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Blog Archive 24
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
23. Apr 2019 - May 2020
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.
The Beauty of Black and White
People harbor very romantic ideas about artists. They often view there work as a free flow of playful expression rather than the outcome of a job. There is however no denying that artists have long been prisoners of economic constraints whether being forced to rely on the whims of wealthy patrons or demanding employers. For all the accolades we pour upon art, those who make it often perform as laborers trying to survive within a larger economic system. While individual artists always strive to be the best, many have to struggle in a competitive market place just to make ends meet. Even those who obtain some status and wealth must work to maintain their privileged position. Salons were not only set up to promote the best art, they would define what was good in order to safeguard what its members had achieved. If this stifled competition, well, that was its purpose. This pitted practitioners of varying styles and mediums against one another as they vied for a place in the sun. The divisions create were fostered by dealers who had financial interests in promoting the artists they represented over those they did not. By making art subservient to economic self-interests, it largely removed itself from the momentum of artistic inspiration.
Attempts at freezing the art market in place were well underway in the 19th century. Official salons held great power in making or breaking careers. Rules that may seem silly today were far from arbitrary. They, like most institutions were designed to make sure that those with power held on to their power. The 19th century was also a revolutionary time when many had no problem questioning or even challenging authority and social order. Change however came slow. It would not always be pushed forward by those promoting it as much as by economic forces that were impossible to control. This can easily be seen in the printing trades that evolved from a reliance on hand powered presses in small shops into large mechanized industry. Advances in paper making, presses and photography all played a crucial role in creating new markets for printed paper products. These innovations and the public that embraced them would put constant pressure on those resisting change.
A very important development in the printing trades was the invention of lithography by Alois Senefelder in 1798. It provided a relatively inexpensive way to mass-produce images for an audience that was hungry to receive them. While lithography was first fashioned as a black & white process, there were early attempts to adapt it to color printing. Registration was a major problem, but even after it was finally solved, the process remained too expensive for most commercial use. As competition over popular prints grew, printers sought ways to gain a competitive edge. If printing in color was too costly, then prints could be hand colored by the many woman and children available to do this work for low wages. Once colored prints became available, the public made its preferences clear. I became more difficult to sell art in black & white.
By the time chromolithography was introduced in 1837, the world of printing was already changing. The demand for popular prints and works in color was only growing. By the 1880’s printshops producing chromolithographs could be found in every industrialized country. It was at this point that artists began showing an interest in color printing. Despite the fine work produced, most salons refused to accept prints that were not in black & white. This can be seen in the sentiments of salon member Henri Lefort who wrote, By its essential principals, its origins and traditions, the art of the print is unquestionably the art of Black and White. Many similar prejudices are still evident today in the way we place value on one medium over another. There was also prejudice that followed class distinctions. The phenomenon of popular prints is often referred to as the democratization of art, but there were those who did not see this in a positive light. To them, art was an elitist enterprise for an elite audience and the use of a common medium for the sole purpose of adding color only cheapened its value.
Perhaps Lefort was sincere in his convictions, but this attitude also conveniently served the status quo and through it his own career. It is only one example of how hierarchies are created to protect those who have against the have-nots. No one wants to give up privilege, and change always puts that at risk. When risk is most acute, institutional bias grows stronger. Willing or not, there were a growing number of artists who were now challenging many traditions in the pursuit of their vision and saw any means to achieve it as legitimate. This sentiment however cannot be completely divorced from the public’s growing demand for color. The color revolution it spurred in the 1890’s could not be ignored by anyone seeking a profit. The birth of the postcard industry only furthered the demand for color as millions of small chromolithographs were disseminated through the mail. The weight of this change on society became too much for anyone to ignore. In 1899, the Salon de Paris finally relented and allowed color prints in their exhibitions.
While the art of printing is very old, it grew up alongside photography in the 19th century. Both fed off of one another as both were primarily seen as reproductive mediums. Many had ambitions of exploiting these techniques to produce cheap color images, either on their own or in conjunction with one another but there were many problems to overcome. Chromolithography won this race and other color printing methods followed. Coming in second gave photography the time to ingrain itself as a black & white medium in the public eye. When color photography became more widely available after World War Two, a familiar scenario presented itself, only with an ironic twist. Established photographers were now arguing against the use of color. Most claimed color was nothing more than a fad meant to satisfy unrefined taste; fine for the amateur, not the professional and certainly not for the artist.
While I am sure that this familiar argument against change was an effort to preserve self-interests, it is also clear that some were just too caught up in their methodology to adjust. To work properly in black & white means learning to see in black & white. Such absorption in a process not only makes it very personal, it has a real effect on the way the world is perceived on a daily basis. Such accommodations are not casually discarded. A number of photographers that tried transitioning to color ended up destroying their color work. Others like the master of black and white, Henri Cartier-Bresson did not even see a reason to change, quipping color is bullshit. Even though color is now widely used by professional photographers, arguments over which is better still persist. These more numerous contemporary voices provide us with insights into the earlier fight over color printing. More importantly, they show us how irrelevant these arguments are. While they seemingly hold up an impassioned position, they actually tell us that some people are more important than others and the system that supports this must be upheld.
Even though color came to dominate the printing trades in the 1890’s, black & white work continued to be published. The explanation for this is rather simple, there are always people who value a good price over quality. This is not to say that black & white postcards lack quality, only that one color can be printed for less cost than three or more. If there were always customers willing to pay more for good printing, especially on holiday cards, then there were those who were only interested in passing a quick message along, which could be done on anything though the cheaper the better. Advances in halftone photo reproduction made many cards very cheap to produce, leading to a seemingly endless supply of mediocre images.
If all of this is taken into consideration, then we should have a plethora of beautiful color cards and less attractive black & white cards. We do. There is however a legitimate question that remains, why were beautiful postcards produced in black & white? To understand what gets to be printed on a postcard one must understand the market for them. Demand had grown so large after the turn of the 20th century that we now refer to this time as the golden age of postcards. So many tried to cash in on this phenomenon by becoming publishers that the supply of new photographs grew short. Archives were raided and artist tapped to make up the difference. With so many buying postcards, even niche audiences for them grew large enough to support the production of all sorts of unusual cards. There was nothing really unusual about black & white imagery, it is just that it had gone out of fashion. Not all were seduced by the color revolution. Artists and superb craftsmen may have made good use of color but since it was often used for impact rather than representation, many found the hues garish and distasteful.
So, what is it about black & white images that people find attractive? Putting desires to preserve tradition and familiarity aside, there are intrinsic qualities to black & white images that engage us. The most obvious of these are their simplicity. By removing color we take in less stimulus that needs to be calculated as we apply interpretation. Its absence is of no disadvantage on cards as such imagery is designed to be read without the need for color. The absence of color actually magnifies tonal and linear relationships, which can be manipulated to satisfy aesthetic concerns.
Color can obscure delicate tonal relationships. In printing, coloration is often enhanced to overwhelm this discrepancy. Sometimes this results in a mannered look that takes on a pleasant life of its own. Sometimes this exaggeration fails the image to create an unreadable mess. This is never a problem in black & white for our eyes have evolved to read subtle differences in tone. Subtle gradations in printed work can take on a beauty all their own.
Line is another quality that our eyes are well adapted to, a quality that it might actually read best. Most of our visual understanding comes from reading contrast, and a precise border between light and dark is read as a line. This ability is demonstrated whenever we look at simple cartoon-like line drawings. Even without tone, details or color, we have no problem understanding what they represent. This has allowed artists to take line work to all sorts of creative extremes with little risk. Our vision is pre-programed to understand.
If black & white imagery is artistically equal to that in color, then using one or the other should just be a matter of choice. If printing costs are calculated into the equation, then their should be far more postcards printed without color. Any collector can easily tell you this is not the case. I would conjecture that the very nature of our vision makes us predisposed to color. The rush toward color might have been a fad but people are still attracted to bright colors. How many have gone back to watching black & white television? Studies have shown that we retain memories of full color images longer than those in monochrome regardless of their hue. This is not surprising since color is an added piece of information that requires cross referencing in our brain. In other words, the memory itself takes up more space, making it more likely to survive. Perhaps it takes more than learning to appreciate things that are different. There is certainly enough diversity in the way people see. If no one were able to see beauty in black & white, then no such images would ever exist when there are alternatives.
The artwork that appears on postcards can be placed into two groups. The first is the art reproduction. This contains work that is meant to exist without any regard to postcards. The decision to reproduce an artwork on a card came later, simply to generate revenue or publicity. Cultural institutions often published these cards for educational purposes. These were usually made in black & white simply because the fidelity of color reproduction was so poor; it was better to remove color from the equation than allow it to distort. Some of these fine art images are impossible to distinguish from those made as illustrations when techniques are similar. The card above depicting an etching by Anders Zorn was issued by the Art Institute of Chicago.
The other type of artwork found on postcards was specifically made as commercial illustrations. Compositions needed to work on a small scale and be bold enough to attract customers. Growing interest in postcards in the early 20th century attracted many artists to what they saw as a new revenue stream. Those who took part in this trend often used it to supplement income made from other commercial work. Illustrations were usually drawn, sold to a publisher, reproduced on a postcard and then discarded after it served its purpose. A few publishers used imagery from the same artists on a regular basis and may have kept the original artwork in their archives but this was not usually the case. There was an established hierarchy in the arts, and even illustrations by well known painters did not always make the grade.
Many collectors today find it strange that there is so little information to be found on postcard artists they deem exceptional. When we read of centuries past, it is easier to learn the lives of kings than the common man because what comes down to us as history is filtered through bias. In the golden age of postcards, painters and sculptures were the kings, and illustrators were just another cog in the machine. Many publishers did not even give artists credit. Popular consumerism however was changing things, just as enterprising merchants eventually became the rivals of royalty. A few postcard artists managed to become so popular that they could demand a relatively high price for their illustrations. These did however not tend to be the artists working in black & white. There were those popular within their niche audience but limited exposure does not make anyone famous.
So why do it, why does an artist make things that have little hope of bringing recognition or financial gain? I’m sure some had to do it for whatever meager wages they were offered. There are certainly a lot of mediocre cards out there in both color and black & white that show little effort was put into them. Then there are those artists who feel compelled to work in a certain manner regardless of the marketplace or expected norms. This can be described as an obsession or a calling. Inner voices are always easier to follow when working on projects that survival is not dependent on. For many this was done through illustrating postcards. For whatever reasons these postcards came into existence, we should be grateful that they did, for many are beautiful, elegant and inspiring.
Since illustrations for postcards needed to please a wide audience, they were often loaded with eye catching or pleasing tropes. Unlike purchasing a work of art, postcard customers only spent seconds in making a decision to buy. Cards that did not require the buyer to think too deeply were often the best sellers. Church spires, castles on hills and old gateways became common subjects. While the overuse of such subjects eventually made them cliché, it did not necessarily make them any less beautiful. Deep, shallow, simple, complex, they all had to attract the eye.
Art serves more than one master. It is unfair to demand too much from a postcard when all the publisher wants is for it to quickly be scooped up from a rack. Sometimes this is all the artist cares about too. Then there are those who want more but must thread the fine line between creativity and profitability. Even simple images made for postcards can transcend pedestrian interests. There are postcards that are so quirky or dark and moody that it is a wonder that they were published at all. In an environment with many publishers, there were some willing to take more risk than others. While some publishers always played to the widest audience possible and only chose images that would ensure profit, there were others willing to take a risk on finding customers for more unusual work. This is the human side of publishing that cannot be reduced to an algorithm.
Some illustrators not only felt at home creating black & white images, their output proved popular enough for publishes to continually place many of them on postcards. Otto Ubbelohde (1867-1922) who studied at the Academy in Munich was one of these artists. Though best known for his illustrations of Grimm’s Fairy Tales, he was a passionate etcher and his black & white work won him acclaim. Although he produced very traditional postcards, he also adapted his style to a set of landscapes that exhibit modernist tendencies. They seem more about the drawing than they do the place.
Although Otto Modersohn (1865-1943) studied at the well established Dusseldorf and Karlsruhe Academies, he tended to be outspoken against rules that limited artistic expression and recognition. His early landscape work, in the tradition of the Barbizon School, grew more colorful over the years, which is why it may seem strange that he took up black & white illustration after 1900. His postcard landscapes issued by the Berlin art publisher Fritz Heyder retain the spirited look of a Plein Air sketch.
Fritz Heyder also published the black & white work of Hans A. Muller (1888-1963). Muller, who studied at the Academy in Leipzig was a master of woodcut and wood engraving. While he created bold imagery, his fine line work tends to get lost in smaller scale reproduction. He continued to work as an illustrator after moving to the United States where he became a very influential teacher.
The work of painter/printmaker Heine Rath (1873-1920) moved from a decorative style to a more expressive style. This can best be seen in his woodcuts, especially in scenes depicting Berlin. These are not the romantic views of narrow medieval streets; he embraces the bright nights of modern life and the new spirit that comes with it. A number of his woodcuts were used to illustrate postcards published by Fritz Heyder.
Rudolf Sieck (1877-1957) was a member of Die Welle and the Munich Secession. Though a well known painter of airy landscapes, he also provided illustrations for the magazines Simplicissimus and Jugend and the postcards of Fritz Heyder.
Max Bernuth (1872-1960) was another of Fritz Heyder’s artists. After leaving the Academy in Munich, he became one of Germany’s most important book illustrators. The image on the card above originally appeared on a calendar, which was not unusual. The same artwork was often placed on any sort of object that could generate revenue, and printed calendars were once a very lucrative business.
Landscapes have always easily been the most popular subjects for postcards whether the scene is well known or generic. This was not a problem for most illustrators who followed demand wherever it took them. The fine work produced however is a good indication of their willingness to embrace this subject. Even in this environment where the landscape dominated, other subjects were being successfully drawn in black & white. The interior scene above is by the painter Hanns Bock (1885-66).
Originally interested in studying architecture, Karl Schmidt-Rottloff (1884-1976) joined with other like-minded artists to found Die Brüke, an art movement based on denouncing tradition. While the group broke up in 1913, he continued to work in an expressionist style. Though primarily a painter, he produced many woodcuts, lithographs and etchings, some of which were placed on postcards. The simplicity and boldness of black & white was well suited to German Expressionism but the very nature of this anti-conformist movement made postcard publishers very reluctant to place this type of imagery onto postcards. After the nazis seized power, his work was officially labeled degenerate.
The Austrian, Ulf Seidl (1881-1960) became a prolific illustrator after finishing his studies at the Munich and Karlsruhe Academies. From his studio in Vienna, he produced a large set of finely drawn landscapes that were published as postcards by Wurthie & Son. They are all distinguished by small related vignettes placed on their ample borders.
Seidl also illustrated a large postcard set for Max Swatschek, only these landscapes were drawn in a neo-Biedermeier style. Despite their artful inclusion of modernist tendencies, their complex compositions that combine design work and multiple viewpoints are reminiscent of earlier Gruss aus cards. These notable cards make the difficult task of satisfying many tastes look easy.
Karl Blossfeld (1892-1957) produced a wide variety of work while an illustrator in Leipzig. His interests however were largely concentrated on naval themes, which drew him to ports like Hamburg and Wilhemshaven. Although he would become a well respected marine painter, he illustrated a postcard set for Gebruder Landewigs depicting scenes in and around Wilhemshaven. For simple drawings, they have a remarkable expressive quality.
Although Rudolf Schaefer’s (1878-1961) fine draftsmanship can be attributed to his studies at the Munich and Dusseldorf Academies, his largest influence seems to have been his father, the theologian Theodor Schaefer. Most of his work was made in the service of promoting his Lutheran beliefs. While his work decorates churches in his hometown of Rotenburg, he also worked as an illustrator of bibles, hymn books and postcards. There is a playful folksiness to his style, which may be more attributable to his desires to instruct the common man than to his training.
Karl Biese (1863-1926) worked as a stage painter before attending the Academy in Karlsruhe. Although he had a long career as a landscape painter, his love for lithography took him into the realm of black & white work. Although most of his winter landscapes were reproduced on color postcards, black & white cards were also published by Herman A. Peters.
While most artists sketch in black & white, it often takes a special affinity for monotone to create finished images in a single color. Etchers, such as Otto Ackermann-Pasegg (1882-1959), whose medium is more adapted to black & white work usually find it easier to translate their vision into postcard illustration. Although he uses a delicate line, it is the careful balance between broad areas of light and dark that make his accomplished compositions come alive.
The Alsatian, Jean Jacques Waltz (1873-1951), also known as Hansi, is best known for his anti-German/French nationalist propaganda work. It can be found on many postcards rendered in a colorful cartoonish style. The popularity of these cards makes it easy to forget what a fine draftsman Waltz really was. A number of his superbly drawn black & white landscapes were also placed on postcards by Braun & Cie.
Little is known of the painter R. Geissler (1834-1906) except that he published postcards of his own line drawings. It was not unusual for artists to do so in an attempt to earn some extra money. These cards also helped to publicize the artist’s work and possibly find commissions. His work is notable for the nervous energy in his line, which makes these cards more expressive than most.
The Swiss artist Anner produced a set of intimate landscapes for JC Muller in Zurich. His line work rests somewhere between complex medieval woodcuts and simple modernist reductivism, which gives it an untypical edge. These cards stand out by defying expectations.
The Albertype Company produced a number of artists sets depicting etchings of New York City. Etching was not a favorite medium of illustrators because of their difficulty to make when compared to line drawings. While the backs of these cards read, A Genuine Albertype Etching, they were actually printed as collotypes. It is always difficult to determine the reasoning behind a specific work, but the label suggests that these etchings were made specifically for Albertype. One of there etchers was Carl Abel (1875-1959) whose moody work is pictured on the card above. It is a rich alternative to all the photo-based cards that dominate views of the city and those romantic landscapes from Europe.
Most of the cards pictured above are German dating from the first two decades of the 20th century, but this selection should not be seen as a complete or even a fair overview of black & white production. That said, cultural differences cannot be ignored. Europeans generally placed a lot more work by artists onto their cards than Americans did. Black & white artwork seems to have been most popular in Germany, Austria-Hungry and Switzerland. Long standing traditions in both popular and fine arts shaped publishing differently in all nations. Can this be measured? There were always hidden factors that influenced postcard production that are difficult to quantify. How much of a role did the tradition of landscape sketching play? Color ink shortages during and after World War One certainly had an effect on printing but how much did this influence what was chosen to be printed? These are important questions but for another time.
If you do not find all of the cards in this essay beautiful, that’s okay. They represent my own personal taste and collecting habits more than anything else. Beauty after all lies in the eye of the beholder; authorship may go undisputed, but I’m sure not everyone will find my choices convincing. My intent is not to impose standards of beauty, only to make us realize that we are all inclined to be dismissive of images that do not immediately meet with our expectations. Preferences are always personal, but that is not the same as recognizing value. Our minds are designed to see the world by filtering it through our memories, and this is not neutral territory. We can be enticed to turn the familiar beautiful without us ever taking time to really see it, and the unfamiliar ugly if we notice it at all. In a world that constantly bombards us with color, we need to give black & white artwork a second look more often.
Quarantine: Our Darkest Shadow
The high brick walls and strong iron gate were no match for the mob that assembled. Once they broke through, the bundles of camphene-soaked hay they had been hoarding was carried in and dispersed between the patient’s beds. One by one the buildings of the New York Marine Hospital went up in flame setting the night sky aglow for miles. The hospital staff were barely able to escape with their lives. Local people had long been suspicious of the quarantine station, blaming it for every case of disease found on Staten Island. This place may have seen out of the way fo health authorities residing in Manhattan, but the people of Tompkinsville were scared, they were angry, and in 1858 they had enough. The plague house would be torched. Although police and state militia were dispatched to the scene, the entire facility was destroyed down to its piers. Ringleaders were rounded up and arrested, but they claimed self-defense. At their trial the judge agreed and acquitted the lot of them. What became known as the Staten Island War set the tone for dealing with those found to be carrying contagions; fear would reign.
New York was founded to be a city of commerce, and as such it became a focal point of trade and communicable disease. A health committee was established amidst the yellow fever pandemic of 1793 to deal with the infected arriving on its shore but lacking critical knowledge of contagions they were left with only one tool to work with – quarantine. Even if maritime quarantine was airtight, which it wasn’t, disease still arrived in town through other sources. Before the Croton aqueduct system began bringing fresh water down from Westchester in 1842, the city, which outgrew its wells began drawing putrid water from the Collect Pond, the same place where garbage and dead animals were dumped. The result was a series of cholera epidemics that continually ravaged the city’s streets. New York’s large protected harbor offered promise and stirred ambitions, but the constant presence of disease severely limited the city’s ability to grow. While the arrival of clean drinking water reversed this trend, serious threats from yellow fever, typhus, and smallpox remained a dark shadow over the city into the 20th century.
A pest house had been set up at Manhattan’s Belle Vue farm in 1795 to treat victims of a yellow fever pandemic. As this facility evolved from a place where the sick were sent to die to an actual hospital, those stricken with contagious diseases were able to find some care. After expanding in 1825, smallpox victims began to arrive. The cholera epidemic of 1825 and the typhus epidemic of 1847 filled Bellevue’s beds. As the city expanded northward, proximity to this once isolated institution grew troubling. While there was no argument that the spread of disease posed a constant threat to New York, few wanted to deal with the problem. Public sentiment was clearly growing against allowing the contagious to reside in any portion of the city. Attempts to replace the torched marine hospital in Tompkinsville with a new lazaretto at Seguine Point was thwarted by flame before construction was completed. Without a clear understanding of these horrific ailments, there was little officials could do to quiet nerves. The press was of little help because they were more fearful of reporting anything that might deny merchants their profits than of disease. Then there was always the fear of generating fear, which could place events out of anyone’s ability to control. Our inability to handle the truth allowed quarantine to evolve into a system of exile with few willing to question the practice or its consequences. This was of course true for all the city’s undesirables as the destitute, mentally ill and juvenile delinquents were all treated the same, they were banished as if criminals.
The Staten Island War had forced the health department resort to hospital ships for quarantine, and the Florence Nightingale and the Illinois raised the yellow jack in 1859. Considering the increasing volume of harbor traffic, this could never be more than a stopgap measure, and the opposition by Brooklyn and Staten Island for these ships to dock near their shores were already a problem. When New York’s Quarantine Act of 1863 authorized a commission to oversee the construction and administration of a unified system of quarantine for the port of New York, they began seeking a permanent solution in the city’s many islands. Before the Marine Hospital at Tompkinsville was built in 1799, the sick arriving by sea were removed from ships and left on Bedloe’s and then Governor’s Island in the upper harbor. Since both islands were now controlled by the US Army for coastal defense, it was decided that two new islands would be built atop the Orchard Shoals in the lower bay about two miles south of the Narrows.
Riprap and sand dredged up from the harbor began being piled up on the shoals around 1866. Dix Island, now Swinburne, was completed in 1870 and a hospital was located there to treat those infected with contagions. Hoffman Island to the north was finished in 1872 where those exposed to disease but showing no symptoms were held for observation. In 1892, a cholera pandemic severely strained the station’s resources. Hoffman Island was enlarged in 1896 to meet demand but the facility continued to suffer from poor management, underfunding, and overcrowding. The only thing that saved the station from being completely overwhelmed was the outbreak of World War One, which greatly reduced the flow of immigrants. The restrictions on immigration in the postwar years was so severe that the need for quarantine almost disappeared. The facility on Swinburne Island was closed in 1928, and the nearly abandoned Hoffman Island closed ten years later.
Accompanying the offshore quarantine station was a boarding station in Rosebank. Established on the Staten Island shore in 1783, the medical officers stationed there would row out to greet incoming vessels in search of those infected before allowing the ship into port. By 1870, it had become headquarters for the Quarantine Commission. Tugboats full of medical staff would now race out to ships spotted from the station’s observation tower. Health officers had official power to hold any ship in place until they deemed it safe for it to proceed. Most of their attention became focused on the immigrants held in the poorly ventilated and crowded quarters of steerage where disease was most likely to fester. Those first and second-class passengers lucky enough to secure private cabins were only examined if arriving from a country with a known outbreak. While this policy allocated resources to the most likely infected, it also demonstrates the prevailing prejudice that associated social class with cleanliness and health. The medical staff serving Hoffman and Swinburne Islands were also housed here along with a laboratory that tested rats sampled from ships for the plague. This property passed on to the US Public Health Service when administration of quarantine was nationalized in 1921. It was subsequently used to quarantine sailors once the island facilities closed. The Rosebank station was closed permanently in 1971.
Smallpox was particularly feared, and those inflicted faced even greater segregation. Stigma often followed families who had a relative with smallpox. Those who died of it were not allowed to be buried in regular cemeteries, and cause of death was often concealed so that loved ones could be put to rest in family plots. Those who died aboard incoming ships were buried at Seguine Point on Staten Island before vessels ever neared port. While a more formal marine cemetery was established here, opposition to additional burials led to a crematorium being built on Swinburne Island in the 1890’s. Blackwell’s Island in the East River had been the dumping ground for undesirables since the city acquired it in 1828. When the Renwick Hospital opened on the island’s southern tip in 1856, it had a penitentiary, work houses and notorious insane asylum for neighbors. Although it was designed for smallpox patients, it functioned more as a tradition pest house for quarantine than for treatment. Care was poor and what existed was dependent on the size of bribes. Thirteen thousand patients would die here; their bodies burnt and ashes dumped into the river. By 1875, smallpox victims began being sent elsewhere and the building then served as a school for nursing until abandoned in the 1950’s.
Once acquired by the city, Ward’s and neighboring Randall’s Island at the mouth of the Harlem River also became a dumping ground for the city’s unwanted. The State Emigrant Refuge was opened there in 1847. While the island sometimes served as an immigrant station to handle the overflow from the landing at Castle Garden, those with cholera were quarantined here. While once the world’s largest hospital, it was not set up to handle smallpox. Outbreaks within this crowded environment were inevitable, making life on the island very difficult for all. Despite the presence of extensive potters fields, the burnt remains those who died from smallpox were dumped into the river. When the Renwick hospital refused to take on smallpox victims driven out of Westchester, some of the sick took refuge on North Brother Island lying in the East River between Queens and the Bronx. This informal pesthouse was replaced by Riverside Hospital 1885, which cared for victims of various contagious diseases. By 1903, the spread of tuberculosis had become such a menace to the city that those suffering from it were forcibly detained here. A specialized tuberculosis pavilion was opened in 1943 but it seems to have only been used to treat adolescents with drug problems. Rife with corruption and scandal, all facilities were closed in 1963 and the island was abandoned.
By the latter 19th century, New York was characterized as the filthiest wealthiest city with half its population living in slums. More people were crammed into squalid tenements than in anywhere else in the world. Neighborhoods like the Lower East Side were often captured on postcards where they were presented as picturesque. Overly crowded streets became their most common trope but they never came anywhere close to displaying the horrid conditions in which people lived as found in the photographs of Jacob Riis and his fellow reformers. That was not the side of the city outsiders wanted to see. To put it simply, there was almost complete indifference to be found when it came to the poor. Although such breeding grounds for disease posed a real threat to everyone’s health, little was done as disease like poverty was viewed through a moral eye. It was widely accepted that people got sick because of the same failings of character that made them poor. Those who tried to help were confronted with a corrupt system that basically saw the health department as a place where funds could be siphoned off to line pockets. Graft allowed millions to be spent on overpriced and ineffectual practices like disinfecting streets with carbolic acid. Heath wardens were often nothing more than unqualified political appointees put on the dole. Cartoonist Frank Bellew, an ever present thorn in the side of Tammany Hall’s Boss Tweed depicted him as doing all he could to welcome cholera to the streets of New York. It seems that those who ran the city did all they could to create a lingering atmosphere of distrust.
If postcards of the Lower East Side, locally known as the Typhoid Ward, did not truly capture the place, they do accurately represent the disposition of the card buying public. Postcards basically uphold the views we have of ourselves for it is this mirror that creates sales. Postcards like to picture tree lined streets and the latest courthouse or modern stores to show off our civic pride. They also define by showing us who we are not. While this is often reserved for depicting foreign types, scenes from the New York ghetto might as well be a distant land. We can look at these images and be thankful that this squalor, however colorful, is not our story. Many of these cards are generic for slum dwellers are a generic people. Neighborhoods may be designated as Jewish or Italian, but in the end, they are all the same; they are not where we live. The ghetto itself is a place of unofficial quarantine where people unlike us can be exiled as if contagious. Quarantine after all is ultimately about fear of the other.
One of the most popular tropes of the ghetto postcards was that of long lines of laundry hanging in back alleys. If we put aside the aesthetic qualities of these beautiful abstractions, we are left with hidden meanings. As with all postcards, there is more than first meets the eye. Even without a person in sight, these images are able to convey the sense of extreme overcrowding. This is after all a depiction of a slum that must meet up with the viewer’s expectations of such places. On the other hand the depiction of freshly laundered bedding and clothes invites a familiar presence, that of cleanliness. The dual message is we may not live like they live but the slums are not as bad as we have been told. Disease will surly not spread under these conditions and endanger us. These cards are similar in formula to the many representing the pushcart trade. By illustrating an abundance of consumer goods and food, it becomes more difficult to think of poverty as a serious problem that must be dealt with. These simple images of local color function as subtle propaganda to reinforce the status quo.
Despite the indifference to those living in poverty, there was growing concern over the contagions that refused to stay isolated in slums. This problem had long been met with half hearted preventative methods, but the introduction of vaccines opened the possibility of a more effective approach. While methods of vaccination were developed in the 19th century, it took some time before it became the simple syringe injection we now recognize. The more common method of immunization once used by the health department was inoculation through variolation in which the skin was first lacerated and scraped and then a dose of pox infected pus was inserted into the wound. This procedure was not only very painful, it left behind a serious scar. With no clear-cut evidence of its efficacy and a substantial risk of infection, many were reluctant to go through the ordeal. When the US Congress created a national system of quarantine under the National Quarantine Act in 1893, fear of compulsory treatment gave rise to anti-vaccination societies.
While the Quarantine Act codified standards, it was up to individual states to enact specific regulations and these were constantly met with legal challenge. After the courts found it unconstitutional to involuntarily vaccinate and quarantine citizens who had not contracted smallpox, the city’s health department did not oppose the ruling fearing it would incite even more hostility toward their agenda. Rather than arresting the noncompliant, they embarked on a covert campaign in which an army of doctors and police serving under the Bureau of Contagious Diseases would descend on a neighborhood at night, knock in doors, and forcibly inoculate everyone in sight. Hundreds of thousands were involuntarily inoculated in these raids. Certain ethnic groups deemed unclean, like Italians were especially vulnerable to these assaults. Anyone found infected was immediacy shipped off to North Brother Island. Parents began hiding their children fearing they may never see them again if any signs of illness were detected. Such raids did not go unnoticed and further legal address was sought. By 1905, the argument reached the Supreme Court, which affirmed the majority has the right to override individual liberties when the health of the community requires it.
What sounds good on paper is not always acceptable when carried to individuals whose livelihoods or freedom are at stake. In 1901, two young women, Florence Lederer and Nelie Riley managed to escape from the authorities before they could be quarantined for smallpox. This led to a citywide manhunt. After they were recaptured every person they confessed to have had contact with was forcibly vaccinated, and everyplace they sought refuge or visited was disinfected. Perhaps the most famous reluctant typhoid patient was Mary Mallon. Unsystematic but contagious, this cook spread the disease to many before being apprehended and quarantined at Riverside Hospital in 1907. After three years of seeking legal recourse, the health commissioner agreed that her incarceration was unduly cruel, and she was released under the condition that she refrain from ever seeking employment in a kitchen. Not believing she was sick and lacking good options, she eventually took on an alias and found work once more as a cook. As the people around her grew sick another manhunt began. After authorities finally caught up with Typhoid Mary in 1915, she was sent back into exile on North Brother Island where she spent the last twenty-three years of her life.
The term quarantine is derived from the Latin word quarantena meaning forty-days. That is how long it was once believed that those suspected of carrying disease had to be segregated to insure, they were not contagious. Over centuries, this time of confinement was whittled down, but even forty days seems inconsequential when compared to the ordeal that Mary Mallon faced. Was a life sentence for someone who committed no crime an egregious overstepping of federal power or was it unavoidable? What do you do with someone who refuses to believe they are a public menace? Questions over the power of health officials to confine, seize property and forcefully administer health examinations and vaccinations continue to be hotly debated. The notion of quarantine does not naturally sit well in a nation founded on principals of liberty. It is always a struggle to balance individual civil rights with the public good but our constitutional structure has always tolerated temporary restrictions of liberties when public safety is at risk. The problem is that well-meaning words do not always achieve intended results when those delegated to carry them out are incompetent, self-serving or biased. When a poliomyelitis epidemic struck the city in 1916, health officials began to forcibly remove poor children from tenements and placed them in quarantine while those of wealthy parents were not touched because they had the means of isolating their children at home.
One group that never had much say over their own health were soldiers. Those in George Washington’s army suffering from smallpox were quarantined on Ward’s Island (then Montresor’s Island) in 1776, When the soldiers of the US Army’s 5th Corps victoriously returned from the Spanish American War in 1898, they were not sent home but first quarantined at Camp Wikoff sitting on a remote stretch of Montauk Point. When first built, the hospital was touted as modern and efficient but it was quickly overwhelmed by the thousands who contracted yellow fever, typhoid, malaria and dysentery. When the death toll of those under care began to surpass the number killed in the war, the count seems to have been deliberately skewed. It seems that fears driving everything but good health always comes to dominated these situations. News blackouts and propaganda dominated the years of the First World War, which is why the flu pandemic of 1918 became known as the Spanish Flu. Only the press in neutral Spain was willing to report on the outbreak so it was widely assumed it originated there. No nation involved in the conflict would admit to the deviating toll the flu was extracting on their armies in fear the enemy could take advantage of this weakness. Some uncertainty still surrounds what we know of this pandemic since facts were routinely skewed or not recorded at all.
Unwilling to face the type of scandal that erupted over the mistreatment of soldiers at Camp Wikoff, troops of the American Expeditionary Force returning from the Great War were allowed to disembark in New York City though those in need of convalescence were kept at various hospitals. Their great numbers required the accusation of addition space and large buildings such as the old Siegel-Cooper emporium (Greentut’s) on Sixth Avenue and the former Grand Central Palace exhibition hall became Debarkation Hospitals Number 3 and 5. While supposedly set up to treat the wounded, one can speculate that the need for so many beds was mainly due to all those sickened by the flu, the scale of which was still not being truthfully reported. There may have been real concern that the city would panic if they knew how many infected soldiers were living in their midst. Public safety was not the issue, panic was.
In the wake of the current Covid-19 pandemic, some have been disappointed that the crisis has not caught the eye of many artists. If we look back to 1918 for better examples, we will not find them. While there are countless works based on the horrors of war, there is a notable lack of artistic response to the pandemic that killed many more. We may say that war is hard to fathom, but even if our rational is faulty, we do understand concepts of patriotism, nationalism, hatred and the allure of adventure. It is different with disease because it arrives with no moral or ideological purpose. It does not hate us nor can it be made to love us. Without a human dimension we cannot relate to it, only its consequences. It is like it isn’t really there. The same argument can be made for postcard publishers who did next to nothing in response to the social upheaval the pandemic brought. When a card can be found it usually depicts a hospital because they contained a captive audience who were desperate to correspond with family and friends. Profit drove production, not social concerns, and these bland cards are difficult to differentiate from those made in better times.
Perhaps our unwillingness to face up to an invisible crisis is why it is so easy to be deceived and manipulated by those whose interests are not furthered by the truth. Even when the problem sits right in front of us, we don’t really want to believe what we see. Although science has provided us with greater insights by which we may handle these situations, implementation is still often hampered by ignorant, self-serving mediocrities who are incapable of rising to the occasion. There is little history for us to fall back on for guidance since each health crisis to hit the city has first been met with denial. We would rather escape, freeing our minds from discomfort by sending the sick off elsewhere to die. While our quarantine stations are now located at international airports, has that much really changed? When Americans were struck with Ebola and medically evacuated from Africa to the United States for treatment in 2014, many were horrified to learn of their admittance into local hospitals. It did not matter that millions had specifically been put into these institutions so they could deal with these types of emergencies. When it came time for them to be used, fear rose up as if it were 1858 all over again. There were no torch carrying mobs this time, but the sentiment was all too familiar; the contagious have no place among us.
With Covid-19, there has been far more denial than panic, at least so far. We are lulling ourselves into complacency by conjuring up wacky conspiracy theories or by placing all our hopes on a vaccine that will soon save the day. While the virus has exposed real vulnerabilities in the way we conduct our economy, causing real hardship for many, it seems that the reluctance to self-isolate is generated more by the long held idea that quarantine is a sacrifice meant for others to bare. We tend to do the right things to feel good but have too short of an attention span for inconvenience to stick it out. There is a real tendency to ignore tragedy unless it strikes us personally. We see the same thing with postcards. Even when publishers ignored the Spanish flu pandemic, those who purchased postcards did not always follow suit. Sometimes a deeper glimpse into a particular moment can be afforded, not from the picture printed on a card but from the message written on its back. The card above was posted from an Atlanta quarantine ward in July 1918 and reads: