by collectors.
The Metropolitan Life Insurance Co. used a set of postcards to market and reinforce belief in its intangible product. AT&T and the American Thermos Company had sets that showed consumers how to use phones and thermos bottles - both new to the public. Postcard sets built product loyalty by telling a story with Durkee Marine Goods.
Hamilton King was probably the best known illustrator of the times for his Coca-Cola girls and also for other sets such as bathing beauties at East Coast resorts.
Leopoldo Metlicovitz was an important Italian Illustrator. His opera series - including Madame Butterfly, for the American Premier - promoted and popularized performances. Giano Viafore, and artist and friend of Puccini, designed a set with operatic stars.
Dwig - Clare Victor Dwiggins - was a major cartoonist and productive postcard artist with many sets, “Huckleberry Finn,” “Skooldaze” and New York landmarks among them. He lived and worked in the Adirondacks in the Dwigwam and “telecomunicated” by U.S.
R.F. Outcault was another great illustrator and American cartoonist. He was adopted by Thomas Edison as he protege and he was illustrator for Electricity magazine. The Yellow Kid was Outcault’s creation for Hearst newspapers. He was the source of the derogatory term “yellow journalism” used in the rivalry between Pulitzer and Hearst. Outcault’s “Buster Brown” set advertised Bloomingdale’s.
Etlinger’s “Drunk Building” set followed a theme popular with European Illustrators.
Leon Louis Dolce brought European art trends - ashcan school and social realism - to American postcards. Here, one of his “Visions of New York.”
Walter Early drew Elsie the Cow, the Eskimo in Eskimo Pie and the Swan for Swan soap. We saw his Elsie set for Borden’s at the NY World’s Fair.
Hy did not include all of the more than 70 sets of New York City illustrated postcards in his presentation. We saw enough, however, to be aware of the importance of the city and sets in history of advertising, postcards and postcard collecting.”
Defending New York
The Battle for Brooklyn had been a disaster for the revolutionaries. With his flank turned and army routed General Washington looked out nervously from his last line of defense. He could see British soldiers digging trenches at a feverish pitch parallel to his own in preparation for an assault. Five earthen forts with connecting lines had been built to protect Brooklyn Heights, supported by some shore works and a small fort atop Cobble Hill in order to discourage any amphibious movements to the rear. This line stretched from Fort Green near Gowanus Creek to Fort Putnam near Wallabout Bay with a concave center to provide crossfire against any troops moving up toward them on Jamaica Road. Despite the strength of this position it looked like the superior British would soon capture them all if something wasn’t done quickly. With boats gathered and oars muffled the remnants of Washington’s army disappeared into the foggy night. At daybreak the British commander, General Howe was astounded to find that there was no army to bag, that the entire rebel army made it safely across the East River into Manhattan. With no surrender forthcoming Howe would eventually land his forces at Kips Bay forcing Washington to retreat once more. The fort at the Battery was abandoned as well as the fort at Paulus Hook (now Jersey City) across the river in New Jersey.
In the area where Manhattan meets the Bronx the terrain is rugged and broken, and a number of named and unnamed redoubts dotted these hills. They were largely meant to guard the roads leading to the City from the North but now they would help cover Washington’s retreat from the south. As the two opposing armies raced northward, Washington left about 3,000 men behind to man these forts on the heights including the largest one of all that bore his name. It and its sister, Fort Lee on the Jersey Palisades across the river were meant to keep British warships from passing up the Hudson. This they failed to do, and as Fort Washington and its outer works came under a three prong assault its inadequate design allowed the attackers to approach too quickly and the defenders were left with no choice but to surrender. When British forces scaled the Palisades and approached Fort Lee four days latter its defenders fled before a shot could be fired. To secure their occupation of New York City the British would man the former American works at Paulus Hook, Marble Hill, Fordham Heights, Fort George, and the newly renamed Fort Tyron. It was only November of 1776 and Washington’s losses had already put the revolution in doubt.
While it was clear that the inability to construct proper defensive works had contributed to the worst disaster of the American Revolution, nearly all defenses in the former colonies had been allowed to fall into ruin once the war was over. The tip of southern Manhattan had been fortified since the Dutch first arrived and built Fort Manhattan in 1623, but these defenses always proved inadequate when confronted with a superior naval force. Better known as Fort Amsterdam, its name had changed 13 times as it was captured by the British, retaken by the Dutch, traded back to England but seized by revolutionaries before being recaptured and then finally turned over to Americans troops in 1783. Within seven years the entire fort was gone, pilfered by the poor for firewood. After the Constitution was ratified in 1794 and the new Federal government made inquires into forming a national defense, it was found that only three forts in the entire nation were deemed worthy of repair. An entirely new set of forts would be needed if New York’s harbor was to be protected.
The construction of the First System of forts would mark the beginning of a general military paradigm that remained dominant in the United States for over a century. After the suffering at the hands of King George’s military might, standing armies were looked upon suspiciously as tools for an oppressive government. It was thought that our national defense would be better served if left in the hands of ordinary Americans in the form of militias. The lack of a standing army would also discourage entanglements in foreign affairs. The construction of forts however could greatly aid in our defense without presenting a danger to our hard fought liberties. Though the merits of such a philosophy can be debated there is no question that it came to change the face of New York City in ways we are still dealing with today. This history has been captured on postcards in different ways at different times.
While fears of the European quest for empire spurred the fortification of American shores, there was little money in Federal coffers for such endeavors. As overseas threats subsided so did these halfhearted efforts at defense, and most of these new works were soon abandoned. When the Napoleonic wars consumed Europe at the start of the 19th century, fears of it expanding beyond the continent began to stir up worries once more. The attack on the American frigate Chesapeake in 1807 by a British warship searching for wayward seamen enraged the nation and finally spurred real interest in fortifying our coast. We were now in a position to make use of our own military engineers that had been trained at West Point to aid in implementation. The West Point Academy was founded in 1802 for just such purposes, cutting our reliance on those hired from Europe, especially France. This period of coastal defense would come to be known as the Second System.
There was no consensus at the beginning of the 19th century to what made up the most advantageous defense and many different designs were utilized in an uncoordinated manner. One consistent element of these works was their masonry fabrication. In 1808 work began Star Fort located on Bedloe’s Island. Within three years 30 guns were mounted on its 24-foot high walls, but its 12-pointed star design was a leftover from an earlier age. Each narrow point (bastion) prevented attackers from taking refuge in the blind spot directly under the walls because they could be fired upon from the adjoining point, but the high number of points also limited the amount of support that each bastion could offer the next in overall defense if attacked from one direction. Even so Star Fort’s design was deemed adequate for it was built to serve as an island battery and a land assault seemed improbable. It was renamed Fort Wood in 1814 after Eleazer Wood, killed in action at Fort Erie. Construction of Fort Gibson on Ellis Island had begun in 1795 as part of the First System but little had been accomplished until 1808 when a 20 gun battery was completed. Construction of Fort Jay had similarly begun on Governors Island in 1794 over the ruins of an even earlier position dating from the American Revolution, but it had fallen into such disrepair that most of it was demolished and rebuilt in 1806 as a larger star fort with four bastions mounting 100 guns. A separate defensive position called South Battery was built in 1812 to protect the island from any possible land assault across the shallow Buttermilk Channel from Brooklyn.
Governors Island received another second fort of more innovative design by Colonel Jonathan Williams that began being built in 1806. Guns were placed within an enclosed space (casemate) instead atop an exterior wall (barbette). When such designs were previously attempted the shock wave emanating from the blast of cannon fire injured the gunners within the confined space, but here the energy was allowed to be dispersed out from its open back and into a courtyard. The casemate design also allowed one level to be placed over another adding to a fort’s concentrated firepower. When Castle Williams, as it came to be called was finished in 1812 its 40 foot high 9 foot thick red sandstone walls consisted of three tiers of casemates and an exterior barbette altogether sporting 80 guns. It was the strongest defensive position yet built in this country and it would become the prototype for future construction. In fact it was to be mirrored by the West Battery, built on a shoal off the southern tip of Manhattan. While of the same basic design, construction halted after only one tier was built. It was renamed Fort Clinton after Governor DeWitt Clinton in 1815.
New York Harbor is divided into lower and upper bays separated by the Verrazano Narrows, where the waters from the Hudson on its way to the sea had cut through the ancient glacial moraine spanning Long Island and Staten Island. At just under a mile wide this channel is a natural choke point easy to guard. Though recognized as such during the American Revolution, limited resources left it defended by only a small redoubt atop Flag Staff Hill on Staten Island that had replaced the older blockhouse dating from 1663. By 1810 three new fortifications had been completed guarantying that British ships now attempting to pass would receive far more than the harassing fire they previously encountered. Directly on the Staten Island shore at water level was Fort Richmond, a semi-circular battery of red sandstone mounting 24 guns. To the south were two earthen batteries, Fort Morton and Fort Hudson. They were designed to hold 12 and 80 guns respectively but probably no more than 60 were ever mounted. In 1814 construction began on Fort Tompkins atop Flag Staff Hill; a far more impressive pentagon shaped structure with five circular bastions and casemates to hold 102 guns. Though further inland the plunging fire from its height added to its range of its guns. To compliment these positions construction of a fifth fort began in 1815. It would sit right in the Narrows atop Hendrick’s Reef close to the Brooklyn shore. Named Fort Diamond (latter Fort Lafayette) because of its shape, this three-tiered structure could place fire on approaching ships from two of its sides at once and deliver fire from its other two on any ship that managed to pass.
Many of these new fortifications were rushed into completion just as the War of 1812 began. While coastal fortifications had been substantially strengthened and posed a real deterrent from attack by sea, a new threat arose after the defeat of Napoleon in 1814. The British now freed from fighting on the Continent dispatched a large army to Canada and invaded New York State from their base in Montreal. There would be a sudden flurry of construction along the northerly approaches to New York City as General Swift mobilized volunteers from the entire region to build redoubts, trenches, and stone blockhouses river to river in numbers not seen since the Revolution. Fort Fish and Fort Clinton went up to guard the main road that ran through McGowens Pass, its scant remnants now located above the Harlem Meer in Central Park. The defeat of the British at the Battle of Plattsburg would put an end to this threat, and the war itself ended within a year without any of the city’s defenses being battle tested. Most of these small works slowly disappeared over the years under the growth of an expanding city, but a single blockhouse of the northern defensive line still remains in the upper reaches of Central Park.
Though the Chesapeake Bay campaign, launched during the War of 1812 was only a diversionary tactic, the British still managed to capture and burn our nations capital with ease. This alone was adequate proof that our defenses still needed to be further strengthened, and a commission was set up after the war when there was enough time to evaluate and plan for a more coordinated and uniform coastal defense system. The Board was set up under the former Napoleonic general and engineer Simon Bernard. Their first report issued in 1821 would usher in the Third System of defensive works. The plan called for a very comprehensive system of coastal forts to guard every port in the nation but most were never realized. It was the same old story; everyone wanted public works for the benefit of their own hometown, but no one wanted to pay for them. New York however was not just any other port, it had grown into a major commercial center and the Brooklyn Navy Yard now rested on its waterways. Plans would be actualized here turning this harbor into the most heavily fortified in the nation.
The Third system wasn’t just about building new defensive works; it was about constructing them in the most advantageous way possible while fitting them with uniform equipment that could be interchanged between all forts. Perhaps no one was more responsible for this approach than Board member and Army engineer, Lieutenant Colonel Joseph G. Totten who had also designed the most efficient gun embrasure yet to be used in a casemate. Even though the guns placed inside casemates had grown much larger, he managed to bring the size of the opening they fired through down to ten square feet while allowing them to swivel up to 60-degrees. In addition, heavy iron plates (throats) that could swing open as a cannon was pushed forward to fire and then spring back when withdrawn covered every embrasure to further protect the gunners.
One of the most important recommendations of this Board was to fortify the backdoor to New York. Preoccupied with an attack from the Atlantic the approach from Long Island Sound had largely been ignored. Only a few minor fortifications had been built along the East River during the Revolution as it was thought the dangerous reef filled tidal waters of Hells Gate would deter warships from venturing this way. While the British with their powerful men-o-war had been able to control the Sound during the War of 1812, these ships were much too large and unwieldy to sail through this choke point. In the intervening years however the introduction of steam power had created more controllable warships. The natural hazard at Hells Gate had also become less than formidable as the reefs were intermittently blown away between 1852 and 1885 to aid commercial navigation. To counter this new threat the narrow spit of land known as Throggs Neck was chosen for the site to build Fort Schuyler. Jutting out from the Bronx where the Sound narrowed to meet the East River, it would force any ship trying to navigate around it to receive extreme fire from three sides of the fort. Begun in 1833 and completed in 1856, this three-tiered fort mounted 312 guns and had an additional massive defensive system on its single land approach.
The extensive fortifications already built at the Narrows did not dissuade further construction. Fort Hamilton built between 1825 and 1931 on the Brooklyn side was designed less to impede warships than to prevent any forces approaching by land to endanger Fort Lafayette laying just offshore, or even to set up siege guns that might fire upon the Staten Island forts. In 1847 work began to replace both Fort Richmond and Fort Tompkins with more massive granite structures. The new Fort Richmond (latter called Battery Weed) was built in four tiers with three 67-foot high walls facing the channel. While its 116 guns at shore level could fire tremendous broadsides into any ship, the high ground rising steeply just behind it made it indefensible against land attack. This high position was occupied by Fort Tompkins that had only the longest of its five walls facing the Narrows with the rest of the fort oriented to defend against a land attack. Though three tiers high, guns were only mounted on the top barbette with the casemates reserved for the living quarters of the men manning both forts.
It was only during the 1850’s that additional land was acquired around many fortifications in order to expand a whole range of facilities for the housing and support of troops. This activity was stimulated further by the outbreak of the Civil War when many large reservations were required to process and train recruits. Most fortifications up to this time were only minimally garrisoned during peacetime or had little more than a basic caretaker staff. Following the war these military reservations would be permanently manned, though the types of troops assigned to any given base were constantly in flux. The addition of attractive housing where an entire family could live was also used as an enticement to keep officers in the service when recruitment became difficult in post Civil War years. In 1865 the Fort Wadsworth Reservation, named after General James S. Wadsworth killed at the Battle of the Wilderness the year before, was established on the west side of the Narrows. Similarly the Fort Totten Reservation would form around the fort at Willets Point.
Existing structures were also improved upon in these years such as Fort Wood, whose brick was refaced with granite to make its walls stronger. Other older works within the inner harbor however were loosing their significance. Castle Clinton, which was now only used for little more than ceremonial purposes, was sold to the city in 1823 when it became known as Castle Garden. It then served as a beer hall, and once roofed over it formed the stage for a various forms of entertainment ranging from concerts to the spectacles of P.T. Barnum. As wealthier New Yorker’s moved further uptown it lost its most of its cliental and was subsequently turned into an immigration station in 1855.
After the American Civil War erupted, old forts such as Lafayette and Williams proved more suited as prisons for captured Confederate soldiers than necessities for defense. Little interest was taken in the well being of prisoners on either side during this conflict and these forts proved to be a harsh place of confinement. Those unfortunate enough to spend their winters here suffered from a terrible cold blowing in from the now bared but otherwise open gun embrasures. Likewise Fort Wood was turned into a prison hospital, and Fort Gibson became an ammunition depot. This was not a sign of a complacent mood but a recognition of the great firepower that the newer forts provided. Even so New York remained constantly fearful of attack from Confederate raiders sailing up the coast. The C.S.S. Tallahassee was one such ship that was burning vessels off the Jersey and Long Island shores in July of 1864. Her Captain’s ambition was to head up to the Sound through the East River destroying ships and inflicting as much damage on the Brooklyn navy yard as possible along the way. Unable to find a pilot willing to guide him through these difficult waters he contented himself burning ships along the Atlantic on his way to Maine.
New York’s last two Third System forts designed by Captain Robert E. Lee in 1857 were to be granite pentagons. Construction began on the first of these in 1859 at Sandy Hook, an ever shifting bar situated under the Jersey Highlands at the entrance to New York’s lower bay. A quick glance at a chart would show a watery expanse to wide to guard at this point but on closer examination there is only one narrow channel running through it deep enough to accommodate large warships and it runs parallel to this sandy spit. During the revolution it took great effort for the British to get their largest ships over the bar here and many took refuge in the small bay behind the hook while waiting to enter the harbor. Any fort here would have greatly hampered these activities while these ships were most vulnerable, and now a massive one was being built to mount 207 guns. The second fort was to be built at the entrance to the East River opposite Fort Schyler at Willets Point. Its sea face was to be of four tiers holding 68 guns with massive land defenses to its rear. Construction did not begin until 1862 when the Civil War was already in progress, and unforeseen events far away in Georgia would significantly alter the future of both forts.
The American Civil War provided the perfect testing ground for a slew of technological advances in military science. Many had theorized about the effects new weapons might have but the war itself proved there worth or ineffectiveness. Fort Pulaski, completed in 1847 was another of Lee’s designs situated on Cockspur Island guarding the main river entrance to Savannah, Georgia. Like most forts of the time it was only manned by a small caretaker staff during peacetime making it easy for local home guards and militia to seize once rebellion broke out. In December of 1861 Federal troops began to occupy nearby Tybee Island where they erected gun emplacements in an effort to besiege the fort. Conventional wisdom said it could hold out for months if it could be taken at all, for siege guns needed to be placed within a half mile of their target to be effective and these guns in the marshlands of Tybee were twice that distance and more. These however were new times and with them came a new type of rifled cannon that had been in development over the past fifteen years. Rifled guns, as opposed to smoothbores have spiral grooves cut into the inside of their barrel that causes the projectile to spin when fired. This in turn not only gives these guns greater range and accuracy, the projectile will hit with greater velocity. In addition to the more traditional round shot, these guns could also fire shells that have the same width as a cannonball, thus identical air resistance, but its elongated shape can hold more explosives. Bombardment began on April 10th and within 30 hours 5275 shots had been fired. It was enough to breach one of the fort’s 7-foot thick masonry walls exposing its powder magazine and forcing its surrender.
Just a month earlier another pivotal event had taken place; the C.S.S. Virginia had sailed from Norfolk into Hampton Roads to confront the Union fleet out on patrol. She had sent two large wooden warships to the bottom while their shot just bounced off her ironclad hull. The next morning as the Virginia sallied forth it came face to face with the U.S.S. Monitor, a new type of low lying iron vessel with a single gun turret just towed down from Brooklyn where it was built. For all practical purposes the battle that ensued was a draw for neither could significantly damage the other but these new iron vessels had changed the world. When construction began on the Third System of coastal defenses it had already been known that these types of masonry structures were long obsolete. Sieges of various fortresses had shown that their solid walls were no match for sustained bombardment in the era of gunpowder. Coastal defense however played by different rules, at least up to this point. Because a ship fires its guns from an unstable fluid base it can never provide gunfire as accurate as the return fire it receives from land. This uneven exchange made it difficult for a ship to pinpoint fire in order to breach a wall, and at the same time maintain a presence under shore batteries for very long. With steam power making ships faster and more maneuverable, and armor making them impenetrable they were quickly becoming immune from land batteries while finally reaching the capability with their heavy rifled guns to inflict real damage on fortifications in return. A great expenditure of time, effort, and money had gone into making New York the best defended port in the world and suddenly our primary line of defense was obsolete. At Willets Point only two tiers on the fort’s water face were built before construction was halted for good. Construction at Sandy Hook would slowly continue until 1867 but only in a very modified way.
During the last year of the Civil War a concerted effort was made to capture Fort Fisher, guarding the main river entrance to the Confederacy’s last remaining port at Wilmington, North Carolina. The massive naval bombardment from 56 ships had lasted for more than two days, but while it had dislodged most of the guns on the fort’s parapet the fire had little effect on its makeshift earthen walls. The geysers of sand thrown up at every shell-burst would mostly fall back into place, and any repair work needed was easily and quickly accomplished. By 1870 many of the granite and masonry forts like Pulaski were simply abandoned, and small scattered earthen batteries backed with brick began to be built around our harbors in their place. They usually mounted only a few 15-inch Rodman guns, capable of throwing a 400 pound cannonball over 5,000 yards. Though only considered a temporary stopgap solution, some of these guns would remain in place until 1903.
Many such batteries were installed around New York Harbor, especially at Fort Wadsworth guarding the Narrows from Staten Island. Placed high up on a hillside they could at least provide plunging fire while the guns on ships could not be elevated enough to return fire. Batteries closer to the waterline were far less protected, and their impact when fired directly against armor plating was questionable. There greater dispersal however made them more difficult to target than a single large fortification. Two unusual 20-inch cast iron guns, the largest of their age would also be mounted at Fort Hamilton to offer more of a deterrent. The European response to this changing technology was to begin construction on large armored seacoast batteries, a trend that would continue up to World War Two. While a few armored batteries would be built in the overseas possessions we acquired in later years, military engineers in the United States were generally wary of such elaborate moves after seeing how fast our own system, thought the best in the world, became antiquated overnight. A Congress weary of the cost of war also hampered efforts at modernization. They had set downsizing the peacetime military as a priority. Within about five years the construction of these small batteries came to a halt and we just hoped for the best. Wishful thinking however was no long term solution. New York found itself nearly as vulnerable as it was on the eve of invasion 90 years earlier.
A proving ground was set up at Sandy Hook in 1874, partially in an attempt to find ways to modernize the 1500 Rodman smoothbore cannon then in stock. Though this met with no appreciable success, the grounds would be instrumental in developing larger weapons to come. It was here that the damaging effect of projectiles were tested as well as stress tests made to find the maximum powder charge a gun could take before it cracked or exploded. This was dangerous work and despite the precautions taken there were sometimes gruesome fatalities. Despite all this testing, it would be the significant advancements made in the way steel was manufactured and forged during the 1880’s that contributed most to the manufacture of larger and deadlier weapons.
As other nations expanded their empires through coercion and force, the American public began showing more concern over our deteriorating national defense. President Grover Cleveland requested his Secretary of War, William C. Endicott to establish a new Board to review the situation in 1885. When the Endicott Board reported the following year, they recommended a whole new series of fortifications that were not only far greater than anything previously built but far greater in cost than anyone was willing to pay for. Even so some of these ambitious plans went forward. In 1890 after a workable breach was perfected for use in rear loading large caliber guns, construction began on emplacements for them, a project that would go on for twenty more years.
The Endicott System, as it came to be known introduced four additional types of military hardware. Primary to this was the disappearing gun, issued in 8-, 10-, and 12-inch caliber. The largest gun could throw a 1000-pound shell up to eight miles. The old cannonball was long gone as an elongated shell could deliver more mass without increased wind resistance. These guns would once again be mounted on open barbette platforms but the walls of these new batteries were made of 20 feet of poured concrete faced with another 30 feet of earth. This offered great protection for the gun and its crew for the high parapet was impenetrable to all direct incoming fire. The gun itself was designed to be raised above it only when it was ready to fire, and then its recoil would jolt it back down to disappear from the enemies sight.
While mortars had long been placed inside of fortifications, they were now to be used as part of an overall defensive strategy. These 12-inch guns in groups of four would fire out from deep pits surrounded by massive walls, and batteries would generally consist of two to four pits. The scheme was to fire all guns simultaneously at a single vessel, and if the aim were accurate, the ship’s deck would be peppered with 700-pound high explosive shells. While thick armor plating was designed to protect the susceptible parts of a ship’s hull from direct enemy fire, its weight also slowed its speed and increased its fuel consumption. To lighten this burden most armored ships continued to be built with wooden decks. The high arc of a mortar shell however allowed it to drop nearly straight down hitting a ship at its most vulnerable locations and possibly even explode below deck.
Sea mines and torpedoes have a long history but they didn’t begin to be used to good effect until the Civil War. Col. Henry L. Abbot stationed at Fort Totten gave much attention to their further development, and by the end of the 19th century mines became an important part of the Endicott System in New York’s defense. Controlled mines were designed to be warehoused during peacetime, but they would be taken out on a small boat and anchored submerged at predetermined locations when conflict arose. Opposed to contact mines, they were to be detonated through electric cables stretching to an operator onshore so not to pose a risk to friendly shipping. One of the very first sea mine fields was laid between Fort Totten at Willets Point and Fort Schuyler during the Spanish American War. A tunnel that still runs out under the East River from Fort Totten may have been used for the detonation lines. Similar mines were laid in the Narrows controlled from Fort Lafayette. Sea mines not only posed a significant danger to ships, their known presence as an unseen weapon had a great psychological effect on any ship’s captain who faced them. Mines would eventually be supplemented with nets that would force a submarine to surface if tangled in one. Swinburne Island, made from landfill dumped on a shoal off Staten Island had once been used as a quarantine station, but in the 1930’s it was turned into an electric mine control center. Minefields stretched from here out to Coney Island where a fire control tower and antiaircraft guns were set up at Sea Gate. Submarine nets would also be anchored here. An even longer minefield would eventually arc between Sandy Hook and Breezy Point with underwater listening devices positioned further out.
The use of sea mines created the need for new docking facilities at forts so that minelayers could quickly deploy these deadly devices. Fast lightweight minesweepers were also designed to counteract them. They would dart ahead of the main attacking naval force and remove any sea mines in their path by floating above them and cutting their cables with a submerged tow. Sometimes a special class of boats known as minehunters would single out specific mines for destruction. These ships in turn created the need for a new type of gun that could quickly fire upon them at close range. Light batteries carrying 3- and 6-inch rapid-fire guns were set up close to shore at appropriate locations. Many of these small guns were mounted with steel shields for added protection as they fired over low parapets.
In New York these new weapon systems were usually placed alongside existing fortifications. A long line of batteries were erected on the shore of Sandy Hook at Fort Hancock supported by a mortar battery mounting 16 guns further inland. Half of Fort Hamilton’s old stone structure was demolished to make room for ten new shore batteries stretching all the way down to Gravesend Bay from the Narrows. It was also supplemented by an 8 gun mortar battery. Additional land was acquired at Fort Wadsworth for the construction of new batteries on and below the high seaward facing bluffs. Its landward defensive work, Fort Tompkins, was remodeled to accommodate large guns inside it that would now face the Narrows as well. New gun emplacements were also built at Fort Totten on the rise behind the unfinished fort at Willet’s Point. Four new batteries were also constructed at Fort Schuyler across the channel in the Bronx. From the 1880’s onward most of the old and now obsolete forts would be used for little more than storage.
Forts had traditionally been placed at narrow channels to force enemy ships into close range of their guns, but as the range of coastal guns increased fourfold it was found that waterways once considered to wide to defend were now worth fortifying. Davids Island, just off of New Rochelle in Long Island Sound had been a military base since the Civil War but four new large batteries were now installed here to help guard the East River entrance to New York City once we were at war with Spain. Fear of an attack by the Spanish Navy was pervasive, and even far-flung islands nearly a hundred miles to the east began to be fortified. At the Entrance to Long Island Sound, Fort Wright on Fishers Island received seven batteries of mortars and disappearing guns. Eleven batteries were built at Fort Terry on Plum Island, and Fort Mitchie on Great Gull Island would receive five batteries.
Unlike previous building programs, the fortifications of the Endicott system were largely constructed during the age of postcards. This created a dilemma, as there was a great demand by the public to see images of these new defenses while there was also a need to conceal military secrets. The solution was rather simple; most of these cards were issued as generic images with the caliber of gun often mentioned but not its location. When location was given, it was usually more for the benefit of the soldiers sending cards, to show friends and family where they was stationed, but just like other types of generics there was never a guarantee that the name of a fort or even the type of gun depicted on a card was in any way accurate. If the titles on these postcards did not match up to reality the public generally had no familiarity with these subjects to be any the wiser. The issuance of generics also served the interest of postcard publishers because a picture of a gun emplacement at one fort could be used to represent those at all forts and thus keep production costs down. This methodology was enhanced by the generic look of the fortifications themselves, which were often constructed on a single model. Most postcards offer few clues to hint at an image’s actual location since many guns were positioned in deep pits or behind tall walls, and when a view was available it was mostly out toward sea.
Many of the older forts that were no longer serving a role in defense were also placed on postcards at this time. Castle William on Governors Island, which can still be seen by ferry riders today, was once a very popular subject for postcards. Images of Castle Clinton, which was roofed over and turned into the New York Aquarium in 1896 was placed on an even greater number of cards as it became one of the city’s most popular attractions. Fort Wood while still under Army control had become the foundation for the base of the Statue of Liberty in 1884. It still held a battery of Rodmans at that time, and even many later postcards depict the Army instillation there as military facilities were not completely removed until 1950, five years after the fort closed. The Naval ammunition Depot on Ellis Island was moved to Fort Lafayette in 1898, which was no longer suitable for defense due to a fire that had ravaged it. Though cards of this facility, nicknamed Dynamite Island exist they are not so common. Battery Weed at Fort Wadsworth also appeared on many postcards but few were made of its companion Fort Tompkins, most likely do to nothing more than visual appeal.
Images of old forts that no long existed and depictions of present forts as they looked in years far past were also placed on postcards through reproductions of earlier prints and paintings. From this we can see how differently the same subject mater was often approached. Forts usually appear in early works of art as just one element within a larger narrative composition. By the end of the 19th century these more Romantic and idealized depictions were being displaced by those expressing a more Realistic attitude. This shift was enhanced by the use of photography, where the matter of fact images produced became the foundation for most postcards. While broad panoramas were still produced we are often confronted with cards displaying an inventory of our achievements; the school, the hospital, the fort. While countless images of barracks and accompanying buildings have been captured as part of this visual inventory, there old fortifications harder to come by even when long obsolete. Where the forts along the inner harbor had become old landmarks due to their visibility by bathers, promenaders, and ferry riders, those buried deep within larger military bases or away from commonly traveled routes were far less known. It may seem that the obscure would generate greater curiosity, but the card buying public was far more interested in acquiring images of places that they were already familiar with. Sales of most cards depicting modern fortifications were oriented toward the personnel stationed there, which like everyone else in the military far away from home became a substantial market for postcards.
In 1905 President Theodore Roosevelt convened a new board headed by his Secretary of War William Howard Taft to evaluate the progress made on our coastal defenses. It resulted in few changes being made to the city’s fortifications except for the addition of some larger 14-inch guns and giant searchlights that were mounted in fixed positions with their own independent electric generators. At this time aircraft posed no threat; the lights were to be used as a defense against a surprise navel attack at night as befell Port Arthur igniting the Russo-Japanese War the year before. The most notable change by way of the Taft Board took the responsibility of aiming these large guns away from the gunners who loaded and fired them. Fire control stations containing optical instruments were built at strategic points surrounding the harbor where they had good lines of sight and where the positions of enemy ships could be most accurately triangulated. Each would forward instructions to an assigned battery but they were all in communication with one another by telephone. Some of these stations were incorporated right into the battery’s construction while others stood independently outside of forts, some even being disguised as lighthouses. Over the years the guns in seacoast fortifications had grown more complicated to operate and aim, so by 1901 the U.S. Army had segregated its artillery into field and coastal units. This was formalized in 1907 with the creation of the Coast Artillery Corp, which remained a distinct branch of service until 1950.
Up until the 1890’s the function of the United States Navy was largely to defend our shores, but the creation of stronger coastal defenses had helped to free them up at the same time we became more desirous of empire. From the Spanish American War onwards our Navy would be used more as a projection of American power while fortifications would primarily be used to defend their home bases like the Brooklyn Navy Yard, established in 1806. Unseaworthy ships like those of the Monitor class would be discontinued. The smaller ships left to patrol the harbor would would be manned by the State Naval Militia formed in 1891, and latter supplemented by the U.S. Coast Guard when it was authorized in 1915. Military Ocean Terminals would be built in Brooklyn and Bayonne but these were for the transport of men and arms to other theaters of war rather than for the city’s defense. Even the never opened Naval homeport that began to be built at the Stapleton docks on Staten Island in the 1980’s was never designed to aid in defense, but was a product of political maneuvering.
In times of peace, security was traditionally lax at military installations. Scheduled days of practice fire were treated as public events attracting huge crowds. Postcards, especially real photos were used to record these events and were sold as souvenirs. After World War One attitudes began changing regarding military postcards. Nearly all became generic and fewer actually depicted fortifications. It is hard to judge whether these changes were due to efforts to conceal defenses or if they were just a reflection of a public over saturated with war news. This trend would continue through World War Two when most military postcards switched to comic themes, and those that didn’t tended to display little more than barracks or vignettes of soldering.
While New York’s defense had traditionally lain in the power of seacoast guns, aircraft has played a more significant role since World War One. This appeared first in the form of air patrols launched from grassy airfields such as those built at Fort Hamilton and on Governors Island. Miller Field, a more substantial base equipped with hangers was completed on Staten Island in 1921. The Rockaway Naval Air Station, active since 1917 with its own 4 gun mortar battery eventually grew to accommodate naval balloons and dirigibles. While it was obvious that aircraft could drop bombs in addition to spotting u-boats, it took awhile for the military to recognize this potential. This changed rapidly after the aerial torpedo was patented in 1912. After World War One, balloons and large hangers to hold them were added to other posts like Fort Hancock to aid in artillery spotting, but this trend only lasted a few years.
New Yorkers had always become anxious about the city’s defenses during times of international tension, and these worries were often exploited by the press with there own doomsday scenarios in order to sell more papers. While much of this was foolishness there were also legitimate reasons for concern as advances in naval technology began to diminish the effectiveness of our defenses even as they were being constructed. The hodgepodge of guns mounted in our forts no longer offered an adequate defense against the largest guns mounted on the newest class of battleships. Redesigned to fire at a higher elevation, they could now land a shell behind a parapet from a range beyond a seacoast gun’s ability to respond. Despite this danger, when it was realized that no German fleet would be testing this imbalance at our shores, many of our seacoast guns were dismounted and packed up for service in France during World War One from where they were not to return. In part there loss was made up for by adding an array of mobile weapons of various caliber that could not be delivered overseas by war’s end. Unfortunately mobile guns are not as effective as those solidly mounted because they move when fired. Many of these including large railway guns wound up at Fort Hancock.
The threat from new naval guns was soon countered by the design of new large seacoast guns placed in solid mounts that could fire at an even higher angle and out shoot any ship. By 1923 these new gun emplacements were being supplemented by those able to mount 16-inch guns capable of throwing a one-ton shell nearly thirty miles. The Washington Naval Treaty, signed just the year before had forced the cancellation of a number of battleships, and there armaments already manufactured were now added to land based defenses. Fort Mitchie received the first of these large guns followed by Fort Tilden a year latter. Fort Tilden was established near the tip of the Rockaways in 1917 specifically to mount two 16-inch guns. Large guns would also be installed during World War Two on Fishers Island and out at Camp Hero near Montauk Point on Long Island. They were powerful enough to hit any ship between it and Block Island and the island itself if enemy forces ever seized it. Some 16-inch batteries were planned for Fort Wadsworth as well, and for a new instillation out at Nigger Point near the community of Idlewild on the east side of Jamaica Bay, but neither were never built.
At first these guns on swivel mounts, like some of their 12-inch cousins were not fortified but only camouflaged. While they had the advantage of being able to turn to fire in any direction, they had no protection if attacked from the air where their large circular concrete bases made them stand out like bulls-eyes. In 1941 construction began on two large bunkers to be placed over the big guns at Fort Tilden’s Battery Harris. When completed three years latter these concrete structures covered in sand appeared to be giant dunes when viewed from the ocean. A massive lip extended out over the gun embrasure to help shield it from incoming fire. To further protect the gunners a flexible steel net or shield covered this opening allowing only 35 feet or so of the gun’s barrel to poke through. A mortar battery had been already been removed from Fort Hancock and placed atop the Atlantic Highlands near Navesink in 1918 and 12-inch guns batteries were to follow. The were now to be replaced with two 16-inch guns mounted inside concrete bunkers at Battery Lewis in 1944 to compliment Battery Harris. It has been suggested that these types of guns may have been placed in bunkers for more than their own protection. Though Battery Harris was designed to fire out toward the Atlantic, it had the range to fire on enemy ships in Long Island Sound when turned around. The problem with this is if they ever fell into enemy hands during an attack the guns could also be turned on the city it was meant to protect and cause devastating damage. Improvements in amphibious warfare during the 1940’s had greatly increased the possibility of this scenario.
Judging the types of armaments used to defend New York through the examination of postcards alone can create a skewed impression. There purpose was not to provide an accurate overview but to provide the types of images that might attract someone into to buying them. While the most common images found on seacoast defense postcards are those depicting mortars, they were not the most common weapons in place. They were however untypical of most peoples expectations and they became popular curiosities. Rapid-fire guns on the other hand were not well represented, most likely due to their unimpressive size. There are many depictions of 12-inch guns on printed and real photo cards, but those depicting 16-inch guns are nearly impossible to find. While it was prudent to keep the specifics of the city’s defenses out of the enemy’s sight, there were benefits in reminding them that any attack would be met with a formidable resistance. Postcards of large guns behind massive walls functioned as propaganda by creating anxiety among foes while reassuring the city’s populace that they had little to fear. Early 16-inch guns however were mounted without any protection and thus any images of them in this state might have the exact opposite effect on both parties even though they remained powerful weapons.
During World War Two it was discovered that the main danger to ships no longer came from seacoast guns or even other vessels but from aircraft. Any attacking fleet could be sunk from the air before it ever reached our shores. This led to many of the older guns that had faithfully guarded the harbor to be melted down for badly needed scrap. Even the newly installed 16-inch guns would all disappear between 1945 and 1948 as air facilities grew, and the Coast Artillery Corp would be completely disbanded in 1950. The only new guns installed in these years were anti-aircraft batteries to deal with long range aircraft and many of these were mobile units. The Rockaway Naval Air Station (now Jacob Reis Park) was closed in 1930 and its mission relocated to Barren Island Airport across Jamaica Bay where it was less vulnerable and where longer runways could be built. Renamed the Brooklyn Navel Air Station, it would come to share the airstrips with civilians as Floyd Bennet Field until 1941 when it was completely taken over by the Navy. Long Island’s Mitchel Field, built out on an old infantry base on the Hempstead Plains in 1918, became an essential part of New York’s air defense by World War Two. Even Rockaway Airport in Edgemere, and Speed’s Airport in Flushing were used during the War for air patrols. While blackouts were instituted in New York as a defense against air raids, it was not uncommon for city residents to see searchlights filling the night sky during the early years of the Cold War on the lookout for Russian bombers. Bombers however were now flying higher and faster than ever before placing them out of range of most guns.
The Nike Ajax missile was developed to meet the new threat of high altitude bombers, and began being deployed in and around New York City in 1953. Most were housed in underground silos built for them at Fort Tilden, Fort Hancock, and Fort Slocum occupying both Davis and Hart Islands. Fifteen other locations surrounding the metropolitan area would also receive missiles but some were only mobile units that did not require much new infrastructure to be built. In 1960 the more powerful Nike Hercules was introduced, capable of shooting down incoming missiles that could now rain down atomic bombs from the other side of the earth within minutes. There had been a master control center at Fort Wadsworth, but a more modern facility to guide these new weapons was eventually set up at the Highlands Reservation. The air-raid sirens that began to be installed around the city in 1942 would continue to populate our streets as they grew outward for years to come. The once constant noontime testing of these sirens remain in many New Yorker’s memories.
Communities near military installations had generally grown less sympathetic toward their presence when the shock waves from larger caliber guns fired during target practice began shattering windows. An accidental discharge of a 7-inch gun even put a shell into the Equitable building in lower Manhattan in 1942. Many became wary of missile bases being built near their homes, and this apprehension only grew after an accident caused a major explosion and deaths out at the Middletown, NJ Nike base. When atomic warheads began being placed on some missiles, these fears only grew stronger. The value of anti-ballistic missiles slowly came into question as the Soviets developed ICBMs filed with multiple warheads and even more decoys. All arguments became moot in 1972 when President Nixon signed the Anti-Ballistic Missile Treaty with the Soviet Union. Sometimes dubbed the MAD Treaty because it called for the elimination of all defenses, which would cause mutual assured destruction if either side launched an attack against the other. Within two years the last missiles were removed from New York. In 2001 President George W. Bush made the controversial move of withdrawing the United States from this treaty in hopes of building a new missile defense but that remains to be seen.
While there is little argument that our seacoast defenses played a major role in keeping British naval forces out of New York Harbor during the War of 1812, we are left to speculate on its true effectiveness as a deterrent in subsequent years. It is always impossible to prove with any certainty why an event did not take place, but the threats to New York City were real enough. Germany had drawn up contingent plans for sending their fleet into New York Harbor while occupying Long Island as far back as 1887, and plans for an attack by long range bombers was conceived in 1927. Even Italy planned an attack on the harbor in 1942 by using human torpedoes. Having military plans however is not an indication that there was ever the political will to carry them out. No one doubts today that our nation is strong enough to destroy any invader before they set foot on our shores, but the nature of what poses a true danger has dramatically altered in recent years. The worst destruction to befall this city has not been from an invading fleet of ships, bombers, or missiles but by a handful of men already residing here armed with box cutters.
With defensive operations moved to Fort Tilden, the shore batteries at Fort Hamilton have all been cleared to make room for the Belt Parkway, and a highrise now stands where its mortar battery was situated. Fort Schyler was decommissioned in 1934 to reopen four years latter as the NYS Merchant Marine Academy. Fort Lafayette was turned into the foundation for the east tower of the Verezzano-Narrows Bridge in 1960. Fort Slocum was sold to New Rochelle in 1967 and most of it now lay in ruins or has been razed. New York City has more recently acquired Fort Totten and Governors Island, which had served as a Coast Guard base between 1966 and 1996 once the Army left. Some bases have hung around for years being used as recruitment centers, schools, or for housing military units long after their armaments vanished. Only Fort Hamilton remains active today by supporting Army and National Guard units. Cost cutting has led to other instillations closings with Forts Hancock, Tilden, Wadsworth, and Floyd Bennet Field being added to Gateway National Recreation Area. Here the public can now step back into time as they wander about these well preserved institutions.
The defense of New York still remains an issue that its residents deal with on a regular basis. The sight of armed soldiers roaming our train stations, and new security checkpoints are a testament to this. While older seacoast defenses greatly altered the landscape, they were for the most part something in the background that New Yorkers could just ignore. Today security measures have a much lighter physical presence but they touch most of our lives on a daily basis. In this process we have largely disassociated ourselves with our former line of defense. With most guns having been melted down the huge concrete behemoths that remain on our shores have lost their context and are now often seen as nothing more than strange abstractions. Other scattered remains of defensive works are often met with complete incomprehension. Old postcards, which display these places when they played an active role remain one of the best resources to decipher many of these riddles. They also show us how we once confronted the threats posed before us not only in practical terms but philosophically. They are a reminder that the debate over how we should handle security, taxes, and liberty is nothing new.
Forts of the American Revolution
We live in a world where saturated color is everywhere, and it has become difficult to imagine a time when this situation did not exist. For most ordinary people of the 19th century, color on any man made contrivance or in print was an exception rather than the rule. When color printed matter was finally ushered in through new technology, it was greeted with great exuberance. It revealed a hunger for color that seemed insatiable, and countless researchers and businessmen sought ways to make a profit by feeding off these cravings. Color added technical complication and expense, but the increased marketability it bestowed on images could not be overlooked. By the turn of the 20th century postcard production soared to meet this demand. Technology however wasn&rsqu;t always up to the task of delivering on what was desired. Those interest in capitalizing on discoveries by turning them into trade secrets also severely hampered the decimation of knowledge. This would prevent one single method of color printing from dominating the market, but the foundation of all would be confined to a handful of distinct paradigms. Most of these were based on the traditions followed by artists for centuries, but here we will follow just one path born from the scientific investigations into eyesight and photography.
On this typical chrome postcard from the 1960’s the color does not perfectly match up to reality, but its distribution throughout the composition is identical to that captured by the photograph it was based on.
Over the past seventy years we have used the term chrome as a common nickname for a glossy photographic color postcard. Most postcard histories claim that chrome is derivative of Kodachrome, the first high-quality color film, but I believe this is a fallacy, and a serious one that goes beyond semantics. While there is a real relationship between Kodachrome and chromes, I believe it has been distorted through marketing, which has impaired our understanding of an important aspect of postcard history; that modern color reproduction did not come about solely based on a single discovery but it is part of a much longer process within a specific tradition. The so-called chrome postcard was not suddenly invented with the advent of Kodachrome in the 1930’s, nor even of prior color films. Rather it evolved out of a concept back in the 19th century, long before color film even existed. Chrome, from the Greek khrõma meaning color, eventually became shorthand for a photochrome, the product of photochromy, which is the process of producing a printed image in natural color directly derived from photography. The term natural color is used here as it was among printers to differentiate the colors captured through the unbiased lens of a camera from those chosen by retouchers and art directors in a printing house or painted in by colorists.
The retouchers who worked on the ten stones that this photo-chromolithograph was printed from made a good effort to create a realistic image; but while the postcard has captured many elements of the photograph it was taken from, there are still qualities within it that appear to be more the result of a human hand. The color here is based on the idea of what an image should look like and not what was captured by a photograph.
Photochromes, whose roots lay in scientific based color theory should not be confused with the Swiss Photochrom or Photochromie processes. These were also photographic renderings in printed color, but made with no attempt to reproduce natural color directly from photography. Instead they were based on the entirely different tradition of chromolithography, where the pallet was customized for each image by representing local color in the same manner that a artist would apply paint to a canvas. Colors printed were directly matched to colors seen with only a minimal amount of optical blending for expediency. Rarely could fewer than ten colors ever be used as opposed to photochromes that could get away with just using three. Therefore, as contradictory as it sounds, Photochroms are not photochromes, though they’re sometimes misrepresented as such. The term photochome was often used too generally for marketing purposes, but in the printing trades, it was always synonymous with attempts to render natural color, which was usually achieved through tricolor printing.
This Linen postcard published by Fullcolor was to be used by its customers wishing to turn their black & white photographs into cards. The client was to make a list of objects within the photo composition and then assign one of the numbers from the chart to it before mailing it in. While the card would be printed in only four or five colors from halftone plates, it is apparent that the color choices are not based on natural color but on the fashion of the day.
Tricolor printing has its origins in the science of spectroscopy that began in 1801 with Thomas Young’s investigations into the wavelengths of light. He theorized that the human eye couldn’t possibly contain all the receptors needed for the incredible number of color nuances we perceive in the visible spectrum. Rather, the eye must have some way of simplifying this stimulus. After further investigation by Hermann von Helmholtz, it was theorized that primates have only three classes of cone-shaped sensors in their retinas, each responsive to either red, green or blue-violet wavelengths of light. While scientists continue to debate exactly how humans are able to perceive additional colors beyond these three, it was established by Sir Isaac Newton back in the 17th century that colors are just the mind’s reaction to different wavelengths of electromagnetic energy, that they have no existence outside of our own perception.
This early tricolor postcard from the turn of the 20th century was printed with only three halftone plates inked with a deep red, yellow, and deep blue. While its color gamut does not create true natural colors, it still appears as if it is based on a color photograph due to the way that its hues are dispersed. While this combination of color inks does not produce black, the pallet was dark enough to render tones that were close enough to simulate it.
After studying this phenomena in 1855, the physicist James Clerk Maxwell proposed a theory that the mind could falsely be made to think it was perceiving a full range of color by stimulating it with nothing more than proportional mixtures of the red, green, and blue-violet spectra of light (RGB). Maxwell was also the first to proposed the tricolor method of photography. He believed that if three exposures were made of the same scene, shot respectively through a red, green and a blue-violet filter, the resulting black & white transparencies would recombine into a single full-spectral image by overlapping their projections through the same three filters. Thomas Sutton, lecturing on Maxwell in 1861, put his theory of additive color to the test with a lantern slide show where he created the first full color images based on photography alone. Lantern slides had been used for entertainment since their commercial production began in 1849, but up to this point transparencies had to be hand painted if color was desired. The more realistic images produced through tricolor photography made these shows very popular, and some seeing the potential in this did their best to reproduce the same effect on photosensitive paper. This did not initially meet with success and most photographs would continue to be hand colored until until the 1930&rsqio;s. To further meet the demand for color images, a solution had to be found within the realm of printing ink.
This photo based tricolor postcard was printed with a pallet of light blue, yellow, and red, but no attempt was made to render natural color. Instead the placement of colors were chosen by a retoucher more interested in imitating the RGB pallet typically used in hand coloring. While panchromatic film and color transparencies were available at this time for color separation, both were too expensive for most publishers to use.
Ducos du Hauron applied the same basic principles of tricolor separation used in photography to printing, but instead of adding the colors back together into a single image, he subtracted the colors he didn’t want from white light. This subtractive color method led him to photograph his images through orange-red, green, and blue-violet filters, and then print them in ink as close to their complimentary colors, cyan, yellow, and magenta (CYM), as he could find. He patented the tricolor printing process in 1868 and produced the first image using it in 1877. To our contemporary eye the results might not look so natural, but to 19th century sensibilities these early color reproductions must have appeared amazingly realistic. Three years earlier, London’s Photography News had already referred to similar photo based color prints rendered in natural color as photochromes when referencing the work of Leon Vidal. The photochromes mentioned here were not postcards but printed images, though the Vidal Process would later be used in early postcard production. The British magazine, Photographic Quarterly of July 1896 boasts that they were the first periodical to print a natural color photochrome illustration.
This very unusual line block postcard from 1907 was printed with a tricolor pallet but all three halftone plates have the same 45-degree angle of rotation. Moiré patterns were averted by printing all the colors on overlapping lines. This has not only created a soft look it has also given the uncomfortable illusion that the colors are a bit off register.
Though a great innovation, tricolor printing remained much better in theory than in practice. While subtractive color theory required the printing of CYM colors, there were no stable inks available at that time that closely resembled cyan or magenta. Efforts were also hampered by the poor sensitivity of black & white photo emulsion to different wavelengths of light (colors). At first these photosensitive emulsions could only capture the blue and ultraviolet end of the spectrum. Many entered the search for light sensitive materials that could capture other hues, and in 1873 Herman Wilhelm Vogal introduced an orthochromatic photo emulsion that was sensitive to both blue and green. In 1881 Frederick Ives finally developed a panchromatic photo emulsion capable of capturing the full spectrum of visible light, but its immediate effect on the printing trades was minimal for it was not made publicly available until 1906. This was still black & white photography, but now when negatives were made through color filters, they were finally able to accurately capture and separate out the different hues within the same scene.
After halftones were first introduced, printers came up with a number of different ways to overlap color printing plates so that the regularly spaced printed dots would not form distracting interference patterns. Some of these methods worked better than others but the industry would eventually settle on the one that created a rosette pattern that was largely undetectable to the eye. The pattern on this detail from an early tricolor postcard is similar to the one used in process printing today; only here red and blue is used instead of magenta and cyan.
Throughout the 19th century, the supply of photographs simply could not keep up with the demand for them. This provided a great incentive to find ways to mass produce them in printed form, which led to many innovative technologies. While the tricolor process could in theory be applied to any printing technique, it was almost always used in conjunction with halftone lithography for the printing of postcards. This is in no small part due to the continuous investigations into color photography and printing by Frederic Ives. In 1885 he perfected the crossline screen that many had worked towards, making the production of halftones commercially viable. The use of halftones however created its own problem for printers for the screens, used to convert a continuous-tone photographic image into discrete dots, tend to form unsightly interference patterns (Moiré) when overlapped. Different methods to avoid this were tried for many years with varying success before a solution was eventually found and standardized. By rotating the screens at precise 30-degree angles from each other, the pattern formed will be that of a rosette, whose curves are not easily discernible to the eye.
The Ives Process Company issued this very early card as a promotional sample of their ability to create the photographically separated halftone plates needed for tricolor printing in natural color.
Though Ives created his own company to produce halftone printing plates based on tricolor separation, he never patented the process and, within two years, it was in wide-scale use. Other techniques such as the Swiss Photocrom were kept as patented trade secrets that were only carefully licensed out, which in turn discouraged additional innovation beyond cosmetic adjustments. Though both techniques remained competitive with one another for many years, the greater complexity and expense of producing Photocroms lead to their eventual demise, while Ives’ half-tone method, modestly modernized, is still the industry standard worldwide.
This lithographic postcard from 1905 was printed with only three halftone plates inked in yellow, red, and blue. It is attributed to Dr. Adolph Miethie, who was one of the pioneers of the tricolor process and co-inventor of the Miethe-Bermpohl tricolor camera that could expose three different negatives through color filters at once.
Despite a number of technological breakthroughs during the late 19th century, including the invention of tricolor cameras in the 1880’s, tricolor photography and printing remained too costly and time-consuming to be commercially viable on a wide scale. Only a handful of early postcard publishers used the process and most did not use it correctly. There was much confusion at this time over how the additive and subtractive properties of color were to be used in relation to photography and printing. There were many faulty color theories in circulation to choose from and a lack of consensus among researchers. The pallet chosen was usually determined not by the precise optics required by science, but by the printing inks most readily available on the market. Red, yellow and blue, sometimes referred to as the artists primaries, were the colors most commonly used. Given the cost, labor intensity and pitfalls, most printers just opted out of trying to create images in natural color. Instead they often employed simple hybrid techniques such as printing black & white photographic halftones or collotypes over hand-drawn lithographic tints. Some that continued to use tricolor printing did so for the reduced cost that a limited pallet provided, but they allowed their color choices to be determined by a retoucher often yielding very unnatural results.
This German postcard from 1908 makes note of its natural appearance because it was made from an Autochrome but the color fields still remain relatively flat due to retouching. The green dyes in the film have been replaced with yellow ink on the card, which are printed alongside halftones of red, blue, and black in a unique crossline rotation.
Tricolor printing might have been permanently sidelined from commercial use had it not been for advances in color photography that began at the end of the 19th century. The idea of capturing true color directly in a camera, with just one exposure and without filters, was a goal sought after by many. None were successful until Gabriel Lippmann produced the first stable color photograph in 1891. This process utilizing interference patterns was much to complicated to use, but in 1895 the Dublin physicist John Joly introduced the more marketable Joly Colour process that filtered light through a screen ruled out in RGB colors. While this product was short-lived it inspired more advanced additive filtering screens based on the same color model but they also proved impractical for most commercial use. A huge change would come when the Lumière Brothers introduced Autochrome in 1907. The developed autochrome was a positive image on a glass plate; not exactly color film yet, but the first practical color transparency. Its color though flawed was good enough to base printed images on. Colors would still have to be separated through filters, only now it could be done from a single color image, in the controlled setting of a shop rather than from three negatives taken out in the field where mistakes could easily be made. The relative ease of shooting autochromes (though today we wouldn’t call using glass plates, a heavy camera on a tripod and long exposures easy) led to their extensive use on the battlefields of World War One. Interestingly, the quality of their color is nearly identical to the tricolor postcards of military scenes published during the War by the German Color Photographic Society in Stuttgart.
The tricolor postcards published by the Color Photographic Society during World War One have a very modern look to them. Though they are somewhat dull and have a flat finish, they still have many of the same characteristics as later chrome cards. They may possibly have been color separated from autochromes widely use at this time.
Variant color processes by Finlay, Dufay, Paget and many others would follow, eventually totaling over a hundred, but their quantity did not make up for a lack of quality. They offered much promise but they were problematic enough to prevent all but the most adventurous printers from adopting them. They could not capture all the nuances of color even when they did produce subtle tonalities. Their colors also tended to lack luminosity for many contained opaque fillers that held their dyes in place. On some processes, when an individual color needed to be highlighted the other colors within that particular area would need to be darkened dulling their overall look. Dyes, which were often unstable and quickly faded, also had a tendency to clump. This was a contributing factor to the uneven color distribution and strange grainy effects that many produced. In general the new color processes proved more expedient to use but they offered little improvement in rendering color on postcards than those based on panchromatic emulsions.
While the image on this tricolor postcard from 1927 is photo based, it is difficult to determine where the hues derived from early color film begin and where the hand of the retoucher leaves off. Though printed from three halftone plates in a pallet beginning to approximate process colors, emphasis was place on designing an image in RGB hues to match the requirements of prevailing color theory.
The British Vivex color process introduced in 1931 was one of the first to alleviate many of these problems. Vivex allowed full color photographs to made from filtered black & white negatives, and would also come to be used in tricolor printing. While many postcards published during the 1920’s and 1930’s made use of color separations based on early color photography, it is impossible to match any to a particular process with certainty unless credit is directly given. In some cases it even becomes difficult to tell the difference between them and early chromes. The early tricolor cards reproducing the color photos of Cecil Nixon yielded results close to chromes, but they are only labeled, from natural color photo. Confusion is furthered by his publisher, the McKee Publishing Company who latter refered to all of Nixon’s printed cards as Kodachromes.. One giveaway that a postcard was made from an early color method is by looking for heavy retouching, especially in the highlights and shadows that often had to be purified of accidental color casts. Yet even retouched, these photochromes have a look distinct from cards whose color was determined by a retoucher’s eye and hand alone.
The photographer Mike Roberts became the first printer of natural color photochrome postcards based on the new Kodachrome color film. Unlike most chromes these early cards were made through line block printing without a black plate.
One of the earliest color films introduced was called Kodachrome, developed by John Capstaff for the Eastman Kodak Company in 1915. A single image was captured simultaneously on two separate black & white negatives through red and green filters. Both negatives were then contact printed on either side of another single negative which had an emulsion on both sides. When developed to create a blue-green image on one side and a red-orange image on the other, a nearly full color transparency was created. Problems caused by the First World War limited its distribution, though it was issued as Nature Color motion picture film during the 1920’s. Interest in this bipack method of producing color photos would lead others to investigate the possibility of a tripack method, where three layers of emulsion could capture a full spectrum of hues. After many attempts the first workable example came out of the Kodak labs in 1935 when a completely new version of Kodachrome was introduced to the motion picture industry. The following year it was made available as the first fine-grained, multi-layered, dye-coupled color positive film, also referred to as transparency or slide film. Problems with color migration persisted for another two years so most color separations for printing were not made from the perfected Kodachrome until 1939. By this time we were on the eve of war once more, which soon curtailed its marketing. Unlike its predecessors, this subtractive color film took highly trained technicians to process, and nearly all of them were recruited into the military, specifically to create enhanced reconnaissance photos.
This photo based tricolor postcard from 1952 was printed with a pallet of red, yellow, blue, and black. It has been so obviously enhanced by a retoucher that it is difficult to make out the original source or if the intention was to capture natural color or not.
In the intervening years tricolor printing had also undergone a radical change. Early in the 20th century the colored inks needed by printers to make the tricolor process most effective simply did not exist. After World War One, the deep reds and blues that had become so characteristic of tricolor printing had gradually grown lighter in value as new synthetic colorants entered the market. Blue had already been slowly shifting toward cyan, but with the arrival of quinacridone red violet in 1934, there was a dramatic change. The long desired pallet of cyan, yellow and magenta (CMY) finally emerged that better matched the optical requirements of tricolor printing. It also came at a time when the difference between additive and subtractive primary colors was finally understood and this new pallet could be properly put into practice. It was soon found however that cyan and magenta were no substitute for a deep red and blue in creating dark tones, so an actual black had to be added onto a fourth printing plate. Together this CYMK mix became known as process colors, and process printing when used in conjunction with halftone plates. It is also today commonly called 4-color or full-color printing, though it is still basically a tricolor process as black is only added in to make up for color ink’s physical inability to perfectly match up to the subtractive theory of light.
This postcard from the 1950’s goes out of its way to let the buyer know it was made from a Kodachrome transparency by printing the fact on its border. It has been printed with halftone plates inked with process colors but on linen paper. Note the blurry car in the foreground that has not been removed by a retoucher as on a typical linen card. Was this left in to further imply that is image is totally derived from film?
Even though Kodachrome was a far superior film resolving nearly all the problems found in its predecessors, it still remained relatively slow and expensive. The quality of the first postcards based on Kodachrome were also very uneven, as the integration of this new film technology into process printing was made by trial and error. Identifying early Kodachrome postcards can be challenging as both lithography and line block plates were used to print them. Heavy retouching was sometimes still applied. Some Kodachrome-based chromes were even printed on linen stock. There would be no unified look to photochromes until the 1950’s, when production began in ernest and its printing became more or less standardized. Only then did they begin to take on the distinctive chrome look we now associate with them. By the 1960’s this look was further reinforced when nearly all chromes began being printed in offset lithography with process colors, and then given a glossy coat of varnish. Retouching was now kept to a minimum, though even today you can find such anomalies as single-hued cyan skies, the same as on cards dating back to the 1920’s. As much as the pursuit of natural color has always been the theoretical goal, the real aim of publishers is to sell postcards and this is best achieved when they are attractive.
While the outbreak of World War Two prevented Germany from exporting its Agfa-Neu film, it was used to create many chrome propaganda cards within Germany during the war years.
By the mid-1940’s, Kodachrome was already losing its monopoly for the production of chrome postcards. In 1936 the simpler-to-process German Agfa-Neu film was introduced as a rival, but it was not refined until 1941 when World War Two was already in progress. The secrets to this process were taken as war reparations and given to Eastman Kodak where it aided the development of Ektachrome transparency film, introduced to the public in 1946. Photographers quickly began using it, and postcards that were based on it sometimes made direct reference to this fact. The Agfa process was also appropriated as war reparations by the Soviet Union where it came to dominated their film and postcard production. After 1949 Agfa film was once again being distributed out of Germany and it was widely used all over Europe to create chrome postcards. As other types of film entered the market they too began being used in postcard production. Fischgrund in Mexico is noted for basing their chrome cards on Kodacolor negative film. While the emphasis in producing photochomes has always been on rendering natural color, there is no golden standard to determine what natural colors a film needs to match. The dramatic improvements achieved through Kodachrome film gave postcards a much more realistic look, but this should not be confused with what is actually real. The continued use of chromes has had more to do with their expediency of production than with the results they offered, which have been far from perfect in delivering true colors. All films are dye based but they do not all use the same dyes. As the markets in different regions of the world came to be dominated by different corporations, the look of the postcards produced in each began to look slightly different from one another depending on which brand of film dominated.
This Mexican chrome postcard published by Fischgrund in the late 1950’s was printed in offset lithography with the typical CYMK pallet of a process print, but it is based on Kodacolor negative film rather than a Kodachrome transparency.
Photochrome is not a term you often hear anymore when people discuss postcards, yet the cards we call chromes are photochromes. They’ve certainly evolved since their inception in the 1800’s but all these photochromes retain similar characteristics because they're all bound by the same tradition. Most of us can say we know what a chrome looks like but, when we have to make a judgement on a postcard produced during years of technological transition, the call is not so straightforward. So how do we date the birth of the modern chrome? One might say 1934 when CMYK process printing was first realized. Perhaps we can chose 1939 when the first documented Kodachrome color separations were made. There is a need to be cautious of setting arbitrary boundaries, for the story of color reproduction is not written in black and white. While Kodachrome has had a remarkable impact on the production of photochromes, it has not been the only factor in creating truer natural colors, nor the relatively unified look of these cards. As we have seen the modern chrome is only one part of a greater whole that continues to evolve.
This modern chrome printed in offset lithography uses a standard CYMK pallet but it was used in such a way to render the image with highly saturated colors. While the general color saturation of postcards has steadily grown stronger over the years in part due to technical refinements and better colorants, the change has largely been driven by marketing concerns. A simple natural color pallet was once eye catching but only until the convention became to be seen as normal. Today the color on all printed images is usually heightened to some degree just to appear natural.
With the coming of the digital revolution an image may now be digitally captured, emailed to a printer, and made into a postcard without the need for film, halftone separations, or printing plates. When the process is complete there may be no physical evidence of production other than the card itself. Up to this point, changes in technology have usually just pushed existing processes further along, but now a postcard that continues to look familiar to the eye might have been produced through unprecedented means. Computer models that examine the relationships between the colors we actually perceive allows digital printing technology to bypass process printing completely and utilize expanded pallets well beyond the CYMK mix. Even production of the once mighty Kodachrome, the staple of the American postcard industry has ended in 2010. So are the chrome-like cards we see today still photochromes? Since they continue to embrace the concept of reproducing photographically derived natural color in printed form, the tentative answer is yes, but there is much more to consider.
Advancements in printing have led to chromes with a sharper, brighter, and more saturated appearance. Even when they are still printed in offset lithography with process colors, digital technology has helped create smaller and denser halftone patterns that are completely invisible to the naked eye.
Digital technology has come to poses a problem of definition across a wide expanse of processes, and the production of photochromes are no exception. Despite the importance of our newfound ability to render images in more natural natural color, it is no longer seems a priority among postcard publishers. The vast array of postcards today sporting an exaggerated or mannered look are proof of this. With the current ability to alter all digital imagery with ease, does natural color in terms of photography even still exist? Rendering true colors seemed a lofty goal when it was difficult to achieve, but we must remember that natural color cards only seemed more real at first because they ushered in a new visual convention, they do not actually reproduce what we see. It seems that what most of us are looking for is something we like, not what is real. This more than anything else tells us that postcards were rarely about mere visual reproduction that their true appeal lay in their function as art. Even though the chrome has dominated postcard production since the 1950’s we have since come to see that the concept of natural color has not become the final victor against its competitors, but just one style of rendering among many that is subject to the public’s fickle taste. The pallet used on cards is now determined by the final outcome desired, not by tricolor theory. We have seen huge changes in the way photochromes were manufactured before, brought about by the introduction of color photography and process printing. So are these new digitally produced chromes nothing more than another face within the tradition of photochromy, or are we on the brink of a truly brand new paradigm? The answer can only be found if we have the proper understanding of this history.