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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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Postcard of the Month
Whether we realize it or not, all postcards have narratives. Some are so subtle to be barely discernible while others represent universal themes such as romance that can be deciphered over time without the need for any particular knowledge of language or culture. There are cards however that are so entrenched within the current events of their day that they inspire nothing more than confusion when our eyes fall upon them. This French postcard drawn and postmarked 1907 is a perfect example. It is obviously meant to be a political cartoon but one referring to events long lost to the public consciousness.
Since the message on its back, “The French Idea of Teddy R.”; only offers a cryptic clue, its many visual facets must be delved into if any meaning is to be found. The central figure with spectacles and mustache obviously represents Theodore Roosevelt, the sitting president of the United States at the time the card was mailed. He is holding what appears to be a small Asian man or boy who is pointing at an American School (Ecole USA). Another figure in the background, is leaving the school and hauling off two children by the ear. Both are wearing red but I think this is nothing more than a liberty taken by the colorist in order to make a more attractive image. Taken as is the narrative remains confused an unyielding, but there are more subtle clues to be had by looking more closely. The President sits on a newspaper that makes reference to unrest in California (Protestations Californienne), and the city of San Francisco sits under the feet of the man with the children. Further back on a distant shore lies Japan with a soldier peering over the horizon viewing the situation. These apparently were once obvious clues to tie it to a current news story. While it does not say much to us today, it gives us a starting point to revisit the historical record.
When the Russo-Japanese War broke out in 1904 it started fueling anxieties in California. Japanese had been allowed to freely immigrate to the United States since 1894 and they had grown to about one percent of the State’s population. Now they were challenging the dominance of European empires in Asia, and many began to see them as an enemy within our gates intent on making the west coast of the United States their colony. In 1905 the Japanese and Korean exclusion League was formed and San Francisco’s ex-mayor, James D. Phelan became one of their outspoken proponents. He claimed “California is White man’s country,” under the reasoning that they were the “first to discover and occupy it.” Native Americans and the early Spanish settlers were apparently peoples who had no history worthy of noting.
The Japanese in San Francisco were not segregated like the Chinese into Chinatown. Their children attended schools all over the city in the same classrooms as Whites. When the San Francisco earthquake hit in April of 1906, the sparse resources that resulted were used as an excuse to herd all Asian children into one school. The intent however was clear from a Board of Education statement. “Our children should not be placed in any position where their youthful impressions may be affected by association with pupils of the Mongolian race.” Japanese parents became very incensed that their children would be forced to receive an education inferior to that of Whites. More importantly it was an insult to the status they felt they deserved as they had their own biases in believing they were superior to other Asians. These feelings didn’t confine themselves to California, for the outrage consumed Japan to the point where it brought out talk of war. After annihilating two Russian fleets, many in Japan thought they could win a war against the United States, and President Roosevelt wasn’t so sure they couldn’t. The Japanese question raised by the local School Boards was seriously interfering with the President’s geo-political ambitions in the Pacific, and and despite the vigorous effort made to make them back down the just would not budge. While Roosevelt was secretly supporting the growing might of Japan as a foil against the expansion of European empire, Californians only framed the issue in terms of their own bigotry. A compromise was finally reached on February 15th, 1907 in which the Japanese promised not to issue any more passports for travel to the United States, except for Hawaii, and in return the Japanese already living here were guarantied the same treatment as Whites, at least under the law. Though Japanese children were allowed back into White schools in San Francisco, mobs attacked Japanese businesses only three months later and talk of war flared up again. Nothing came of it but the tensions between the two communities never really subsided. This informal arrangement was eventually superseded by the Immigration Act of 1924 that bared all Asians from entering the United States.
The illustration on this card by E. Muller has the exact same date that a settlement was reached on the Japanese question, and was no doubt drawn in reaction to its announcement. While all the facts were known at this point, the cartoon dose not do a good job in representing them. Even though it becomes a matter of interpretation, it seems that Roosevelt is pictured holding back the child from school. The man carrying the children away does not seem to be a teacher but a soldier in army boots with a slung rife. Roosevelt is also pictured in a military uniform with the American fleet at his feet off the coast of recently conquered Puerto Rico. Is there a comparison being made between the President bullying children and the United States using its new found military might to bully other nations, or is this just a case of bitter grapes? France supported Russia, the loosing party in the Russo-Japanese War while the U.S. backed the Japanese. In this age of empire, the established powers looked down at any rival seeking to carve out their own share of the world as upstarts who did not know their proper place. This card truly seems to be just as much about the French Idea of Teddy R. as the Japanese question.
While we may be far too distant from the initial publication of this postcard to properly understand all its innuendoes, we can probably better understand its broader implications of it due to the retrospect we now have. The emotional life of people often bends events in ways that is not easily to convey when reading history. This postcard may not accurately represent all the facts, but it does represent the mood of the times, which is just as important to know.
The Search for Identity in a Smaller World
In my dream there were numerous miniature figures, all less than an inch high, standing on glass shelves. Some had parts that lit up while others could bend limbs on command in miraculous lifelike ways. This dream betrayed any notions that I had become too old for toys for I was completely fascinated by what lay before my eyes. Too often we define our desires not by what we really want but by what is expected of us, forgetting what makes us happy along the way. Toys play a very large role in narrowing down these expectations for they usually make up half the life that a child knows.
For Quite some time, many scholars thought the notion of childhood a modern phenomenon; that in centuries past, children were considered nothing more than smaller versions of adults. For some of us this conclusion seems absurd at face value, and the accomplished research by doubters has yielded far different conclusions. Children playing with toys have been pictured in art dating back to ancient Greece, and toy soldiers and dolls have been excavated from even earlier sites in Egypt. When looking into different societies separated by culture, place, and time, it is important to recognize that not everyone is or was like us today. On the other had we all have the commonality of being human, and with that comes a certain universality of feelings and desires.
While toy soldiers have long been used to reinforce gender roles, to see them exclusively as serving this purpose is to miss their point. Gender identification is more of a side effect of toys. Like all play, children are mimicking the adult world around them in order to come to grips with it, even if they can’t manage to understand all of it. We come to identify with the traits culturally assigned to gender, which are not necessarily traits of gender itself. Toys of course do not only create gender identity but are used to reinforce all social notions such as class and race in the same manner.
Tin soldiers have been around since the 1730’s, and by the early 19th century they began being massed produced in England and Germany by casting them in shallow engraved slate. These Flats as the were commonly called, remained popular for about a hundred years, though they faced stiff competition with fully modeled figures when a cheaper method of hollow casting was developed in 1893, By 1938 the Bergen Toy & Novelty Co. began producing two inch tall toy soldiers out if plastic in the United States. This business took off with the plastic boom in the 1950’s when Louis Marx & Co. began issuing one thematic boxed playset after another. These were very popular toys that were marketed out of traditional Sears’ catalogs as well as on the new media of television. Cheaper paper cutout versions were sometimes made available on boxed consumer products such as pasta. These were based on earlier versions of cutout toys and dolls that were once even published in postcard form.
As a child my life was filled with miniature plastic men. The first of them that I can remember accompanied a metal fire truck that squirted streams of water if a garden hose was attached to it. The firemen were cast in odd generic positions with holes bored through their fists so that they could be made to hold various tools. They were followed by more realistically posed figures that came in sets to act out battles of the American Revolution, the Civil War, as well as World War Two. Some sets like the Alamo and Fort Apache, complete with a modular stockade, were based on movie releases of that time. Not all figure sets dealt with conflict for I also had one of a farm, an airport, and a futuristic space station on the moon. Despite the thematic diversity of subjects, these sets were often pooled together to create one vast world. Extra figures without accessories could also be purchased by the bag full at five & dime stores, for you could never have too many and it didn’t matter what set they matched. Context in play revolved around imagination more than a manufacturers fidelity to history.
While I continued to play with toy soldiers into the 1960’s, it was amidst a growing backlash against them, which was in part fueled by the controversies surrounding the war in Vietnam and the unpopular draft that accompanied it. As the legitimacy of the war was called into question, the role of children’s toys in creating a militaristic society was also questioned within the counterculture. This debate, like the one concerning gender roles continues to this day with side’s drawn but little in the way of definitive answers. Toy soldiers have now mostly joined the ranks of adult collectibles while children play with fantasy figures. Children may no longer be imitating historic exploits of empire building but they, or at least boys, are still engaged in violent adventurism with other toys and games. Perhaps it was never about war in the first place. Toy soldiers may have long been used to foster a romantic outlook toward war, but the reasons they have remained attractive may have more to do with the imaginative play they inspire.
In the years leading up to World War One, there was a glut of postcard images depicting boys and sometimes girls, playing with toy soldiers. This was followed by cards of young boys posing in military uniform, often be paired with young girls as nurses. There is something unsettling about these images today because we have grown accustomed to our efforts to separate children from violence. This view of course is from retrospect and divorced from the context in which these cards were made. It was much easier to represent children assuming the patriotic ideals of their parents in the fervor of growing nationalism before the true horrors of the World War were realized. The military was seen as a time honored profession and much romanticism surrounded it. Even so, some postcards seem so bizarre to modern eyes we must wonder what the reactions to them were when first published. A number of cards showed children engaged in play warfare, but a French set depicted somewhat surreal compositions of children piloting planes that were bombing toy villages and killing enemy children. Though our exposure to the realities of warfare has made us a more skeptical society at large, we still live in a world of myth. It is this enduring romanticism that allowed toy soldiers to be manufactured for a new generation after the War had savagely consumed most of the old.
Plastic toy soldiers had always been cheap when compared to Barbie dolls, for Barbie seemed to come with an endless supply of garments and accessories that required and endless supply of dollars to acquire. This benefits of this model was not lost on toy manufacturers who in 1964 introduced G.I. Joe, a World War Two combat figure that would have enough accessorized uniforms and weapons to make Barbie blush. Many adults were horrified at the prospect of boys playing with dolls and would have no part of it. Boys on the other hand knew what they wanted, and these items became huge sellers. It really came down to a matter of perception; while parents were fearful of their children mistaking proper gender roles, boys generally just saw these dolls as more elaborate toy soldiers. Take away cultural gender assignments and you will find that there is no real difference between toy soldiers and dolls. Even so they would be have to be given the new name of action figures, and marketed to bare no resemblance to Barbie’s male companion Ken.
Children seem to be aware of gender differences from as early as eight months of age, and usually have their identities set by the age of three. This is not based on physical differences as much as from observations of family and popular culture where structure can be gained without personally experiencing all elements of it. Children tend to express the gender identity (not to be confused with sexual preference) that is expected of them. While the desire to create identity often leads to rigid stereotypes, conformity is apt to give way to more natural inclinations when attempting to have fun. I was attracted to many forms of miniatures as a young boy, but shied away from playing with those deemed unsuitable to my gender. Though these divisions were never explicitly explained to me and never really made sense, I was acutely aware of them before I ever reached school age. These rules would sometimes break down when playing with neighborhood girls, as communal play became more important than society’s expectations. Peer pressure eventually won out and I fell into line though I always resented being told what I should like. Last Xmas a video that showed a young girl in a toy store going into a fit went viral on the Internet. She kept on yelling, “Why are all the toys for girls pink?” She was quite upset. We tend to blame toy manufacturers for this but they are basically only interested in profits, not social engineering. It is parents who buy toys for their young children and toys must meet with their expectations. Unfortunately current fashion is too often confused with gospel, causing us to base important decisions on trivial notions. In the West, blue had been matched with girls for centuries because it symbolized the Virgin Mary. It was only in the 20th century that color choices became to be dominated by marketing surveys rather than tradition in order to increase sales. Structure always limits choice even though one size never fits all.
While dolls in their various incantations are the oldest form of toy, we can better understand their universality if we look at miniatures. The difference between the two can largely be defined in the target audience. Toys are for the amusement of children while miniatures are for the amusement of adults, though their boundaries are not always clear and may be nothing more than an illusion. Earliest examples are usually well crafted and made out of expensive if not extravagant materials as they were the playthings of emperors and kings. The industrial revolution put more of these miniatures in the hands of the growing middle class who had the discretionary funds to spend on non-essential goods and the leisure to collect them. The dollhouse equipped with furnishings and household goods is probably the best early example of miniatures as playthings. Miniature houses populated with models of servants and pets were found inside Egyptian pyramids, but these no doubt served a religious purpose. Latter in Europe, small cabinet houses became an ostentatious sign of wealth, though they began to be produced as real playthings as early as the 17th century. Germany became a center for hand made dollhouse production, holding that roll until the First World War. Afterwards these miniatures for girls largely came to be massed produced on printed sheets of metal; though expensive hand made models are still produced for the adult hobbyist.
Boys were given what was seen as more gender appropriate miniatures to play with in the form of model boats and trains. Model railroading would advance from toy status to a legitimate deep play hobby as the skill needed to recreate complex layouts in miniature were beyond the skills of most ordinary children. Some layouts grew beyond simple home settings and became tourist attractions depicted on roadside linen postcards. I remember seeing one such display at the 1964 Worlds Fair Better Living Center. The Spectrackular as it was called had 2 3/4 miles of track laid down on 3,000 sq. feet of board with 8,000 figures. This microcosm was a sight to behold and I could have easily spent all day looking at it had my parents not dragged me away. It remained one of the first sites I wanted to see on all subsequent visits to the Fair. At the New York City pavilion a scale replica of the entire city was also put out on display. While outwardly less playful, it still reduced a vast city into something that could be visually thus intellectually grasped if only on a limited level.
Though hand crafted miniatures of boats and trains were used as toys, others constructed miniature models as an end in itself. This had been a human activity for ages but it began to be practiced on a larger scale among hobbyists beginning in 1936 when the British firm Frog came out with the first plastic model kit. The same boom in plastics that made toy soldiers assessable to millions of kids had also greatly expanded interest in modeling by the 1960’s. At first these kits usually reproduced scale models of planes, cars, ships, and military vehicles. Later other subjects including figures were introduced. Model railroaders also adopted kits to speedily build their small scale worlds. Often it is a personal connection to the subject that compels one to build a model. While my own choices were rather arbitrary, my father, who was not much of a hobbyist built a model of the Queen Mary, which he had sailed on during World War Two. Many veterans take up modeling, recreating equipment they worked with during their active years in the military. We place a value on our connection to things that is often more important than the actual objects.
The appeal of miniatures is hard to define even if they intrigue us all. There is certainly something obsessive in both creating and collecting them. There seems to be a connection to miniatures that is part of our innate human nature for it helps us survive by reducing the world to a more comprehensible scale. It might even be said that the cave paintings of our earliest ancestors was an attempt to miniaturize important elements of their world. Modeling in more recent times has been used to create dioramas ranging from accurately scaled architectural renditions to interpretive book reports by grade-schoolers without loosing all of its magical aspects. Miniature renditions have also been incorporated into the world of fine art, representing everything from slices of reality to fantasies. A number of artists have also photographed toy figures set against backdrops that make us question what is real and what isn’t. Perhaps that gets to the root of the matter. We don’t usually see the connection between these activities and discovering our own identity because we have covered them with so many layers of social concerns. Some have lamented since the 1850’s that the introduction of model kits had caused a decline in skills needed to build miniatures from scratch, but here the concern over craftsmanship has only helped to hide our true obsession with smaller worlds.
We can even find a less obvious form of miniature in the contrived village. Some of these like the Plymouth Plantation or Colonial Williamsburg attempt to recreate an historical period as a living museum. While seemingly not miniaturized, they are still a miniature of a specific unchanging era. They may look like accurate recreations based on well researched records and artifacts, but like all miniatures they only capture detail up to a point. Convenient truths are often overlooked in order to impart specific social values or just be more attractive to tourists. After the trustees of Colonial Williamsburg were criticized by historians for keeping everything too spruced up, they decided to allow some paint to be left peeling in order to more accurately resemble 18th century life when paint was hard to come by. This in turn has generated constant complaints from visitors about the poor upkeep of the place.
The presentation of recreated historic villages may be on a life like scale, but in many ways they function as an oversized playset. This is more apparent in places like Disneyland or Freedomland that have some historical themes but were built for amusement rather than education. Facts are manipulated in any way necessary to achieve maximum entertainment value, but even here the conveyance of social values in order to influence identity remains apparent. This was not a new concept but one that had its roots in turn of the century tourism. History was simplified, distorted, and even made up to bring in tourist dollars. As myths replaced facts, history became nothing more than a toy that could be bent towards the will of any community. Postcards played an enormous role in supporting and promoting this outlook, and in turn helped create a new American identity.
Postcards have often been used to depict toys and miniatures but there function is more complicated than mere representation. I would propose that the images on postcards also work as a miniaturization of our world, used to mirror and support our most fundamental values. While the stylistic renderings on many linen postcards closely mimic miniatures, all postcards can work as miniatures. The singling out of any one building gives credence to what is important to that community. While historical and noteworthy structures were depicted in great numbers to meet the demand of mementos for tourists, the small library and firehouse that has no importance outside the local community is equally represented. The presence of these cards helps to define what is important to a community and in turn what values we should incorporate into our own identity as a member of that community.
As social structure becomes endangered during changing times, people tend to grasp onto things that offer them some stability. The turn of the 20th century was such a time, and while many factors contributed to the rise of postcards it is no coincidence that the Golden Age of Postcards coincided with social upheaval. While many cards were used to express interest in the new world before us, many more were produced as a way to hold on to the world we knew whether it was real or not. Their widespread decimation caused them to play a major role not only in the formation of personal identity but in the creation of a national identity as well. Modern day postcard collecting continues to offer an opportunity to re-establish connections to an earlier age where the identities we hold can be reinforced, and comfort found in structures we already understand when faced with an uncertain future.
The growth of digital technology is now presenting us with the possibility of a new world where toys, models, and miniatures as we know them are a thing of the past. The same desire for smaller worlds can still be seen in the growing popularity of virtual gaming, but is a virtual reality a viable substitute for the physical? Studies have so far shown that the mind reacts the same way to both forms of stimulus. There are things that always change and things that always remain the same. There is already a new generation in place that will have to answer this question for us, and who will determine whether postcards survive beyond an obscure historical footnote.
FILLES DE JOIE:
A quick survey of vintage postcards focusing on prostitution reveals that the overwhelming majority are of French origin and that there is a notable absence of American cards. What is reflected are the radically different approaches to the world’s oldest profession by the French and the Americans. Though the United States in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries was witness to a proliferation of street prostitutes and brothels in every major town and city, public policy, especially with the advent of the Progressive Movement, (1896-1916) aimed to abolish the practice rather than regulate it, as was the case in France and most of Europe. Added reasons for the near invisibility of prostitution on the American postcard include our puritan heritage and the influence of Victorian morality, which still pervaded during the Golden Age of postcards (roughly 1890-1920).
French postcards offer a wide range of representation of prostitution. Among those I have collected are black and white photographs of ports where men are shown seeking out women, cartoon-like cards of prostitutes and their patrons frolicking inside brothels, and bedroom scenes of soldiers and their pickups. The majority of cards take a light-hearted view of the trade; sexuality and sexual behavior are aspects of social life which are accepted as natural and not particularly judged or condemned. Though the dark side of prostitution is rarely reflected, there are cards pointing to the threats of venereal disease as a consequence.
Most cards reflect the regulation the trade had been subjected to since 1804, when Napoleon first ordered the registration and biweekly health inspection of all French prostitutes. Due to the graft, blackmail and other abuses which ensued, a Service des Moeurs (Morals Unit) was established in 1843, whereby brothels would be tolerated, but within certain limits. The business had to located outside a residential area and be discrete in appearance. A red lamp above the entrance, along with the house number, had to be prominently displayed. The operator needed to be a woman, and this was a position frequently held by former prostitutes. As for streetwalkers, official policy varied over time. Generally they were tolerated as long as they were registered and didnÕt harass passers-by. The Service des Moeurs remained the model of French regulation until 1946.
As France expanded its colonial empire, its system of regulating prostitution followed. In North Africa, as an example, the traditional access to women was radically transformed after the French arrived. Postcards reflect this dichotomy in portraying dancers, slave women and tribeswomen known for their promiscuity, in addition to the newly established red light districts.
In France there existed a variety of brothels, ranging from those serving the privileged and middle classes (Maisons de Tolˇrances) to those found in poor districts where men were given a number and asked to wait in line (Maisons dÕabattage). In Maisons de luxe, men’s fantasies were fired by richly designed chambers, including Turkish boudoirs recalling the Orient, statuary, grottos, plush carpets, sofas and stained glass windows. Brothels targeting the military also operated widely throughout France. Interestingly, a blue light instead of a red light was used to signal an establishment reserved for officers. During wartime, especially, the demand on the part of soldiers soared. Belgian singer/writer Jacques Brel in his song Au suivant (Next) tells of losing his innocence at a mobile military brothel. Standing naked in line with only a towel and blushing, he hears a voice calling out “Next! Next!,” words that will haunt him in his relationships for years.
The image of servicemen interrelating with prostitutes on postcards is a very common one, and can be explained in several ways. Many of the inhibitions of civil society are especially shed during wartime as possibilities for sudden death become an everyday reality. War itself, as sexologist Magnus Hirschfeld has suggested, is an aphrodisiac, with uniformed men and guns powerful sexual symbols. Military service, in addition, with its changing scenes of action, allows for a certain anonymity, conducive to experimentation and otherwise socially disapproved behavior. Lastly, camp followers, as well as prostitution officially sanctioned by the military, have been features of army life since time immemorial. It has been used to keep up the morale of soldiers too far away from the familiarity of home, plagued by both danger and boredom.
The first three cards depict night scenes at entrances to brothels. The windows to the establishments, when shown, are barred or shuttered, red lights prominently display the house number, and the madam, most often middle-aged and heavy-set, is there to welcome the clients. Word play with military jargon is used for humorous effect on the postcard below while the following two cards are part of a series called Garde à Vos! (Watch Yourself) and show on the verso a cartoon image of a soldier standing at attention with a feather mop.
Groups of soldiers approach a brothel entrance under a mischievously smiling moon. The soldiers have obviously been drinking. Several are singing while the lead one bows gallantly in front of the smiling middle-aged madam. The title of the card is Our Reservists. Night Maneuvers. Windows to the building are shuttered and a red light above the entrance prominently displays the house number. The card is postmarked 1911.
On a card titled Le Mur (The Wall), soldiers are seen leading a mate to the entrance of a brothel where the middle-aged madam welcomes them. The reluctant soldier is being taunted for being a country bumpkin fearful of losing his virginity. A small figure in the rear runs up shouting “Wait for me! We can have a six-some!!!” The red lamp with house number hangs above the doorway.
Two sailors on a card entitled En Patrouille (On Patrol) approach a brothel as the madam comes out to greet them. One sailor asks the other “Are we going to torpedo them?” The other responds “Yes! But it might be better to first try the probe before launching the torpedo!” Wine spills from a bottle one of the sailors is holding.
The next three postcards show the inside of French brothels. The women generally are portrayed as aggressive, while the men are hesitant and, in one case, a virgin. Comfortable sofas, wine, and a curtained-off bedroom comprise some of the background. Two cards include black prostitutes. In France, black women were far more apt to be appreciated for their beauty than in the United States, and indeed, after the First World War, they were often eroticized as embodiments of primal ways of being, from which Europeans had to their detriment strayed.
This card depicts the inside of a brothel with four prostitutes and four soldiers, and is entitled Lust. There are three groupings. In the first, a black resident invites a soldier to her room as he declares his preference for dark-skinned women. A white woman at his side, perhaps jealous, whispers a warning to him “You know, sometimes she loses her color!” Below, another trio is shown. The soldier seated to the left tells the prostitute that his friend is a virgin waiting to be taken. The befuddled virgin replies “But Madam, I don’t know you!” At the upper right, a woman is leading her client into the bedroom The card is part of the Garde à Vos! series mentioned above.
Knock-Out is part of a series of alphabet cards and represents the inside of a brothel where soldiers have come to enjoy the favors of the prostitutes. The female in the foreground asks “What’s the matter, my little one? You already want to leave? What’s the hurry?” In response, the soldier in her grip and pressed up against her large breast replies “I don’t know whether it’s a rugby ball, a cushion, or an aged camembert, but my heart is turning into a runny cheese.”
On this humorous card belonging to a series, The Ten Commandments of the Soldier, an aggressive black prostitute accosts a baffled white French soldier. This particular card is Commandment 6, stating that Love’s Pleasures are not to be given to white whores alone. To the left, a woman’s legs are thrown up into the air as a soldier leans over her, while to the right a couple embrace.
On the card above a woman fondles her bare breasts from an upper story window of a brothel. The red light with the number 69 (a common designation for mutual oral sex) hangs below. In actuality, brothels were allowed to operate only at night, and women were prohibited from showing themselves at the windows. The card is titled PSTT! PSTT!, and its illustrator is the well-known Xavier Sager (1870-1930), said to have designed more than three thousand postcards.
Two prostitutes appear at the second floor window of a brothel, whose heart shaped red lamp carries the number 606. Three gentlemen admire them from the entrance below. Windows with shutters were required under French law for brothels.
This card by illustrator Xavier Sager depicts a madam, offering a choice of prostitutes to her heavy set and balding male customer. Five women are offered, among which are one nude and three with bared breasts. The bilingual (French and English) caption reads “Take your choice. Brunette or blonde?”
A real photo postcard shows what is probably a tableau vivant, or staged sex scene, in a brothel. In the early twentieth century, tableaux vivants were to be found in upscale brothels in France and were a profitable source of income. Customers could view lesbian scenes as pictured on this card, or sadomasochistic acts. Here, two women on plush carpeting make love as a figure behind a window observes. Dark materials, usually of velvet or satin, were a mainstay for their ability to highlight the whiteness of the naked bodies. The postcard has no publisher’s identification on the verso.
For the military forces, the BMC or mobile military brothel (Bordel Militaire de Campagne,/ (Bordel Mobile de Campagne), was set up to serve the soldiers. One, in Meknes, Morocco, included 500 buildings, with cafes, dance halls, and prophylactic stations. In a cartoon BMC scene, soldiers are seen negotiating for and engaged in sex with the women. One figure demonstrates his inability to pay by showing his empty pockets. White, North African and black African troops mix in the scene, though frequently separate facilities were established for the African soldiers. Note the red light hanging above the entrance sign. Such mobile brothels first appeared in the First World War and could be found in French Indochina as late as the 1950’s. Due to controversy surrounding the use of government sponsored prostitutes, euphemisms for the BMC surfaced, such as Boîtes à bonbons, or candy boxes. The caption on this card reads The War in Morocco - Relaxation After Battle.
A rare photo card shows a military field brothel in Morocco. Two dark skinned women pose with soldiers outside the tents used for the sexual encounters. The caption reads At Camp Arblou l’Arbi. The B.M.C.
BEYOND THE BROTHEL
Aside from the brothel, open prostitution flourished throughout France in port area bars, parks, theaters, and on city boulevards used for strolling. Private lodgings were commonly used for sexual encounters by independently working women, as were small hotels and back rooms of shops and bars. Sex workers were either registered (filles soumises) and tolerated, or unregistered (filles insoumises) and vulnerable to arrest. The number of unregistered prostitutes was not insignificant; the prefect of police in Paris, for example, in the early years of the twentieth century estimated their numbers to be between 60,000 and 80,000. Independently working women usually began operating in the early afternoon and would often proposition men openly. The more brazen would try to drag them to their lodgings. If the man refused, he might well become the target of vulgar curses.
As might be expected, port cities, with their ample and ever-changing supply of military personnel, were especially rife with prostitutes. Among French ports, Marseilles was perhaps the most renown in terms of open prostitution. The number of registered prostitutes in the city between 1872 and 1882 was 3,584, and their number rose sharply in the next couple of decades. Still, unregistered sex workers operating outside the brothels far outnumbered those registered. Postcards, both illustrated and photo, depict the scene.
In a French painting by artist Vaury-Caille, prostitutes loll around Coin de Reboul Street in the old port of Marseille. Scantily clad, they are enticing men to join them. The woman in the foreground seems to be pulling a reluctant male toward her building’s entrance. In the background, a waterway can be seen with a part of a ship. The canvas was shown at the Salon des Indépendants, held in Paris since 1884, and show place for such artists as Matisse, Modigliani, and Rousseau. Toulouse-Lautrec’s reputation was closely allied with his portrayals of prostitutes, as were those of Picasso Manet, and Degas.
In a rather battered 1918 photo card, a group of prostitutes in Marseille pose for the camera, along with potential customers that include a tirailleur Senegalais, or French colonial soldier from West Africa. Titled Marseille - LÕantermery St., near the old port, the card captures the sordidness of the district.
A group of filles de joie face the camera in front of the Mignon Bar on a street corner in old Marseilles. The women seem well integrated into the neighborhood; men are going about their business and a young girl stands casually against the wall on the front right. One fille with a foot on the curb displays her bare legs. This card photographed by Lucien Levy is dated 1919.
In a red tinted illustration titled En Bordée (On Shore Leave), a French sailor embraces a scantily dressed woman with a bared breast over a bar table. The woman appears inebriated. In the background, a waitress and couple look over with interest.
Illustrator Xavier Sager depicted many scenes of street prostitution in the cards he designed. Here, background has been eliminated to focus solely on the women and their clients. To the left, three middle-aged men, similarly dressed and smoking pipes, line up to negotiate a discount for the services of two street walkers. The smaller figures to the right show a variety of other encounters, including a man kneeling before a woman. The card’s bilingual (French-English) caption reads “You will grant a discount for the three of us!”
An undivided back (pre-1904) postcard highlights Rue Bréda in the Batignolles district of Paris. The area was well-known for being rife with lower class street walkers. A smiling moon looks on as countless women lean from their windows, calling to the potential male clients below. To the left, an unwelcome client is literally being kicked out onto the street as another woman empties the contents of a chamber pot over his head. A prostitute in a painting by Manet is referred to as a Bréda in reference to this street.
Many of the public parks in Paris attracted unregistered prostitutes looking for clients. Police records confirm the Luxembourg Gardens as one such site. On this postcard, a fille de joie looks back coyly at a gentleman avidly following her.
From time to time, prostitutes have been taxed in France for their earnings. In the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, women were routinely held financially responsible for their mandated health checks. Here, a tax collector assures a woman “Mademoiselle, I’m the tax collector and I have come to tax the source of your revenues.” Her services, we presume, should more than cover the amount of tax that is due. The cartoon is taken from Le Sourire, a French satirical magazine known for its racy illustrations.
On a card titled Tax on Revenue, a prostitute indicates by a meter on her chest that she is free. “Never fear,” her client is told, his investment is being registered and there is no tax later to be added. An article posted in Worldcrunch/ August, 2011 reports that prostitutes in Bonn, Germany, will now have to put money into street meters for their time spent soliciting customers by the curb. Plus ca change, plus c’est la meme chose?
INSIDE THE BEDROOM
The following four postcards all depict bedroom scenes with prostitutes and their clients. Like the vast majority of French cards treating prostitution, they are comical in nature. Two portray soldiers and derive their humor from military jargon or pun.
In a garret, a French soldier is about to bed a prostitute. Taking hold of his helmet, he says “I’m going to begin by taking off my helmet.” The woman answers “Yes . . . that’s it - the helmet first.” The humor revolves around the pun casque, which means helmet as a noun, but fork it over as a verb. Thus her answer is also read as “Yes . . . that’s it - fork (the money) over first.” The woman is stereotypically presented with flesh showing above her nylons, skimpy dress, high heels, and a cigarette dangling from her mouth. Above her bed is a drawing of and declaration of love for Julot, a French word for boyfriend.
A helmeted soldier with pipe waits eagerly for a prostitute to join him under the covers. She inquires “You’re keeping your helmet on?” His answer “It’s just that I’m hoping to do some scouting.” This card was posted in 1916.
A prostitute poses before her customer in front of a large bed. She exposes her legs, and with her hands highlights her breasts. The client, an older and balding man, cries out “Oh! Madeoiselle, what a ravishing sight.” The humor derives from the male mirroring the woman’s pose: he stands with his hands holding onto his suspenders at chest level, and with his stomach thrust outward. This French card dates from around 1904, as a statement on the verso warns that some countries, except for name and address, still don’t accept writing on the backs of cards, and further information can be obtained at a post office.
On a scene to the left, a bald headed older man hands money over to a young prostitute. He remarks “We know well what your means of existence are, my young Rosebush!!!” A bouquet of roses sits next to the couple on the bed. In an adjoining scene, the same woman is soliciting another well-dressed gentleman, confirming the first customer’s observation.
IN FRENCH NORTH AFRICA
France colonized large swaths of North Africa, beginning with its takeover of Algeria in 1830. Almost immediately the French system of regulation of prostitution was introduced and it began to transform the more traditional means of gaining sexual access to women.
Although the Ottoman Empire had tolerated and taxed prostitution, there were no health checks required or restricted areas established for the trade. Furthermore, prostitution as we known it remained practically invisible, as the women worked their trade from rented rooms or hotels often located near the markets.
There were other traditional outlets for men to obtain sexual access to women. Harems, which might house up to four wives, the maximum number of wives a Muslim man was allowed, also were home to concubines. These women, often bought at slave markets, helped run the household and were expected to sleep with its male head. Other females as young as eight to ten years of age were purchased by the more wealthy men for their harems, and trained in the arts, philosophy and religion. They also served the sexual needs of their masters and wielded significant influence in the household. After bearing a male son, many were given their freedom. Other women, known as courtesans, lived independently, usually in the cities, and enjoyed high status. The most desirable were the almées, who were trained in the arts and good conversation, and who rarely appeared in public. Those that had sex with men received them in their lavishly decorated homes and usually received gifts in return. Other almées were renowned for their dancing, an activity commonly associated with visibility and sex, and were of lower status. The word almée interestingly, derives form an Arab root meaning knowledge.
The Ouleds Naïls were a tribe of Berbers from Algeria also well known for their dancing. Trained at an early age into the art, the Ouleds Naïls would travel to towns and cities to perform in cafés, where many would also offer their bodies for sale. Elaborate headdresses, facial tattoos, eyes darkened with kohl, and light colored fabrics were a trademark. During the 1893 Columbian Exhibition in Chicago, several were brought over to illustrate the belly dance. Countless postcards with images of the Ouleds Naïls were printed. A demonstration of their art of dance. can be found on Youtube
The next three postcards illustrate some of the traditional forms of sexual outlet that flourished in North Africa, especially before French regulation became the standard.
On the first card, titled in French Oriental Type. The Slave, a woman with a large gold hoop earring looks away despondently as she stands against a Moorish style opening. A wrap helps highlight her exposed breasts and draws the eyes down to her pubic area, barely hidden. The young and supple body is there to serve the desires of its owner. Many such pictures of slaves were fabricated at the photographers’ studios, employing non-Moslem women, often prostitutes, to portray the part. Though slavery has been officially abolished throughout Northern Africa, for example in Morocco in 1922, the trade still continues in countries such as Mauritania.
A French postcard, titled Une Almée, captures a woman who is both bare-breasted and facially veiled. The figure is indeed alluringly portrayed, with her arm raised to lift her breasts into more visibility. Images of Almées can be found on the orientalist canvases of painters such as Gerome and Toulouse-Lautrec.
A bejeweled Ouled Naïl stretched out on a carpet in her traditional outfit glances up at the camera. In her hand is a cup of coffee, as much a mainstay in orientalist portrayals as the hookah in connoting sensual ambiance. The card is simply titled Biskra Š Ouled Naïl. Many postcards picture street scenes in Baskra, with such captions as Biskra - La Rue des Ouleds Naïls.
Beginning in 1830 with the French conquest of Algeria, brothels were established to house European sex workers. Later, the French created specific neighborhoods, called quartiers réservées, where native women also worked and could leave the quarter only with permission. Prostitutes were registered as in France and required to pay for their mandatory health checks. Thee women were known as filles soumises (subordinate girls). Perhaps the most famous of all reserved quarters was established in the 1920’s in Casablanca, in an area called Bousbir. It housed up to 900 women and included shops, restaurants, and even a movie theater to serve its residences’ needs. Approximately 1500 persons visited daily between 1922 and 1956. Bousbir became a tourist sight as well, and innumerable cards depict its street scenes, or the women themselves, whether posing half naked or gathering for tea. Marcelin Flandrin, one of the most important photographers and producers of postcards in early twentieth century Morocco, has left us a large collection of photo cards of Bousbir.
An aerial view of the Bousbir district shows photo inserts of prostitutes on its four corners. All are fair skinned. The woman in the lower left, a more stereotypically presented Moorish type, bares her breasts. The prostitute in the upper right is Jewish, as the following card testifies.
The card above is captioned in French Casablanca - Reserved Quarter - Young Jewish Type. In the colored photograph, a product of Flandrin, a barefoot woman with hands on hips stares out confidently at the viewer. A red garment and the side of a bed can be seen in the room, the entrance to which is framed by a Moorish arch. In a study sponsored by the League of Nations in 1919 to study prostitution, in the five major cities of Africa to which it limited its African findings (Tunis, Algiers, Alexandria, Cape Town and Johannesburg), the majority of prostitutes were French and Jewish. Twenty percent were local Arab women, and there were few Negresses. In Morocco, especially, Italian and Spanish women were also plentiful.
On a photo card from Morocco, titled: Types A house and its resident in the Reserved Quarter, a Moorish woman sits bare breasted with hands on hips beneath a rounded arch. Such suggestive scenes were common features of the tourist postcard in Casablanca.
The system of regulating prostitution introduced into North Africa by the French is reflected on a cartoon-like card from Algeria. Several colonial soldiers approach a brothel where two of its occupants peer out at them from an open window. The leading soldier in the group of five bows gallantly before the madam who is at the peephole. Above the entrance is the red light and house number of the establishment. An Islamic mosque forms part of the nocturnal streetscape.
In the medina of a North African city, a male figure in a djellaba (its dark brown color indicates bachelorhood) barters with a prostitute appearing at a window with two fingers upraised. The card’s humor is found in the caption, prix fixe? (Is there a set price?)
An Algerian card portrays a bare breasted prostitute pointing at her fancy necklace. Her client, trousers loosened, remarks that someone has given her a nice gift. She responds proudly that this is no gift - she has earned it! On the card’s verso opposite the stamp box is a cartoon figure of a smiling Arab saluting, with the phrase May Happiness Be With You written in Arabic and French below.
The French system of regulation in the end met with many failures, both in France itself and in its North African colonies. In France, though prostitution was accepted by many as a necessary evil, there were strong abolitionist movements that paralleled those in Britain and the United States. These began as early as the 1860’s and were largely influenced by British and Swiss Protestant Evangelicals and the early feminist movements. In addition to the widespread corruption and degradation that plagued the trade, protesters were concerned with the unhealthy working conditions in many brothels and among street walkers that encouraged the spread of disease. Brothels in France were finally outlawed after the Second World War, though a recent survey in April 2011, found that six out of ten French men and women still wanted them to be legalized.
In North Africa, the imposition of a colonial regulatory system onto traditional patterns of sexual access to women never ceased to be the cause of resentment. The French system brought prostitution out of the shadows, concentrated the trade into openly designated areas, and created a segregationist system which prejudicially distinguished between native and European women, as well as native and European clients. Partly in reaction, and with the later rise of nationalism, sex workers were increasingly stigmatized and even assassinated for sleeping with the enemy. A more puritan ethic among the religiously inspired revolutionaries also came to evolve. However, many prostitutes were radicalized and actively participated in the independence struggle, especially in Algeria.
THE VENEREAL THREAT
The vast majority of early French postcards make light of the oldest profession and rarely point to the negative aspects of the trade. An important exception are those postcards warning of sexually transmitted diseases. It wasnÕt until the first decade of the twentieth century that venereal disease became openly discussed as a public health issue in France. Studies which indicated that perhaps fifteen percent of the male population of Paris were infected helped prompt intensive campaigns to eradicate the disease. Posters and lectures were among the techniques used to educate the public. The effectiveness of public education is well illustrated: in World War I, when over one and one half million soldiers fell victim to syphilis and gonorrhea, the rate of British casualties was seven times greater than that of Germany. Britain, due to prudery, showed an unwillingness, especially at the start of the war, to acknowledge the venereal threat, whereas in Germany an effective campaign against the disease was undertaken early.
A bedridden man surrounded by innumerable medications, including mercury, a common treatment for syphilis, looks back rather aghast at the cause of his malady. A scene in the upper left shows him accompanying a woman into a furnished hotel for immoral purposes. The translated caption reads It’s the end that counts.
A French postcard with divided back and the word postcard translated into ten languages, warns against venereal disease in two images. To the left a young man woos a woman on a sofa; to the right, the same young man is seen broken in body and spirit as he stands on crutches before his doctor who is giving him a bottle of medicine. The left scene is framed by a green vine with leaves and lush roses, while the second scene is framed by the same vine, now with thorns only. From 1899 to 1910, venereal disease along with the white slave trade became major international issues, which might explain the usefulness of the multi-lingual postal markings on the verso.
A third card with a more ironic approach is titled Love in Morocco. Like the previous two, it also is divided into two scenes illustrating wanton sex and its consequences. In the left scene, soldiers walk along a street in the medina as a figure is seen entering a brothel. The establishment is identified by its lamp and prominently displayed street number. As in a previous card, the term prix fixe with a resident holding up two fingers is employed for humor, as is the number 69. In the scene to the right, the entrance to a military clinic with a medical wagon parked outside, two dejected looking soldiers seek entrance to the gated compound.
Any examination of vintage French postcards treating prostitution cannot but remind us of the importance of placing postcards within their appropriate historical and social contexts. In France, illustrators such as Xavier Sager and painters such as Toulouse-Lautrec have left us with myriad portrayals of prostitution, while in the United States serious artists only began to tackle the subject in the first decade of the twentieth century. The Ashcan School artist John Sloan was the first to portray prostitutes in The Haymarket, painted in 1907 followed with similar images by George Bellows. The response to this work in France was more likely one of amusement, while in the United States there was shock and repulsion. It was equally beyond the American imagination that the tourist postcard market in French occupied Morocco could be flooded well into the twentieth century with images of a large and officially sanctioned red light district (Bousbir). The sheer numbers of cards produced depicting filles de joie as well as the lighthearted attitude shown toward their profession was nearly inconceivable in the United States. Ultimately, postcards reflect the social mores of the societies that produce them, and the subject of prostitution, forever controversial, provides fertile ground for cross cultural comparison and understanding.
There have been more shipwrecks over the centuries than we can ever hope to count. Most have been lost to memory except for a possible notation on a nautical chart. Few of us today can even recall the most famous of these tragedies with the exception of the Titanic, lost on April 14th, 1912. Though not the worst disaster on the seas, it looms larger than life, coming to symbolize all such losses. The real mythic proportions of its story lay not in the great loss of life but in the folly of man; punished for his arrogance. It is a lesson too many of us have now forgotten, believing we too ride aboard an unsinkable ship.
Titanic postcards have been widely sought after by collectables for the past hundred years. Although the price fetched by the best of these cards puts them out of reach of most collectors, there are still antique cards depicting the ship that can be found without tremendous difficulty that are more reasonably priced. With the anniversary of the disaster at hand, there has also been an issuance of new cards to commemorate the event that can be had on the cheap. While the investment value for these modern cards can be argued, many are at least attractive and deserve some attention. Not all value can be reduced to monetary terms, as we have seen money means little aboard a sinking ship. When we learn that there is no single reason or way to collect postcards, wealth can be had at our fingertips.
Topps’ Civil War News
As a kid, the most well beaten tract outside of my route to school was the one leading to the local candy store. While they sold candy, it was one of those general purpose establishments commonly found in New York City that also sold newspapers, magazines, cigarettes, and novelty items. Its main attraction for me was as a source for cards, not postcards but bubble gum cards. These types of trading cards were sold five to a pack for a nickel with a stick of gum inside that was often stale despite the printed wax paper wrapping. They were usually found in small cardboard boxes next to the array of chocolate bars, though they could also be had in a more limited selection via the vending machine outside the nearby five and dime. Baseball cards were the most common to be found but a variety of other subjects were often available. My favorite set had always been the Civil War cards made by Brooklyn’s Topps Chewing Gum Company in 1962, issued for the American Civil War Centennial. I acquired my set in one fell swoop by trading plastic toy soldiers for them with another kid who lived around the block. Much to my chagrin, he kept the three goriest cards for himself despite all my urging and bribes.
The concept for these cards came from Topps’ art editor, Woody Gelman, who was inspired by the Horrors of War set issued by Gum, Ink back in the 1930’s. He already had some experience working on comic books, and had been an animator at Paramount Pictures. His goal was to design a set of cards that would appeal to ten year old boys, which meant dropping a strict historical approach in favor of pure entertainment in the form of eye catching blood and guts and gore. Gelman teamed up with the writer Len Brown, and together they developed the written and pictorial narrative for the set. Once they agreed on an idea for a card, they passed it along to pencil artist Bob Powell who would interpret it through a few rough sketches. When a final version was agreed upon, the sketch was sent to Maurice Blumenfeld to be turned into a finished tempera painting. Though Blumenfeld had produced work for Topps for years and was an obvious choice to paint the final illustrations, he was notoriously slow, so a second artist, Norman Saunders was brought in to help speed things up. Saunders who had worked as a comic book and pulp fiction illustrator was well suited for the job and had already worked at Topps for about four years. The cards he painted however are a bit more detailed than those by Blumenfeld, and even though he did the final retouching, the set is not as cohesive in appearance as one might like. The backs for these cards contained headlines from a fictional newspaper, Civil War News, and the set would eventually come to be known by that name. The narrative below the headlines, written by Len Brown was coupled with historical events but the details were pure fiction. Brown latter stated that “facts never got in the way of telling an interesting story.”
Six months later 88 cards were ready for the printer in Baltimore. In addition to chewing gum, each card pack contained a copy of Confederate money; there were 17 different notes in all. The great popularity of Civil War News lead to the production of the Mars Attacks card set within a year. Equally as gory and with added sexual innuendo, it did not fare as well. Many parents were already upset with the violent nature of the Civil War set, and drew the line with these new science fiction cards. Many images were repainted to tone them down but the entire set had to eventually be pulled out of production as pictorial violence was being closely associated with juvenile delinquency. I’m sure many cards from both sets wound up in the trash at many homes, and not because the kids outgrew them. Outside of baseball cards, the Civil War News cards have become the most popular cards ever produced; and much of this popularity is no doubt due to their violent nature. Even in an environment filled with horror and monster magazines, these cards made a strong first impression. After fifty years of exile in a box every illustration had stayed vivid in my own mind. I used to play a game with my friends in which we would each have to chose a character to be in each picture. It was not always possible to find one that wasnÕt being horrifically maimed, which of course was why we played this game. While real violence poses a significant threat to children, one must not confuse it with the fantasies by which children make sense of themselves and their world.
It is difficult for me to believe that the Civil War News cards are now fifty years old. I still have vivid memories of stuffing them in my pockets to bring to school so that I could show them off to my friends. With the miracle of the Internet now at hand, I decided to do what I could not do back then, finally complete my set. I was shocked to see how collectable they had become not to mention the high prices these cards now go for, especially when compared to postcards. While a mint set will now fetch a good price, I find the pristine cards just purchased a little disconcerting. My original set might be worse for wear but I am the one who wore them down by living with them. Their ragtag appearance makes them part of my childhood history, which in the end means more to me than their monetary value as a collectable.
Barnett Newman; In Character
Many of us don’t look at things honestly letting prejudice color what we see. In postcard collecting this may cause us to pass on a great find because we have already predetermined a postcard’s worth. Cards of Perkin’s Cove near Ogunquit, Maine are often treated like that. Surrounded by stately homes and small shops selling everything from fudge to tea-shirts, this once important art community is now often thought of as little more than a tourist trap. This in turn tends to devalue the old postcards that depict it, and their audience is generally limited to those seeking personal mementos. For a good collector this approach is not good enough; one must open the mind as well as the eyes to truly see what lay before them.
The area around Fish Cove had been settled as far back as the 1640’s but its growth was hampered by its small harbor that offered little protection from the sea. In 1857 the Fish Cove Harbor Association was formed to deal with this problem by cutting a channel across to the nearby Josias River. Soon this new tidewater basin was lined with the shacks of fishermen. Artists were attracted to this picturesque setting and began building their own shacks along the waterfront. This mixture of artists and fishermen began attracting tourists who eventually came in such numbers that by the late 1880’s it became profitable for Mrs. Daniel Perkins to open up the Cove House in order to accommodate them. Her neighbor, Moses Lyman Staples thought this such a good idea that he opened up his own boarding house, also called the Cove House, and proved unwilling to change his establishment’s name despite Mrs. Perkins’ constant protestations. His rival had the last laugh in the end for after changing the original name to the Perkin’s Cove House, the basin itself came to be called by that name.
After the artist Charles Woodbury moved here from Massachusetts and organized an art association, this small sleepy community began to grow ever larger. Five years latter in 1898 the Ogunquit Art Colony was officially formed. This was no conglomeration of Sunday painters; the colony attracted a number of fine artists that would make it the center for modernist art trends in Maine. As highway construction continued up the coast, motor tourists followed, and shops began to pop up to make use of this newfound traffic. Postcard production in the area increased, especially in the form of hand colored collotypes and real photo cards produced by local photographers.
It was into this milieu that the artist Barnett Newman and his wife Annalee found themselves after stepping off a bus from Massachusetts in 1936. They had headed out from New York earlier in the summer embarked on a strange combination of excursion, vacation, and honeymoon across New England. Their journey had already taken them to many historic sites, such as Walden Pond in Concord that had associations with Barnett’s own anarchist leanings. Now while temporarily residing at a boarding house in Perkins Cove, Barnett planned an assent of Mount Katahdin as the next leg of their trip. Annalee, a mid-westerner was thrilled to be at the ocean, and the thought of scaling a mountain, no matter how often depicted by famous artists did not sit well with her. After discovering a small cottage for rent down in the Cove, she convinced Barnett to take it and they stayed there for the rest of the summer.
Before leaving New York, Barnett had purchased a Kodak Vollenda and had been snapping away throughout their journey. New to photography, he frequently visited Dame’s camera store for advice while staying at the Cove, and he quickly became friends with the proprietor. Toward the seasons end as the shop began running low on their inventory of postcards, Mr. Dame entrusted Barnett with his large format camera so that he could go out and take pictures for him. Though Barnett was not a landscape artist, he approached this choir with real enthusiasm and took quality shots. Many of his fine compositions wound up as real photo postcards on the shop’s racks. He was allowed to keep a number of them for personal use, and many of these were sent out as wedding announcements.
Barnett Newman is well known today for his large minimalist abstractions that fill the halls of the world’s museums, so the last thing anyone might expect out of him are real photo postcards depicting tourist attractions in Maine. Yet this is not as out of character as it may seem. We live in a world of divides; fine art - commercial art, painting - photography, abstraction - realism. They all have their supporters and detractors usually trying to bolster their own standing at the others expense. This is especially true in the art world where the desire to define is directly tied into the marketability and promotion of product. Many of Newman’s supporters see his simple bold color fields as a rejection of realism, but no single work can represent an artist in his entirety. An artwork is nothing more than the end result of concerns that exist during its production. Any artist might follow a singe narrow path over many years, but the mind is boundless and need not follow regimented expectations.
There are no doubt plenty of original Barnett Newman real photo postcards still around that are hiding in attics and dollar boxes simply because no one is aware of their significance in a world where rarely anything is based on merit alone. They are also often difficult to identify as the name written on them is that of Dame, the same as all other postcards sold from his shop. The card pictured above was found in a mix of unidentified cards from Maine, but its identity proved less problematic as it is titled Newman Cottage, and Annalee is standing prominently on the steps. To top it off there is a pertinent message on the back of the card penned by Barnett himself:
Postmarked Ogunquit, Maine August 12, 1936
Cross-Dressing in Military Theater
In the early 20th century, cross dressing in military theatrical productions enjoyed a wide popularity. In the First World War, England, the United States, and Germany boasted literally hundreds of theater groups composed entirely of enlisted men who entertained troops on both the military and home fronts. Prisoner-of-war camps also mounted such productions in countries such as Germany and Russia. Shows consisted of both serious drama and farce. Sailors on military ships crossing the equator partook as well in cross-dressing as part of the theatrical ritual of the crossing the line ceremony.
The largest of such American shows in the era of the First World War was a song and dance revue called Who Can Tell? Produced by the 88th Division, it opened in 1919 and was composed of over 160 cast members of which 32 were female impersonators. At a special production in Paris, President Wilson, General Pershing and representatives of 15 nations from the Peace Conference were in attendance. In the Second World War, Irving Berlin’s This is the Army with its all male cast entertained two and one half million soldiers in over one thousand performances. “It has everything except girls,” the New York Herald Tribune reported, “and the terrible truth is that you don’t miss them.” It toured the United States, Europe, North Africa, and the Pacific. The show’s drag performers, recruited from both the army and the navy, included husky men playing female parts for comic effect as well as men impersonating famous female singers and stars. Today, drag performances are no longer permitted by the United State Armed Services.
In the British Armed Services, at least eighty percent of the divisions that served active duty on the Western and Eastern Fronts in World War One had theatrical units attached to them. A large number of these had men who played female roles. Many naval ships also featured concert parties, where drag acts (singing, reciting, comic routines) by men were quite common. Though supported by the military authorities as a morale booster and highly popular among the troops, drag performance was still viewed by many as transgressive of gender norms and was associated with sexual perversion and the homosexual subculture, of which the public was becoming increasingly aware.
In larger context, there has been a long history of cross dressing on the stage. Women, were already playing male roles in serious theatre, including Shakespeare, in early nineteenth century England. By mid-century, it was common on both sides of the Atlantic to find male and female impersonators in dance halls, burlesque, novelty acts and operetta. There were two general trends in which drag was done. In the first, the actor would mimic the opposite sex in an exaggerated and often grotesque manner. For example, a male might appear in female dress with exaggerated breasts and hair style, and perform with a falsetto voice. There would be no attempt to eroticize the figure. The second trend, sometimes referred to as glamour drag, involved creating an illusion of the opposite sex. Here, a female drag artist might, in addition to wearing a man’s tuxedo, appear in short hair, bind her breasts, and speak in a deep voice, or a male impersonator would feminize his walk and manners, and compose make-up and clothing to simulate an attractive female figure. Drag performers, in transgressing gender boundaries, played a large role in helping to blur the distinctions between the masculine and the feminine, and served both to reinforce and destabilize the heterosexual norm.
During World War One, large numbers of theaters were also established in prisoner-of-war camps. In Russia alone, forty-six German-speaking drama groups performed in the officers’ camps. Theatrical presentations among the non-officer camps tended to have makeshift scenery and props (chairs, stools, blankets as curtains) and focused on the burlesque. Officer prisoner-of-war camps produced far more professional productions, including dramas and operettas by Arthur Schnitzler and Johann Strauss. A reason given is that the officers had more free time to devote to theater as they were not required to work and they had more funds at their disposal. In one Russian prisoner-of-war camp, Oscar Wilde’s Salome was a favorite role for the talented German prisoner Emmerich Laschitz, and he soon became known as Siberia’s most famous female impersonator. Generally speaking, the prisoner-of-war theaters served as safety valves for the disorientation prisoners experienced and gave focus to their energies.
One interesting aspect of these theaters, as documented by homosexual rights pioneer and psychologist Magnus Hirshfeld in his Sexual History of the World War, was the attention given to prima donnas, young soldiers appearing as beautiful women. They had many admirers who would shower them with gifts such as jewelry, makeup, and chocolates. At times, the divas would become involved in love triangles and spats of jealousy, much as might happen in civilian life. A first-hand account by British Fusilier Eric Hiscock (quoted in Cameos of the Western Front by Paul Chapman) rather colorfully describes the phenomenon of soldiers deluding themselves in seeing the men in drag as real women:
What astonishes me is the way the two “females” engendered excitement among their rude and rough male audiences. Why did those Fusiliers, not long out of the line, fight for seats near to the improvised stage? To be near enough to detect the rouged and powdered cheeks that a few hours earlier had been shaved with an Army razor? To decide that the swelling bosoms under the flimsy dresses were false. . . Judging from the way they sat and goggled at the drag on stage it was obvious that they were indulging in delightful fantasies that brought to them substantial memories of the girls they had left behind them. . . As the Quarter-master Captain lisped after performing before a particular rapt audience: “I bet there were more standing pricks than snotty noses tonight.” Astonishingly, ’I suspect he was right.
The Crossing the Line ceremonies practiced chiefly by the U.S. and British navies was an initiation rite for those sailors who were crossing the equator for the first time. Role reversals between officers and crews made up a large part of the ceremony. Pollywogs, or those who were crossing for the first time, were put to the test by the more experienced Shellbacks, or Sons of Neptune. Ceremonies often began with a beauty contest of men dressing as women and later could include sailors posing as milkmaids, nurses, and princesses. The rites were a mixture of initiation ceremony, cross dressing, male bonding, eroticism, role reversal among the ranks, and, unfortunately, physically abusive behavior. Largely for this last reason, in recent years crossing ceremonies have been sharply curtailed by the authorities.
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.
Mock weddings can also be found among the theatrical rites in the armed services. This ritual, many by same sex-couples, were a feature of social life in both Europe and the United Sates from the last half of the nineteenth century into the first decades of the twentieth . Typically they occurred at community gatherings, anniversary celebrations or on college campuses. Historic records include an Australian football umpire, Mick Minahan, who remembers a mock wedding held for fun on the firing line in the First World War. He played the part of a blushing bride and carried a large bouquet of poppies.
On a card printed in Britain to raise money for disabled Belgian troops of the First World War, soldiers gather outdoors around a makeshift stage where a male in drag is performing with two other soldiers in a theatrical piece. Sites for military theater included ruins of churches, tents, huts, outdoor platforms as well as stages in well established professional theaters.
On a card from World War One, German soldiers resting on a stone wall pose for a group photo. Many are dressed in full drag while one member of the regiment strums a guitar.
On a French postcard dated 1915, eight soldiers pose for the camera in a theatrical presentation. Three are in female drag, the center one sporting a mustache. Two standing figures on the far right and left read from their scripts. The card’s translated caption reads: Our soldiers entertain themselves without care for tomorrow.
German soldiers enjoy a theatrical performance which includes two fellow soldiers cast as women. A Christmas tree stands in the background.
The scene is from the French language theater of the prisoner-of-war camp in Cottbus, Germany, during the First World War, where prisoners are performing a play titled Mam’zelle Totoche. Two of the men are in drag, sitting with legs crossed on the edge of a bed, as men in suits court them. As German prisoner of war camps were sometimes notorious for their inhumane conditions, this card and the following no doubt served as propaganda to soften their image.
On this photo card from the German prisoner-of-war camp in Cottbus, Germany, a French West African soldier (tirailleur sénégalais) is being wooed by two European Caucasian soldiers in full drag. Cottbus and an adjacent camp nearby boasted British, French and Russian theaters.
On a German real photo card from 1916, a group of French prisoners of war pose before the camera. The inked caption identifies them as actors and musicians at the Königsbrück prisoner of war camp in Saxony, Germany. Two of the men are in drag and are highlighted at center right.
A photo postcard from World War One shows a cross-dressed actor at the Friedrichsfeld prisoner-of-war camp in Germany near the Dutch border. The camp held 35,000 prisoners, the majority from French Equatorial Africa, North Africa, and Russia. As a photo portrait of a single actor, the card points to the popularity among the prisoners of such feminine appearing male actors in drag.
A cross-dressing actor at the Friedrichsfeld prisoner-of-war camp in Germany exposes her legs to the viewer. Cards such as these were a favorite among many prisoners where female presence was absent. John Brophy and Eric Partridge in their Songs and Slang of the British Soldier (1931) write: “Probably no other generation will ever be able to guess at all the excitement and pleasurable atmosphere of naughtiness generated between 1914 and 1918 by the word legs.”
On this English-language postcard from the early 20th century, six male soldiers appear on stage as three heterosexual couples. The female figures are dressed similarly as country maidens with aprons, bonnets, and braids, and are being lavished with attention by the soldiers in great coats and boots. A backdrop creates a forest setting for the drama. Note the flirtations on the part of the soldiers to the far right.
On this German photograph card posted in 1916, and in all likelihood depicting a concert party, six sailors carouse and pose before the camera. Two men have fitted women’s clothing above their uniforms, including hats and beads and a fan. With legs coyly poised, they openly flirt with their attentive and admiring mates. The card was sent from a certain Fritz in one military regiment to Hugo Schmidt in another.
A Belgian card shows a masculine overweight soldier with hairy arms and a garrison cap (WWII vintage) wearing a short red skirt and fake breasts as he walks with flair through a theater curtain. In his mouth he sports a red rose. The caption, in both French and Flemish, reads: I’ve been chosen as a star to give pleasure to the troops. The comic effect of his burlesque form of drag is added to by the implication that the solider is also homosexual. Indeed, records show that many of the enlisted men performing in drag formed part of an underground homosexual culture within the armed services of various countries.
A recent reprint in postcard format from England’s Topham Picture Library captures a rare moment during the Second World War. Gunners were rehearsing for a charity Christmas show when the alarm sounded and they had to run immediately back to their positions. The photo, taken in 1941, was censored at the time by the British authorities.
This curious German real photograph card is postmarked 1917 and captioned: Wedding on the Western Front. It portrays a mock wedding on the part of soldiers. A makeshift minister performs the ceremony for a soldier-groom in spiked helmet and his cross-dressed male bride, who has donned a dress and is holding what appears to be a bouquet composed of large vegetable leaves. Six fellow soldiers serve as guests.
A second German card also depicts a mock wedding among soldiers. A clergyman bearing a cross stands beside the groom, who is wearing a tophat, and his bride, who is wrapped in white and wearing a headscarf. Among the attendees are another soldier in drag, a drummer and an accordionist.
On a real photo British card whose stamp box indicates a printing date of 1918-1936, sailors on board ship perform a mock marriage. This may or may not be part of a ceremony celebrating the crossing of the equator. The three men to the left and two to the far right are dressed in women’s clothing (skirt and dresses), one holding a pocketbook. In the center a minister with exaggerated ear attachments marries a kneeling couple. The hefty bride is in a dress with a bride’s veil, while her husband-to-be is a sailor in standard navy uniform.
In a scene from a crossing the line ceremony, a sailor in Eastern costume and his mate in female drag embrace one another. The sailor posing as a woman is made to look sexually alluring and has one leg raised to reinforce the effect. The amateur photo was taken on board the USS Texas, and from the imprint on the back, dates from the period 1917 to 1925.
A real photo postcard printed in1915 shows a crossing the line ceremony in which the Supreme Court is said to be in session. On the front right of the photo Neptune, with his crown, long beard and trident, sits next to a sailor in drag playing Neptune’s consort, her Highness Amphitrite (the Roman Salacia). On the reverse, the owner has written: Neptune’s Visit to the USS Pennsylvania. Crossing Equator.