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This page contains both original essays and comments on postcards as well as articles previously published in Metro News, the bi-monthly bulletin of the Metropolitan Postcard Club while I served as editor. Many of these reprinted articles have been enhanced on this website by adding additional content.
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A gender bender is a person whose behavior or appearance transgresses commonly accepted notions of gender roles.
The postcards included in this article represent a variety of gender benders. There are drag queens and drag kings who cross dress as stage performers, and those who do so for their own personal pleasure, many wanting to express those parts of themselves not normally sanctioned by society. Often, the motivation is no more than the thrill of reverse role playing on a night out with friends. Other cards reflect the influence of the women’s emancipation movement, which had a large impact on the way people perceived given gender roles. Here you will find satirical cards depicting role reversals in the tasks men and women are traditionally expected to perform in the home. Further afield is a card that depicts a North African youth, whose outward appearance is a mix of the masculine and the feminine. It is meant to appeal to the closeted homosexual viewer in Europe at a time when the crime that dare not speak its name was a criminal offense. But certainly one of the most frequently found motifs of gender bending on the early postcard depicts soldiers and sailors, those universal icons of male virility. On German and French cards, male sailors are seen dancing with one another, while others turn up dressed in drag after a night of partying, or in stage performances. Other cards picture buxom German women dressed as hussars courting other women or in military uniform depicting futuristic fantasies of army life. One of the earliest cards is of a haywal, a male dancer performing as a woman, in early 20th century Egypt.
In all instances, there is evident a challenge to the rigid binary divisions of male/female and masculine/feminine that have been held so sacrosanct, especially in the West. It is a juxtaposition that has been justified by Biblical scripture and, until recently, reinforced by the medical and psychiatric establishments and state law.
The concept of gender, however, is not a static one, and ways in which societal norms expect men and women to dress or behave have changed over time and and varied among cultures. Same sex male sailors dancing aboard ship in the absence of women, for example, was not necessarily gender bending activity in the early 20th century; today it would assuredly raise eyebrows. On the other hand, men doing housework or women dressed in soldiers’ attire, until recently, might have aroused in many parts of the world curiosity, ridicule or even hostility. This toying with the boundaries of male and female, or masculine and feminine, is documented in the pre-WWII postcard and can help inform us on the changing attitudes and perceptions such behavior has engendered.
In our age of electronic communications, it is hard to imagine the importance postcards once played in the lives of everyday people. Among their many functions, postcards were used for everyday communication, for political propaganda, for courting, as souvenirs for travelers, for advertising products and services and, when converted from photographs, as family mementoes. They were produced to celebrate, commemorate, and document a myriad of events, such as devastating earthquakes or floods, battle scenes, and world’s fairs, at a time when the cinema was still at its beginnings, tourist travel to faraway places was unaffordable for most, and photography was still in the early stages of adaptation for the news media. During the Golden Age of postcards, from 1898 to 1918, billions of cards were printed, collected in albums and exchanged. In 1909 alone, an estimated 833 million cards were mailed in Great Britain, 668 million in the United States, 160 million in Germany, and 18 million in France. Postcard images sent through the mails played an important role not only in reflecting social angst, such as that aroused around gender issues by the early feminist movement, but in helping to bring new ideas and notions to countless millions otherwise isolated from the latest trends.
A Haywal (or Khawal) was an effeminate male dancer who often performed in public in 19th and early 20th century Egypt. Haywals were known for their acrobatic flexibility and sexually alluring movements. The term Haywal (Khawal) later became a derogatory term in Arabic, similar to the word faggot in American English. In Edward William Lane’s 1836 book, “An Account of the Manners and Customs of the Modern Egyptians”, the author describes Khawals as dancing accompanied by the sound of castanets, with hair grown long and braided in the manner of women and dressed in a tight vest, a girdle and a kind of petticoat. All of these features can be seen in the Khawal pictured.
Mathurin, a French word for sailor, has several meanings. It designates “Trinitarian”, and is related to St. Mathurin, an exorcist and a saint whose name was invoked to cure foolishness. All three meanings can be applied to the scene above. Three French sailors, obviously inebriated, trudge along on the way home from China. The bedraggled sailor in back carries an oriental parasol and baskets of provisions, while the sailor in front on the left, determined to keep the party going, has a raised bottle to his lips. His right arm supports a third member of the trio, a bemused sailor in a woman’s hat and dress, sporting oriental braids, and waving a fan. In the background is a sign for a guinguette, a drinking establishment which craftsmen in France traditionally frequented in the summer and during Festivals.
Germany. Postmarked 1916.
On this photograph card, six sailors carouse and pose before the camera. Two men have fitted women’s clothing above their uniforms, including hats and beads and a fan. With legs coyly poised, they openly flirt with their attentive and admiring mates. The card was sent from a certain Fritz in one military regiment to Hugo Schmidt in another.
U.S.A. (?) Date is post 1906.
This rather curious card makes reference to the song, “So Long Mary,” from George M. Cohan’s 1906 musical production, “Forty-Five Minutes From Broadway,” which opened at the New Amsterdam Theater in New York City on January 1, 1906. The refrain is:
So long, Mary
On the card, Mary has been transformed into a man in drag with hairy arms. The name Mary, meanwhile, is homosexual slang, originating in the 19th century and used to denote an effeminate male.
U.S.A. (?) Pre-1905.
Depictions of women dressed in male attire and mugging before the camera became rather common by the 1880’s. For many it was an experiment in exploring alternative ways of defining and perceiving themselves as they transgressed the gender boundaries of socially accepted behavior.
In this real photo postcard, four women in mixed drag enjoy themselves over a drink and cigarette. The couple in front are both wearing men’s suits and ties. One, holding a cigarette, has on a man’s hat, the other a woman’s. Behind them a woman in a dress is accompanied by another female in a man’s suit pouring a drink. In each couple there is a dominant male looking partner and a more traditionally female appearing one. (a butch/femme dichotomy in more contemporary terms). The setting is most likely a private home, a safe haven for cross dressing. In many locales in the United States, cross dressers were subject to harassment or arrest if they appeared in public.
In this real photo postcard, produced at a private photograph studio in Vienna, a woman in a man’s suit and top hat sits in a chair against a studio backdrop. Sporting a walking stick in her right hand, she exudes a cheerful self-confidence.
The photograph is from Scher Studio in Newark, NJ, “Makers of the Best Photo Postals in the City.” The subject is a large woman dressed in a man’s suit and holding a cane. She stands leaning against a chair with a studio backdrop. Her legs are crossed at the ankles, lending a certain swagger to her overall appearance.
North Africa (Tunisia?). Undated.
The androgynous male pictured is a youth from North Africa. He stands in a typical feminine pose with his left arm raised to highlight his chest, while his upper torso is partially revealed by the careful undraping of his robe. Flowers frame his face as he looks enticingly toward the photographer/viewer. The team of German photographers, Lehnert and Landrock, produced this and many other cards capitalizing on European stereotypes of an exotic North Africa. Their series of cards showing young boys was especially appreciated by a homosexual audience in Europe, where the crime that dare not speak its name was still subject to severe criminal penalty.
USA (?). Posted 1916.
The Suffragette Movement was the first wave of the Feminist Movement and dated from the 19th through the early 20th Century. In addition to struggling for the right to vote, many women questioned the traditional roles of males and females in society. On the embossed card above, a father stands caring for his infant child while a gold plate hanging behind frames his head in a halo. Suffragettes were often seen as a threat to the traditional values of the family, and this parody points to the possible consequences if the feminist movement were it to succeed.
A housewife lounges about reading the paper, while the wilting flowers, large cobweb, and tilted deer’s head trophy indicate that the housework is not being done. Her husband, wearing a dress and apron, is busy stirring their meal on the stove. The rhyming verse parodying this role reversal in the home is as follows:
It’s right that you cook the soup,
Moving pictures played an important role in reflecting the ideas of the early feminist movement, especially for small town America, where viewers were often more isolated from the latest trends of their times. In the scene above, a presumably male moviegoer laments on how accepted ways of dividing up family responsibilities are changing. The film’s husband, in the role of housewife, is discontentedly doing the dishes, while his wife, dressed to go out, is giving him last minute instructions.
England. Postmarked 1906.
Vesta Tilley (1864-1952), the greatest male impersonator in the history of the English music hall, had a career which lasted more than thirty years. Her real name was Matilda Alice Powles, and her first act of male impersonation was at the age of six. She was popular not only among English working class males, but among women as well, who saw in her an enviable independence. In 1912, she performed in America, while the height of her career came during the First World War, when she and her husband appeared together on stage in a campaign to encourage military recruitment. In this real photo postcard, Miss Tilley poses in one of her most popular personas, that of an upper class English gentleman.
A soubrette in opera and theater is a stock character - a saucy and flirtatious young girl. In this real photo card, the German male actor Willi Besle is seen in four poses, dressed as a soubrette. The distancing from the camera serves to reinforce the illusion that this is a biological female.
The scene is from a prisoner of war camp in Cottbus, Germany during the First World War, where prisoners are performing a play titled “Mam’zelle Totoche.” Two of the men are in drag, sitting with legs crossed on the edge of a bed, as men court them. We can deduce that the absence of women at this prison necessitated the reversal of roles to perform the production. As German prisoner of war camps were notorious for their inhumane conditions, this card no doubt served as part of a propaganda campaign to better their image.
Origin Unknown. Undated.
Two women, presumably dance performers, pose before the camera in their respective female and male attire. The woman in the top hat has her hair concealed and stands confidently with hand on hip to strengthen the effect of her masculine appearance. Her breasts are conveniently de-emphasized by the fit of the jacket. The woman’s partner, in contrast, is more delicate in pose and appearance.
Three same sex male couples of the French Navy dance merrily on the glistening deck of a ship at night. A fellow sailor plays accordion. While such scenes would not be uncommon in the early years of the 20th century, especially when female company was absent, by today’s standards, at least in the West, such couplings would be suspect and subject the participants to allegations of homosexuality, a concept which only entered popular culture in the 1920’s.
Several same sex couples dance with one another as two fellow sailors strum their instruments. The two couples at center and on the left seem clumsy and not particularly connected while the couple front right is more closely engaged.
Four same sex sailors in the German Navy dance to the accompaniment of musicians at the right. The dancers exude a robust energy in their movements. Their mates look on.
Two women in soldiers’ uniforms stand together in a studio portrait. One holds a raised cigarette rather gingerly in her right hand, while the other, in a sign of toughness, has a cigarette dangling from her mouth. Arms linked together, there is sense of closeness between them, with the soldier on the right looking protective of her less confident, but taller companion. Though women have until recently generally been denied combat roles in the armies of Europe and the United States, there is a fascinating history of women posing as men in order to fight in America’s Civil War, World War One, etc.
In this drawing, a female officer in uniform is looked at admiringly by an elegantly clad woman in a dress and tight stockings. The juxtaposition of masculine to feminine in the figures could hardly be more pronounced. Women in the early 20th Century held no such positions of power in the Germany army, though fantasies of masculine female soldiers were not uncommon, judging from the abundance of cards similar to the one above.
A woman in a German Hussar’s uniform suggestively touches the chin of a woman cross dressing as a dandy, complete with walking stick, trousers, and overcoat. The female officer is buxom and the tightness of her uniform emphasizes her female curves. Both figures represent a rejection of female powerlessness and the restrictions of expected gender-based appearance and behavior. Lesbian undertones can easily be read into the picture.
In this futuristic card, women have been admitted to the German army to serve in the Amazon Guards. In the scene to the left, recruits are climbing into their uniforms, feminine undergarments being stuffed into brown regulation trousers, while two women dance with one another in the background. To the right, also under the watchful eye of a male officer, the new Amazon Guards line up for inspection. On this card, we have all the elements of a male heterosexual’s rich fantasy: full bodied females in their undergarments, women dancing with one another, and uniformed female soldiers under the discipline of a male superior.
In the upper scene, a group of women are undergoing medical inspection for recruitment into the German Armed Forces. They are uniformly large bodied and buxom, while the men in charge are reduced in size for maximum effect. Below, four of the new cavalry recruits stand in uniform with swords, three wearing pickelhauben, the Imperial German spiked cavalry helmets, made of steel and used from the time of the Franco-Prussian War through to the end of World War I.
Two sailors in a line waiting for clothing inspection break rank. The one furthest to the right assumes a feminine pose of modesty with his eyes cast downward and his left arm held coyly behind his head. The adjacent sailor glances over with desire. Here, the image of the male sailor, long the icon of heterosexual virility and object of female desire, takes on a new twist.
REVIEW by Alan Petrulis
Published by Arcadia Publishing
Whether it be the jagged peaks of the Rockies or the the ancient summits of our northeastern ranges, visitors have long been attracted to mountains in pursuit of recreation, health, or simple sightseeing. Thousands of postcards were manufactured to depict various heights, and the peaks of the Adirondacks are no exception. As beautiful as many of these cards can be they tend to create a certain monotony for those lacking a personal acquaintance to their immediate location, especially when purged of color as they are in Acadia books. The author of Arcadia’s latest November release in their Postcard History Series has however added interest where least expected by providing a great deal of information to accompany each of these illustrations. In this context even the most nondescript postcard has come alive with relevant facts, which is no small accomplishment.
To think of this book as a story of mountain lakes and peaks would be a vast mischaracterization as this is the sole subject of just one of the book’s chapters. Additional sections on well traveled destinations as Lake Placid and Saranac Lake both provide the same attention to detail while covering a variety of interests. Many picture captions were designed to read on from image to another when covering a single subject. I found this technique a valuable approach as it gives each subject more depth than any single caption could offer. Topics such as the Lake Placid Club, the 1932 Olympics, the Trudeau Sanatorium, Whiteface Mountain, and Santa’s Workshop at North Pole were presented not only in greater detail this way but in a manner that made sense.
Unfortunately I found the three chapters covering the eastern, central, and western Adirondacks to be lacking. While each postcard image is accompanied by the same strong detailed text as in the book’s other sections they fail to provide a clear overall picture. There is extensive information on towns, hotels, resorts, and lakes but it becomes a matter of too many trees and not enough forest. Historical sites such as Fort Ticonderoga are covered by a number of postcards but there is no clear reference to this regions long standing military relevance. Likewise the importance of the Adirondack Park is touched on in the Introduction but there is no sense of the greater role it played in the preservation movement or how it holds the region together when moving from picture to picture. While much of the fault here lies with attempting to cover extensive geography within the limited scope that these Postcard Series Books present, it seems that there was still enough room to accomplish more. This is a shame for the author demonstrates both a personal knowledge and true love of this countryside.
There is no shortage of material written on the Adirondacks for those seeking greater understanding, but even a simple book such as this one should have been able to piece together the larger issues that give this area its great significance in order to inspire further reading. And while I am happy that space was not wasted on attempting to provide a history of postcards too long for a book of this size to allow, I do wish that some effort was made to explain why these images in particular found their way onto postcards. I am afraid that for those unfamiliar with these Mountains this book will provide only limited insight as to why the Adirondacks are more than a series of attractions. However the amount of research put into this book should not be overlooked by those with a specific interest in this place or the postcards of it. I am sure that even long time residents thoroughly familiar with this area can make new discoveries within these pages.
The Adirondacks sells for $19.99 and should be available at area bookstores and online. It can also be purchased through Arcadia Publishing:
REVIEW by Alan Petrulis
Real Photo Postcard Guide
Published by Syracuse University Press
A few months ago when I heard that a new book on real photo postcards would be released this Fall, I said to myself, “What again”. I suspected another collector had finally amassed enough cards together to entice a publisher to put them into print; that perhaps no more than a few new points would be made on a history that has already been widely covered. This is not that book.
I was very pleasantly surprised at the scope these two authors took upon themselves. While the basic history of real photos along with a summary of the general printed postcard environment it grew from breaks little new ground, the subsequent chapters were quite a bit of an eye opener. First there is an exhaustive chapter on identifying real photo postcards, something that is badly needed by collectors and dealers alike. Rather than toss about a few common hints, identification techniques are explained in enough detail to actually be of practical use. Valuable topics such as captions, numbering, publishers, copyright, fakes, and more are all discussed here in great detail. Supplementing this chapter is a very practical appendix on the dating of real photos, which may not be complete but is the best I have seen in print.
The most valuable chapter in this book is the one that gives remarkably good insights into the careers of postcard photographers. The careful description of how real photo postcards were made from the beginning to end of the process would be of great appeal to anyone interested in any type of postcard. It is their careful presentation of information, far too rarely seen, that provides us with a true understanding of postcards.
There is also a very unusual chapter here for any book, one that discusses the desirability and quality of cards. Few would dare take on the possible controversy of presenting such a subjective topic in fear of confusing opinion with fact. But sometimes it is better to have some debatable dialog on a subject than have no information at all. While there could be some disagreement to what is said here, it is not presented in a heavy handed manner as if it were the last word to be said on the subject. A number of different viewpoints are represented here, and more than anything it creates an awareness to the many dimensions of postcards. From these insights even the most casual of viewer of cards can learn to open their eyes to the richness inherent in them.
This book also contains a large section on collecting categories. Other books I’ve seen have also covered topics, and some found here are only briefly discussed, but for others there are details given that are not easily found elsewhere. A helpful guide to handling and storing real photos is also included, as well as hints to doing your own postcard research.
When I first skimmed through this book I was taken aback a little by the printed quality of the photos. But once I got past my glossy expectations and began to look at their content I was more than satisfied. Considering the cost of printing I am happy they found a way to include more than 350 illustrations within these pages for the pictorial content alone makes this a valuable reference tool.
I have heard this book described many times as the “ultimate book on Real Photo Postcards”. Despite the extensive research that went into this project it is not. There are still too many pieces missing from postcard history for any book to claim that lofty title, and perhaps none ever will. What it is however is the most comprehensive book on the subject of real photo postcards written to date. No matter what you believe you may know on this subject, your knowledge will be enhanced by this book. I would recommend this be the first book anyone reads on real photo postcards to gain a good fundamental understanding of them, and for those well read, the supplemental material found here is well worth the purchase. This book is a model for what a postcard history should be. Let’s hope it is.
A Radical Statement
Most postcard collectors buy cards because they are attracted to the images on them. Many purchase cards because they will collect any image that fits in with a specific idea or place of their personal choosing. And then there are a few who seek out cards that epitomize what postcards themselves have been about throughout their history. But in order to do the later one must properly understand history with the awareness of the perils of looking back at postcards with a contemporary perspective. Without this outlook the little jewels that come your way may fall through your fingers.
One can look at the postcard pictured above and say so what, it’s only of a family at a beach. If published today it would probably be dismissed as nothing more than cliché, seeing as it preys on the sentimental at the cost of deeper meaning. But this card was postmarked in 1907, which not only makes it extremely unusual for its time, it makes it a radical statement. If a family such as this was observed by local authorities the woman lifting her skirt to wade in the surf would have been arrested for public indecency. While there are numerous seaside postcards of the same period that show women exposing their legs at the beach they were artist drawn or studio shots designed with the intention of being risqué. The publisher of this card however was Simplicissimus, a satirical German magazine that was well known for its many illustrations by cutting edge artists of the day. They depicted their concerns on a number of different social issues through the magazine’s illustrations, and then often reproduced them as postcards for wider distribution. The pictures presented often captured life as it was actually lived rather than only depicting idealized forms of the socially permissible. The idea that artists should be allowed to depict reality rather than have their work support the morals of society or a government agenda was a very radical notion back then, one that has not yet been fully resolved.
It may have once been rare to see a picture in print of a family enjoying themselves in this manner at a beach, but it was a fairly common place occurrence at the actual shore despite the fact it was then considered improper behavior. Few publishers in any nation dared to print such imagery in fear of being seen as encouraging the breakdown of morality. But with every passing year women gained more freedom, not necessarily by decree but by taking it into their own hands to express it. Laws regarding public exposure eventually had to be changed to catch up with behavior authorities found they could no longer control. This seemingly simple picture both acknowledges and supports the practice of unlawful behavior where outdated regulations are no longer supported by the public at large. The idea of people taking control of their own lives has never been a welcome one amidst those who aim to do the controlling, and Simplicissmus often found itself closed down at times by government officials.
A great number of different subjects have been captured on postcards but those depicting bathers at the ocean have been exceptionally numerous for more than a century. Postcards have not only carefully preserved the various styles of swimware that existed over the years but they now give us important clues as to how the human body, more notably the female form was perceived of over time. While it seems only natural to bathe without the cumbrance of clothing when in the privacy of ones own home, public bathing cannot be separated from a whole range of additional criteria governing everything from rules of modesty to social status. One must be careful not to interpret these postcards with a contemporary eye if their true meaning is to be understood.
The seashore used to be considered an ominous place where few ever wanted to live. Everything from high winds and storm surges to pirates and raiders could sweep over its shores and destroy lives in its wake. Swimming was not viewed as a natural activity and not many ever learned how. Even the most seasoned of sailors would usually drown if they were swept overboard. Those who dared to venture into cooling water on hot summer days usually chose small ponds where there was far less risk of drowning. Swimming was primarily an activity of children as frivolity could be more overlooked in youth. It was also an activity usually partaken of in the nude and rules governing modesty were not so stringently applied toward the young. Even though people were once more modest in dress, taboos on nudity tended to be far less prevalent than they are today; they very much existed but were generally confined to particular hours and settings. Such images are rarely captured on postcards for attitudes toward nudity had drastically changed during the Victorian era just prior to the advent of postcards.
When images of early nude bathing are found on cards they are usually either reproducing a work of art that was painted under a different set of rules, or are presented as a real photo postcard taken from some rural area where the grip of Victorian morality had not supplanted older customs. But even those artists and illustrators that left classical representation to depict contemporary scenes of nudity were pressing the boundaries of the permissible.
The excess of time and money associated with the rise of a middle class eventually gave the seashore an entirely new meaning. People still did not want to live there but they were happy to spend some time away from the heat of the stifling cities to visit beachside amusements or the summer accommodations that skillful entrepreneurs had provided. Many early visitors did not yet feel bold enough to partake in this new activity of ocean swimming. Instead they took in the cool ocean breezes while strolling about in full dress attire, possibly somewhat altered in style for a more informal day at the shore. By 1870 the first boardwalk was constructed to facilitate beachside strolling. It did not take long for walking about a boardwalk to develop its own set of rules. Not only was it a place to be seen to confirm a level of income high enough to provide for a vacation, it became a place for men and women to be introduced to one another in the ritual of courtship.
There was no progression in the development of bathing attire. Traditionally men and women who did swim did so in the nude or in undergarments. Proper women in the Victorian age did not expose flesh beyond their face in most social settings, and bathing dresses that fully covered them up to the wrist and neck became the appropriate fashion for the beach. Those who did venture into the water were almost as well dressed as those left ashore. Full length stockings were worn; sometimes two pair to insure there would be no sheerness. This attire was finished off with the addition of bathing slippers and a hat. Bathing suits for men were more contoured and revealing but not by much.
Even with the great lengths taken to expose as little flesh as possible most beaches were segregated between the sexes. Some beaches even used large bathing machines that not only provided a place to change clothing in, but created privacy by blocking the view of any onlookers from the shore. Bathing machines in various forms can be found on numerous postcards, especially from Europe. Many of these cards poke fun at the great lengths men would often go to in order to circumnavigate these obstacles for a simple peek.
On many old postcards long lines of rope can be seen suspended from poles stretching far out into the water. This device not only provided much comfort to those who could not swim but wished to enjoy the surf, it was absolutely essential for the safety of all those dangerously weighted down by a mass of wet fabric. This clearly illustrates how important the the efforts to preserve modesty were, even to the point of outweighing any practical concerns over drowning.
In the early years of the 20th century postcards began showing female bathers with bare feet and sometimes bare ankles and caves as well. Even the sleeves on some of these bathing dresses were sometimes cut far back enough to expose the arm above the wrist. These alterations however do not represent any real changes in fashion but rather a shifting philosophy in postcard production. There had always been a strong demand for cards containing female imagery from their very inception. Those depicting nudes were the most sought after but the most difficult to obtain for they could rarely be mailed and various criminal penalties could be attached to their dissemination.
If laws prohibited publishers from marketing nudes they could often get away with providing the risqué, and they did so in large numbers as the demand for them insured high profits. Publishers would continually press the limits on how much flesh they could show off in order to attract more customers without getting in trouble with the authorities. This created a situation where the fashions displayed on artist drawn and photo studio postcards were usually years ahead of what was actually socially permissible to wear out in public.
These risqué seaside cards stand out in nuanced contrast to all those fully covered women found on view-cards created from photographs taken at actual beaches. Contemporary eyes unaware of these historical subtleties can easily overlook the differences that were so evident in their own day. What we now consider overdressed to the point of being silly may have been seen as so overexposed at an earlier time to land the bather in jail.
Much of the early inspiration that altered women’s swimware did not originate within the garment industry but from those performers so admired by the public. Some of these were women athletes who put on displays of their swimming skills. The bathing dress that could be used for wading was impossible to actually swim in, so they were modified in ways that removed as much excess fabric as possible while still keeping the body completely covered. This new creation became known as the Unitard based on the contour fitting leotard that had been a staple of Burlesque shows since the 1880’s.
Some dared to go further like Annette Kellerman who cut the fabric away from her legs and found herself arrested in 1909 for indecent exposure as she walked onto a Boston beach. This effort by City officials to protect public decency found little public support. Kellerman was a very popular swimming star and women who sympathized with being forced to wear uncomfortable apparel were becoming more vocal and let their opinions be heard. All charges were dropped and after the media frenzy had ended Kellerman headed west to introduce her now famous unitard to Hollywood movies. Mabel Normand of Max Sennett’s Keystone Studio gained notoriety in 1912 by wearing a unitard in the film Water Nymph. The large draw of this film led producers to place many other notable actresses in these tight fitting unitards giving both the performer and the garment much additional public exposure. In this climate athletes such as Esther Williams were able to rise to stardom in a whole new movie genre that featured choreographed water ballets, a trend that continued into the 1950’s.
For most women the unitard remained a specialized garment for athletics, and the bathing dress remained their only choice for the beach. But the way they were designed did not mean that was the way they were actually always worn. Where women felt they had less risk of arrest they began rolling up their sleeves and leggings. This new makeshift style was most often seen in efforts to placate cranky children who could not quite comprehend why they had to be completely covered in hot weather. Eventually these growing informal actions along with the possibilities made familiar from their display on postcards helped to inspire real changes in more ordinary swimsuits.
Tank maillots that retained the hose and the bloomer look of the older bathing dresses while exposing a bit more skin quickly became the new look. No one specific style came to dominate and a large variety of different types can be found on postcards. Because of this variety it is sometimes difficult to determine if the image on a pre World War One postcard reflects the actual fashion worn in this period or is little more than someone’s erotic fantasy. Some postcards however leave us no doubt that the fashion displayed on them was beyond that of social respectability. Even in those of accurate design the poses struck might be accentuated to emphasize the female form.
Not all postcards displaying female skin from this period are pure fantasy, for just prior to the First World War a more permissive age was ushered in largely through the public’s fascination with the musical theater. The woman who performed on the stage of New York’s Ziegfield Follies had been wearing string halters for years while those at the Folies Bergere in Paris could be viewed in shows bare breasted. Stage fashion was soon adopted by films where topless women became a not so rare occurrence. By 1914 there was full nudity in cinema.
The erotic side of Burlesque, musical theater, and movies became the major driving force behind changes in swimsuit design. Women loved the early movies and made up more than 75 percent of the audience. This fact did not go unnoticed by studios and marketers who began promoting the image of the New Woman not only to appeal to the progressive ideals of Suffragists but largely to encourage consumerism. Items such as postcards that depicted favorite actresses became widely collected among fans. This not only helped to create movie stars, postcards became a major factor in cinema advertising. But the beach going public was not always ready to fully accept such drastic changes in style and it continually took about twenty years for stage fashion to reach the shore. A note found on a seaside postcard sent from one woman to another apologizes for the image explaining it was the only card she had.
While there is no doubt that early cards were manufactured for male titillation it must be remembered that it was women who were the loudest voice in pressing for more user friendly bathing apparel. To look back upon these images on old postcards today and call them sexist from an age when women have the right to expose their bodies is tricky business. The idea that women had a right to express their sexuality, let alone even having a sexual side to their nature was a newly growing concept in the early 20th century resisted mostly by men who continued to view women in skewered terms. Even though it was men who sought out these seaside postcards do to the appeal of female flesh, these cards gained a life far beyond their producers intentions as they began appealing greatly to women who saw in these same images inspirational steps towards their own freedom. The many women who took ever further risks in exposing more flesh were directly challenging the male dominated order that controlled their lives. Postcards played an important role in encouraging this behavior and became an model for the New Woman. Women would eventually become the target audience for most pin-ups produced of actresses.
In the years just before 1910 public attitudes relaxed a bit and the skirts on bathing attire rose to expose the knee just above the hose. As the legline crept ever upward exposing more of the thigh there began some protest to these provocative measures that halted any further advances. Many women who were unhappy with these new restrictions reacted in protest by lowering the height of their hose, eventually discarding stockings and slippers altogether to go to the beach in their bare feet.
Hats had been worn by both men and women for centuries for social as well as practical reasons, and so they inevitably became an essential accessory to the early bathing dress. At the turn of the 20th century women’s fashions started to become more body fitting and hats correspondingly grew larger until peaking in size around 1911. So while bathing suits were sliming down and women were exposing more skin, the beach hat remained quite fashionable and stayed atop most swimmer’s heads. It was not until shortages were ushered in by the First World War that beach hats began to be looked upon as frivolous and thus unpatriotic and they soon disappeared. The more elaborate hairstyles that came into vogue in postwar years would keep them off.
By 1913 innovative designers had produced the first skirtless swimsuit, and a year latter the first one piece bathing suit had its film debut in Neptune’s Daughter when worn by none other than Annette Kellerman. But even with this new possibility the short skirted maillot would remain the standard beach attire for many more years to come.
Not all of the public was happy to see women exposing more of their bodies and the government began to be pressured to do something about all this pervasive lewdness. After the Supreme Court ruled in 1915 that motion pictures were a commodity and not protected by First Amendment rights, the Wilson administration began expanding their political repressiveness over into the realm of morality as well. Postmasters were given free reign to confiscate and destroy what they personally judged to be unfit for the U.S. mail. Millions of seaside postcards were destroyed at the very time the printing industry was in a fiscal crisis. War shortages however demanded some practical changes. With fabric in high demand for uniforms the hemlines of women’s street dress was forced to be cut above the ankle in 1916 and they were almost up to the knee only a year later.
President Wilson’s repressive methods were not popular with the public and most disappeared with him as he left office. But while the post war years of the Roaring Twenties ushered in a period of freer social attitudes this did not carry over into further practical changes in bathing suit design. There were slight adjustments to style at this time but most changes tended to focus on new fabric patterns rather than on the cut. Seaside postcards became immensely popular during the 1920’s with many more being created through photography rather than traditional lithography methods. Most of these were studio shots with blank or elaborate painted backdrops of lapping waves. Many of the real photo cards from Europe began being produced in highly stylized ways, some on heavily blue and sepia toned paper often with not so subtle hand coloring added on.
Even though there was little change to what was worn to the beach in the 1920’s the bare midriff became a common fashion innovation on postcards at this time. The women depicted were for the most part presented as pinups whose style of dress was inspired by current fashion trends in live theater and on film. These images often found their way onto real photo postcards depicting actresses, and also onto the newly popular arcade card. The first actual bathing suits that exposed the midriff would not be seen until the mid 1930’s but by then they had to contend with the Hayes Code.
The Motion Picture Production Code created by the Hayes Commission in 1930 spelled out in precise terms what was morally acceptable to be shown and written into film. Exposure of the breasts, navel, and inner thighs as all undue depiction of flesh would now be prohibited in an effort to present only a correct standard of life on film. Though resisted by the studios at first, the boycotts and blacklists instigated by the Catholic Church made Barbarian, released in 1933 the last movie with any nudity in it for thirty five years. Older films were re-edited to take out any scenes deemed offensive. While the Hayes Code had no jurisdiction over the garment industry its repressive measures had a self editing effect. As the public was denied the possibility of any change in popular culture demand for change in design dwindled, and the United States would lose its position on the cutting edge of fashion. Hemlines in America were headed back down to the ankle.
While movies in the United States were showing less, the public in Europe were showing more. Various types of naturalist movements encouraging everything from vegetarianism to outdoor nudity gained great momentum during the 1930’s just as America was growing more conservative. Communing with nature played a big role in these philosophies in which sunbathing was pivotal. Men discarded the tops to their bathing suits for good while women began to expose their midriff.
This style change was first accomplished by providing the traditional maillot with creatively shaped cutouts. To expose even more skin x shaped straps were adapted to open the suit’s back. This innovation was naturally followed by the maillot being divided into two distinct pieces. The waste line however remained high, always above the navel.
When fabric shortages occurred again during the Second World War hemlines rose once more and the two-piece swimsuit would finally find its way to the United States. Because of its conservative use of material it could now be worn as a symbol of patriotism. The two-piece would evolve into a just handful of designs without a single one of them dominating. Tops took on the form of bras, string halters, and bandeaus, while bottoms were typically in the form of skirted panties, shorts, or sarongs. Another adaptation was the new skirtless panty bottom but it would not find much of an audience outside of Europe at this time. Publishers were only too happy to produce more postcards of women in these new swimsuits. With millions of uniformed men headed overseas a postcard of a bathing beauty became a staple moral booster.
At the War’s end while Americans were still trying to accept the high wasted two-piece, a swimsuit that exposed the stomach was introduced in Cannes under the name L’atome. Two weeks later on July 18, 1946 the French designer Louis Reard introduced an even skimpier swimsuit. He also took a clue from the new age usurered in by the atomic bomb blast at a Marshal Island atoll called Bikini and named his creation after it. Even in France acceptance of the Bikini was slow at first. But movie stars such as Brigit Bardo took on the challenge became known as The Bikini Girl for spending most of her career in one. While countless images of these bikini clad stars were being used as pinups the actresses found on them also continued to present a depiction of the strong independent woman. This did much to help popularize the style so by the end of the 1950’s bikinis were finally in high enough demand to be massed produced.
In America it was difficult to find images of women in bikinis outside of girlie magazines and on postcards, let alone actual ones on beaches. Even after fifty years there was still a mismatch between what was shown on postcards and reality. Because the navel was still required to be covered on film an unexpected emphasis began to be placed on women’s breasts. The 1940’s saw the introduction of the cone shaped bullet bra that ushered in the age of the Sweater Girl, a very popular subject on pinup postcards. Since it did not expose more flesh it was overlooked by the Hayes commission while the steel pushup bra, invented by Howard Hughes for Jane Russell in 1943 that allowed for more cleavage to be seen was attacked. After attempts by the Commission to ban images of women wearing this new bra failed it was further incorporated into popular fashion and onto postcard imagery. The bare back of the maillot also continued to be lowered downward. As it reached the small of the back they began to be designed to open up toward the front until they exposed almost as much skin as the bikini, but never the navel.
In 1952 the Supreme Court ruling that movies were not protected by free speech received its first legal challenge. It was not overturned but it demonstrated a significant growth in descent. By the late 1950’s American movie stars began posing offscreen for magazines and postcards in the bikinis they could not ware in films. The movie industry began suffering from low film attendance as their products grew more out of sync with cultural demands. Eventually they they replaced the Hayes code with a movie rating code system that had popular support; and in 1967 Racquel Welch appeared in One Million Years B.C. clad entirely in what would pass for a bikini. With more exposure in movies and a general shifting of morals during the 1960’s the bikini would finally make its way onto public beaches in the United States. The Hayes commission however still had a hold over television and they would prevent the first woman’s navel from being seen until 1975.
Many within the 1960’s counterculture took on a very open outlook toward exposing skin and began swimming in the nude legal or not. In many ways this brought the bathing cycle to full circle. Though their attitudes toward nudity affect us to this day they were never fully embraced by the public at large. Swimsuits have not yet disappeared from use, but they have come close to it in practical terms. As the swimsuit grew ever smaller the next natural step was for it to go topless, but the first woman to wear a topless malliot in 1964 on a Chicago beach was arrested for indecent exposure. But by the late 60’s topless suits had caught on along the Riviera before spreading across the entire Mediterranean. By the early 1980’s topless beaches had become the norm almost everywhere except in the United States. It was not until 1992 that topless bathing was made legal in New York State.
The bikini waste continued to drop until it could drop no further. This limitation inspired a new direction in the 1980’s in which the waste line would rise but take the leg line along with it to expose more of the rear. Eventually these tongas or thongs would thin out to be partially hidden between the two buttock cheeks. This innovation brought the maillot back into fashion once more for the leg line on them could be raised even higher to mid waist.
As picture and real fashion have become more closely synchronized the seaside postcard as a distinct genre has disappeared. While images of scantily clad women are now sold side by side with the most ordinary of view-cards they have lost much of their appeal as times have changed. Those interested in the erotic now have more explicit and widely available avenues open to them. And as the prospect of the New Woman has arisen, women now tend to view these types of cards in exploitive terms rather than finding them inspirational. There have been many contradictions over the years between the idealistic attitudes we hold and the ways we actually live our lives. This paradox is probably nowhere better expressed than on seaside postcards.
One of my favorite lines from the recent movie No Country for Old Men comes from a scene in a dinner in which a suspects wife asks the Sheriff if the story he just finished telling was true. After a moment he replies, Well, . . . it’s true that its a story. Everyone knows the story of Betsy Ross or at least they think they do. She was a seamstress from Philadelphia who George Washington with a couple of Continental Congressmen approached in 1776 to sew a flag that would become the first of our new Nation. Her role was not just passive for she convinced this delegation, ignorant in matters of sewing, into using a five pointed star instead of one of six points after she demonstrated the ease by which she could make them. While it is true that Betsy Ross had sewn some flags for Pennsylvania’s navy in 1777, she was otherwise indistinguishable from the thousands of other seamstresses that had no relationship to this story. Betsy died in 1836 as a women of no noted acclaim.
In 1870 William J. Canby, the owner of a neglected piece of property at 333 Arch Street was looking for a way to make a profit from it. He believed people might actually pay money to visit it if it had historical significance. He went on to present the story of his grandmother Betsy Ross and the American flag at a meeting of the Historical Society of Pennsylvania. This was the first time anyone outside his family had ever heard the tale. There was no physical evidence presented in any form to tie this story to Betsy or even to this building as no one knew for sure if it was Betsy’s home after Philadelphia issued new street numbers. In place of evidence elderly relatives were gathered to sign affidavits that stating that this story was in fact told to them over the years.
This story of Betsy and the Flag was not well received by historians at that time who began to immediately attack it for not only for the lack of any credible evidence, but it contradicted what was already known; Congress would not authorize an official flag for another year and that a number of different looking flags had all been in use previous to that time. But in the years following the Civil War America had changed and was hungry for anything that would help unite us into one nation. This story was a new way of looking at our flag and our history, which had been previously oriented to individual States or regions in a Country that was not yet a hundred years old. As flag veneration grew to become more common in a new climate nationalism, Betsy’s association with this icon raised her status in American culture. Some have gone so far to say that if George Washington fulfills the archetypal place of Father of our Country, then Betsy Ross completes this archetype by becoming this Country’s mother. In any case Betsy has been turned into a Mythological figure with many additional associations now attached to her.
The argument for supporting the Betsy Ross story comes from respecting the ancient tradition of passing down a family’s or even a larger groups history orally. This method of preserving information has long suffered from the biasses of historians who prefer everything noteworthy to be in writing. But this method has long overlooked critical sources of information, one that now in more recent times has opened up whole new perspectives and given us a richer more full view of our history. That said, oral traditions are not without their problems. Not all societies value the preservation of unaltered facts to the same degree. Stories are often changed or embellished overtime to better meet the needs of the current generation or their rulers. And there is also the perpetual problem of faulty memories. While Canby may have honestly told the story as it was passed down to him this does not mean it was true. The fact that such an event remained so insular within one family until it became the possible source of profit makes it highly suspect.
Once a story becomes a myth it is nearly impossible to get rid of. Items such as the vast amount of postcards made representing her have had a greater impact on the American psyche than any plain facts. Not only are the reputations of the people who have long supported it on the line along with the prestige of family names, but also our identity as Americans for we use myths not history to define us. The reliability of this story has always been a contentious issue among historians. What is interesting about those who cling to this story today is that most of the arguments made in support of it do not supply evidence to back it up but rather try to punch holes in the arguments against it. So while we are at it I would like to throw in my great great great grandmother as a contender to having sewn the first American flag. While there is no evidence for her actually having done so, or any that even shows that she was even in this Country at the time, no evidence exists that absolutely eliminates her from the possibility of having sewn it.