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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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Coney Island Carnival
By the time the use of postcards became widespread, Brooklyn’s Coney Island was already a popular destination for tourists and city dwellers alike, looking for cheap thrills and relief from the summer’s heat. It was the perfect venue for postcards as they were not just purchased to send quick notes but to show off a happy day spent among amusements at the seashore. For most a trip to his exotic isle was far from ordinary, and many visitors also found postcards to be a good way in which to acquire a cheap memento. Demand for postcards grew so quickly that by the turn of the 20th century many of the shops and stands that sold them could not be supplied fast enough. There was a simple solution to make up for this shortfall; retailers began buying generics and placing the words Coney Island on them. Some German publishers apparently did the same, which provided them with the chance to dispose of quantities of inventory while freeing them from the added expense of actually obtaining photographs from far across the Atlantic to work from.
While some distributors used the cheapest generics they could find, it is hard to believe that scenes of the Rocky Mountains with Coney Island printed over them were big sellers. Then again there always those more interested in price than in content. Most retailers however chose scenes that at least related to Coney Island in spirit if not in fact. There is a large German set by an unknown publisher depicting fanciful scenes on streets and in railway stations that are clearly not Coney Island but just raucous enough to substitute for it. Even New York publishers like J. Koehler got into the act passing off generic carnival scenes for the Coney Island Mardi Gras Parade. German publishers had been producing generic Gruss aus cards in number since the 1890’s, many of which showed generalized scenes at fairs and parades. They could easily be adapted to any festive event at hand and distributed through small vendors who could not afford to order cards in quantity. Unfortunately many of these fine lithographic fantasies disappeared as photo based postcard production increased, making factual depictions both more numerous and commonplace.
Carnival, better known as Mardi Gras in the United States, is a very old tradition. It is a time of feast starting about six weeks before Easter and ending on Ash Wednesday when the most satiating foods are purged from the Christian diet. Most believe that the term Carnival comes from the Latin Carne Vale meaning farewell to meat. Though not a sanctioned Church holiday its widespread popularity is most likely derived from the older pre-Christian rituals it is based upon that exiled the spirits of winter. It is known to have been celebrated in the form of street parties since the late 13th century, and today huge festive events are held from Rio de Janeiro to Venice.
Long ago I found an interesting Coney Island generic printed in Saxony for Theodore Eismann, entitled At The Bowery. It depicted a cheerful German looking couple strolling through a crowd. The size of their disproportioned heads was puzzling to me, but I just passed it off as a general caricature, possibly based on some long forgotten cartoon characters. It was only years later upon finding another card that the pieces came together. This new card was a real photo of a very similar couple marching in a German parade. Unbeknownst to me, my original Coney Island generic actually depicted specific characters from Fastnach, the highlight of the Rosenmontag (Rose Monday) parade held in Mainz, Germany during Carnival. There are about thirty distinct characters in all, which are known as Schwellkopp (Swell Heads), each with their own specified dress and accompanied by fifty pound paper mache heads. There numbers have slowly grown over the years and have recently included parodies of Chancellor Merkel and other despised figures involved in the banking crisis. Effigies mocking social and political leaders have been an important part of the Carnival tradition in Mainz since the early 19th century, and can be found in other parades as well.
Coney Island’s Mardi Gras, better known for its brawling gangs than for elaborate costumes, began in 1903 as a week long event marking the end of the tourist season. Images of the actual event are quite rare, and one must not confuse them with the more common generic celebratory depictions. The parade was discontinued at the outbreak of World War Two but it would make sporadic appearances until 1954, and was finally revived as the Mermaid Parade in 1983. Though it does not mark a Christian holiday like Carnival, it does harken back to similar pagan origins that celebrate seasonal change, in this case the beginning of summer. Though this street party has unfortunately turned into a more traditional style parade as it has grown in size, it still maintains the costumed revilers that any Carnival goer is familiar with. I now realize that my old Coney Island postcard is not the generic that it seemed to be, but is merely ahead of its time.
This past February marked the 100th anniversary of the opening of Grand Central Terminal. While celebrations are underway in recognition that this architectural gem has not fallen under the wrecking ball like its cousin, Pennsylvania Station, we have hardly inherited it in its original form. Major changes have been made over the years, and while all these different incarnations may have disappeared from the public conciseness, they remain well preserved on picture postcards. Train stations are obvious venues for postcards, and one so busy as Grand Central enticed numerous publishers to produce images of it for tourists and commuters alike throughout its long history. The story of Grand Central is more than a history of a simple structure. It is a narrative of competing visions of what a city should be, and how corporations, municipalities, and the public interact with each other.
After 21 years of construction, the New York and Harlem Railroad had finished building its commuter line in 1852, which extended from Prince Street in lower Manhattan to the town of Chatham 125 miles north of the city. By 1858 the city’s residents had grown sick and tired of the noise, smoke, and the many accidents between pedestrians and horse cart traffic with this street level railway. They put pressure on city hall until an ordinance banning steam locomotives south of 42nd street was issued. This necessitated a new depot that was then constructed between 42nd and 45th streets at the north end of Fourth Avenue. The route on the old right of way south of 42nd Street would be taken over by horse drawn trolleys.
After the outbreak of the Civil War the U.S. Navy became desperate for ships in order to blockade southern ports; and they began to purchase and arm nearly anything that could float. The ferry mogul, Commodore Cornelius Vanderbilt was happy to oblige them. The profits generated provided him with a cash reserve large enough to acquire the N.Y. & Harlem line in 1863. This was no simple matter as it took a great deal of stock market manipulation and deals with the Albany legislature to finalize but his railroad empire had begun. After taking control of the New York Central and the Hudson River Railroads, he began to reorganize them to meet the new demands of what seemed to be an endlessly expanding city. The 42nd street depot sandwiched between the posh residential neighborhood on Fifth Avenue and the dirty industrializes blocks to the east had become too antiquated to satisfy the city’s current needs. He would replace it with a much larger facility.
Grand Central Depot, a pressed brick and marble structure of the French Empire style was designed by John B. Snook, and opened in 1871. More notable than the depot itself was the enormous wrought-iron train shed at its north end whose 200-foot wide spans towered over the dozen lines leading out to the rail yards. An elaborate system of detaching engines and breaking cars was devised so that the train cars could safely glide into the shed while the locomotives and their plumes of billowing black smoke were kept out. Modeled after St. Pancras Station in London, this great train shed became the most popular tourist attraction in the entire city.
Postcards of these early stations were produced in such numbers that even though no longer common, they are not very difficult to find. Since it was both a great transit hub and tourist attraction, cards can even sometimes be found in languages other than English. Views of the train shed however are either rare or nonexistent. It is impossible to say none were ever made but they do not seem to be available on the market today. Photographs were taken of the sheds as well as other rare views, which are now sometimes reproduced on modern continental cards.
The area above the station was notorious by contrast. As the city expanded northwards there seemed that not a week went by without two or three deadly encounters with trains at a road crossings. Even when trains were not running into horse carts, they were noisy and deposited a thick layer of soot on everything around them. Strong public sentiment grew against the railroad , especially since no one was ever held accountable for misdeeds, but Vanderbilt refused to do anything about it until the city agreed to pay half the cost. In 1875 the tracks up Fourth Avenue were sunk into a pit up to 96th Street where it rose upon a viaducts. Bridges were then built over it at important cross streets.
The Commodore died only a year after the railroad was lowered, and his son William H. Vanderbilt became the richest man in the United States upon inheriting the family business. He expanded the New York Central lines westward toward Chicago and St. Louis creating a long competitive war with the Pennsylvania Railroad. After his death in 1885 his two sons Cornelius and William became chairmen. They realized that despite Grand Central Depot’s grand design, it had become inadequate to meet all the growing demands placed on it. In 1898 the Depot received major renovations designed by Bradford Lee Gilbert. This included three new added stories and the entire structure was refaced in an Italianate design with decorative cast iron elements. Its maze of rooms leading to the platforms were also combined into one great vaulted hall. To mark these elaborate changes it was also given a new name, Grand Central Station. Cornelius Vanderbilt II died soon after in 1900, and his brother William relinquished his executive control.
The changes to the Depot had been more than cosmetic; they greatly improved traffic flow but they did little to improve on safety concerns, which were now becoming an issue at this overused station. The antiquated condition of the yards and switches combined with a tendency for the ditches the trains ran in to fill with impenetrable fog-like smoke led to a deadly collision between two trains in 1902. Even in a city used to accidents, this one caused an uproar in the press that spurred the city to issued a prohibition against the use of steam locomotives on Manhattan Island the following year. The railroad protested but to no avail.
By the 20th century the invention and advancement of electric power had changed everything. New electric trains could now be placed underground because they did not belch out dense smoke. The old right of way down Forth Avenue began to be dug up so that tracks for New York’s first electric subway line could be laid. By 1904 the Interborough Rapid Transit Company (IRT) was up and running. While the tracks to the north could also be covered over, more than a simple canopy was needed once they reached the expansive rail yards. William John Wilgus, New York Central’s chief engineer had conceived a perfect solution. A new much larger station was needed with electrified tracks; and by securing the air rights above these underground yards for additional construction this tremendously expensive endeavor could be funded.
Construction began on the new Grand Central Terminal in 1903, the same year the steam engine prohibition was enacted. A design competition had been held between some of the nation’s leading architectural firms with the least likely of candidates chosen. The firm was Reed & Stem from St. Paul, Minnesota; and the architect Charles A. Reed who submitted the design just happened to be the brother in law of Wilgus. When the chairman William K. Vanderbilt insisted that he partner with his cousin, Whitney Warren of Warren & Wetmore, even more eyebrows were raised. They formed a new entity, the Associated Architects of Grand Central Terminal, but it would not be a smooth partnership. Reed envisioned a 20-story skyscraper for office space on top the terminal with broad slopping ramps to move people around within and elevated driveways to carry vehicles outside. A library, an opera house, and the National Academy of Design would utilize the air rights over the yards, and turn this site into the cultural center of the city. Warren wanted a lower more sprawling structure that would occupy the entire space, and discarded ideas for the use of ramps.
Features continued to be added, subtracted, and added back again. The only thing they seemed to agree upon was a centralized Beaux-Arts design that would harmonize with all of the additional structures built within terminal city. While many postcard publishers who produced cards of the terminal before its completion got its general design right, its surroundings usually bare no resemblance to the final outcome. When reed died before construction was completed, Warren’s firm nullified the partnership and tried to take full credit for the design. A long legal battle ensued but eventually Warren & Westmore were forced to pay damages. Though it is impossible to properly pass judgment on what might of been, the compromise that resulted was probably better than anything each would have reached on their own from looking at their original plans.
These disagreements and constant changes were a constant problem for postcard publishers attempting to produce images of the Terminal before it was completed. Any drawings they might have been provided with were always subject to change. Many had postcards ready to sell on opening day, but they were often inaccurate. The postcard above depicts two grand staircases on the Main Concourse when only one was built. The information kiosk in the center of the floor is missing, and most glaringly the ceiling mural has been replaced by a giant skylight.
Building such a large new station would be a monumental undertaking under any circumstances, but demolishing and replacing a previous structure while keeping all 800 trains running on schedule every day is a task that almost defies comprehension. Not only would water tanks, coal bins and control towers need removal, the new yards consisting of 57 tracks would be built on two underground levels. Plans needed to be constantly revised and work often came to a halt while solutions to problems of design and engineering were sought. Even so the first electric powered train had already pulled in by 1906. As interesting as this is from an historical or engineering standpoint, it was not the focal point of postcards. Publishers also produce cards with projected views of the entire Terminal City project depicting both the empty lots over the former train yards with some planned buildings, which were eventually not constructed to match their renderings.
When Terminal City first opened in 1913 Grand Central Terminal stood as the focal point of a greater complex consisting of the U.S. Post Office, Grand Central Palace, and the Terminal Office Building all harmonized to scale and height. Further construction atop the Terminal’s air rights continued after it opened. The Biltmore Hotel was completed a year later in 1914, the Commodore Hotel in 1919, and the new Waldorf-Astoria in 1929. By 1918 a whole series of apartment buildings had risen between 47th and 53rd Streets to fill most of the remaining space.
The tallest building in Terminal City would not rise until 1929. This was the 35-story New York Central Building erected between 45th and 46th Streets to be used as the railroads’s corporate headquarters. Its central location combined with its ornate pilastered design and distinctly tall copper cupola made it the dominant architectural feature of Park Avenue until eclipsed by the Pan Am Building. Traffic via the viaduct runs right through it before emptying out onto the street below. It was later sold to the General Tire & Rubber Company, and then to Helmsley-Spear. It has since changed hands again but under the stipulation that it will always be named The Helmsley Building.
Construction of the now familiar viaduct however only began in 1917 and opened for traffic two years later. The viaduct allowed the Terminal to dominate the center of the street while finally allowing Park Avenues north and south to become a single thoroughfare. Postcard publishers ever anxious to jump the gun on their competition and afraid their depictions may become obsolete all too quickly often produced cards with structures only in their planning stages on them. Not only did these cards often prove inaccurate once the structure was actually built, they now skew the historic timeline even when depicted accurately. There a probably more postcards depicting the not yet built viaduct at Grand Central’s opening than there are of the not yet demolished elevated line.
The area immediately south of Grand Central looked very different then than it does now. The subway running through the old Murray Hill railroad cut could not be extended directly northward for that’s were the New York Central’s tracks lay. Its route was directed around them up Lexington Avenue, but the Grand Union Hotel on the southeast corner of Park and 42nd Street had to be demolished in 1914 so to facilitate the excavation. This vacant lot was then turned into a park known as Pershing Square. It did not provide as elegant a frontage to the terminal as envisioned for the 2nd Avenue elevated spur to Grand Central, dating from 1878, still ran across 42nd street. The park itself that became largely used for parking, was sold off to developers in 1920. The Pershing Square building was constructed on the site in 1923 after the elevated line was finally demolished.
After the east side subway was extended up Lexington Avenue, the connecting route down 42nd street to the west side was reopened in 1918 as the Grand Central - Times Square Shuttle. Unfortunately it was disconnected from the newer lines and the transfer became confusing and inconvenient. By 1922 there were considerations or replacing it with an arcade containing a continuous moving platform. The idea was revised in the 1950’s and actual plans drawn but nothing came of it. A real change came in 1962 when the shuttle became New York’s first fully automated line, but only two years latter it was destroyed by a massive fire. The shuttle was reopened in 1966 but in its original form. Its main function has largely been supplanted by the 7-Line subway. Connected to Grand Central from Queens in 1915 via the old trolley tunnel, it was extended across 42nd Street to Times square in 1927.
There had also been dramatic changes north of the station apart from terminal city. While some areas over the train yards remained open when the Terminal opened in 1913, the corridor along Fourth Avenue were quickly covered over all the way up to 96th Street, and a grassy park placed on top. Running down the middle was a serpentine pedestrian mall with intermittent wider spaces to accommodate the placement of benches. This stretch of Fourth Avenue was then renamed Park Avenue as a continuation of the similarly designed covered way topping the cut through Murray Hill. This peaceful enclave for the residents of Park Avenue was not to last.
In 1927 Park Avenue was widened and all that was left of the pedestrian mall was a space for the tunnel ventilation shafts. After private citizens began planting on this space, the City Parks Department eventually took over this responsibility but lack of oversight caused it to grow into a hodgepodge. In 1970 Clara Coffey redesigned the divider to have a unified look along its whole length by providing more suitable plantings. Since then the care of this space has had its ups and downs as revenue streams for its upkeep have been inconsistent.
Grand Central Terminal’s marble and limestone construction was initially praised for its sleek clean design, but its most outstanding feature was on the inside. The Main Concourse, enhanced by an astronomical mural painted 125 feet above tits floor proved to be a remarkable portal to the city. Electricity not only kept it brightly lit, it illuminated each of the bright stars in its ceiling. More glamorous train service was introduced to match these new surroundings. This was well epitomized by the Twentieth Century Limited route to Chicago. Passengers boarded and departed these express trains on a red carpet. The Detroit Publishing Company issued a large set of postcards depicting the terminal in its most pristine condition. It would be the last time it ever looked that way, not just for the absence of people but also for the lack of intrusive distractions.
Despite the great care that went into creating this elegant environment, there were always those that could not appreciate the value of space in itself. To them the wide halls and broad walls was nothing more than wasted empty voids until filled. As the vast interior of the Terminal began too be seen as rentable, aesthetics gave way to commerce. It did not take long for promoters of all kinds to try to take advantage of the Terminal’s huge traffic flow, and various commercial enterprises were set up within. While few of these have been recorded due to their transient nature, we know of them today because of their promotion through postcards.
This trend continued through World War Two when extra ticket counters were installed to accommodate the increased flow of men headed off for war. The entire East Balcony became the site for giant mural aimed at selling war bonds. Below it the USO set up a Service Men’s Lounge where soldiers could meet, shoot some pool, have lunch, and even procure some postcards. The most iconic images of the Terminal had captured rays of sunlight streaming into the concourse from its high lunette windows. Fear of German air raids now put an end to this as all windows were blacked out with paint so that no illumination would escape at night and guide planes to this valuable target. Such fear may seem unreasonable now, but bombing New York was one of HitlerŐs obsessions and long range bombers were being designed to carry this out.
As Americans purchased cars in record numbers in the postwar years, fewer traveled by train. Seeking additional sources of revenue the Terminal’s halls, ramps, and concourse were increasingly used for advertising displays. In 1950 Kodak installed a giant billboard across the East Balcony that illuminated a 65-foot Kodachrome transparency. Colorama as it became known was the most intrusive of these promotional pieces. It showed up nicely as the blackout paint would not be removed from the Terminal’s windows for nearly another half century. Newsweek Magazine followed by installing a 30-foot clock above the entrance to the Waiting Room. Even floor space wasn’t immune as Merrill Lynch and Chrysler set up displays in the middle of the Main Concourse. Newsstands and a bank would follow; and all sorts of banners would drape its windows and walls. After awhile this type of tasteless promotion was just accepted as an intrinsic part of the Terminal. Even publishers had no problem depicting it on postcards that would represent the city.
In 1954 the Texan Robert R. Young gained controlling interest in the New York Central but he was more interested in profiteering from real estate speculation than running a railroad. A giant office complex, Grand Central City, was envisioned to replace the existing terminal. The area had already been stripped of most residential tenants after World War Two as Terminal City grew more commercialized. Construction of the first 59-story tower designed by Walter Gropius and Pierro Belluschi began being built over the baggage facility in 1958. When completed in 1963 it took on the name of its principal tenant and became known as the Pan Am Building (now the Merrill Lynch Building though they no longer own it). Its style and proportions are so out of place with all of its surroundings that it has become recognized as the building most New Yorker’s would like to see torn down. Since Grand Central Terminal was to eventually be demolished, no profits from this endeavor were put back into it and it was left to further deteriorate. While postwar depictions of the Terminal were fewer in number than previously issued, they did not disappear completely. Even in its deteriorated state the building still garnered enough appeal to generate the production of postcards.
To save the New York Central a merger was sought with its archrival, the Pennsylvania Railroad, which was also in financial trouble. Negotiations got off to a bad start when Young committed suicide in 1958. Talks however continued for years and the government finally sanctioned the merger in 1968 creating the Penn Central Corporation. Instead of helping matters, this new corporate giant only grew more inefficient and tried to balance its books through real estate deals. A new skyscraper was then designed for placement right over the Terminal but it faced unanticipated opposition. The New York City Landmarks Commission had been founded 1n 1965 after the loss of the old Penn Station. In their arrogance, Penn Central thought the city had no right to place its concerns over their own and a long legal battle ensued. Ten years later in 1978 the Supreme Court finally ruled that this was not a taking as Penn Central alleged because the city had a right to protect its architectural heritage.
After declaring bankruptcy in 1970, Penn Central’s rail assets were incorporated into Conrail and Amtrak. Penn Central continues to own Grand Central Terminal but it left the railroad business after failing to build atop it. Now concentrating on real estate and insurance sales, the management of the Terminal was taken over by the New York State Metropolitan Authority in 1978. They in turn created the Metro-North commuter lines in 1983, which are leased from Penn Central (now AFG). Its first president, Peter E. Stangl made a commitment to restore the terminal; not just through repairs but to free it from the commercial interests it was buried under and reestablish it once again as a great portal to the city. With little revenue to work with it was a difficult task at first but eventually a grand plan for funding and restoration was conceived. A major holdup was rationalizing these huge capital expenditures on leased property. A new 110-year lease drawn up in 1992 at least partially alleviated some of these concerns and work at the Terminal has been ongoing since.
The original plan for the Main Concourse called for symmetry, which was typical of a Beaux-Arts design. There was to be a grand stairwell at each end but only one at the west end was ever built. Early plans for an office tower atop the main Terminal necessitated the creation of the East Balcony from where the tower would be accessed. The tower was never realized but the balcony remained intact serving little practical purpose over the years. The matching staircase was finally constructed in the late 1990’s after much debate regarding its design and its appropriateness within a landmarked building. Had it not appeared on the original plan it is doubtful it would have ever been allowed. Much of Terminal City has since been repurposed and refaced, bearing little resemblance to the unified design inspired by the Beautiful City Movement; but after one hundred years, Grand Central Terminal may now look closer to its original intent than it ever did.
The Easter Witch
While most Americans have some concept of Easter and of witches, the two do not come together in any meaningful way. Easter is about rabbits and decorated eggs, not characters leftover from Halloween. So why are there so many Easter postcards with witches on them and why are they nearly all from Sweden? Let us connect the dots.
During the 12th century when Christianity had taken hold in Sweden, the local rituals marking the return of spring on the equinox were replaced by the celebration of the resurrection of Christ. The seasonal observance was held over a number of weeks with specific days acquiring special meaning. The darkest of these was the time between the remembrance of the crucifixion on Good Friday and the resurrection on Easter Sunday (Päsk) when the earth lacked the protection of Christ’s grace. Maunday Thursday (Holy Thursday) always falling between March 19th and April 22nd was the day when the presence of witches became know as they would roam the countryside causing widespread mischief and worse. Certain activities were prohibited on these days as they might attract the attention of witches. Brooms and rakes were hidden away least they be stolen by witches for their ride to the devils Sabbath. Some also believed that the witches rode on the backs of livestock, so crosses were painted on their noses to protect them, as well as on the doors that people hid behind. Large bonfires were lit on Good Friday to help keep the witches at bay.
The devil’s Sabbath was held in an endless meadow known as Blakulla that was only assessable through a long magic flight. Witches always carried copper coffee pots with them for sustenance for this was a long trip. Once there the red bearded devil dressed in his grey coat and red & blue stockings would greet them at the gate to a smaller meadow. This was the site of a great feast where all would use their left hands to reach behind them and devour the most disgusting of lowly creatures. As the devil began to beat out a hypnotic rhythm with his tail the crows would begin to sing and a wild uninhibited dance would ignite. This would finally end in an orgy between the witches, the devil, and his dominions. The offspring of these past unions would also join the orgy, and their incestuous relations would later give birth to toads and serpents. The witches would then return home for Easter Mass in order to keep their otherworldly identities hidden.
It is easy to find the crossing of customs when examining these beliefs. There are obvious Germanic traditions involved such as references to Freya, the goddess of fertility who also held dominion over death. For her to be associated with the end of winter and the coming of spring seems very natural. She was often depicted riding on a cat or a distaff; and when the Christian church corrupted her likeness, she became a broom riding hag accompanied by an evil black cat. Easter Witches in Freya’s image are often depicted by illustrators flying off to a mountaintop called Bla Jungfrau (Blue Virgin) or Brocken (Blue Hill) even though this is part of German lore, not Scandinavian. Finland, which had been ruled for centuries by Sweden until seized by Russia in 1809, absorbed many of Sweden’s Easter Witch beliefs that would develop into similar but different customs.
There are also connections to be found between witches and werewolves, not of the horror movie variety but in the tradition of the Benandanti whose practices spanned northern Italy to the Baltic Sea. While specifics differ from region to region, they basically involved a trance journey in which they took on animal form at night to fly to a far off shore where they would battle witches with whips of slender branches at their Sabbath in order to protect their crops from evildoing.
The first known record of Påskkärring or Easter Witch comes in the form of a church painting found in Uppland, Sweden dating from 1480. By 1668 the belief in them was strong enough for witch hysteria to arise. The first witch trails took place at Mora where thirty were accused of kidnapping children and flying them off to the devil’s Sabbath. The results were mass beheadings that continued until the blood lust abated in 1776. In all about two hundred were executed on the testimony of children. Three years later the King would abolish the death penalty for witchcraft but by then the killings for the most part had already ended. Trials however continued as well as lynching, and the last suspected witch would not die until 1799. The end of convictions for witchcraft had much more to do with better implementation of judicial review than any enlightenment of fundamental beliefs.
While it is fascinating to see how the belief systems of a society change, it is rarely easy to understand how this takes place. Swedes did not begin celebrating Easter as a holiday until 1844. Between then and the end of the century the Easter Witch was transformed from an evil transgressor to a benign folk figure. This was no doubt helped along by the birth of Romanticism and other nature movements that began to perceived paganism in a more optimistic light. As everyday life grew more secular, the fear and belief in witches dwindled proportionally. As the general population began shifting from rural to urban environments, nostalgia grew for old folkways. Politicians looking to consolidate growing nationalistic tendencies exploited these feelings for both commercial and political gain. The remaining question, which unfortunately cannot be answered here is why the Easter Witch custom developed in Sweden alone and not in other countries with a Germanic heritage.
When holiday postcards, including those for Easter first began being printed in the 1890’s, the Easter Hag was already an established holiday image and was featured on many Glad Påsk cards. Perhaps the largest publisher of Easter Witch postcards was Axel Eliassons in Stockholm. He recruited many of the best Swedish illustrators of the early 20th century to work for him, most notably Jenny Nystrom. It did not take long for the image of the hag to be replaced by one that looked more like the average farm wife, with a farm being the typical setting for many of these cards. This change allowed every woman to identify with this newly redefined mythic figure that had now come to represented Sweden itself. A witch on your roof was no longer to be feared; it now meant good luck.
In the 1940’s the look of the Easter Witch evolved further to the point that she might even be described as pretty. These changes no doubt reflected the market’s desires for more light-hearted fare during the troubled years of World War Two. It mirrored the way that the publicŐs taste in movies turned toward the musical. By the 1960’s there was revived interest in the Easter Witch who was now being portrayed with more sexy overtones. While Easter Witch cards had always expressed a fair amount of humor and innovation, there was an increasing demand to see these witches in ever more outlandish situations. Witches now rode in cars or flew on rockets, and even got tangled in television antennas. Many of the illustrations placed on Easter Witch cards had become a parody of themselves.
The Easter Witch in popular Swedish and Finish culture is by no means confined to holiday cards. From the mid-19th century on, children would mimic these witches on Easter Eve by wearing headscarves and painting their cheeks red. They would then approach homes where they would exchange sprigs of pussy willows for confectionary treats to be placed in the coffee pots they carried. Sometimes these branches, often decorated with feathers or streamers, were used to provide playful swats. They were generally considered a blessing and were usually accompanied by wishes for good health. These branches were also saved by rural recipients to herd their cattle to summer pastures as they would bring good luck. The importance of these acts cannot be underestimated as they form a continuation of ritual that provide the foundation for the production of postcards to be built upon.
In areas where pussy willows were not so easy to obtain, a tradition of exchanging illustrated cards for candy developed. Though these cards were traditionally hand made, I suspect that postcards might have also been employed in this activity. While it may seem that postcards would be too expensive to use, they tended to be published in many different sizes in Sweden. Miniature Easter Witch cards were produced in great numbers, which might have sold at the perfect price for exchange.
Though the Easter Witch tradition seems stronger today than ever, it has become more commercialized. Hand made cards have largely disappeared and small change is commonly given out rather than candy. Homemade witch's garb is now often replaced by store bought costumes that sometimes reference movies more than Swedish traditions. In many ways the holiday is transitioning into something close to an American style Halloween. Many only mark this date as a time to return to the country, where summer cottages can be aired out and opened. Holidays will always evolve into what we need them to be, but spring will always remain spring.
Give Me a Gun!
As a child I spent half my summers at my grandparents bungalow in upstate New York. It was a very rural area; in fact their place was used as a hunting lodge before they acquired it. My grandparents did some farming but did not hunt despite the guns left behind by the previous owners. I used to stare longingly at them standing upright behind glass doors in a fine wooden cabinet at the end of the hall. Like most young city boys who grew up on war stories and TV westerns, guns held a mysterious attraction for me and I longed to hold them. In my fantasies guns provided excitement and adventure, but it seemed these dreams would never be realized do to nothing more than a good lock.
I finally got my wish the last summer I spent there when one day the key was turned, the doors swung open, and what had been strictly forbidden for me to even touch was now nonchalantly placed in my hands. My father told me that both of us were to join my uncle and go out hunting. The back of our lot was heavily wooded and rarely did anyone venture in, which on this day seemed to include all game as well. Frustrated by the lack of results, my adult supervision took a break and I eventually wandered off on my own. That’s when I spotted a deer in a small clearing. I approached it with stealth, slowly raised my rifle and aimed. It was a good clean shot or at least I thought it would be had I taken it. There were probably a number of contributing factors that caused me to ease up on the trigger but only one now stands out in my memory. Once I had the deer perfectly in my sights, knowing I could pull the trigger was all that mattered, I didn’t actually have to go through with it. I know that without the deer lying dead on the ground there is no true way to judge my marksmanship but it didn’t really matter; for me it was all play.
That was the only and last time I ever went hunting, at least with a gun. Instead of tying a bloody caracas atop a car and mounting antlers to my wall, I now stalk, aim, and shoot with a camera, installing the results in a picture frame. The only trophy I really find myself wanting is a great photograph. But I do understand the tradition of the sport as well as those who hunt for a living or sustenance; I get it all. What I don’t get is what this has to do with murdering school children.
I will not take any stance on gun control on these pages as it seems not to be the real issue at hand, just a distraction. Those who seek to profit in the debate over guns have shaped the argument in order to arouse the public’s fears; a strategy that ironically works on both sides of the issue. Our romance with guns is a deep rooted and complex issue. While certain restrictions on guns may or may not help cut down on the mayhem we now face, there is no denying that there is a problem. According to official tallies over a thousand people died from gunshot wounds in the United States just this past month alone. While I do not wish to let anyone off the hook in the blame game, I don’t see how we can ignore the cult of violence we live in. Anger is a natural part of being human but I’m not sure that hatred is. It manifests itself through manipulation, and postcards have played a significant role in this.
We have not always found the connection between children, guns and violence as disturbing as we seem to do now, and even today this attitude is far from being universal. Old postcards may not always portray events accurately, but they often reveal true insights into what people once felt and thought. The American postcard above dates from World War One, and it attempts to shame adults into enlisting. The young boy exclaims “Away with toys - give me a gun!” Even an innocent young child knows that being absorbed in such daily pleasures as playing with toys is trivial to doing the right thing for his country. A similar sentiment is expressed in the postcard below titled in both French and English. One of the children armed with sword states “What! Going to school when the others are fighting . . . Nonsense! Come and join the army.” Though the card can be read as a playful excuse to get out of class, its publication in 1916 during the middle of the Great War makes it impossible not to read more into it.
On the French postcard above a young boy is marching off to the battlefield at Arras; sword by his side and rifle in hand. To his father he says “If you need a hand let me know.” Again, if a child is willing to do his duty for his country, surly you as an adult can. The German card below depicting a baby with a rifle and bayonet, wearing nothing but a military helmet and patriotic sash is of the same vein. The bed of roses he stands in speaks of innocence and of life but it is meant to convey the message that every child is born to protect the Fatherland, and by his salute and grinning face we can tell that all German children will gladly accept this responsibility. While such militaristic messages are often assumed plentiful when coming from counties that we have faced off against as enemies, this is only a half truth. These types of postcards are indeed plentiful, but they are not restricted to publication in any single country. All nations call upon their children to sacrifice themselves in the face of war, but the possible horrific consequences of this duty is never explicitly spelled out or even hinted at.
Another German card above from 1915 roughly states “Hurrah! The young German army is in the field.” It is a hybrid between real children playing at war and a more overt propaganda message. While many such artist drawn cards replacing soldiers with children in military dress were published during the First World War, it is not always easy to get at their intended message. Children have long played at war, and images of this play can be found throughout centuries of art, but that is not what we see here. In one sense it seems to be cute; oh look how our children too young for military service have taken up the serious business of adults. On the other hand it also seems to signify that we can count on German youth to believe in something as serious as duty to oneŐs country. Such illustrations became less humorous when the conscription age was lowered after massive casualties on the real battlefield. War up to this time was highly romanticized as few were exposed to images or even stories of its true horror. Are these postcards meant to convey that war is just an adult form of play? It certainly makes the message less harsh. Romanticized views of life in the military have always been propagated to aid in recruitment and temper sentiment against war; we see this to this day.
On this French postcard entitled “No room for you here,” a stork, which we tend to think of as benign or at least neutral has brought all the children of the world (or at least of the allied nations) together in a nest. But even a stork knows a bad seed when it sees one and pushes the German baby out to its death, delighting all the others. While I know this is a political cartoon passing judgement on a belligerent nation, children are still being used to convey this message. We tend to expect that there be no judgement of children do to their innocence but here it doesn’t matter, which seems nothing more than cruel.
None of the cards above portray the violent acts of battle found on countless other military cards, yet I find these types of postcards the most disturbing. The corruption of adults may be something we distain but we can more readily accept. The notion that there is no innocence in childhood, that we are all destined to become cutthroat is displeasing to say the least; and while that is not the message these cards were designed to convey, it is surly an undercurrent in them. The purpose of these cards was to push their audience beyond their normal inclinations during a time of national crisis, which is why they are so particularly disturbing to us now when viewed out of context.
The postcard above dating from 1914 is far different from all the others pictured here in that it supposedly portrays a true wartime incident. Where we have come to expect playfulness, we are instead confronted with the cruel realities of war; where a young child could be easily be shot dead in the street for the crime of carrying a toy gun. The image is meant to expose the barbarity of the enemy, but it only worked because public attitudes at the time were no longer in sync with the way war was actually fought. The cardŐs more honest meaning is that innocence is gone; children who mimic adults will pay the same deadly price as adults.
At the time all these cards were published the public had become familiar with the concept of the gentleman’s war, for indeed there had been a number of conventions held between nations to impose acceptable boundaries on violence and on destruction. At the same time industrial nation states had become capable of waging war with far more destructive capacity than had ever been previously experienced. The attitudes developing among military commanders was diametrically opposed to the public viewpoint in that victory now required total war to be waged against enemy armies, populace, and even culture. In On War, the bible of military thought, Carl von Clausewitz states that one of the keys to victory is the disarming of one’s enemy. By World War One this idea was not only accepted but construed to mean that anyone capable of carrying a gun was a legitimate target; and this concept was used to rationalize mass murder. No room was left for the innocent. In fact the concept of innocence had become outmoded. Of course not everyone agreed, which forced certain restraints on behavior if only for propaganda purposes.
Those who hold power over us, be it politicians or kings, have long known that by manipulating hatreds and fears they can get us to do things that no right minded person would ever do. This deceptive game in which we have all become pawns is the oldest in the book, and those who profit from divisiveness will never act decisively to curtail it. Add in our own myth of rugged individualism and people begin to trust their guns more than they do their own neighbors. Guns after all are the great equalizer that quenches all fears. The violence that results is now proving too difficult of a subject for us to discuss honestly let alone find the political will to challenge. So instead we bide our time talking of laws and legislation as we grow into an ever more militarized and punitive state.
Most artwork found on postcards falls into one of two categories; the first is the vast amount of illustrations created specifically to be placed on cards, and the second consist of art from the collections of museums and other cultural institutions published as reproductions. There are of course exceptions, which in part can be explained by the ever increasing demand for imagery during the golden age of postcards. Many publishers reused illustrations made for books and magazines or reproduced the paintings of popular artists. While nearly all this work was created by artists contemporary to that time, there were also large cards sets published depicting work by artists who died before the picture postcard came into vogue. Since these types of cards are not common, it can be assumed they were produced because the work of the artist in question was highly suitable for small scale reproduction and more importantly these timeless images were still popular and engaged the general public. In many cases this work had come to be even more popular after the artist’s death. One such artist was Honoré Daumier.
Though Daumier was born in Marseille in 1808, he moved to Paris with his family at an early age. Despite his natural talent for art, his father did his best to discourage him from pursuing it as a career. He found his son work as a gutter jumper instead, serving writs for a bailiff; an opportunity that only provided him with a great contempt for lawyers that he held his entire life. In the rich cultural environment of Paris he found that he could not ignore his personal inclinations, and by 1823 he had enrolled in the Académie Suisse. During his lifetime he would come to produce a large body of paintings, sculpture, wood engravings and line blocks, but it is through the nearly 4,000 lithographs he created that we know him best today.
By the time Daumier came of age, France was dealing with the aftermath of their revolution and the turmoil left behind by Napoleon. There would be three more changes in government before his death in 1879, ending with the fall of the Paris Commune. Growing industrialism had created an entirely new poverty stricken urban working class and the familiar social order began to disintegrate. Daumier’s talent gave him the ability to rise above these troubled times but he chose not to. A true believer in the ideals of the Revolution, he not only became a skeptic of French society but also received wounds fighting for social justice in the streets during the July revolution of 1830. He used his keen ability to spot the falseness and hypocrisy of all around him and made it his life’s work to express it in biting satirical commentary.
His work first began to gain public attention after he met up with Charles Philipon, the editor of the comic journal, La Caricature. Philipon had been harassing King Louis Philippe through written satire and he added Daumier to his staff in order to expand this conflict in pictures. Daumier’s powerful drawings did its job, perhaps too well as he ended up serving six months in prison in 1832 for creating Gargantua, a highly derisive portrayal of the King. Two years later the magazine published his lithograph Rue Transnonain, depicting one of the working class families from his neighborhood demanding reform, murdered at night in their bedroom by the National Guard. Its sale was meant to raise money to help pay for fines levied against La Caricature by censors, but it’s display created such a disturbance that the police destroyed every copy they could lay their hands on and smashed the stone it was printed from as well. By August of 1835 censors shut the magazine down for good, but the boldness of Daumier’s work had already given him a reputation, and he began to be called the Michelangelo of caricature.
Caricature (loaded portrait), used to expose the bestial characteristics inherent in man had been popular in Italy since the early 1700’s. It took nearly two more centuries for it to spread to England and France where it became highly sought out by the growing bourgeoisie. Daumier took this art form to new heights in both quality and public exposure. While his disdain for incompetent politicians is most evident in his work, no one escaped his scrutiny. When forced by censors to give up political cartooning he began working for Philipon’s other magazine, Le Charivari that dealt exclusively with social satire during repressive times. Now he showed his hand as the enemy of pretense and vanity. After the revolution of 1848 when the French government was in too much chaos to respond to more aggressive content, Daumier resumed his political attacks.
The corruption to found within the French legal system was given special attention in Daumier’s series Les Gens de Justice. Both the bourgeoisie and the working class were also ridiculed in the magazine though possibly with a bit more compassion. There was a limit to his biting edge for he ultimately seemed to see all around him as victims of the human condition. Even his most critical work contains elements of humanity that we can still identify with. This small accommodation however did not win him many allies in his own day and he spent most of his life in poverty. It has been said that his bold drawing style was in part due from his refusal to sharpen his crayons in order to save money. Failing eyesight also contributed to less detailed work, but the resulting boldness of line only added to his expressive power.
Nearly blind and destitute by 1873, Daumier only survived his old age when his friend and fellow artist, Camille Corot, bought him a small cottage. He was buried in a pauper’s grave but his work would outlive him. His caricatures proved to be more popular during the golden age of postcards than in his own day when he was paid a pittance for them. The exact meaning of some cards is now weakened though their distance from context, but their rich symbolic and expressive nature captures the human spirit in a manner that does not dissipate. This enduring quality created demand among such notables as the Divine Sarah Bernhardt, a subject of many postcards herself, who collected a complete body of his prints. For more common folk they were available through postcards sets that reproduced numerous series.
Daumier was not just important as an artist he was a pioneer. The quality of his work in lithography helped take it from being seen solely as a commercial medium to one that had artistic merit. He was not alone in doing this but even today his name is nearly synonymous with lithography. He no doubt inspired countless others to take up the medium, who in turn put their talent to use in creating early postcards. It is rather ironic that the majority of his lithographs that were eventually published as postcards were done so using the collotype process.