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Blog Archive 23
WARNING: Some of the content to be found in this section, including the archives deals with topics of a violent or sexual nature in both pictures and text, and is meant for a mature audience. If you feel you may be offended by such content you should leave this page now.
ARCHIVESTable of Contents
22. Feb 2018 - Dec 2018
21. Sept 2017 - Jan 2018
20. Mar 2017 - Aug 2017
19. Aug 2016 - Feb 2017
18. Aug 2015 - June 2016
17. Jan 2015 - June 2015
16. July 2014 - Dec 2014
15. Jan 2014 - June 2014
14. July 2013 - Dec 2013
13. Jan 2013 - June 2013
12. July 2012 - Dec 2012
11. Jan 2012 - June 2012
10. July 2011 - Dec 2011
9. Jan 2011 - June 2011
8. July 2010 - Dec 2010
7. Jan 2010 - June 2010
6. July 2009 - Dec 2009
5. Jan 2009 - June 2009
4. July 2008 - Dec 2008
3. Jan 2008 - June 2008
2. July 2007 - Dec 2007
1. Aug 2006 - June 2007
To keep the blog page a reasonable length the articles found within will be archived approximately every six months. To access older content, click the links on the left side of this page.
I have heard it said that history is not the past but the way we organize our ignorance of the past. This seems the rule of thumb when discussing postcards. While their history is not ancient, there is so little record of their production that we have little beyond the cards that have made there way down to us to glean information from. So we speculate. We are forced to make educated inferences based on what little we do know. When it turns out what we think we know is wrong, then our conclusions stray even further from the truth. Back in 1944, when Clarence Brazer first began writing about early American postal cards in The Essay Proofs Journal, he had little evidence to draw on. Though clumsy, his story behind Lipman’s Postal Card seemed reasonable enough to be embraced by nearly every postcard history that followed, including this website, since there was no alternative narrative to even consider. Although I was always uncomfortable with a story line that seemed awkwardly squeezed into surrounding events, I assumed it was true if only because it was accepted for sixty years. I have to thank Robert Toal for offering me a new perspective. I find his extensive research into this matter based on new evidence very persuasive; enough to cause me to revise the postcard timeline on this website’s history page. These insights however deserve more than to blend in as corrections, so I present his basic argument here as news. While we both agree that not all questions have been answered, this revision of the Lipman card timeline seems far more reasonable than what has been accepted up to this point.
The first thing to consider is the initial date of publication for Lipman’s Postal Card, which is commonly recognized as 1861. Although this date seems firmly assured since his first cards have COPY-RIGHT SECURED 1861 printed right on them, there is no record of this product in the ledgers of the US Patent Office. What we do have is a 1861 copyright date for the Safeguard Envelope designed by JP Charlton. While it has long been assumed that Charlton and Lipman were in business together, there is no evidence to prove this. In fact, advertisements from this time indicate they were involved with separate enterprises in different locations. There is however a connection; Charlton worked for Lipman years earlier, and Lipman used this old relationship to secure Charlton’s permission to use his old copyrighted format on this new card. The copyright was not for the card itself but the format of using address lines and a stamp box as originally found on Safeguard Envelopes. While Lipman applied for a patent on his postal card, he was never granted one.
What seemed to make the Lipman card possible in 1861 was the passing of a new postal act by Congress on February 27 that authorized the use of mailing cards. The eruption of civil war just a couple moths later is generally cited as the reason no one was able to begin producing postcards but this conclusion may not be as reasonable as it seems. It was the outbreak of the Franco-Prussian War in 1870 that provided the impetus for Prussia to finally institute use of correspondence cards so soldier’s had an easy and inexpensive way to write home. While the Prussian example proves nothing, it does show that the American Civil War did not necessarily have to have a negative impact on card production. If we turn back to the exact wording of the 1861 Law, we find it provides us with intent that is somewhat vague. Adding to the confusion is the use of certain terms whose meaning has changed over time. A more accurate interpretation of this Law would seem to indicate that it has nothing to do with authorizing the mailing of individual cards. It was meant to reduce the postal rate for shopping card stock in bulk no matter what it was used for.
The idea for a postcard did not suddenly pop into an inventor’s head who then made it real, the concept was brewing in many nations for years, generating supporters and detractors alike. It was not the need for a card that could be mailed at a lower rate that was in question; what largely held back implementation was the fear this would lead to a loss of revenue. Adding to this trepidation were concerns that the public would not accept sending an open message through the mail that anyone could read. Printing cards in this new format could turn into an expensive mistake if they did not sell. While important proponents like Dr. Emanuel Herrmann helped bring about the correspondence card in Austria in 1869, doubts continued to linger in the United States. When a postal card bill was introduced to Congress in 1870, privacy issues led to its defeat. Afterwards, the pledge to reintroduce the bill in 1871 inspired at least eighteen private entrepreneurs to come up with their own solutions. Notable is the Condon Card that was printed in two types, both copyrighted in 1871 by Morris G. Condon. Only a few exist and none are known to have been used. Charles Rowland then patented a closed style card in August 1871. It came with paper flaps that were folded over the message inscribed on cardboard. The patent for this card was passed on to the American Post Card Company but the card was kept out of circulation for many years because its bulk required it to be mailed at the three cent letter rate, which defeated its purpose. In August 1872, Sumner Whitney & Co. issued an open postal card, but the few copies made were not sold, they were only used for self-promotion.
After the postcard bill was reintroduced in Congress in December 1871, a closed version was passed by the House after much debate but the format was then changed to an open style when the bill reached the Senate. It was left to the Postmaster General to make the final decision, and being impressed with the success of the correspondence card in Europe chose the open style. The bill was then signed into law by President Grant on June 8, 1872. Standing in the wings was Hymen Lipman, eager to exploit the new one cent postal rate for private cards. Lipman’s Postal Card was introduced only eleven days later. They did not prove popular and none are known to have been used. This might have been the end of his venture except Congress failed to appropriate funds for the design and printing of its own government postals. This reprieve gave Lipman time to reissued a new card made in three colors with a better design. After being introduced on May 28, 1872, they began to be purchased for advertising. When the US Postal Service began issuing its own postals with preprinted postage in May 12, 1873, the Lipman card and similar forerunners all became obsolete. Although some continued to sell, only government issued cards were allowed to use the term Postal Card, a regulation strictly enforced by the 1890’s.
The Lipman card issued May 28, 1872, that carried an ad for the very same cards is most likely the first authorized use of a postal within the United States. So why is there a Lipman card sent by Nicholson & Bro. dating back to October 24, 1870, posted from Richmond, Indiana? This has long been accepted as the earliest Lipman card but it does not fit in with the known timeline of Lipman’s business or official postal regulations. What does exist is a postmark that only reveals the month and day it was sent, the year is supplied in handwriting on its back, which could easily be an error. Supporting evidence of this early date either proves inconclusive or it favors 1872. As it stands, both dates are assumptions based on limited evidence. From what is now known I would say that the 1872 date simply makes the most sense. This is the truth for today.
For those interested in this topic, a deeper and broader explanation of this detective story is provided by Robert L. Toal in his new book, The Lipman Postal Card: Forerunner from Philadelphia, published by United Postal Stationery Society. There you will find a more detailed explanation of how these conclusions were drawn and from what evidence they are based on.
From Postblatt to Fieldpost
We like our history concise and wrapped up in a definitive before and after like quotation marks. The problem is facts bleed through artificial constraints. It is often difficult to point out a single cause for anything. Postcard history is like that, it is not difficult to find dates when regulations were instituted and laws authorized, but we have trouble understanding the impetus behind them. Nothing comes out of nowhere and a myopic point of view will only lead to limited understanding. While this year is said to mark the 150th anniversary of the postcard, when the Austrian Postal Service issued its first postblatt on October 1, 1869, its arrival was not so much a sudden birth as a manifestation of a slow evolution.
There was a perfect storm gathering by the middle of the 19th century where the industrial manufacturing of cheap paper, the introduction of lithography, large volume presses, and increasing literacy rates all met up. This caused a boom in newspaper and book publishing, but there was also an increase in written correspondence that forced the postal service in many nations to initiate reforms that would increase efficiency. This was not a case of demand following supply. Not only were more people literate, there was a growing need for people to correspond. Businesses were spreading out beyond a single town. People were migrating, not just from farms to cities but to new continents. Bureaucrats and soldiers were dispatched all over the globe to rule colonial empires. People fled across borders in search of economic opportunity denied them at home or because of political unrest. This great Diaspora created a desperate need for loved ones to stay in contact.
The growth of the middle-class was an essential element in the evolution of postcards. They are the link between demand and the ability to satisfy demand by having enough disposable income to become customers of picture postcards. While this is certainly true, it somewhat obscures the fact that the first simple postals were initiated as an inexpensive method of correspondence. Their arrival was greatly influenced by the way armies were organized in the 19th century, and yet most military historians fail to cover such mundane subjects possibly believing they only exist on the peripheries of importance. Other historians seem to have a bias against anything related to the military. They will mention facts too important to overlook, but the rest is simply ignored as if it belongs to another world. In a sense it does. There is an ever widening divide between military and civilian life due to perceived differences in agenda. I believe this in turn has had a negative effect on the perspective through which history is now written. This same trend can be seen in the way we refuse to acknowledge those different from us in this divided nation. My intention is neither to remedy our social ills nor to glorify the military, only point out an interesting thread of postcard history that has largely been overlooked.
This story begins during the French Revolution after the kingdoms of Europe began forming coalitions to rid themselves of this republican menace. France once had a sizable army that it could rely on for defense, but its officers had largely been purged by the new Republic fearful of their continuing loyalty to the old monarchy. The solution for this overwhelming threat was devised by Deputy Jean-Baptiste Jourdan and Pierre Delbrel who drafted a law on September 5, 1798, requiring all single and childless men between the ages of 20 and 25 to defend the ideals of the revolution. Although this new citizen army had a shaky start, it eventually proved itself a match for its enemies. When organized into the Grande Armée under the command of Napoleon Bonaparte it managed to crush the professional army of Prussia in 1806. Napoleon’s triumphal entrance into Berlin was a great humiliation, one that Prussians never forgot. After military reforms were made under Gerhard von Scharnhorst, a newly trained Prussian Army was eventually raised through conscription on the French model, which first liberated Prussia and then helped to defeat Napoleon. The army came to be seen as the savior of Prussia and a necessity to secure its independence. As such it assumed an increasing role in the formation of German national identity.
Once the Napoleonic wars ended and a more reactionary government took hold in Prussia, opposition to universal conscription grew. The idea was too democratic for many who perceived the military in terms of an elite and the status membership bestowed. There were also concerns over training men in the art of war who might be less than loyal to the king, and so conscription was never as universal as conceived. Conservatives had many reasons to rid Prussia of conscripts but the nature of war had changed. They could no longer being solely fought by small professional armies. Entire nations had to be mobilized when facing similarly mobilized enemies. Only some form of universal military service could insure the kingdom’s security.
Large armies had become a requirement to fight a successful war but they were not sustainable when conflicts were not eminent. The expense of constant mobilization could not even be supported by the wealthiest empire. Men were also needed to tend to their shops as well as their fields to prevent economic collapse. Eventually a workable system of universal service (Krümpersystem) was institutionalized in Prussia. Eligible young men would be called up for short term military training, which would be followed by many more years in the reserves. Other nations seeing value in this system also adopted short-term compulsory service. It was however more difficult to imbue a sense of purpose when not at war. For many young men it was a real adventure, their first time away from home and routine chores. Many more found it difficult being away from the support of their family and morale suffered as a result. Letter writing was encouraged to raise spirits but the cost was burdensome for many recruits.
Sympathetic to the plight of recruits was Dr. Emanuel Herrmann, an Austrian professor of political economy at the Wiener-Neustadt Military Academy. He had first hand knowledge of how difficult it was for soldiers and those back home to communicate and the ills that rose from isolation. Taking up their cause he became a tireless campaigner for a less expensive method of communication, but few took interest in the well being of conscripts and his arguments largely fell on deaf ears. The 1860’s however were a time when the increased use of the postal service necessitated reforms in every nation if service was to be kept efficient. Dr. Heinrich von Stephan, a Prussian postal official, was one of these reformers. His main task was to improve the efficiency between all the independent postal services that operated in each Federated German State. At the 1865 Austro-German Postal Conference in Karlsruhe, he introduced his idea for an official government issued card with a pre-printed stamp. Customers would not pay for the card, only the postage, which would be fixed at the lowest possible rate. Von Stephan felt that the time had come for such a card since the present form of the letter does not however yet allow of sufficient simplicity and brevity for a large class of communications. Postblatts were the next logical step in a long history of modifying the way letters were written.
While Von Stephans idea for an open postblatt was discussed by postal officials in detail, no formal action was taken. Even though his proposal was also meant to simplify the flow of mail through the North German Confederation, many had serious doubts that this same disorganized postal system could handle the change. The same old concerns over privacy and loss of revenue also fed inaction. It is unknown if Dr. Emanuel Herrmann was aware of this controversy in Prussia, but he continued pressing for very similar reforms in Austria. When an article voicing his ideas appeared in the Neue Freie Presse on January 26, 1869, it caught the attention of Postmaster General Baron von Maly who saw merit in them. With only a few alterations, Dr. Hermann’s suggestions were incorporated into new postal regulations by that September. On October 1, 1869, the first official Correspondenz-Karte was issued carrying a pre-printed yellow two-kruzer stamp.
The new correspondence card was an immediate success with nearly three million sold in the first three months of release. With the fear of revenue loss abated, other nations began to seriously consider the use of similar cards. A man who needed no convincing was Dr. Heinrich von Stephan who was the next to issue Austrian-type Correspondence Cards to the North German Confederation. While the public’s enthusiasm for Correspondence Cards was more overwhelming than anticipated, the real impetus for its use came with the outbreak of the Franco-Prussian War in July 1870. There was not only a vast amount of families in desperate need to communicate with their loved ones on the battlefront; postal cards became an important method of communication between military units spread over long distances. While these postal cards could be mailed for One-groschen (about a cent) a special Field Post Card was issued at this time at the reduced price of five cards per groschen for the exclusive use of soldiers serving at the battlefront
After Dr. Heinrich von Stephan became General Post Director of the newly united German Empire and concluded a postal union with Austria-Hungary, the continuing use of the correspondence card (Postcarte in Germany) was assured. What he could not anticipate was the entrepreneurship spirit of private publishers once restrictions on the exclusive use of government postals were lifted in 1872. What began solely as a means of efficient communication began being marketed anew as souvenir cards with pictorial content. The earliest of these new privately printed cards only had simple black & white vignettes added to them alongside ruled lines for the address. Their back’s were still left blank so a message could be written.
When publishers realized how much a demand there was for imagery, the picture became the message and a small blank space or tab was incorporated into the design so some correspondence could still be written. The other side was still reserved for the stamp and address. While we now refer to the picture side of a postcard as its front, it is actually its back. These small monochromatic vignettes quickly evolved into larger illustrations printed in chromolithography. Their entry was very sporadic at first. Cards introduced at the Chicago Columbian Exposition of 1893 were well received but the depression that followed curtailed serious exploitation of this market in the United States. The use of postcards became most popular in Germany, Bavaria, Saxony, Austria-Hungry and Switzerland, probably due to their large printing industry that utilized highly skilled artists and craftsmen. Most of these cards depicted views of towns, cities, and the countryside, all places that might attract tourists. Collectively referred to as Gruss aus cards (Greetings from) they dominated late 19th century postcard production and were still being made in the early 20th century.
As the market for postcards continued to increase, Gruss aus cards took on more elaborate forms. Target audiences other than tourists were sought out by publishers, the most obvious being those in military service. While both recruits and reservists continued to use plain postals in great number to reduce cost, they just like everyone else found pictorial cards more appealing than blank ones and succumbed to their growing popularity. If tourists were most interested in buying cards that depicted scenes they crossed paths with, then publishers suspected soldiers would most likely be interested in similar cards that related to their military experience. With the exception of view-cards depicting specific barracks and schools, most military themed cards were issued as generics. This saved publishers the trouble and expense of trying to accurately depict places while producing cards that could appeal to a wider audience.
Military cards may have proliferated in Germany but we must be careful what we read into this. Military traditions certainly garnered greater respect within their society because of the role the military played in establishing the Empire. The glorification of Germany’s armed forces was clearly manifest on a great deal of their postcards.They played a role in integrating the military into society as an important and even natural element of daily life. While the German situation is unique in regard to its history, we cannot overlook its prominence in lithographic printing. Interest in military postcards was widespread throughout many nations, which can be proven by the large numbers that were printed.
Military themed Gruss aus cards may have not been exclusively marketed to soldiers but they do seem to be their targeted audience. The Austrian Correspondence Karte pictured above from the 1890’s is labeled Soldaten Gruss. It is very typical of early cards that show generic scenes of soldiers who are most likely out on maneuver.
This German Gruss aus Postcarte postmarked 1901 is typical of the vignette style found on most Gruss aus view-cards. Also typical is its duel presentation of soldiers in complimentary roles, in this case cavalrymen on patrol, and soldiers at rest.
While the vast majority of German military Gruss aus cards were focused on the army, cards were also made for those serving in the navy. The smaller numbers do not reflect bias as much as the disproportionate number of men serving in each branch. While the warship above is on an early undivided card, its sails make it look even older than it is. All warships at this time were steam powered and armored but sailing vessels were kept in use for training; a tradition that lives on today.
The completely generic Gruss aus card eventually gave way to those representing more specific activities if not specific places. Perhaps the most popular were the Gruss von Der Musterung cards depicting young men called up for military service being examined by a board of commissioners to see if they are fit. Such matter of fact scenes may have captured the essence of being mustered, but they apparently did not engage enough customers because more elaborate variations of this theme followed. Even so, depictions of examinations became the most used trope to symbolize this event.
Many Gruss von Der Musterung cards were designed in the vignette style that could showcase various stages of passage from civilian to soldier. This German card emphasizes the different military branches available to serve in, which also makes it more inclusive to potential consumers. A portrait of the Kaiser has been added as a reminder that being mustered into service is not just an inconvenience but a duty to the emperor. Both of these features were fairly common on recruitment themed cards.
The navy also has its fair share of Gruss von Der Musterung cards. These were little different from those targeting those entering the army except for the uniforms and background of ships.
Before leaving home, many new recruits engaged in festive activities, and these are often featured on cards as this one from 1900. Sometimes a second image will be presented showing the same men being inducted into service. These types of before and after cards do more than try to allay the anxiety of departure, they say that the camaraderie found among friends at home will extend into military service. That which is most important will not change.
A very common element on Gruss von Der Musterung cards was the inclusion of women. While they were sometimes depicted as family saying their goodbyes, they are usually shown as young well wishers giving exuberant cheers. The implication is obvious, beautiful women are attracted to men who do their duty. Even if many young men found leaving their mundane home life an adventure, parting with family for the unknown was also difficult. This early use of sex in advertising was meant to help overcome any reluctance a man might have to being mustered into service.
On some cards depicting recruits, adoring women just form the backdrop. On other cards the message is made clearer; women prefer a man in uniform. This was a powerful trope that was used extensively on military cards published through the First World War.
Cards that depicted women being mustered into military service were also very popular. Women, of course were not allowed to serve in the military at this time, which is why these cards were meant to be humorous. Their appeal lies in their social transgression and a sense of voyeurism. On the card above there is even a man peeking from behind a screen. These cards obviously have a sexual edge, even though they look tame by today’s standards.
These comic mustering cards do not suggest a role for women in the military. If anything they are reactionary to the growing power of Suffragists and other women’s groups advocating for more rights. This one showing women on the move pokes fun at their abilities as they are mustered into the home guard. Presented in a typical vignette format, we given the narrative that they are all bravado and are incapable of doing anything worthwhile with the freedom they crave. While these comic cards take on the look of military cards, they are really about the debate for women’s rights being argued in the civilian arena.
Other types of specifically themed military cards were produced such as the German Gruss aus der Garnison card above postmarked in 1899. These cards targeted regular troops that served at border posts or as part of fortresses garrisons. Typically depicted were sentries. Even though a tedious boring duty, they are always shown vigilant, keeping the Empire safe. Even in peacetime soldiers make a sacrifice by simply serving.
Generic Gruss aus cards had become very popular in the late 1890&rsquo:s; many produced as hollowed out pine cones, oak leaves and four leaf clovers into which varied views could be inserted in a second printing. This 1901 card by Bruno Berger & Ottillie takes up this common format, not to present view but different stages of recruitment as young men make their way to a garrison post. This is also a very early example of a fill in card, a format that became more common during the Great War and the years that followed.
While many Gruss aus Garrison cards were generic, some resemble traditional Gruss aus view-cards made for tourists like the 1902 card from Ossenburg above. Perhaps the target audience here was not the garrison but friends and family who came to visit. It should also be remembered that while solders primarily sought the least expensive way to correspond, they were also inclined to purchase more expensive cards for special occasions and as mementoes.
This article consist of five parts; click on the links below to continue reading.Postblatt to Fieldpost part 2
Postblatt to Fieldpost part 3
Postblatt to Fieldpost part 4
Postblatt to Fieldpost part 5
Tuck at The Newberry
Since 1887, The Newberry has collected research and reference materials with a focus on the humanities. As part of this ongoing effort they have assembled postcards from the likes of Curt Teich and the Detroit Publishing Company. They hold the largest public collection of postcards and related materials in the United States. Thanks to a large donation of postcards by Leonard A. Lauder, their collection now includes the Oilettes produced by Raphael Tuck & Sons. Tuck, a pioneer of British postcards, began producing Oilettes in 1903. Although this series largely reproduced oil paintings of views by the artists that worked for them, many graphic works on a wide variety of subjects were also included. More than 26,000 of these cards have just been posted online at The Newberry website:
While I find the site a bit difficult to navigate, it remains an invaluable resource for all those interested in postcards. This is a comprehensive collection of high quality images showing both the front and back of each card, sometimes with variations. Tuck unfortunately is a highly problematic publisher when it comes to dating. Cards were not numbered in a consistent order and records that might have deciphered some of this concussion were destroyed in an air raid during the Second World War. This makes it difficult to organize cards in the most meaningful manner but the website does have a search engine to pick out topics and places.
Where Lines are Drawn
When we look at a line drawing, we are able to read space and the objects within it despite its abstract qualities. It does not matter if the lines only follow contours because our eyes are accustomed to making judgements based on contrast. This can easily be seen in silhouettes where a person is made recognizable without providing any detail outside of a sharp accurate outline. This is a trick of the mind, which affects all vision. Before we can begin to ponder an image reflected into the eye it must first pass through the amygdala, a part of the brain where it is filtered through memories of all past experiences. What we end up seeing is more a personal interpretation than reality. While this process may seem detrimental, the actually serves a beneficial purpose. Without having to decipher every facet of life that passes through our eyes, we can make quicker judgements. The ability to do so judiciously can be a matter of life and death. For most creatures there is no downside to being too cautious. When a dog barks at a snowman it mistakes for a threat, only a little energy is wasted. People on the other hand live in two realities, one of which is of their own making. We will easily expend a great deal of energy to conform to ideas that exist solely in our heads. We will go so far as to hurt and kill others and even ourselves over delusions for it is our perception of reality that shapes the world.
A basic truth if there ever was one is that people believe their own perceptions of the world are the definition of normal. It is everyone else who holds a different viewpoint that is biased. If only others could see things as they do and approach issues with neutrality then everything would be perfect. Some believe that it only takes instructing others in the facts to bring their views into line, not realizing that facts like our perceptions are bent and distorted by the ideas we already hold. When Galileo had clerics look through his telescope, they could not see the moons revolving around Jupiter that he saw. That was a reality that did not exist for them. It was Galileo that was ultimately accused and found guilty of heresy and forced to recant his work. The stories we tell are just as important as reality for they become the reality we live by. They can evolve over time but they are hard to completely discard. While scientific thought has replaced superstition in the minds of many, there continue to be others that refuse to believe in it. In most cases, people are able to live in two worlds, believing in multiple realities while ignoring the contradictions.
The United States was born out of multiple realities since the thirteen English colonies were founded on differing principals. Once the colonists found themselves in the far off lands of America, the rule of monarchy that had bound them together began losing its influence. Uniting all under one constitution was not just a monumental task, the ability to compromise to accommodate all points of view stands as a monument to the minds of the day. Each member of the Continental Congress arrived with their own biases, a reality that they sought to promote. In the end they realized there was no going forward without finding a way to accept the differences between them. This became the great experiment of the United States of America. It was known from the start that it would not run smoothly. Though based on high ideals, it was still subject to the flaws of man and the different realities we hold. This is symbolized on the back of the Great Seal of the United States by a pyramid topped by the Eye of Providence. The godhead representing our ideals sits at the very point where there are no divisions. The rest of us live our lives below, struggling to ascend, but this is the world where the pyramid has sides, a reality we cannot ignore. The argument should not be whether America is great or not but a recognition that as a nation our striving for greatness is the perpetual struggle that we are called to face.
Divisions over politics and religion loom large over American history. Few arguments have been as divisive as those over race. It does not matter that genetic researchers now say that there is no such thing, that the concept of race is just a human construct; it continues to sit as a reality in most people’s minds because it has been part of the American story from the very start. Divisiveness has always been the enemy of the American experiment. It has not just hampered enactment of cohesive policies, it has led to a bloody civil war. What best united people is story, and unfortunately our nation grew while following two diverse story lines. The American Civil War was not fought so bitterly over an economic model as some now claim, it was whether the idea of White supremacy had any place in a land founded on high ideals. The military defeat of the Confederacy ended the war and freed our slaves but it did not secure an answer to this question. Southerners fought on in different ways to make sure their way of life, their reality did not change. The failure of Reconstruction is perhaps America’s greatest tragedy. Not only was it a lost chance for national redemption, it ensured that our worst angels would continue to subvert the promise of America. While concerted efforts were directly made to suppress the political and economic power of newly freed slaves, the more important aspect of this new war was to control public opinion. Even though violence and terror could always be inflicted on black communities, it was a losing battle unless racial bias in the general population could be maintained. This became essential by the 1890’s when serious efforts to form a populist political movement of poor whites and blacks that shared class interests began to take shape.
The 1890’s also saw the commercial interests of the powerful railroad industry begin to coincide with efforts to shape the American story. By promoting National Tourism, they both increased their customer base and furthered story lines that the nation could rally behind after a bitter civil war. This unifying effort to create good citizens became part of their mission. Unfortunately, since few people of color took on the role of tourist, there was no need to include them in their promotions even when they played important roles in American history. The defining story of America came to be told through two myths, one following the birth of democratic principles in New England and the other revolving around the pioneer spirit found in Western expansion. Even though many blacks shared this history, they found themselves excluded from the national narrative.
Efforts to create a national myth also excluded the story of the Lower United States. Race was still a controversial issue and it was easier to bury the history of slavery than acknowledge uncomfortable contradictions in the land of the free. Once the Reconstruction Era ended, there were no official institutions left to represent the interests of freed slaves. This vacuum did not go by unnoticed; it not only led to the enactment of Jim Crow laws, it encouraged many Southerners to begin rewriting their own history, presenting their racist ideals in terms of a noble cause. This spirit of resistance can be found on many postcards issued for Confederate Memorial Day. It was all meant to insure that the New South looked little different from the old. The proliferation of this material is still working to distort our understanding of history.
One of the best ways to influence a society is through popular culture. People are generally resistant to paradigm shifts but they will slowly assimilate what becomes familiar without ever realizing the change. There was no shortage of overt racist imagery produced but this always posed the problem of being seen for what it is and generating outrage among the less sympathetic in turn. It was much more effective if hidden in something that seems benign where it can just become the background to which we live. These subtle methods were integrated into entertainment, literature, advertising and on popular printed imagery such as postcards. It is a mistake to believe old postcards were meant to depict the way we live; they better to show how we define others and ourselves. While they may not have been specifically produced as propaganda, they became popular in part because they reinforced the existing paradigms that society lived by. They helped to alleviate any doubts that racism might be wrong.
When postcards became an important part of popular culture at the turn of the 20th century, they became a mechanism that naturally reinforced this long told story of inferior races. As an item that had to be purchased they needed to appeal to their customers sense of societal order. They helped to create an insulating bubble from which other people and places could be viewed without ever having to leave the comfort of familiar beliefs and habits. While there were many niche audiences that required more unusual imagery to fill, most publishers catered to the white middle-class because they had the most money to spend. Postcards, being a small pictorial medium, had limited means of communication. Illustrators generally came up with a series of tropes to quickly convey a message that did not require much thought. This is the same formula used on greeting cards that tend to play on sentimentality. Though only a small scrap of paper, a postcard could convey a powerful message through it constant repetition until there was no doubting the reality it portrayed. While specifics always remained in flux to follow taste, there was a constant overriding message; people of color were inferior to whites. In Europe these same attitudes were expressed on postcards that commonly depicted Types. Racism after all is the backbone of all imperialist empires.
Perhaps the most common racist trope is that of the black minstrel, which predates the Civil War. It is said to have originated in 1828 when Thomas Dartmouth Daddy Rice took on the semblance of the trickster figure Jim Crow while performing a song-and-dance routine wearing blackface. By the 1840’s, minstrel shows had evolved into a popular and more complex art form that included a wider variety of instruments beyond the banjo and comical skits in an exaggerated plantation dialect. If the origins of these shows were purely for entertainment, it did not take long for them to be incorporated in the struggle to counter the abolitionist movement. They became essential in creating the stereotype of the happy content slave, free of the responsibilities of the outside world that they were not capable of facing. This same caricature continued to be promoted after the Civil War, only now blacks were depicted as unable to handle their newfound freedom, longing for the safe harbor that slavery once provided. Free or not, all blacks had to be shown to be the inferior of whites to rationalize white supremacy.
Even though the popularity of minstrel shows steadily declined after 1870, the tropes it created remained firmly imbedded within American culture. If troupes no longer filled stages, the image of the black minstrel could still be generously found in illustration and advertising. They became a common sight on trade cards even when the stereotype had little to do with the product or service being promoted. It had just become another piece of Americana, a benign representation of a social reality for which no deep thought was required to interpret. This complacent acceptance would continue as depictions of minstrels moved on to postcards, then movies and television. While the image if the minstrel has largely faded from the public conscious, the idea that blacks are inherently suited to be entertainers continues.
Minstrels on postcards primarily came in two forms. One was the tradition highly energized entertainer dressed in tattered clothing to confirm his inferior social status. The second was a seemingly more benign presentation, still cheerful, but with little to no effort given to confer social standing. What is difficult to know is the reasoning behind this difference. Was this a real effort by some publishers to present blacks in a better light or was the stereotype so ingrained that the exact presentation no longer mattered? Variations on this theme could be made to entice more sales without ever having to worry about interpretation. No one was deciphering the symbolism or references within the illustration; everyone already knew what a minstrel stood for.
This same problem arises with how to interpret cakewalk postcards. This dance had its origins in plantation life where blacks would mock the formal dance moves of their white masters. This was tolerated as a form of sanctioned rebellion, a safe release of pent up frustrations in the same tradition as when the slaves of ancient Rome were allowed to mock their masters during the festival of Saturnalia. The celebration of Saturnalia seems to have evolved into the custom of Misrule in England, which was carried out during Easter, Mayday, Whitsunday, Midsummer’s Eve, and especially on Twelfth Night. Early settlers to America would have been familiar with the wild dancing of these festivities. Even if this tradition was the inspiration, it was driven out of polite society by the Puritan values. How southern slaves behaved was an entirely different matter. Cakewalk competitions undoubtedly led to even more exaggerated moves until it became a parody of itself. This dance was popularized by minstrel shows; part of their walkaround as they came out on stage. Once its origins were forgotten, it could be promoted as an authentic negro dance, one that now mock blacks. Eventually tied to Ragtime music, the popularity of both rose together until they became a craze at the turn of the 20th century. By that time, there was little consensus left over the dance’s meaning. While some blacks considered it a degrading relic from the past, others continued to perform it during their own celebrations. Unlike the trope of the minstrel, the cakewalk took on a life of its own.
The cakewalk phenomena showed up on postcards in all sorts of manifestations. From a dance of minstrels, it became a dance of whites, world leaders, and even anthropomorphic animals. The popularity of Minstrel acts overseas expanded the craze, causing the cakewalk to be reproduced on more postcards. While many of these cards depicted the performers of stage acts, the dance can also be found in political cartoons. The question is, can imagery drift far enough away from its origins to lose its racial content? The answer is not so simple. At some point the message these cards were trying to get across had nothing to do with race. It only required the recognition of the cakewalk craze, not what the dance originally represented. The unbridled abandon found in the dance was once be used polite society to look down on the primitive nature inherent in black people, but as mores loosened, such behavior grew more acceptable, at least to rebellious whites. We can see a similar scenario repeated when so called jungle music evolved into rock-n-roll. Such transitions are never smooth and rarely are they ever complete. There is always the danger of racial symbolism being revived by detractors because it is impossible to fully erase once it becomes part of a society’s psyche.
Once the cakewalk began loosing its association with the black community, it lost its effectiveness as a racist trope. This allowed newer dances to replace it as musical tastes moved on and it was largely forgotten after World War One. Minstrel shows also fell out of favor at this time, though remnants still lived on in vaudeville theater. Many cards were produced promoting such shows and performers. Even as a small part of the entertainment scene, they did much to solidify the tradition of blackface by keeping it comfortably familiar. This allowed for its easy inclusion into more mainstream theater and film. It was not until the 1960’s with the growth of the civil rights movement that the use of blackface began to be seriously questioned.
Despite the widespread condemnation that eventually came down on blackface, we have not seen its demise. To place the blame on those who overtly use it to express their bigotry is a vast oversimplification. Over time people continue using these tropes, not necessarily out of bias, but just because they are part of a familiar world. While their demise from popular culture is resisted by those who refuse to give up their hateful beliefs, there is also resistance from those who just don’t like change. Rarely will this latter group see themselves as racist because the racist tropes they embrace has passed into a broader cultural reference they identify with. Being asked to give it up seems like a personal attack on their own heritage. Over-saturation has dulled their capacity to see its harm. To complain is often like accusing a fish of being wet, they don’t understand, they seem unable to comprehend. To live so unaware of racial bigotry and its consequences is a consequence of privilege. Only those of privilege can afford to see it as a joke for they never suffered adverse consequences from the social structure it is meant to uphold. We have seen the extent of this problem in the recent controversy concerning the Governor and Attorney General of Virginia who both admitted to wearing blackface, apologized for the misdeed, but still appeared clueless.
There were other common racial troupes promoted on postcards that still remain with us. One is the lazy black whose hardest choice in life seem to be whether to steal a chicken or a watermelon. The original association of blacks and watermelon was to represent their newfound freedom after the Civil War. Growing and selling this fruit became an important means to secure independence from those who sought to draw them back into exploitive plantation life. Older negative tropes however would be brought into play to associate blacks with unclean and lazy behavior. They are presented as if an ethnographical study, the same way as other cards of foreign Types are shown eating traditional meals. Whether in Africa or the United States, blacks were shown to be children unfit for freedom. It must be noted that whites are never presented in this fashion. Their habits do not have to be scrutinized for they are understood as being normal. The problem here is not that black people do not like eating watermelon, it is that it is a stereotype used to define them. When boundaries are drawn, it limits our perceptions and the true achievements of blacks can then be easily ignored or even denied.
White people are almost never shown eating watermelon on postcards because it is a trope reserved for blacks. There are however such images to be found on real photo postcards because the photographer was only interested in capturing the fun to be had with a sweet messy meal. When there was no mass audience to cater to, common expectations did not have to be met and freedom could be found. Even so, when I look at such cards today, it is difficult to see them for what they are. White children eating watermelon seems an aberration. My first reaction is to see them as the opposite of what I expect. It requires an act of translation. It does not matter what the intentions of photographers were or that the stereotype holds no meaning to me, there is no escaping context that is so deeply imbedded in a society. The negative association of black people with watermelon has become one of America’s most enduring tropes.
Unwittingly or not, many postcard publishers helped to carry racist ideas forward by depicting racist tropes. It is not always easy to assign motive as the message is not always clear or consistent. The Detroit publishing Company is a good example of a firm that produced countless pictures of watermelon eaters, gamblers and cotton pickers on their coon cards while also publishing some beautiful images depicting blacks that are seemingly no way disrespectful. These kinder portrayals however are not all that they first seem to be. A respectable looking portrait may still demean through titles like Playing Hookey, I’se Born Tired or I Wasn’t Born to Labor. Sometimes it is not the title but the dialect they are written in. Ever since George Dixon introduced the stage character of Zip Coon to minstrel shows in the 1830’s, performers in blackface where expected to talk in an ignorant manner that betrayed their attempts to act civilized. Even blacks who took part in minstrel shows had to present themselves as coons to better fit into the caricature they portrayed. The idea that blacks might have any dignity or value to society was unacceptable to the white audiences they performed for, and this belief was then adopted by most postcard publishers who largely sold to whites.
One of the most common of these gentile stereotypes was that of the nurturing and wise mammy. Her basic appeal is derived from the inherent traits found in the mother archetype. While on the surface she might seem to be a positive role model, the caricature is meant to confine black women to this limited role. Originally used to present the contentment of plantation slaves, it later worked to show that black women were best suited for menial domestic work. Such stereotypes have real consequences. Not only were black women funneled into these types of jobs for lack of other opportunities, their preponderance in them is what exempted this form of work from minimum wage laws. While there have been recent efforts to spruce up mammy with less racist connotations, this trope remains in use.
Some caricatures of black men were more slippery like that of Uncle Tom. Based on the title character from Harriet Beecher Stowe’s, Uncle Tom’s Cabin, he displays the gentile traits of honesty, sobriety and faith. While these are also traits that society embraces, and they were shown as such in the novel, they take on additional overtones once the character became a stereotype. He does not behave well by choice for this requires high moral thought. Instead h his goodness is derived from his innocence; he is a perfect example of the noble savage envisioned by romantics. Even though this makes him the type of nonthreatening black that white people can deal with, it also imbues him with a simple-minded naivety that limits his prospects. Like mammy, Uncle Tom became a favorite of advertisers. They could both uphold the existing racial social order by stereotyping blacks, while at the same time presenting images that actually seemed kindly. Such tropes of course were made for a white audience. Blacks eventually came to use the term Uncle Tom as a derogatory epithet for those willingly cooperating with white oppression. Ironically, the stereotype was not well received in the South because of the novel&rsqio;s strong anti-slavery views.
While it may not be possible to find fault with an individual image, seen as a whole we only find depictions of poor rural blacks. Where are the doctors, the shopkeepers, the portraits of those that show blacks the equal of whites? That was a stretch too far for them to take a risk on. Postcards were a mass marketed product and publishers were first inclined to make a profit, not to change social norms. Many whites had no desire to see blacks degraded on postcards, but neither did they want to see them as their equals and publishers usually met these expectations regardless of personal feelings. Without knowing intent, it is difficult to attribute racist views to any particular publisher regardless of the cards he produced. It is however easy to say that few stood up to this injustice, finding it easier to just fit in and line their pockets.
Independent photo studios where even more inclined to meet the needs of their audience and often fine tuned their output accordingly. Unlike large publishers that tried to find the median consensus on any issue to pull in the most sales, a photographer had to work within the world view of his own community. This is where we find the rarest postcards today because they could represent extremes beliefs. The most obvious of these are real photo postcards that depict a lynching. This activity did not all take place in some remote wood in the dead of night. Lynching was often enacted as a festive public celebration that brought out many in a community. These circumstances ensured a large enough audience for a photographer to sell souvenirs to. While the many lynching cards produced suggest that these acts of terror were widely accepted by the larger community, the lack specific information on many of them as to where and when they took place suggests something else. One may feel safe within the confines of a mob, but that does not alleviate all guilt. Just like the Nazis who documented their activities at concentration camps and then destroyed this evidence on the approach of the enemy, unrepentant white supremacists put aside pride their ideology in fear of creating evidence to a crime. Although these cards were produced in higher numbers than we would like to imagine, the subject was never tackled by mainstream publishers for there were limits on what was considered acceptable.
While the black middle-class was not large at the turn of the 20th century, it did exist. This provided other opportunities for photographers if not publishing houses. These real photo postcards take a much different tone as they meet a different community’s needs. Most of this is studio work, portraits of those who came in for a sitting or stoped at a photographers booth at an amusement. Although these types of dignified images counterbalance mainstream representations of these times, they were produced for such an isolated audience that they had little effect on social change. Postcard publishers may have catered to commonly held beliefs only because they were thinking of their bottom line, but they did not exist in a vacuum. Those benefiting from the status quo never like to see change, and it remained important to them that the public did not believe anything could be different. There were many black artists and photographers that worked diligently to break these stereotypes, but they faced an uphill battle against those that controlled what the public was allowed to see and believe.
Not being able to understand how postcards codify ideas into a society is to fall victim to their message. It may matter little if persuaded to make an unnecessary purchase, but propaganda can also be used to alter public opinion on very serious matters. We can find postcards employed this way by those who promoted the pseudoscience of eugenics. When the theory of racial purification through genetic selection was first introduced by the Englishman, Francis Galton in the 1880’s, he could not conceive of a practical way that it could be applied to human beings. This outlook changed when his ideas reached American shores and was expanded upon by Charles Davenport, founder of the American eugenics movement. This proved to be fertile ground because our long history of institutionalized racism made it easy for those of privilege and power to see the inferiority of others. As the pollution of our gene pool became an almost frantic concern, the practice of preventing undesirables from breeding was enacted into state law. While there was no massive campaign to drum up public support, a number of postcard publishers did what they could to maintain an atmosphere where such work could be carried out. Up into the 1970’s, hundreds of thousands of Americans were committed to mental institutions or received forced sterilizations to prevent them from having children.
The term undesirable was broadly defined. It went so far as to mark left-handed people and those who wore eyeglasses for sterilization. Such wide-scale ambitions however could only be carried out in steps, so they began targeting groups that were already the least valued. Although the DNA of poor whites and blacks were both destined for eradication, it was the black community that found itself singled out by postcard publishers. While there is no proof of motive, it is not difficult to conclude that this was a result of personal bigotry long supported by American culture. These cards fit in seamlessly with each other because they both supported familiar biases. Large families were posed in front of their dilapidated shacks to show that they were unable to break a self-inflicted cycle of poverty. These depictions, brimming with picaninnies might speak for themselves, but appropriate titles were occasionally added to make sure the correct message got through. Although the term race suicide was first directed against those immigrating to the United States from Eastern European in the 1880’s, it eventually came to be exclusively used against large black families.
The years following World War One saw a boom in racial imagery. Much of this was produced on comic postcards and in animated cartoons. Humor had always been the perfect place to hide bigotry. After all, how can something that is funny be harmful? We still find this reaction to racist humor today. What we don’t notice is how this teaches us who is deserving and who is not without ever giving much thought to racial issues. While some of these images may only seem playful, we cannot assume a lack of racial motivation, especially those made in a time when racial tensions ran so high. Humor was one of the ways that eugenics was promoted. These cards may seem silly but they were a real attempt to help sway public opinion on a very serious matter. It is interesting to see how a movement that claimed to have a scientific rational and gained so much ground and official support, could not just come out and state that their ultimate goal was to create s Nordic master race. They knew their utopian goals like that of all utopias have a limited audience because their premise is ultimately exclusionary. More serious attempts to broaden the belief in racial cleansing beyond those who were already racist came to an end during World War Two when they conflicted with the propaganda war being waged against the Nazis. If their extermination programs were to be presented as a crime rather than the road to a better world, racist rhetoric in the United States would have to be toned down.
Myths often describe greater truths better than facts, but they can also contain the seeds of their own destruction. It seems that as Americans began to believe more and more in their own greatness, they were loath to discover just how far from reality our story really was. While the creation of a national myth has been paramount in keeping us together as a nation, many have not only been excluded from this myth, they have been designated its permanent victims. Confronting these inherent contradictions between embracing universal truths and enacting exclusionary policies has created a dilemma, for as much as racism divides, it has largely acted as a unifying element for a disparate American society over much of its history. The great chasm between what we say we believe in and what actually exists has led to a loss of confidence in the American myth. This has inevitably created ongoing conflicts between those who have suffered at the hands of this story and who now seek reform, and those who desperately cling to the traditional story line in fear of losing privilege. Now that people of all ethnicities, religions, genders and sexual orientation demand greater adherence to American ideals, we find ourselves inevitably becoming an even more divided nation.
Too many today are demanding a purity of conviction as if that is something human beings can ever meet. Complaints are raised over the amount of racism still prevalent in our society while treating it as if it were a foreign invasion. It may only be natural to blame one’s problems on outsiders, but we really need to look at ourselves. There is currently a real failure by all parties to recognize that we have always been a diverse nation with conflicting ideas over who we should be. This is not to say we should not take action against those that are so filled with hatred to pose a real danger, but large segments of society cannot be written off over disagreements. Even if these disagreements seem profound, they are not alien to us but rooted in our history. This is truly who we really are. We can see this in the compromises made by our founding fathers when forging this nation. They left the institution of slavery intact and it has festered in our bowls ever since. This however cannot be an argument against compromise for it did not put an end to change. Compromise is not always about sacrificing one’s ideals, its about finding a way forward even if it is imperfect. It is difficult to persuade because arguments are rarely about facts, they are about how reality is perceived. We need a story, a new story, one that does not throw out the values we cherish but one that can include all of us. Too often we tie ourselves to the narratives that only single us out as special at the cost of denying everyone else their due. Finding a way to rise above this selfishness is impossible without a greater generosity of spirit. It will remain an impossible task as long as public discourse is dominated by the hateful and those who seek personal gain by keeping us divided.
There is an argument to be made that the destruction of racist tropes denies the vocabulary needed to carry out racist acts, but this only works if everyone forgets. Eliminating ideas is next to impossible, and those tied to instinct will always be part of us. Even the bloodiest purges by the most ruthless have failed to bring all into line. It can also be said that the difficulties we now face in confronting our problems is due to a lack of understanding our own history. Without a proper perspective of who we are, we can only lash out against each other in rage. Postcards may no longer play an important role in defining culture, but we can gain a lot by understanding how they were once used to manipulate society. We are certainly not free of the tropes they once carried nor the world view they promoted. Media manipulation has only grown more sophisticated and it infiltrates our lives in more ways than previously thought possible. We must be aware of how seeming small actions can help to frame and perpetuate racism. While it is not possible to provide definitive proof of any postcard publishers bias, many upheld a world view that accepted racism as a natural part of it. We must be careful not to brush aside our own lack of intent as an excuse to use racist tropes. I do not advocate enforcing political correctness; I see that as corrosive to the core principals of freedom that our nation is founded on. On the other hand, embracing good manners can go a long way. I know this sounds overly simplistic for we live in a world where there seems to be no limits on how cruel we can be to each other, but if we could not hurt others through ill-considered acts, it might provide an environment where hate has less room to grow. Contours will always shape our reality because that is part of being human, but we are not without choice when it comes to where we draw the lines that divide.
Postscript: As this essay is being posted, Notre-Dame de Paris is burning. You do not have to be Catholic, Christian or French to feel the loss of this cathedral; the tragedy is being universally acknowledged. This reaction is evidence that there is greater common ground between us than we tend to realize. The same work of art, whether it be a painting, a poem, or a piece of architecture can have appeal in any culture when it speaks to the human spirit. I do realize there are those who will never get this. We have seen great monuments destroyed in recent history by those incapable of seeing past their self-centered beliefs. Even French revolutionaries did great damage to Notre-Dame in their ideological zeal. This however only shows that the road ahead is difficult, not impossible to traverse. Being different does not mean we cannot unite behind a greater good.