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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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It’s hard to believe it; the chromes depicting the 1964 New York World’s Fair that I have overlooked for years because they were too new to collect are now fifty years old. While I’m sure we all know that those things a society calls modern are eventually redefined from being labeled contemporary to period, we often find it hard to observe this pace of change while it is taking place before our eyes. Over the last ten years or so I have seen cards that dealers had typically discarded evolve into collectibles priced at sums that used to be considered even high for more popular antique cards. While the values placed on many chromes can be debated, we have to admit that they have certainly been around long enough not just to depict vanishing landmarks but changing attitudes and ideals. In them we can now find the subtle expressions of their times as perspective unmasks our contemporary blinders.
I still vividly remember my first day at the World’s Fair. The visit came totally unexpected as my parents surprised me when I got home from school. As I walked between the strangely shaped buildings illuminated by wildly colored lights I couldn’t believe I was actually at a world’s fair. Back then I thought it the best day of my life. There were vending machines that molded and dispensed wax dinosaurs before my eyes, robots made from car parts played music, and I even got to sit in a plastic bucket seat for the very first time. Cheap thrills maybe but I was overcome by their newness.
Sure, there were many pavilions and exhibits that reinforced traditional values or acted as boosters promoting visits to faraway lands; the Fair’s theme after all was Peace Through Understanding, but to me it was a visit to tomorrow today. At General Electric’s Progressland, robots introduced us to Medallion City and the latest electric gadgets. Then there was the Westinghouse Dream Home presenting a world made of plastic and Formica. Toshiba brought us bright new ideas in the form of transistor radios, and then there were electric tic tac toe games and the miracle of synthetic fabrics. Many of these exhibits played to the average housewife, promising her that the drudgery of housework would soon be over, but their was still plenty to appeal my young eye that saw no limits on what the future might bring.
My favorite exhibit by far was General Motors’ Futurama where seats bolted to a conveyor belt carried me on a journey into a dark passage where only the boldest conceptions of the future were visible. Here thick rain forest were harvested with laser beams and desserts were hydraulically farmed by robotic machines. Weather Central deep under Antarctica controlled the world’s climate, underwater development provided never ending nourishment for the earth, and our highways without end united the world through the transport of man and his goods. There slogan was after all, Come see the city of tomorrow today . . . or wait and see it happen.
I paid a visit to the old fair grounds on the 50th anniversary of its opening. The wait was over. The world is of course now different in ways no one could imagine back then. Even IBM’s demonstrations of how computing worked gave no real insights into today’s digital world. In other ways however we have hardly caught up with our visions past, for as the Futurama ride reminded us or perhaps warned, man must chart his own course. The New York State pavilion was built to outlast the fair, yet no one ever found a use for it and it was just left to rot and decay. Its magnificent suspended roof of translucent fiberglass, the largest in the world, grew unsafe for lack of maintenance and the cables holding it up were cut in the late 1970’s. Not only was the magnificent design of this Tent of Tomorrow destroyed, it crashed down on the giant terrazzo mosaic of New York State that made up the floor ripping it apart. Attempts were made to repair the map in 2008 but it looks as if this makeshift effort did more harm than good. Today weeds grow through its cracks and the surrounding paint on its walls continues to fade and exposed the metal to rust.
Politicians are currently debating whether they should fund the former pavilion’s demolition or rehabilitation, even though there is still no practical use for it. Up close it remains an imposing structure but it has taken on a new life as a monument to decades of corruption, neglect, and the mediocrity of our civic leaders with their inability to to fulfill their responsibilities to the public they supposedly represent. We were promised a lot fifty years ago; these were not fantasies but our best dreams. Postcards, even chromes, have a way of reminding us of the things we have lost over the years and that the world we now live in is not the way it has always been. If we keep our eyes sharp we will discover that we have suffered much more than mere material losses, and come to remember what we once thought tomorrow could and would be.
Rachael’s New York Postcards at 100
Rachael Robinson Elmer changed the world of American postcards 100 years ago. Her stunning Impressionist watercolors showing twelve scenes in her beloved New York City were turned into the Art-Lovers’ New York postcards in 1914. An exhibit at the Rokeby Museum will present all twelve cards, the three London postcards that inspired her, Rachael’s working sketches, newspaper coverage, and biographical background. Full sets of these scarce cards are rarely seen.
From 1793 to 1961, Rokeby was home to four generations of Robinsons; a remarkable family of Quakers, farmers, abolitionists, artists, and authors. Today, the Robinson family’s home is a National Historical Landmark, designated for its exceptional Underground Railroad history.
Rachael’s New York Postcards at 100 will open from June 15 until October 26th. For more information on the exhibit and museum hours:
Rokeby Museum/ Jane Williamson, Executive Director
Additional information on the artist along with a video of her work may be found at Vermont Public Radio.
From Iberia to Syria:
We tend to look at the times we live in as being unique. Sure, we have a multitude of gadgets that did not even exist a generation ago, but the problems we continue to face, and our responses to them seem to have changed little over the centuries. As we approach the 100th anniversary of World War One we should remind ourselves that this is not just a commemoration of some bygone folly but also a reminder of the choices we still face today. If we are to learn from our past we need to know that we truly understand it and have not just succumb to hyperbole. One of the more prolific propaganda streams of the Great War was that surrounding the rape of Belgium, which was widely illustrated on postcards of that time. This expression alone replaces objective reasoning with a loaded phrase to color our approach from the very start. It is a story about fabrication as much as the truth, which has caused it to remain a contentious issue to this day.
Civilians always suffer during wartime, at least in those areas in which the war is actually fought. This is especially true in those conflicts where the combatants are not well divided into regular standing armies. Whenever insurgencies or guerrilla warfare play a role the notion of innocence quickly disappears and all are usually subject to the worst brutality we have to offer. There is nothing new to this. After Napoleon installed his bother Joseph Bonaparte to the Spanish throne in 1808, resistance to French occupation took on the form of a popular uprising rather than armies engaging in battle. Unable to achieve a definitive victory on the battlefield the French opened an unyielding war of brutality on the civilian population. The French were not immune from reprisals and suffered great casualties themselves. This not only further encouraged their own brutal behavior but also provided a rational for it. This useless sapping of lives across the Iberian Peninsula became known as the Spanish Ulcer.
No one captured these atrocities in Spain better than the artist Francisco Goya. In his series of intaglio prints entitled Los Desastres de la Guerra (The Disasters of War), we are greeted by 80 images of uncompromising graphic violence in allegorical and literal form. While one can debate the mastery of his technique or the post-humanus manipulation of the plates, there is no question regarding the substantive power evoked by these small narratives. These are not the familiar depictions commissioned by kings of victorious generals with a few token enemy dead lying before their feet; these images were Goya’s own private undertaking, revealing the true cost of war and some of the horrors he himself witnessed. There is much debate over why he only printed one edition in his lifetime, the bulk being published in 1863 and later. While we now consider them great works of art, such imagery fell outside of the public’s expectations of glorification in Goya’s time so that it is doubtful they would have been well received. Some question his true loyalties, but the fact is he felt compelled to record these atrocities on paper knowing full well they would bring him little financial gain. By 1863 the public was being horrified by images of the dead that had fallen on the battlefield of Antietam during the American Civil War, caught on the brand new medium of photography. Despite the more direct connection of photographs to reality there would be few images produced as unsettling as Goya’s until the First World War. This time however images of atrocities would be widely disseminated through the use of postcards.
To properly understand what happened in Belgium during the Great War we must first examine the circumstances leading up to it. This nation was often portrayed as the poor innocent victim of its much larger neighbor, drawn into war due to no fault of its own. While there can be no debate that its neutrality was indeed violated by Germany, the actual situation is much more complicated with others also baring some responsibility for this tragedy. Germany’s military had long known that it lacked the manpower to fight a prolonged war on two fronts. From this they came to rely on a strategy similar to the Von Schlieffen plan. A holding action would be made against the Russians in the east while the German armies concentrated on quickly marching on Paris. Once The French were defeated they could then focus all resources back on the larger Russian threat. The French having seen German forces role over them during the Franco Prussian War of 1871 had since taken great care to build up strong defenses along their shared border. If German forces were to break through here they would pay a high price and it would not be quick. The only alternative left to Germany was to attack through the low country of Belgium if a speedy victory was to be obtained. This fact was not lost on anyone who knew that the neutrality granted by treaty to this small nation in 1839 was no match for the military necessities of a determined belligerent.
Any German army headed to France across Belgium would have to cross major rivers, and so the cities at these bridgeheads were all ringed with the most modern of forts. It was thought that these reinforced concrete structures bristling with armored turrets would present an obstacle formidable enough to slow any advance. In this way Belgium could neglect its own standing army preferring to rely on help to arrive from its larger British and French allies if attacked. Compared to other European nations Belgium had one of the smallest armies in proportion to its dense population and industrial capacity. This controversial strategy proved popular in peacetime but disastrous after the Germans crossed their border on August 4th, 1914. Cartoons published on French postcards depicted the German juggernaut as a slow moving farce that would never reach Paris.
Postcards published in Germany during the first months of the war spoke more to the truth. They were issued on an almost daily basis as news reports highlighting the fall of Liege, then Namur, and then Maubeuge whose walls crumbled before the new large caliber heavy artillery of the Germans. Many of these cards were published with faux hand coloring by Wezel & Naumann who placed long descriptive narratives on their backs that included battle maps. Allied commanders referred to this news as fantasy preferring to believe their own propaganda and were slow to react to actual events on the ground. They denied that the Germans had the weapons to do what they were obviously doing. This same scenario would be replayed over and over for most of the war, and the consequences for the Allies were always bad.
By the time the French Colonial Corp and the British Expeditionary Force arrived on the battlefront they did little good. Although made up of a highly regarded professional elite they were decisively defeated when they placed themselves in front of this onslaught. Nearly every fort the Germans attacked was captured and by the end of October only a small corner of Belgium remained in allied hands. The German advance was not stopped in battle but by the decision to breach the dikes of the Yser and flood countryside before them.
While Belgium fell quickly it was not without cost. Of the 234,000 men in the Belgian army in August, only 73,000 remained two months latter. With their country now largely under enemy occupation there was no place for them to draw reserves from. The presence of so many able-bodied men left behind in Belgium also posed a huge problem for the Germans. As civilians they could not be rounded up as prisoners of war but they still posed a risk as saboteurs and snipers. Even if these fears were exaggerated, many of these francs-tireurs as they were termed did try to hamper the German advance. They posed an even grater danger to German rear echelon units as the front line moved forward. This would be a serious problem for any army but for one on a strict timetable where speed was of the essence there presence was intolerable. This was not a moral dilemma for the German high command; they had no willingness to see beyond their immediate military objectives. Victory had to be achieved at any cost and civilians were simply expendable.
Conflicts between civilians and soldiers broke out immediately for there was already an ingrained hostility in place that went beyond popular wartime rhetoric. Solders were less interested in the politics behind the conflict than in the cultural differences between the two nations. Long standing Protestant Catholic divisions played a major role. It was enough to stir up hatreds that fueled destructive and murderous impulses at the slightest provocation. The clearest example of this can be seen in the burning of Louvain.
After the Belgian army withdrew from the town without a fight the Germans moved in. With the townspeople disarmed to avoid confrontation, all remained quiet as troops marched down their streets for days. When a Belgian counter-offensive threw retreating Germans back into the town all hell broke loose. Already in a panic it did not take much for them to believe they were being fired upon by francs-tireurs when they were more likely inadvertently firing upon each other. This sparked a mass retaliation. Homes began being set ablaze and their inhabitants shot and sometimes tortured. Over a thousand homes were destroyed this way and 248 civilians murdered. Many more would eventually be forced to flee and others were deported to Germany. This was not just retaliation but the sign of passionate hatred. Even the great university library was torched, not to destroy anything of military value but the soul of their enemy.
The atrocities committed at Louvain would not be the last. There would be another large massacre of civilians at Dinant and then at Les Rivages, Aarschot, Andenne and Nomeny. Each incident fueled the next as it reinforced the idea that a general uprising was taking place, which had to be put down. This made it easier to dispense cruelty for the imagined insurgents obviously deserved it. These killings may not have been a premeditated policy but officers didn’t discourage them either. The German high command dismissed all this as the price of war where a ruthlessness was still required to carry out one’s duty as a soldier regardless of signatures on treaties and accords. Strictly speaking it seemed to be in Germany’s best interest to keep the Belgian population terrorized so they would not interfere with the transport of men and material to the fast moving front lines. It all made sense; speed was the essence to German victory and nothing could be allowed to stand in the way.
In essence the Germans behaved no differently from the actions of Napoleon’s army in Spain but there were now higher expectations to contend with. Even though civilians have always suffered during wartime, sometimes even dying in greater numbers than soldiers, they have not traditionally been the targets of warfare. Overlooked by most military histories concentrating on battles and troop movements, the plight of civilians largely disappeared from public consciousness. War had become to be viewed only in heroic terms with atrocities being reserved for the actions taken by less civilized colonial subjects.
Since 1864, a year after Goya’s Disasters of War was published, the international laws that came out of the Geneva and Hague Conventions helped to support growing notion that warfare could be conducted in a more civilized manner. This of course was the work of politicians, and while these laws naturally had the support of the public who believed in their moral value, they played little role in German military planning. Once war broke out armies could only entertain rules when convenient. There were those on the eve of world war who looked forward to it. They saw redemption in killing and destruction, a way to free Europe from its moribund traditions. Most people however did not agree with the tenants of unlimited warfare. They believed in civilized rules, realistic or not, and were blind to the true realities of war. It is in this atmosphere that propaganda works best and so great effort was put into its production.
While it seems that most propaganda produced during the Great War was directed against Germany they should not be singled out for criticism, as all belligerents were guilty of atrocities. Racial cleansing became common practice supported by growing feelings of nationalism and strong beliefs in social Darwinism. This not only created an excuse for violence, it created a sense of entitlement in implementing it. Even the preeminent victim Belgium while under the rule of King Leopold was responsible for the death of about eight million blacks in the Congo Free State during their civilizing mission. Acts of foreign imperialism received scant criticism no matter how brutal. While the Germans attempted to explain away their actions in Belgium in perfectly rational terms, there was little audience for this reasoning among a public that had come to expect more civilized behavior. Opinion in Italy and the United States, which had been largely pro-German, began to quickly reverse. The desperate need for these countries to remain neutral forced the German high command to take steps to end these killings. There would be few further incidents on the Western Front beyond that fall. The damage however was already done as the rape of Belgium had become a popular myth.
It is difficult to say if the propaganda war against Germany would have been so intense if no atrocities were committed at all. Most of the reports that entered the press or were illustrated on postcards bore no resemblance to the facts. Their purpose was to vilify Germany and stir up enough hatred to support a war. To this end writers and artists delved into the public’s worst fears and emotions for inspiration. Real destruction and death may have occurred but it was not as potent as the imagination thus the brutal murder of nuns and children at the hand of the barbarians became a staple of war news. This propaganda war was so intense and often so beyond the pale that all reports of misdeeds became to be considered fiction in the years after the war. It was not until the 1990’s that scholars began to seriously re-examine old claims only to discover that some massacres actually took place. The overuse of propaganda also obscured the true consequences of occupation. The appropriation of foodstuffs and the massive use of forced labor proved to be far more devastating than the initial atrocities that caught everyone’s attention.
With World War One occurring at the tail end of the golden age of postcards, it should come to no ones surprise that they were greatly employed in the propaganda war. The Dutch artist Louis Raemaekers drew one of the largest card sets after he started working for the British War Propaganda Bureau in 1916. He had been a correspondent in the theater of war but like all reporters he was kept far from the real action. All his images were the result of hearsay or his own imagination but powerful enough for the Kaiser to place a bounty on his head, or so the story goes. In this atmosphere of fiction and restricted information outright lies made in an effort for self-promotion could easily pass for truth.
Bernard Partridge began working as a cartoonist for Punch magazine in 1891. By World War One he began producing many anti-German illustrations. These did not reflect actual events but were meant to satirize Germans as uncivilized barbarians. Many no doubt were inspired by stories of the rape of Belgium. His personal interest in the theater shows through here as these images take on the feeling of a dramatic performance. These images were later reproduced as a large set of postcards by Jarrold & Sons who distributed then through their department stores.
A fine set of cards depicting the despicable Germans was drawn by P. Carrire and published in France. They also do not reference specific events but are meant to convey the spirit of German barbarity as drum up by the rape of Belgium. These lithographic images appear as if they were specifically drawn to be reproduced on postcards. The same scenes were issued in both color and in dutone.
There were also many other artists producing cards, some signed but many anonymous. One of the best unsigned sets comes from Photo Belge containing scenes of battles as well as some of the most vivid depictions of atrocities. The inclusion of real events specific to time and place help legitimize the other more generalized fictional depictions of murder and pillage. Seen as a whole there is a tendency to loose the distinction between them.
With Belgium being quickly overrun early in the war, most propaganda postcards depicting their ordeal were published in France and Great Britain. While most atrocities only took place in the first few months of the war, the rape of Belgium had become such a potent myth that it wasn’t so easily dismissed. Allied publishers were able to exploit this myth and continued to issue propaganda cards of German atrocities throughout the entire conflict. These images used usually followed very specific themes that often incorporated similar key words such as kultur, savages and barbarians.
Many cards depict large scale looting by German soldiers, sometimes under the direct orchestration of their officers. Looting in fact was common during the war, engaged in by individuals whenever opportunities rose as well as part of planned efforts to send valuable resources to back to Germany. While most cards show the steeling of personal property because the outrage is more immediately felt, it was the large-scale appropriation of industrial material and food that caused the worst problems for the Belgian people throughout the war.
The problem with pictures of looters was that it already fit into most people&rsquo's conceptions of war; it had been nearly a universal practice for centuries and was practically considered synonymous with it. Illustrators had to go further to make the act truly repugnant so Germans were also shown as being predisposed by their barbaric state to destroy art and items of high culture rather than steal it. This notion was not a total exaggeration for the conflict was fought as a war on the despised enemies culture as much as for military gains. This can easily be seen in the deliberate destruction of the great library at Louvain though it was far from the only incident.
Germans are often shown defying the most sacred of social mores by humiliating and compromising the virtues of women. Sometimes this meant stripping them and sometimes this meant rape. Many cards just depict the general brutality and murder that women were exposed to.
Some publishers felt that graphic scenes of violence against women were too much for their audience to handle and created narratives where the brutality was more implied than actually shown. Not all followed this model, pushing the limits on the type of violence the public would accept. Authorities may have normally cracked down on this type of graphic misogamist display in better times but in these times it was not advantageous to discourage anything that promoted the war effort by vilifying the enemy.
A common theme on propaganda cards is that of unarmed civilians, usually woman and children, used as human shields in battle. Such stories became so commonplace it is now difficult to ascertain their accuracy. While it may seem improbable that these incidents actually happened, we must remember that the use of human shields has been fairly common in modern warfare.
Much of the Geneva Convention concerns itself with the proper care of prisoners of war and those wounded in battle. It is a reflection on widespread values held at this time of its drawing that a certain amount of generosity must be afforded those who can no longer defend themselves. Germans however are often shown defying what most would consider proper moral decency by murdering the helpless wounded and robbing the dead.
Even unarmed Red Cross workers are often depicted shot in the back by cowardly Germans. While deliberate hostile acts made against them on the battlefield was prohibited by international law, this was not the heart of the violation. Those of the Red Cross were generally looked upon with great respect for their unselfishness in helping others in a dangerous environment whether they be friend or enemy, so to harm them was showing disrespect to the basic morale fiber of a civilized society.
Perhaps the most exploited story of the war concerned a real British nurse, Edith Cavell. Caught behind the German advance in Belgium, she continued to live near Brussels in occupied territory secretly ferrying stray British and French soldiers to the neutral Netherlands. Emboldened by her sense of moral justice her actions were less than discrete. She was finally arrested and routinely executed in the fall of 1915. The Germans could only see that she had forfeited her protection under the Geneva Convention by directly taking part in belligerent actions, and not her greater potential as a tool for propaganda against them once dead. In Great Britain she was portrayed as an innocent, a victim of German barbarity that any English woman might fall to. Even the circumstances of her execution were exaggerated with a narrative claiming she was shot in the head by an officer after fainting at the prospect of her fate. She had become one of the most famous victims of German aggression and their worst nightmare
Nuns and priests, who were generally considered to be offered immunity to violence as neutrals, were often singled out on postcards for depictions of torture and murder at the hands of German soldiers. Some of these events took place out on the street but other involved violating the sanctity of the church to render the act even more heinous. While many of these incidents were wildly exaggerated, it must be said that rampant anti-Catholicism did lead to many clergy members being singled out for exceptionally brutal treatment when encountering Protestant Germans.
Children and even babies seemed to be their favorite victims of German soldiers. Sometimes they are just depicted prostrate, trodden under German boots, but most often they are seen huddling in fear or already dead on the ground from their encounter with a firing squad. Where a soldier in the same circumstances might be portrayed in stoic defiance, there was usually no bravery to be shown on these cards. Pity stirred more hatred when children were involved, which of course was the purpose of these postcards.
A variation on the execution of children was the killing of a young boy only armed with a toy gun. Such incidents undoubtedly took place, just as they do now between kids and inner city police, but the frequency of such incidents on both Belgian and French postcards is so numerous to make it a mythical genre. On one hand it shows that even out children are brave and defiant, on the other it shows the enemy has no ability to distinguish the innocence of youth from a legitimate target.
Even the fictional depictions of soldiers executing children did not go far enough for some illustrators. Another popular theme was the allegorical depiction of German motherhood as a fat, ugly valkyrie. She had no nurturing virtues but a natural inclination to be the killer of children who was often depicted as a brute on a murderous rampage.
Another popular subject was that of refuges. These images were used throughout the war to depict their plight not only in Belgium but on all fronts. Like the cards showing looting, refugees were a true universal aspect of this war that required little exaggeration. In fact the number of these cards produced were small in relation to the refugee problem, perhaps in fear of alarming an already jittery public of the amount of strangers now living among them. While many of these cards were made to show the cruelty of the enemy rather than war itself, they were often published as charity cards that were sold to raise money for the Red Cross or similar organizations.
German publishers retaliated to all this high handed propaganda with postcards of their own, not showing the cruelty of their enemy but by depicting the good German soldier. Often under the sarcastic title Barbarian, soldiers were shown feeding hungry children or helping out with farm work where they were billeted. A master of these types of cards was Arthur Thiele who is better known for his comic images. From him we get the impression that Germans are nothing more than kind ordinary folk, no different from anyone else you may know. Needless to say these cards were largely meant to dispel rumors on the home front.
Because most incidents depicted on propaganda cards were fictional they had to be presented as artists renderings. Even those that were real were almost exclusively presented the same way as no photo record exits. There are however exceptions where photo-based cards were made. Those capturing the destruction of property are the most obvious and common. The titles on these usually do no more than mention the location of the town or city. Sometimes a well known landmark will be singled out. Some go a little further to add editorial comment and blame the depicted destruction directly on German barbarity.
Some cards depicting the towns that the Germans passed through go even further to expose their barbarity. No camera may have been present to record a massacre but such incidents could still be referenced after the fact. Such cards may seems tame when compared to those drawn by artists but their starkness lends weight to the reality of it. While the tendency to represent war through photography has only grown since, the use of postcards as a tool for propaganda has largely shifted to television where short sound bites replace actual news. The bodies of gassed Syrian women and children along with wounded murdered in hospitals look little different than the postcards of a hundred years past. Now with video there is more likely hood these events have actually happened but the facts behind them are often just as lacking.
Over the past year the news has been full of stories about the horrors of chemical weapons being used in Syria. It all seems very familiar. Fingers are pointed but no one dares take responsibility. In the West weapons we once embraced have become taboo, and now others can be accused of barbarity. Most people in the war-torn region canÕt fathom what the fuss is about; all they see around them is death. Are the Syrian burn victims from barrel bombs any worse off than the Palestinians burnt by white phosphorous from Israeli bombs? Are the high explosives in the American arsenal that burn oxygen so quickly that they suck the lungs out of their victims any more merciful than gas? We make rules and distinctions to show our superiority over others while constantly maximizing our destructive capabilities. Any decision to go to war is an acknowledgment that human life will be considered of little value. Few can admit to this reality for it flies in the face of everything we are taught as good people. Propaganda is needed if this dilemma is to be sorted out, and throughout World War One postcards were used to that end.
While the technology that now allows us to fight wars with unmanned drones has further separated perceptions from reality, the truth is that the experience of war is still filled with horrors that have changed little since the time of Goya’s prints. When success is often determined by body count, allegiances to law and fair play often drop to the wayside whenever inconvenient. Even without postcards no longer being as commonplace, rhetoric is still used to glorify and demonize and cover up this reality, but there has always been a choice for us to make. The ability of German commanders to put and end to the killing of civilians when their priorities changed demonstrates that what is considered a necessity is sometimes little more than a preference.
From Tampico to Vera Cruz:
The recent political turmoil over Crimea’s separation from the Ukraine to become part of Russia has flooded the news now for weeks. The actual desires of the people who live there do not seem to be as much an issue as the idea of spheres of influence and who has the right to claim them. World powers tend to see the status quo as sacrosanct for it serves their own interests. When any other power with an addenda steps out of line from the consensus a major war usually follows to put them back in their place. What is often forgotten are the many minor conflicts that have occurred when large powers have imposed their will to protect what they term their national interests. In a recent speech given by President Obama he proudly claimed that when the United States has disputes with its neighbors it doesn’t invade them. He must have meant recently. His timing seemed less than perfect for it was 100 years ago in April the United States attacked the Mexican city of Vera Cruz to impose our sense of order on what we considered our sphere of influence. Despite the fact that this bloody intervention almost led to a full scale war few of us remember it today. This embarrassing incident may have been washed from the collective consciousness of our nation, and our President may pretend as if our own history does not exist, but these events were captured for prosperity on postcards and now bare witness for all of us to see.
President Woodrow Wilson was a man of strong moral convictions that led him to believe he had the obligation to teach the Mexicans how to elect good presidents. Offended by the coup that placed Victoriano Huerta into power, Wilson refused to recognize this new government of Mexico and imposed and arms embargo to be enforced by the U.S Navy. A small landing party from one such ship, the U.S.S. Dolphin, was arrested in Tampico after trying to remove fuel from a restricted area. When it was realized this was nothing more than a matter of miscommunication the sailors were quickly released and an apology given. Squadron commander Rear Admiral Henry T. Mayo however also demanded a 21 gun salute, and when it was not forthcoming he sent news of this insult to Washington. In response President Wilson then ordered a contingent of Marines to sail with warships of the Atlantic Fleet to Vera Cruz to teach Huerta a lesson, or as he put it to “maintain the dignity and authority of the United States.”
While Wilson waited for Congress to authorize a punitive strike in response to the Tampico Affair, he learned of a large arms shipment headed for Huerta aboard the German steamship Ypiranga. Wilson’s distaste for Huerta ran deeper than his perceptions of him as a tyrant. Their disputes had curtailed Mexican exports of oil to the U.S., which Huerta controlled, and Wilson was fearful that he could consolidate power over his rivals with the delivery of more arms. There was also the additional fear that Germany was supplying arms to Mexico to stir up trouble on the U.S. border in order to keep America occupied in case war broke out in Europe. To cut off this shipment the three vessel naval force under Frank Friday Fletcher was then radioed and instructed to attack the waterfront at Vera Cruz and seize all arms. Authorization by Congress would have to wait.
On April 21st, 1914 both Marines and Sailors began to land in Vera Cruz Harbor. As these Leathernecks and Bluejackets moved inland the defending Federal troops under General Gustavo Maass received orders to avoid a confrontation and retreat. The problem was he had already distributed rifles to many ordinary citizens who desperately wanted to resist the invaders despite their lack of training. A number of his soldiers also refused to leave, and cadets from the nearby naval academy reinforced their ranks. Though the American forces quickly seized all their objectives around the harbor they were surprised when they were not greeted as liberators from the Mexican dictator. Overconfidence led to a sloppy advance, and when they met up with a stiffening resistance the Americans took more casualties than necessary. Not all of the invaders were prepared to fight in an urban environment, especially those from the Navy, and it took a naval bombardment to eliminate the strong point at the academy. As the Americans gained the upper hand they hoped to arrange a truce but there was no one in charge of this spontaneous uprising to negotiate with. It was then decided that the limited goal of the mission had to be abandoned as the entire city needed to be captured and occupied to put an end to the fighting.
To accomplish this new task reinforcements would be needed. The first of these were a Marine battalion under Major Smedley Butler, rushed in from Panama and landed during the night. Sporadic fighting and sniping would last for three days. Another regiment of Marines would arrive from the United States to solidify the occupation. Their commander, General Frederick Funston, would take charge of the operation. There were now seven thousand of American troops controlling a small part of Mexico.
As it turned out the rational for this invasion was not all that it was said to be. The rush to move into Vera Cruz before Congress gave this mission it’s blessing was all for naught as the S.S. Ypiranga simply landed its cargo of weapons elsewhere. While we felt we had the right to militarily intervene in our neighbor’s territory for it fell within our self proclaimed sphere of influence, we were reluctant to interfere with a sovereign ship of a European power. Huerta did indeed need these arms to keep him in power but they were not actually being supplied by Germany as claimed but by American businessmen. They saw in Huerta a protector of their interests in Mexico as opposed to his rivals who expressed a desire to nationalize foreign businesses. This shipment, largely consisting of Remington guns manufactured in the United States was first shipped to Odessa, Russia and then to the German port of Hamburg all to circumnavigate Wilson’s weapons embargo.
By that July Huerta had resigned and was replaced by his Constitutionalist rival Venustiano Carranza, but this new president opposed the American occupation just as vehemently. Carranza even threatened making peace with his opponents in order to invade the United States. With all of Latin America lining themselves behind Mexico and anti-American riots spreading, the efforts of Argentina, Brazil, and Chile brought pressure on the United States to accept a negotiated peace. Wilson backed down and the Niagara Falls peace conference ended with the Americans finally withdrawing their army in November after six months of occupation. Wilson never got his salute at Tampico; instead American residents had to be evacuated because of the growing hostility toward them. Bitterness over the incursion did not dissipate quickly and would color Mexican politics for years. A holiday commemorating the resistance is still celebrated in Mexico.
While there have been numerous American military incursions throughout Central America and the Caribbean during the 20th century, few have been as well documented on postcards as the attack on Vera Cruz. While there are few scenes of actual fighting there are plenty of the dead in the streets. So why were so many cards made and who made them? It is not always easy to say. Battleships often had photographers stationed aboard such as Long & Lawman on the U.S.S. Louisiana. This accounts for the many images of troops debarking from their ships. Vera Cruz also had a sizable American population and there was at least one photographer among them, Walter P. Hadsel an agent for Kodak who produced many cards of the incident. While these cards were signed, many more real photo cards were produced without any publisher or photo credit. Many of these are also untitled, which makes them easy to confuse with the countless cards produced soon after during the Mexican Revolution and American Punitive Expeditions. At this point in time many amateurs were armed with cameras and not only produced limited cards for personal use but sold them to publishers hungry for imagery.
Was the preponderance of photographers in Vera Cruz the reason so many postcards were produced? The long boring occupation certainly provided a ready audience for postcards but is this not also true of other American occupations? The incident remained in the news for half a year, which also created demand and provided publishers with the time needed to acquire negatives and manufacture printed cards. Many of the same images exist as both printed and real photo cards. Perhaps at least part of the reason for so many cards lies within the nature of the incident itself. Though Huerta eventually resigned, the attack on Vera Cruz proved to be a diplomatic nightmare expanding impressions of the Ugly American. Despite the small scale of this conflict, 56 medals of Honor were issued to those who fought there, more than in any other battle that Americans fought in. Something beyond heroics was at stake here. Was it overcompensation to distract from a failed mission? While publishers may not have had any political incentive to glorify the attack on Vera Cruz, they knew how to follow public opinion and sometimes even influence it in order to make sales. The postcards produced present a heroic image of American troops in action. Even a series depicting the funeral processions for 17 fallen soldiers back in New York is shown in very heroic terms. Postcards alone cannot give us the full story but they keep the story alive. With some perspective we can ferret out the details.
Postcards alone cannot give us the full story of any event but they can go a long way to keep a story alive. Even with just this limited perspective we can at least begin to ferret out the details. There is much that some would like us to forget, and there are things that are not always pleasant to remember, but it is the heritage that makes us what we are whether we like it or not.
Discovering the West Point Foundry
Rising above the west bank of the Hudson River just opposite the village of Cold Spring is a predominant height known as the Crows Nest. It is not the highest peak in the Highlands but it dominates the local landscape due to its precipitous drop towards the shore. I often found myself off trail when hiking there, bushwhacking to some obscure ledge that might offer a magnificent view. On one visit I ran into a fellow hiker on a stony outcrop, a doctor who had recently been stationed at West Point. Looking down on the towns below he lamented on these sites of civilization obviously preferring to gaze upon pure wilderness. I responded with a little history by commenting that this area is far wilder now than it had been in the past. Much of what is now protected by State Parks was once sites of industry, the forests below stripped bare to provide charcoal for iron furnaces.
I never realized how much my narrative was true or how much danger the simple act of bushwhacking put me in until the summer of 1999, when a forest fire swept over the normally serene mountaintop and set off a long series of explosions. Lying within the thick underbrush and shallow topsoil were countless unexploded artillery shells whose presence were only brought to light when the heat of the flames ignited them. How did all this ordinance get to this isolated spot? The culprit lay across the river just north of Constitution Island at the back of a quiet cove. I found myself photographing on this marshy shore years earlier when I spotted what seemed to be an abandoned railroad bed. I had some suspicions to where it led and I couldn't help but investigate. In the distance there seemed to be nothing but a dense growth of maple and oak. It was all innocent enough until I pushed my way in and found myself amidst the ruins of brick buildings, steel huts, and leaf filled pits. I had stumbled upon the remains of the old West Point Foundry.
In colonial times this hilly region extending northward to the Taconics and down to the Ramapos of New Jersey was the center of our iron industry. Today these back woods hold the remnants of numerous abandoned mines and forges that once supplied the weapons needed for our revolutionary struggle against Britain. The importance of having such an industry on our shores became abundantly clear after we suffered from shortages of artillery during the War of 1812. To ensure we would have enough arms to protect our fledgling nation, President James Madison established four foundries; one of these placed at Cold Spring under the protection of West Point. The actual site was located in a narrow defile cut by a swift creek, latter named Foundry Brook, that could provide the water power needed to run the facility. It fed into Foundry Cove where a long dock at its end made for the easy transport of materials onto sloops plying the Hudson River.
After the foundry opened in 1817 it produced a variety of items ranging from some of the earliest locomotives to the first iron hulled ship, the U.S. Revenue Cutter Spenser launched in 1843, but its main focus was on manufacturing cannon. Production vastly increased after the arrival of Captain Robert Parker Parrott, who in 1860 invented a new type of field artillery piece with a cast iron breach reinforced with bands of wrought iron. This innovation allowed it to use more gunpowder, which in turn allowed the barrel of the gun to be bored out in the spiral fashion of a rifle as the extra charge could force the shell through the resistant twist. This feature gave these cannon greater range over smooth bored guns and also made them highly accurate, though not always that safe to use. When the Civil War broke out a year later these superior Parrott rifle guns came into high demand. Parrot was promoted to superintendent of the Foundry where he oversaw the production of 2,000 of these pieces in different calibers and well over a million projectiles specifically designed for them. They have often been referred to as the gun that one the war.
A proving ground was set up on the banks of Foundry Cove from where these guns could be tested before they were shipped off. Each gun was required to fire a number of rounds to guaranty its quality. The target of choice was the massive rock wall of the Crows Nest rising directly across the river. The ruggedness of the terrain had left the mountain uninhabited, which meant that it could be fired upon with impunity. Years of bombardment barely disfigured this rocky landscape, but it quickly built up a large inventory of unexploded shells that grew ever more unstable as years past.
The Civil War Years marked the heyday of the Foundry; at 87 acres with 1,400 employees, it was the largest producer of iron and brass in the United States. When the end of the war brought a decline in orders, the facility was sold the Kemble Coal & Iron Company in 1867. The panic of 1873 coupled with the decreasing supply of local iron and the increasing demand for steel led to the FoundryÕs further decline. Weapons however continued to manufactured there, including some big disappearing guns that were used in coastal defense during the Spanish-American War. The iron works were passed on to U.B. & J.M. Cornell in 1899 but it was no longer a competitive enterprise. When the Foundry officially closed in 1911 Cold Spring was on its way to becoming one of those sleepy little towns. Employment had already been declining for decades though the facility found other uses such as a dye processing plant, and for the manufacture of pearl buttons and later batteries. After the Marathon Battery Company closed its doors in 1979 the site fell into ruin and was quickly overgrown.
Even after roaming through its ghostly remains I could never quite fathom the scope of this facility. Much of its remains had already been removed by locals scavenging for building materials. It did not seem that something of this purported size could actually fit into this tight valley. My only visual reference was an art reproduction of The Gun Foundry, a depiction of the blast furnace painted by John Ferguson Weir in 1866, but it did little to increase my understanding of this place. It is often easy to gather facts, but they to not always add up to a clear picture. I understood the connection between the explosions on the Crows Nest and this place but I was still left unable to comprehend the extent of the facilities here. Clarity finally arrived while thumbing through a box of New York State postcards. Finally in my hand was a panorama of the iron works spread across an old Barton & Spooner card. Though a rather dark pedestrian view, for me this was an amazing find. Despite all the written records we keep, the visual information captured on a simple postcard can prove an invaluable resource. This simple card provided me with more information in an instant than years of research.
The toxic materials left behind at the Foundry began to be cleaned up in 1997. The nearby cove had the notorious reputation of being contaminated by more heavy metal than any other body of water in the country. The grounds passed to Scenic Hudson in 2001 and it is now operated as a park. After ordinance experts removed more unexploded shells atop Crows Nest, the trails there reopened in 2003 but bushwhacking is still discouraged.
NO ONE REMEMBERS ALONE
Between 1882, following the assassination of Czar Alexander II, and 1924, when the period of open immigration to the United States ended, 2.6 million Eastern European Jews came to America. The single greatest concentration of these new immigrants was in New York City, on the Lower East Side, where the two young lovers, whose story is at the center of the exhibit, founded their American family.
Abram Spiwak was 18 and Sophie Schochetman 15 when they met and fell in love in Odessa, the most cosmopolitan city in the Russian empire, in a moment just before it collapsed into chaos: October 1905, the first, failed attempt to overthrow the autocratic Romanov dynasty. Jews were blamed for the uprising, and a horrific pogrom ensued, lasting for days as the Russian army stood by and refused to stop the violence. A fresh wave of refugees soon poured across the border into Europe, where they were not welcome.
Within months of their meeting, Sophie would join the stream of fleeing Jews and Abram would find himself alone, penniless and heartsick. Before they parted, Abram and Sophie exchanged the portraits you see here. It would take a year and a half, and a journey of thousands of miles, but eventually Abram would find Sophie and set to wooing her again.
The first half of this exhibit invites you to follow Abram and Sophie’s story, from the Pale of Settlement to the Lower East Side. The second half takes you into the stories of each of Abram’s siblingsŃhis older brother and his six sisters who are soon divided among three continents.
The postcard, historians will tell you, was invented for travelers. Most were ephemeral forms of popular, sentimental, pre-packaged memory and bragged: Look where I’ve been. They often included the generic phrase, “Wish you were here.” But for the immigrant--one who traveled out of necessity, taking enormous risks, enduring great hardship, facing uncertainty--the postcard often held a radically different meaning. Far from ephemeral, the postcards in this gallery include the explicit message: “For eternal memory.” From those left behind, those who could not or would not risk the journey, the implicit message was often, “Wish I were there.”
The Hobby Room
The perpetual question asked by postcard collectors after an acquisition is what do I do with them now? Some stuff there newfound treasures casually into boxes while others go the route of albums with plastic sleeves. For many this will suffice but more determined collectors may have to come up with more inspirational storage methods.
I recently acquired an interesting item that had been mailed to Joe Nardone, an original Metropolitan Postcard Club member, from Jean Heider, a member of the Windy City Post Card Club in Chicago. There was a letter thanking Joe for his delightful visit, and it was accompanied by a postcard booklet published in 1947 by the Post Card Collectors Club of America entitled Jean Heider’s Hobby Room. I will let exerts from its text explain the rest.
The realization of a dream fulfilled, hobby desires self-expressed in a manner most appropriate, and satisfaction of a job well done is aptly demonstrated by Mrs. Jean Heider in a room devoted entirely to her hobby.
It all began 15 years ago when a very dear friend presented Jean with over 5000 old Tuck’s Oilettes, which had been stored for many years in an attic. Fascination of these cards launched her on an endless search for others to add to this collection. Realization of the educational value of these cards brought forth the idea of eventually having an actual Picture Encyclopedia, with representation of world geography, every subject imaginable, every phase and field of life along with a vivid array of historical events which mark our ever changing world.
With passing years her collection increased by swapping with other collectors, continual patronization of old book stores, antique shops and Good-will Industries, and collecting cards en route on many trips by she and her husband through 36 states, Canada and Cuba. Friends and relatives, remembering her hobby added worth-while selections while out on trips, ever increasing the amount until today it tallies to over one half million cards.
One can well imagine the problem presented in storing cards for easy access and display. Boxes upon boxes, over 90 large albums and 35 small albums were put in this corner, that closet and this drawer. The difficulty was soon coped with by Mr. Heider thru his ingenuity and cleverness, designing and building an appropriate room for his wife’s cherished hobby. Full understanding of the proper arrangement of cards for easy access and display helped Mr. Heider to bring into existence a new kind of room - possibly the only one of its kind - devoted entirely to post cards.
It is Mrs. Heider’s belief that each and every collector has an opportunity to display originality and ingenuity in arranging their cards. She has combined every possible means in her hobby room, utilizing every bit of space for either storage or display purposes, providing visitors a quick and easy display of the cards that interest them the most. . . . as we enter the room we find a wall completely covered from floor to ceiling with cards very securely retained in position by grooved slats, providing easy insertion, and a firm grip, properly displaying their full glory.
Following around the room we catch an eye full of cards displayed in much the same manner, being surprised as Jean opens what we thought was a wall - proving to be the door of a large cupboard, finding to our amazement, row upon row of shelves, each loaded with file boxes containing many thousands of view cards, easily removed and carefully indexed.
Not expecting to be surprised again at the wonders of Jean’s Hobby Room we now turn to another wall, upon which carefully placed albums are stacked on several shelves, and another counter, beneath which are more shelves with file boxes and thousands more post cards. Jumbo cards, President series, panorama cards, foreign cards, sea shell cards and Royalty cards come into view. We find ourselves once again back to the door thru which we entered, only to find that the back of the door is filled with panels of more interesting cards.
Deltiographs (Post Cards) in this room are represented as far back as 1880 with the Postmark and stamps still in place. There are cards of every shape and substance, from every part of the word, of every subject conceivable, and every person of importance as well as any subject of historical value.
William Henry Jackson
I’m a city boy, born and raised in New York, yet whenever given the chance I find myself venturing to the Highlands of the Hudson, the dunes of Cape Cod, or the islands off the coast of Maine. None of these places can be considered true wilderness but they are similar enough to separate me from my day to day routines. There is nothing unique in my doing this for these yearnings to connect with some redemptive spirit in nature is part of the American experience. They are expressed in the myth of the frontier and exemplified in our history of western expansion. These narratives have been codified and disseminated through song, literature, paintings, photographs, prints, and even postcards.
The myth of the American west has grown so pervasive it does not only help form our own national identity, it’s clearly the primary story through which others view us as well. Yet despite this universality of perspective, we now live in a time when we are saturated by visual imagery. The power of it to convey any message, let alone one that supports a myth has diminished greatly. We have become oblivious to the arduous task that once faced photographers attempting to capture scenes from the west. The postcards carrying their hard sought harvest now often languish in dollar boxes. William Henry Jackson was a photographer of such cards. In fact he was the most famous photographer of the American west in his day. I can almost guarantee that every postcard collector has come across his work at some point in their browsing, but few have ever heard of him.
Jackson’s autobiography, Time Exposure was published in 1939 by Putnam & Sons but they cared so little for his actual experiences that his life would be dramatized by a ghost writer intent on reinforcing popular myths of the day. Jackson’s extraordinary life spanned the history of photography for it was only one year after his birth in Keeseville, New York in 1843 that Fox Talbot published Pencil of Nature, the first book ever to be illustrated with photographs. This however was irrelevant; to discuss his work in relation to changing ideas surrounding photography would be to give away the trick. Publishers needed to appeal to clichés and familiar story lines if they wanted a wide audience for their books. Dispelling or even analyzing mythologies was the last thing they wanted to do. Not only would this have less appeal, it would very likely stir up anger against them from those who hold onto their paradigms as the ultimate truth. Despite its shortcomings, this populist approach to Jackson’s life is in a sense his true story. He played an instrumental role in helping to create the Mythic West, and his life in turn became a prisoner of his own fame.
Jackson briefly served in the Union during the American Civil War but he did more sketching than fighting. Despite the perceived hardships of army life he found the experience a liberating reprieve from his tedious job as a photo retoucher back in Troy, New York. He had grown up drawing as a boy, and even began earning some money painting posters, backdrops, and window screens at the age of thirteen, but his family could not afford to give him the proper training needed to become a professional artist. His work at he photo studio required his presence seven days a week leaving him no time to delve into the arts even on an amateur basis. Once mustered out of service he returned to Troy but he could no longer stomach his old lifestyle and soon headed off to Vermont seeking greener pastures. There he also found employment as a retoucher at the prestigious A.F. Style’s Gallery in Burlington. Although he was now working less hours while earning much more money, and had also become engaged, he still felt restless. This was the experience of many veterans who found they could no longer settle down to a predictable staid lifestyle after marching across the American landscape. He seems to have argued with his fiancée so that his broken engagement would give him an excuse to escape from New England. The promise of fortune and a new life on the western frontier had already called many to its shores, now it was Jackson’s turn.
Jackson headed west in 1866 with few plans except to possibly find work in the silver mines of Montana. Instead he took work as a wagon driver, farmhand, and cattle wrangler that took him as far as Los Angeles and back to Omaha, Nebraska. After a year of working at odd jobs for little or no pay, the fortune he envisioned never materialized. He found the hard life he lived demoralizing and there were times when he was ready to return to the east a failure; something he vowed never to do when he first set out. While much of the westÕs romance had dissipated for him, the vast landscape still had a substantial hold and he was reluctant to leave. Omaha at this time was the divide between the easily assessable transportation networks of the east with the largely unsettled frontier lying beyond the Missouri River. Caught up in the optimism of this boomtown he used his last remaining dollars to clean himself up and apply for salaried work as a retoucher at the Edric Eaton Hamilton Photographic Studio. Even as a retoucher, Jackson had learned much about public taste and marketing. He could see that this crossroads between civilization and wilderness ensured a steady flow of laborers, emigrants, and tourists who were all potential costumers for photographs. He saved his pay and asked his father for more funds, and with the arrival of his brother Ed they bought out Hamilton’s studio within the year to form Jackson Brothers Photographers. Soon afterwards they also acquired their chief competitor, the E.L. Eaton Studio to become one of the largest if not the largest photographic studio in the west.
Similar to the sale of any ordinary businesses, his purchase included more than buildings and equipment alone. Both studios also supplied him with a large inventory consisting of thousands of negatives that Jackson got to call his own. During the 19th century it was generally assumed that the rights to reproduction and authorship came with the purchase of a photograph or its negative. It was a hard habit to break and the practice often continued well into the 20th century even after more stringent copyright laws were established in 1891. Similarly most large photo studios employed a vast array of people including printers, mounters, retouchers, colorists, and assistant camera operators who often took the studioÕs photos, but it was the firmÕs owner who got to claim sole authorship over everything produced. This practice was not well documented and few records were kept, partially out of a desire to obscure the facts. Name recognition makes for better sales, so the inability to guarantee authorship is still played down to this day.
Though Jackson had plenty of inventory on hand he realized that he must keep it updated to ensure sales. This posed no real problem for a man with an unsettled spirit and the western landscape in his blood. He converted a wagon into a mobile darkroom so he could set out further a field while leaving his brother behind to mind the business. Some of his earliest destinations were the nearby Reservations for the Omahas, Otoes, Pawnees, and Winnebagoes. They had a distain for posing but could usually be bribed into doing so. Reservation agents would often coerce those still reluctant to cooperate. Jackson seems to have been imbued with all the racist contempt for these native peoples that was common among most westerners but he also understood that they were important to his bottom line. Myth making had always been part of the Native American’s invention. Their true nature never mattered, only how they fit into the hopes and fears of the new white colonizers. By the 1860’s this expressed itself in a true dichotomy that mirrored diverging attitudes toward the west itself. The eradication and exile of most eastern natives had made room for a romanticism to emerge around this dying race. They came to be seen, at least in the east, as the noble savage representing the more innocent side of man, made ever more poetic since destined by God to be replaced by the civilized world. This romantic largess however quickly dissipated whenever a new Indian War flared up, and calls to wipe them all out would arise. In between these violent outbursts depictions of natives became a staple of the tourist industry as long as they were rendered in a non-threatening manner.
Jackson did not arrive in the west as a blank slate. He carried with him familiar myths of the American wilderness as promoted by the romantic and transcendental writings of Emerson and Thoreau. It was from the purity of this God given wilderness that we derived our greatness but at the same time it represented a divine gift, an endless resource that could be tapped to satisfy our insatiable greed. This western myth more than any economic reality has caused America to be envisioned worldwide as a land of opportunity. While the redemptive qualities of virgin wilderness could not realistically be maintained in the mad rush for exploitation, the contradictions could be ignored if carried forward through myth, especially a new one of transformation. Wilderness was the desert that awaited the hand of man to turn into a garden. Popular imagery in the form of prints and photographs were a prime mover of this myth, and Jackson learned to internalize it within his own work to satisfy his audience.
His first test as a landscape photographer came from a commission in which he followed the advancing construction of the Union Pacific Railroad. Though much of this work expressed an uneasy balance between the rawness of the landscape and the works of man, it still impressed Dr. Ferdinand Vandeveer Hayden when he visited Jackson’s studio in 1870. Hayden was the director if the U.S. Geological Survey of the Territories and by this time already considered the scientific authority on the region. He was also a true believer in the myth of transformation having blind faith that settlement and industrialization would do nothing but turn this barren land into a paradise. His surveys provided the government as well as industrialists, ever eager to find new sources of raw materials, with the information needed to guide western expansion. His upcoming expedition would also further explore the mysterious Yellowstone region and more accurately record its fabled wonders. Railroad companies were as much interested in the latter as in hauling coal and ore for there was increasing potential for profits in the expanding growth of tourism. Such a survey could provide images that would satisfy a multitude of clients, so when asked to come along as an informal correspondent, Jackson agreed without hesitation. He turned the reigns of his business over to his wife Mollie, who he only married a year earlier and headed into the unknown.
While traveling with a well outfitted group made Jackson’s journey much easier, it was still difficult work when heavy cameras and a supply of chemicals and glass plates needed to be taken along. He might be able to use his mobile darkroom in some areas, but it was useless over rugged roadless terrain. Pack animals weren’t always sure footed and plates would break. He once lost a months worth of work this way. Whenever a shot needed to be taken he had to set up a darkened tent because the wet plate process used at the time required each glass plate to be photosensitized on the spot and used within minutes before the emulsion hardened. Sometimes no image showed up at all because the interval between exposure and development was too great. It is a wonder that with the fragility of this process he was able to accomplish anything at all but in the end the survey of Wyoming Territory proved to be fruitful.
In 1871 when Mollie became pregnant and unable to supervise the Omaha studio Jackson sold the business and sent his wife to his parents home in Nyack, New York. In his absence, while making plans to move to Washington D.C., Mollie died giving birth to their daughter who died in turn soon afterwards. Jackson still went to Washington in order to make prints of his work for the Survey where it was so well received he received an offer to become an official Survey photographer. This he gladly accepted in order to continue exploring the west. After returning to Omaha he married Emile Painter the following year but she took on the role of a more traditional wife even with JacksonÕs absent for most of every year on expeditions. These trips took him the central Rockies, southwestern Colorado with further excursions into Arizona and New Mexico, the Wind River Mountains, the Grand Tetons, and back to the Yellowstone region.
Jackson was not the only recorder of landscape on Hayden’s surveys as a number of artists were brought along as well. Two of these in particular, John Gifford and Thomas Moran formed close ties with Jackson. While Jackson provided them with photographic sketches to aid in the finishing of their paintings back at their studios, they in turn provided him with greater insights into the tenants of eastern landscape painting. Most of Jackson’s artistic knowledge had come from reading J.G. Chapman’s American Drawing Book, which he received as a gift from his mother at the age of ten. It provided him with the fundamentals in both composition and meaning but it could only carry him so far. His new friends had a noticeable influence on improving his photo compositions, which made them more palatable to the east coast aesthetic. Despite this growing competence the survey of 1878 would be Jackson’s last after nine years of exploration. Administrative control over all the various surveys was then placed in the hands of Hayden’s archrival, the famed explorer of the Colorado River John Wesley Powell, causing both Hayden and Jackson to find themselves without any meaningful employment.
In the absence of salaried work, Jackson threw himself into the business world once more. Familiar with the environs of Denver, Colorado and its potential for growth, he moved there in 1879 and opened a new photo studio. By now Jackson’s name carried much recognition and prestige and his business boomed. He was already a household name from the countless stereo-cards that he sold through Edward Anthony & Co. that graced nearly every middle-class parlor in the country. His years of work with the U.S. Geological Survey only bolstered his credentials. Photography had become a serious rival to popular prints, and now he was able to market all sorts of photographic items from small cabinet cards to his signature two foot wide gold toned contact prints. Since his days in Omaha he had the habit of buying inventory from other notable photographers such as Edward Curtis, Timothy O’Sullivan, A.J. Russell, and Charles Roscoe Savage. Now he could draw on the largest collection of western photographs to be found anywhere to suit his needs. His ability to provide such a large collection to interested parties helped his business grow substantially but at the same time the ever greater dispersal of his images began to undermine his success.
As technological advances in papermaking and printing allowed far more images than ever before to reach a growing middle-class audience, it became more difficult and then impossible to control how they were presented and used. The collotype and gravure processes suddenly made it easy to transfer photographs to the printed page, and when halftone screening began to be widely used in the 1890’s this accelerated production beyond belief. Cheap reproductions of Jackson’s survey images not only flooded the market; photos were also stolen to illustrate magazine stories and guidebooks. The poor printing quality of many of these items also diminished Jackson’s reputation as a master of his craft. Sometimes illustrators distorted his work and others attached his imagery to stories of sensationalist fiction, which diminished his reputation for accuracy. Jackson was not just loosing control of his photos; he was loosing the ability to control their meaning as they were cheapened for the sake of marketability. As more and more images from all the photographers of the west flooded the market they as a whole began to loose their appeal as representations of something special and unique. Photos of once hidden treasures of the west had joined the ranks of the commonplace.
The west had also changed since Jackson first set foot here. Even when he first arrived in the Yellowstone region back in 1870 he was greeted by a handful of tourists making therapeutic use of the hot sulfur springs. On his last visit in 1878 he lamented that the great influx of tourists and souvenir hunters had already seriously defaced the place. In lands where he once found accommodation among the first of the yeoman farmers, he now faced hostility from the hired hands of corporate farms laid out among abandoned homesteads. With the land of myth disappearing, the need for more myth to replace it grew ever stronger. During the 1860’s, painters of the west like Albert Bierstadt were often criticized for for rendering the landscape too poetically. Yet when Moran exhibited his idealized version of the Mount of the Holy Cross in 1876 some critics complained that it was too literal that it wasn’t imbued with the moral attitudes that the public had come to expect. Jackson’s own photo of the same mountain had first been presented as a matter of fact landscape. As it became his most recognized and popular work he began altering it to fit the changing times. His naturalist depiction was heavily retouched to make the cross more distinct and eventually shrouded in a heavenly mist until it functioned as pure propaganda.
Jackson’s introduction to the railroad baron Jay Gould in the last year of his survey work bore fruit in 1881 when he was commissioned along with his friend Moran to promote the Denver & Rio Grand line. They would make a similar trip down to the Grand Canyon together on the Santa Fe Railroad the following year. More than ever his work came to express the harmony between man and nature. Through selective editing he could still present the illusion of nature sublime as he ignored the despoiled landscape surrounding him. His work had always been used to promote the west but now he took on the role of a professional booster. To further these aims he incorporated in 1884 into the W.H. Jackson Photographic & Publishing Co. and began forming alliances with other important publishers such as Chain & Hardy and Frank S. Thayer. Instead of increasing control over his images through these arrangements he found himself bound to the taste and vagrancies of the publishing world. Jackson, always more a businessman than an artist put the marketing of his work first, which meant he had to satisfy the needs of his commercial sponsors. As he accepted more and more railroad commissions from New England to Florida the specific ideals once relegated to the frontier now became generalized in the American landscape as a whole. In pictures at least, man could now exploit the land to his content without diminishing the transcendental qualities found in its wildness.
The opening of Chicago’s World Columbian Exposition in 1893 was full of grandeur and contradictions. It unabashedly celebrated the benefits that an unrestricted free market could bring to a capitalist society while the United States was simultaneously plunging into a deep economic depression at the hands of these very same practices. Jackson’s ability to endure up to this point was largely due to his skill in marrying his photography to the publishing industry, but he could see the writing on the wall. Kodak’s cheap roll film cameras introduced in 1888 were now a sensation among the same middle-class customers he relied on while his style of documentary photography was loosing its popularity in favor of a more personal aesthetic. To meet these challenges Jackson began hedging his bets by speculating in Denver’s real estate boom, but now in hard economic times he found that his properties were worth less than what he paid for them. Tourist dollars had also dried up and the railroads, which constantly sought his photos for publicity, were now failing. To top it off the exposition also introduce the picture postcard to an American audience as a new potential rival for scarce tourist dollars.
Though Jackson’s photos were prominently displayed at the Columbian Exposition’s Transportation and Wyoming pavilions, it was the architectural photographer Charles Dudley Arnold who was chosen to produce the official photographs of the Great White City. The spin and hype surrounding this exposition exceeded all others, and in this atmosphere of extreme boosterism debate over Arnold’s qualifications soon followed. Eventually Daniel Burnham, the expositions director of works commissioned Jackson, now America’s greatest landscape photographer, to produce additional photos to ensure the event was properly enshrined. Unhappy with the results, Burnham turned all of JacksonÕs work over to Arnold to use at his discretion and it was never seen again. The problem on how photography should be used had been raging for more than a decade. Where Arnold presented and ideal, Jackson represented a place, even if one imbued with the same boldness and optimism found in his western landscapes. His work was still too easily viewed as nothing more than straightforward representation that did not rest on any ideas. Jackson’s work was far more than mere representation but it power rested more on the mythic qualities of landscape than from any fashionable artistic trends.
As a new generation of photographers began seeking higher status as artists, they insisted that photos should incorporate the same artistic elements that concern painters, and they disparaged old school representation in the process. This was not the only problem for photographers like Jackson for dramatic changes were also taking place within the arts. The American colonies were founded on the principal that we we were the supplier of raw materials to England who would in turn sell finished goods back to us. This long standing arrangement went beyond mercantile economics influencing cultural attitudes so that anything of high craftsmanship, whether it be a chair or a painting, came to be seen as having to come from overseas. This prejudice only began to dissipate with the arrival of the Hudson School painters and fellow writers who would come to influence Jackson. They encouraged a uniquely American vision independent of Europe but by the end of the 19th century this movement came to be viewed as too provincial. As Americans embraced European culture once again, images of the west came to be particularly seen as outdated. This division would only grow wider in the early 20th century as various modernist movements grew in influence. Critical thinking in the arts was passing Jackson by, first as a landscape photographer who didn’t incorporate enough painterly ideals, and now as a photographer of the west who chose the wrong ideals to emulate.
Jackson would make some money selling his duplicate negatives of the Great White City to the publisher Harry Tammen but this wasn’t enough to keep him afloat for long in an ongoing depression. When Major Pangborn, President of the World’s Transportation Commission approached him to document the railways of the world, he accepted this offer out of desperation even though reluctant to spend years overseas. Jackson supplemented this agreement by arranging to supply Harper’s Weekly with photos from the expedition for a running column. Though Jackson had previously worked for Pangborn when he was a publicist for the B & O railroad, he was unprepared for the disaster that followed. With funds running low this project became more hyperbole than reality. While Jackson found himself carried across North Africa, Ceylon, India, China, and Siberia he was provided with too little time to properly photograph his subjects. He eventually gave up on the project to concentrate on his own dream of creating an international portfolio. When Harper’s baulked at not receiving enough work he began shipping all his photo plates back to New York to give them some variety to chose from. Upon his return to the United States he discovered that the negatives he sent to Harper’s for safekeeping were not forthcoming. Jackson never seemed to pay close attention to details, and now he found he had signed away the rights to 17 months worth of work without even realizing it. Harper’s would now exclusively use his photographs whenever and however they saw fit. With the Closing of the West expansionist ideals would now be turned toward acquiring an overseas empire, and the magazine used Jackson’s images to promote their own imperialist viewpoints.
Jackson returned to Denver in 1896 to find that most of his customers had vanished, his business nearly bankrupt, and accusations of embezzlement due to the informal manner in which he had shifted funds to pay pressing debts. Other companies such as Rand McNally had also been busy creating guidebook illustrations from his best work and putting their own name on them. Jackson hurriedly began copyrighting his work under newly enacted laws but it was too little too late. When approached by the photo stock company of Underwood & Underwood he almost sold them all his negatives. At the same time the California photographer Edwin H. Husher informed Jackson of a possible business opportunity involving William A. Livingston, Jr. who he met after relocating to Detroit. Livingston’s father controlled much of the regions shipping, banking and publishing industry and could easily bankroll any endeavor his son chose. Livingston had gone to Switzerland to meet with the famed printing house of Orell Fussli, returning from Zurich in 1897 with exclusive rights to their secretive photo-chromolithographic process. Through the use of photosensitive asphaltum and multiple substrates a black & white photograph could be turned into a fairly realistic looking color lithograph without the use of halftone screens.
Livingston then formed the Detroit Photographic Company for the purposes of reproducing photographs in print, and set up the Detroit Photocrom Company as a subsidiary to solely manufacture photo-chromolithographic reproductions that were eventually given the trade name Phostints. Husher became the supervising partner of both firms, and Albert Schuler was brought over from Switzerland to supervise the technical aspects of producing color work. Jackson was now invited into the mix as partner. Husher had already brought his vast collection of California and Great Lakes negatives with him, which was supplemented by the Livingston families own stock of shipping and industrial subjects. Jackson’s years of work with the railroads would bring a treasure trove of images from the places that were in the highest commercial demand. In addition there was his large accumulated inventory of more traditional western views and Native Americans. Jackson took up the offer in exchange for a salaried job as director plus a lump sum payment that would settle most of his debts. He left what remained of his Denver studio to his son Clarence and he moved to Detroit with his wife and young daughter.
Although the aim of these two companies was to produce a wide range of photo based printed material, their focus soon began to shift after the U.S. Congress authorized the use of Private Mailing Cards in 1898. While restrictive, these set rules gave publishers the needed confidence that their cards would go through the mail without problems. Emphasis on production now followed public demand, and as more commercial contracts began coming in, the manufacturing of postcards became their primary mission. While they were producing cards from their huge inventory of negatives, most of these dated back many years and sometimes even decades. They remained suitable when presenting the uncorrupted west but more urban environments needed to be updated. Jackson headed out on the road again bringing back images from southern California, Boston, Washington D.C. and Virginia. When Husher retired in 1903 Jackson finally settled down and took over his role as plant manager. New images would now have to come from other sources. Soon after both firms, which were already sharing the same space and staff were merged into the Detroit Publishing Company.
Jackson was heavily involved in the preparation the master photograph from which both color scheme and cropping would be determined. Since all the photos were shot in black & white, Jackson had to dig deep into his memory to provide the appropriate hues. He also had to give careful consideration toward cropping his large-format negatives since they were contact printed to the substrate producing much smaller postcards. Even with all this care many of his large-format images suffered when translated down to postcard scale. While Jackson was no doubt attentive to these duties, one has to wonder if they were even relevant. Changes are inevitable when printing plates are remade for a new press run, but the differences found on many Detroit cards seem to go far beyond what technical problems might dictate. It can only be assumed that the wide variations found on Detroit cards were purposeful, that they were more than willing to sacrifice accuracy in order to create a different image that might bring in more sales. Postcards may have been a new medium for Jackson, but after years of promoting his work he adapted quickly to their market potential.
Except for some notable contract sets by the likes of A.S. Burbank, Marshall Gardner, and Fred Harvey the postcards issued by Detroit are devoid of photo credits. Even the name of Jackson’s own son Clarence, who would provide negatives to the company after moving to Brooklyn, is never seen. While most of their 17,000 printed cards are attributed to the negatives of the elder Jackson, it is likely he only shot about half of them himself. Despite this Detroit’s postcards are noted for their consistency. Even with their geographical diversity they still create a unifying vision of America because they are presented in a conservative way that relates directly to widely shared values propped up by myth. They buck the trends found in more artistic photography of the day in order to present views that are not only easily assessable but ones that most viewers wanted to access. None of this was by accident. Even after Jackson stopped supplying new photos his supervising role over production ensured that the modern world presented to the public was encased in the familiar narrative that formed the foundation of society. These cards provided a safe haven for those upset by the incessant pace of change surrounding them, which was the formula to their success. Through them the west would always remain a regenerative transcendental landscape regardless of modern realities.
Even when photographing people, Jackson essentially remains a landscape photographer. It is the spirit within the land that unifies us and is thus the primary subject of his work. As a businessman he has always modified this vision to satisfy client needs but in its essence it remains unchanged. Even during World War One in the midst of patriotic and propaganda cards highly loaded with emotional cues, the military cards issued by Detroit seem sedate by contrast. These cards cannot rid themselves from mythic associations with the land. Jackson had seen the contradictions between our spiritual attitudes toward nature and our actual exploitation of the land way back in the 1870’s, but he also understood that the west could represent the perpetual frontier, a land of never ending hope and optimism. Many have abused and cheapened this story for quick gains but its power remains with us because it is all of us.
Phostints, often characterized as the Cadillac of postcards were eventually done in by their own quality. On average they took ten separate plates to produce and could not compete with a printing industry that had almost entirely switched to cheaper methods of production. After the Detroit Publishing Company went into bankruptcy in 1924, Jackson moved to Washington D.C. and would spend his last years painting mythic scenes from a western myth he helped create. Do to artistic license his painted work incorporated more narrative than his photos ever could but these western themes were already relegating him to the marginalized world of a regional artist. This type of work however proved suitable for the murals he painted as part of President Roosevelt’s Work Progress Administration, depicting events that took place long ago during his previous federal employment with the U.S. Geological Survey. Despite his newfound life as a painter, Jackson had not completely given up on photography. In the years leading up to his death in 1942 at the age of 99, he was shooting with Kodachrome on his 35mm Kodak pocket Retina.
While few today remember Jackson his legacy lives on beyond him because it is firmly rooted in the American Identity. Even if thousands of Detroit cards do not bare his name or even if we just give them a passing glance, he has had an affect on the way we all see. I find myself attracted to Phostint cards made well before I was ever born because of a passed down aesthetic rooted in myth. He does not cross my mind when I head out with my camera nor do I consider him an influence on my work, but I too do not approach photography from a vacuum either. The countless photos taken by Jackson and those images later influenced by him form the backdrop upon which I grew up. They have molded my visual vocabulary more than any of my schooling. Many artistic movements of the 20th century have quickly come and gone for they are based on ideas without resonance that can easily change and be discarded at whim. Myths on the other hand are slow to fade from public consciousness for they can only disappear when we cease having a need for them. My own work tends to have more immediacy and grit, but sometimes when I climb onto a mountaintop overlooking a broad panorama I find that I am W.H. Jackson.
Do Your Shopping Now! ! !
I already knew that the winter holiday season had been overly commercialized for some time, but I was especially disturbed this past year at the blatant consumerism I’ve seen ever since Black Friday weekend, formally know as Thanksgiving. While I know that some businesses are hurting, there seemed to be no meaning to the holidays other than the bottom line of retailers. Yet despite this endless boosterism it seems it was employees who were chastised the most as being greedy for wanting to spend time with their families on a significant holiday.
The Consumers League of New York (now the National Consumer’s League), founded in 1891, has long fought for legislation supporting worker safety and fair employment practices, not to mention supporting the struggles for the eight hour work day, minimum wages, and child labor laws. The popularity of postcards at the turn of the 20th century caught their attention and they began to employ therm to get their messages out to the public. The card below dates from 1907 but the message on its back seems timeless.
DO YOU KNOW what fatigue and exhaustion Christmas shopping means to the workers in factories and stores? ARE YOU WILLING to make a mockery of the holiday season for thousands of men, women, and children? YOU CAN LESSEN THE BURDEN BY DOING YOUR CHRISTMAS SHOPPING BEFORE DECEMBER 15TH. Will You Not Begin To Do Your Shopping Now?