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Reflections on Being a Lady Postcard Dealer (part two)
Where do we get our cards? They come from every possible angle, sometimes the most unexpected. Once I was called to look at a small button collection (my other business/hobby) and casually asked if they had postcards too. Well, they did, two family albums including quite a nice bunch of real photo cards. Because I’ve been involved with postcards for over 40 years in Oregon, I have seen a whole generation of my former customers cease collecting because of blindness, illness or death, or simply a change in collecting interests. In many cases, their collections have been offered to me to buy. One important collection was purchased from the widow, who told me that another important collection had been offered to her husband just prior to his untimely death, and she gave me the necessary information to be able to acquire that collection as well. Those collections were of two of the cofounders of the Webfooter Postcard Club of Oregon, Leo Burton and Lillian Wyman.
You gotta have faith sometimes: When purchasing Wyman’s collection, she needed the financial security that the proceeds would provide her at that time, but she wasn’t ready to let go with her favorite categories. So we had an agreement that someday I would get the rest, but I paid for the entire collection up front. Some ten years or so later, I learned that she would be moving shortly to an adult foster care facility and needed to clean out her apartment. Two more van loads later, I finally had the rest of her collection, plus many other unexpected paper goodies she was afraid would end up in the garbage if I didn’t take them. So patience and faith paid off in the long run.
Other ways to acquire stock: A fellow had seen Edouard’s phonographs and records for sale in our Expo Show booth, and arranged for us to come to his house to hopefully buy his records. While I was taking the directions to his home over the phone, I casually asked if he had postcards too. Turns out he was selling stuff he’d inherited from his mother, and yes, he had quite a bunch of cards, which we were able to buy at the same time. Being an active presence in the postcard business is one of the best ways to acquire more stock, as people seem to gravitate to the apparently most successful dealers when they want to sell their cards. We often have cards offered to us as a result of selling at Expo or other antique-type shows, as well as some postcard shows. Word of mouth among friends and family has brought in albums too.
It never hurts to advertise: even the free kind can bring results.
It really helps to be a postcard collector first: Many successful dealers started out first as collectors only. Over the years of collecting they developed the necessary knowledge, respect for the cards, and love of the hobby to make them really good dealers. If a dealer knows how it feels to be on the other side of the table, it may make them a more empathetic and reasonable person to deal with, and thus a more successful dealer. Being a collector first also gives one a chance to build up a better starting stock.
Some suggested dos and don’ts for postcard dealers:
Would I do it all over again? In a NYC heart beat. There are pros and cons to any type of employment, but I prefer self-employment, even though the work is never finished and workaholic types like myself work way more hours a week than salaried folks do. But setting one’s own schedule and being one’s own boss has worked very well for me, as I have enough self-discipline to do the necessary to be successful. Starting way back in the late 1960’s as we both did, Edouard in Paris and me in Portland, Oregon, was a huge boost to our careers and continues to stand me in good stead, as I am still sorting and selling cards that were purchased many years ago. Today I think it is much more difficult for folks to get started as self-employed postcard dealers, unless they have an enormous capital with which to purchase stock, or they have another income they can depend on while they build their postcard business. I depend upon my postcard show income to support me, as I do not do mail order or internet sales. I’ll never be rich, but at least I have no debt and can pay all bills when due, with a little left over to buy that next collection. And I can do it all from home, in my pj’s if I want, except for the shows, of course. What more can I say.
With a Weapon and a Grin: Postcard Images of France’s Black African Colonial Troops in WWI
The exposure to Europeans of Africans in the course of the First World War was of enormous importance in both the reinforcement and the refashioning of the image of the African. France, to justify its conquering of large swaths of Black Africa, had initially portrayed the African as a savage in need of its civilizing mission (mission civilatrice). However, with the onset of World War I, the French realized they would need use of their colonial troops to fight the Central Powers in Europe itself. To accomplish this, the view of the African male as uncivilized and threatening would have to be modified to that of a fierce fighter, loyal to France. Furthermore, he would need to be portrayed as presenting no danger to French citizenry. With this in mind, the French began a campaign to show the African soldier as a Grand Enfant, a naive character, child-like in nature. Interestingly, Germans, incensed at the French use of African troops in Europe, responded by reinforcing the image of the African as a savage and cannibal. Both views are reflected on the postcards of the time, and it would be hard to overestimate the importance such cards played in influencing public opinion. Many millions of cards were posted in France alone leading up to and during the war, and a large percentage were bi- or multi-lingual, attesting to an even wider audience. Meanwhile, satirical cards on the hypocrisy and contradictions of Western Civilization from the colonial soldiers’ point of view, though rare, can also be found. This article contains postcards from my own personal collection, and is an abbreviated version of a chapter of a work in progress, titled, Inventing Africans: Images of Africans on the Early Postcard.
The use of colonial troops by Europeans has a long history. As early as the Crimean War, 1854-1856, almost half the French army was of African origin. The Africans fought as well with the French in Mexico in the 1860’s and during the Franco-Prussian War in 1870-1871. In fact, the conquering of the continent of Africa itself was heavily contingent on the use of native soldiers.
It was during the First World War that the impact of African troops upon the ordinary European, especially the French, was most felt. Between 1914 and 1918, over 140,000 West Africans were recruited into the French Army and served as combatants on the Western Front. Of these, approximately 30,000 gave their lives. These troops were called Sengalese Infantrymen (Tirailleurs Sénégalais) and had their origin in 1857, when Napoleon III created an African Corps with that name. In spite of the name, however, many of the men came from Upper Volta, Guinea and Mali.
There was much debate in France initially on whether to use large numbers of African troops in combat role in Europe. Colonel Charles Mangain was its chief proponent. In 1910, he had established the La Force Noire in preparation for possible war with Germany, and in his writings argued that the African recruit had natural abilities that suited him for soldiery; he was able to live in harsh climates, was able to bear heavy loads over large distances due to centuries of such practices, had a less developed nervous system which resulted in a higher tolerance for pain, was more apt to be obedient due to the strong patriarchal nature of his society, and came from a continent where warfare was almost second nature. Mangain at the same time ranked various African tribes according to their skills and adaptability for service in a European war.
A major consideration was how to employ large contingents of Africans in France when the popular image of the African was that of a savage. The solution centered on a propaganda campaign which changed the image of the Black African from that of a primitive warrior to that of a disciplined soldier, fierce in battle and anxious to serve his Mother County. The image of the African was also softened to show a less threatening side; He was now a large child (Grand Enfant), amicable, and ever ready to flash his broad smile. To allay French fears, Africans troops, also, were kept as isolated as possible from the civilian French population, served mostly in segregated units, and were taught only the minimal amount of French necessary to perform their duties.
In Figure 1, the evolution from primitive tribesman to soldier is illustrated by a feminine symbol of France viewing the African troops as they emerge from their villages to parade past a triumphal arch (Honor and Homeland) toward the Invalides, symbol of French military power. The translated caption reads: To My Children of the Black Continent. France the One and Indivisible Protectrice. In bold letters on the verso can be found: Encouragement for the Indigenous Soldier in France. The West African soldiers are now “children” of France, emerging en masse from the “Black Continent,” under the caring eyes of a French protectress that symbolizes their Freedom. How very proud and grateful these troops must be, the postcard implies. And now it is the duty of the French populace to accept and give them support.
Once the savagery of the African has been channeled into the disciplined courage of the French fighter, his invincibility is practically assured. In Figure 2, a Senegalese Infantryman has captured both Kaiser Wilhelm of Germany and Franz Joseph of Austria-Hungary. He stands proudly with both enemy leaders cowering under his strong grip. The caption reads: The European Conflict in 1914. There they are: the two who wanted to Devour Europe. On a card called Reprisals and belonging to a series on war humor, a Senegalese Infantryman (Figure 3) has cut off the ears of a German soldier, who is shrieking in pain and horror. The African jumps for joy, crying out in dialect: You’ve been wounded? . . . I’ll take care of that . . . Ho, ho , ho, Good!! Good! Pig’s ears. The Infantryman is wearing the distinctive wide trousers of the Senegalese soldier, along with the cheka, or red cap. In his hand, he brandishes his coupe-coupe, a long knife issued for use in hand-to-hand fighting and often associated with the fighting skills of the African Infantryman.
In Figure 4, two Senegalese are chasing after retreating Germans. In dialect, the caption reads: I understand now: The head and ass of the Boche (slang for German) are one and the same. The term used here for “one and the same” is kif-kif, a word which came into standard French from the Arabic, as a consequence of the French colonization of North Africa
A Senegalese fighter in Figure 5 is cooking up his meal over a fire in the captured helmet of a German. He smiles and remarks in dialect: It’s good! The German (Boche) is treating me to this delicious meal! Here, there is perhaps the hint of the African having cooked up the enemy soldier for his nourishment.
In Figure 5, the term “Ya bon!” is used to mean “C’est bon!” (It’s good!). Ya bon or the variant Y’a bon is perhaps the most common form of petit-nègre associated with the Senegalese troops. It is an expression of contentment, and was used by the manufacturer of Banania, a chocolate drink for children, in poster ads beginning in 1915. The ads showed a Senegalese Infantryman, representing strength and the exotic, serving himself a spoonful of the popular drink. At the same time, he is flashing a broad smile, which marks him as a Grand Enfant (large child) and lessens whatever threat he might pose as an adult sexual Black male. This advertisement, with some design changes, can still be found throughout France. For two variants, see Figures 6-7. (Both cards hold French copyrights: 2005 NUTRIAL et) The anger which this symbol of the African evoked in the more politically conscious can be found in the poetry of Senegalese author and statesman Léopold Senghor, who writes in one of his verses: “But I will tear off the banania grins from all the walls of France.”
Due to the difficult adjustment of African troops to the harsh European climate, each winter the Senegalese Infantrymen were transferred to camps in the south of France, a practice called hivernage. One such camp, Le Courneau, is shown in Figure 8 and titled The Wash. Men are shown washing out their clothing on the river bank in a rather pastoral scene. Images such as this, and others showing the African troops performing other everyday tasks, such as preparing meals, were meant to give a human face to the Black soldiers.
It would be difficult to imagine a more compelling tribute to the Senegalese Infantryman than that found in Figure 9. The illustration is entitled: THE NEW MAGI KINGS. CHRISTMAS! These are truly the sons of the Magi Kings, the Senegalese, the Indian, the Arab offer their humble gifts to a Belgian child inside a farm in Flanders, where the ravages of war have left only a cowshed. Reference is to the German invasion and subjugation of Belgium, a neutral country, at the beginning of the First World War. The act brought charges of barbarism from the Allied Nations, and rumors spread quickly about Germans bayoneting Belgium babies. Here, the Belgium victims, mother and child, are compared to Mary and Jesus, while the New Magi Kings represent the troops from the colonies uniting with the European soldiers gathered around to ward off the German enemy. The African fighter is most sympathetically drawn, kneeling directly in front of the child and tenderly presenting his gift.
Cards portraying wounded black soldiers also helped allay French fears of the African, and reinforced the image of these men making sacrifices for France. Figure 10, entitled Good News, shows a Red Cross nurse reading a letter to a wounded black soldier with bandaged head and arm. He has a smile on his face, delighted, we may presume, not only by the welcome news he has just received but by the young and attractive nurse sitting on his bed.
By way of contrast, in Figure 11 it is a French White soldier who is being given aid and comfort by African fighters. Above the bilingual, English-French caption The Good Samaritans/Les Bons Samaritains d’Afrique, the card reads, in French only: Barbars Noirs? (Black Barbarians?) and is an obvious attempt to counter notions the French populace may have of Africans as savages. Another bilingual English-French card of French origin, Figure 12, is of interest on several levels. It portrays a French peasant woman giving grapes to a wounded Senegalese soldier. Interaction between the civilian population, especially females, and the African soldiers was discouraged during the war, and efforts were made to keep the contact at a minimum. Here, though, a French woman in the countryside is offering thanks to a brave soldier who has made a sacrifice for France. And though a number of black troops are marching up the road in their direction, neither of the two women on the card show fear in their expressions. The woman providing the gift of grapes seems, instead, rather pleased at the opportunity to help the Black soldier, who looks down in gratitude. Use of two languages on the card indicates its message of racial accord is expected to travel beyond the Francophone reader.
One of the more positive experiences African soldiers in France had with the civilian population was the result of the correspondence between male soldiers and the female French civilians fostered to boost the troops’ morale. The women were referred to as “marraines,” which means “godmothers” in French. Typically the marraines would undertake to adopt a soldier, whom they would write and to whom they would send packages or money for tobacco and other amenities. If the women met the soldiers in person, they would often invite them into their homes. This relationship between Senegalese Infantrymen and French marraines often led to genuine friendships and a semblance of social equality. Figure 13 is entitled Marraines et Poilus. “Poilu” is the common designation for the French soldier in the First World War. Here, the soldier towers over the French woman, who seems taken aback by his size and gesture. We can surmise that she had no idea that the man she had been writing was a Black African. Large as the African is portrayed, he seems very much the “Grand Enfant.” With a smile on his face he poses no real harm to the woman.
Also in cartoon format, Figure 14, dated 1919, shows a marraine who is just learning that the soldier with whom she has been corresponding is an African. As if his appearance in not proof enough, the Senegalese Infantryman tells of the obvious in a confession (My dear little godmother. I must tell you something. I am a nigger.) Distress at the revelation seems to be felt on both sides. This card’s caption is in three languages - French, English, and Russian, the languages of the three major Allies at the start of the War. The French and Russian terms for Black person here are the standard nègre/negr. The English translation opts for “nigger,” a term as derogatory in the early decades of the 20th century as it is today. There were recorded instances of marraines not knowing their correspondents were Africans, and interestingly enough, at least in fiction of the time, even instances of marraines turning out to be men, disguising their gender to the soldiers. A third cartoon card, Figure 15, depicts a tirailleur wooing a blond French woman curled up on an armchair. Both are shown as children figures, while hovering above them is a full-sized adult woman, perhaps the blond’s mother or a maid, who has discovered them and exclaims in English, Oh! Shocking!
While the choice of theme in these cards points to a French concern with interracial relations, the use of humor and cartoon figures reflect a rather light hearted attitude toward the subject matter. Reducing the Black soldier to a child-like figure in cartoons was a common practice for the French. It helped moderate French fears of a sexualized Black African adult in their midst, and was exploited for its humorous effect. In Figure 16, a Senegalese Infantryman promises French Chief of Staff Joffre in petit-nègre: Rest assured! I will kill many Boches.
Throughout the War, the French had promoted the image of the African troops as fierce fighters, whose role would be critical in sending the Huns reeling back to Berlin. This same image of the fierce African was used by the Germans to protest the use of African troops by the Allies on European soil. German propaganda railed against their use as an insult to civilized behavior and to Germany itself. After the courageous resistance of the Senegalese Infantrymen at Reims, in June of 1918, for example, the Black troops were portrayed by the Germans as being mindless and drunk on brandy as they brandished their coupes-coupes. God Punish England! the card in Figure 17 cries out. It shows a shirtless African soldier, disturbed looking and frazzled, beneath whom the caption reads: On the French War Front a captured Cannibal (Man-eater), a fighter “for culture.”
An Italian postcard resonating with a similar theme in Figure 18 shows caricatures of the Allied troops in which the African stands out as a stereotypical savage. He is barefoot, nearly naked except for a skirt and unattached cuffs, and holds both a pipe and a bottle of alcohol. His skull is ape-like, his lips exaggeratedly large, and he looks deranged. The caption reads: The Collaborators of the English. Neither the Scotsman nor the Indian soldier is treated with anywhere as much disdain.
Of course, the Germans were particularly sensitive to the accusation of being savages themselves. Early on in the War, especially after their invasion of Belgium, rumors spread as to the barbaric atrocities committed by the Kaiser’s army, including the killing of children, crucifixion of Allied soldiers, etc. The term “Hun” became popularly used, a term which recalled the supposed uncivilized tribal ancestry of modern-day Germans. Any number of cards were produced by the Allied nations referring to the Germans as “barbarians,” and vast numbers of cards published in Germany countered with pictures of German troops distributing food to children in the “liberated lands,” with captions such as German “barbarians” feeding orphaned children in France. What supreme irony, then, is expressed in the French card in Figure 19. A Senegalese Infantryman is standing guard over a number of captured German soldiers, which a French family has come to view. The African, confident and smiling, turns to the family and asks whether they have come to see the savages. The African has now been transformed from savage to loyal and amicable French soldier. He is no longer the one being observed across a fence, as happened at the World’s Fairs and Expositions. In fact, his savagery has been channeled into service to the Mother Country. Now, it is the German who is the uncivilized one, in need of guarding and the object of curiosity. The caption is written in petit-nègre, and English and Russian, languages of the Allies.
A cartoon equivalent, Figure 20, shows the resentment of an overtowering German prisoner being referred to as a “savage.”
The Infantryman has the full admiration and attention of his nearly naked girlfriend.
Further German complaints about the use of Black Africans troops on European soil took place immediately after the war, when the Versailles Treaty allowed for a fifteen-year occupation of the German Rhineland. Approximately 40,000 of the soldiers assigned were to come from France’s colonial empire. In reality, 5000 Black African troops served from 1919 until June 1920. On a German card, Figure 21, as an example, a Black soldier stands guard over German workers in what is entitled the “Ruhr Invasion.”On card 21a, titled “Germans Don’t Forget. Through Generations of Slave Labor,” a white German worker kneels over in the field while a brutish looking African soldier is about to slam his weapon into him. The Germans felt particularly humiliated by the use of Africans and the popular press referred to their employment as “Die Schwatze Schande” (The Black Shame) There was talk of savages and rape. Relations between the Black soldiers and German women did exist, and the offspring were commonly referred to as the “Rhineland bastards.” Sterilization of the children was advocated by the right wing and later, under the Nazis, approximately 385 were indeed sterilized.
In Hitler’s Mein Kampf, the future führer refers to the presence of Black troops in the French Army as a pollution and negrification of their once pure race. France eventually relented in the deployment of Black troops in the Rhineland, due in part to pressure from the United States and Britain. The viscous stereotypes persisted though, as witnessed by Italian posters in the Second World War showing America’s Black soldiers ransacking Christian churches and the Vatican’s request that the Allied Forces ban Black soldiers from occupying liberated Rome, for fear of mass rape. Many German cards were distributed referring to the perceived threat of African soldiers to German women.
Another category of WWI card portraying Africans is that showing prisoners of war. Here, the German image of the African is less demeaning. In figure 22, for example, the Black soldier is rolling up his sleeves to do the wash, a broad smile across his face. The caption reads simply, Prisoner of War Camp: The Big Wash. A second card, Figure 23, shows the Kleinwittenberg Prisoner of War Camp and above, five captives. The African is direct center, perhaps seen as the most exotic of the group.
Figure 24 is a more unusual card depicting a captured tirailleur. The photograph was taken at Cottbus, a German prisoner of war camp in 1916 and shows a theater production in which a tirailleur is being wooed by two White soldiers in full drag. Cottbus and an adjacent camp nearby boasted British, French and Russian theaters and such a card no doubt had propaganda value for the Germans.
In a revealing critique of just what is “civilized,” an Italian postcard, Figure 25, shows three soldiers from the colonies, a Senegalese Infantryman, a North African and an Indian, discussing the current state of affairs.
The African points to the vicious artillery barrages and destruction in the background by the European armies, and remarks: And to think, they are the ones who have taught us how to be civilized! The card is unusual in expressing the disillusionment with war and the hypocrisy of the European Nations from the perspective of the colonized peoples at a time when such views, though not uncommon, were subject to strict censorship.
Reflections on Being a Lady Postcard Dealer (part one)
My first postcard buy: 2 shoe boxes of cards from an early California family, found at an estate sale in 1969. Great stuff, kept most of it, which started me on the collecting path. The rest went into stock in the antique shop I had at the time.
My first postcard buying mistake: At that same estate sale, there were four shoe boxes full of postcards. I picked just two, the ones with the pretty colorful greetings. Left the two with real photos. Sob . . .
How I found out about a postcard club: A visitor to my antique shop told me about the Webfooters, which I promptly joined in 1967.
How I became a dealer: I purchased a whole car full of postcards (you should have seen my 1967 Barracuda going down the road at full tilt position from being overloaded in the back end). There weren’t really that many cards I wanted to keep from the collection, so I started selling the rest from my dining room in Albany. Word spread, and soon I opened a postcard shop in the apartment on the side of our house. Back then, in the 1970’s, original family albums and old collections turned up quite often, so I had many opportunities to purchase cards. Living in a small town, word of mouth and advertising in the area newspapers was all it took.
How I made a living as a postcard dealer in those days: Until 1975, I kept my job as Executive Secretary to the President of Linn-Benton Community College, with all its nice fringe benefits and job securities. But finally, I dared to cut those strings and go it alone as a postcard dealer. Obviously, shop sales were not enough to sustain me and my family, so I started doing mail order approvals. In those days $1 was a lot to ask for a card, so most that I sent out were priced .10, .15, .25, .35, .50, .65, .75 - you get the idea. Sigh, for the good old days, eh? Believe it or not, I mailed out about $3000 in approvals most months, and sold a good deal of that. But I needed to, as I was the sole support of a husband, his son and our home. That lasted until 1980, when I was forced to flee my home in fear of my life from an abusive husband. I left everything behind except my postcards, which went into storage in a distant town for many months. I lived in fear and hiding for at least six months, after which I began to reestablish a new life there.
On doing mail order approvals: I never started up the mail-order approval business again after resettling in Portland in 1981. I just didn’t have the heart, as it was very hard work doing that volume, and some customers gave me a bad time. They kept the cards, never replied to my letters or paid, or promised to pay and never did. Others were not nice, or made sexist (when they found out I was a relatively young and attractive female) remarks, or were generally disagreeable, not considering the amount of work it took to find and send cards to them with no advance payment or guarantee of payment required. The majority of customers were wonderful, however, which is what sustained me doing the approval business as long as I did. But times change, and so did I.
My first shows as a postcard dealer: Prior to 980, the only local shows I recall doing were stamp shows in various Oregon towns. Demand for postcards at stamp shows wasn’t great, but it was better than nothing. Then I attended an Angels Flight Postcard Show in West Los Angeles, just as a visitor/buyer, and had my eyes opened to the real postcard world as it was in the early 1970’s. I stood in line waiting to get in just in front of a trio from San Francisco area, who thought there should be a postcard show in SF, too. They turned out to be Jan & Chuck Banneck and Barbara Allenbaugh, who became the founders of the San Francisco Postcard Show, which eventually sold out to R & N Productions, and now owned by Hal Lutsky. I started doing their shows from the very first one, and never looked back.
Early postcard parties at the Loyal Inn: Before the Pacific Northwest Post Card Club was even a gleam in someone’s eye, I organized postcard parties in Seattle. Because Phyllis Rafferty and I had become friends through my early postcard selling events, I rented a suite at her hotel, the Loyal Inn. I invited everyone I had had postcard dealings with, and folks came in from the east side of the Cascades and down from Canada. I laid out all my postcards and a delicious food spread too. A great time was had by all, and I continued with these parties for several years. Eventually we moved into the Gold Room as the crowd grew larger and I added other dealers to the event. The PNWPCC was a natural outgrowth of these parties.
Venturing to the reeeeaaallly big postcard “shew” for the first time: That would be the Metropolitan Post Card Club’s International Show in New York City! Man, was I nervous, a small-town girl who’d heard too many stories of muggings and worse in NYC. I remember speaking with Andreas Brown and Susan Nicholson about my fears, which they promptly pooh-poohedand strongly urged me to get myself on out to NYC. So I did, May of 1981. Phyllis Rafferty and I flew out and roomed together. I still remember how much the airfare was $450. I was only able to get into the show because of the kindness of friend Alice Sharon (long since deceased, sadly) who was willing to let me have half of one of her tables. Oh, I had a great time at the show. But the greatest part of all is still to come . . .
Know when to hold them, know when (and where) to sell them: Years before, I had had the great fortune to buy the collection of the founder of the Webfooter Postcard Club, Mr. Ernest Cooper, from his widow. It was such a huge collection, costing way more money than I could afford, but Mrs. Cooper let me make three payments, bless her soul. So immediately I held a special sale of much of the collection in order to raise money to pay off my debt. That sale is still talked about today. Shirley Parker Wilson (now Pollack) offered her family home in North Albany for the venue, and we had people hanging off the rafters, looking at cards in every room downstairs.
But I didn’t put ALL the cards for sale at the time. Nope, I decided to hold a bunch of French view cards for the time when I could offer them to a real French postcard dealer. These cards looked pretty good to me, but what did I know (especially at that time) – I was just going on instinct. But it served me well, because I took these cards with me to that first NYC show, hoping there would be at least one French postcard dealer present. And there was only one that time, a certain Mr. Edouard Pécourt, who really liked my cards and made me an astounding offer for the majority of them. Then he promptly asked me (and Phyllis too) out to dinner with English dealer Kiki Werth and Belgian dealer Jacques Dierkes to an Argentine restaurant.
This story doesn’t end there, though, as some of you already know. Edouard asked me out to dinner the next night, alone, and that’s the beginning of the rest of my life. But back to postcard-pertinent details, it’s interesting to know that the cards I sold to Edouard in NYC were primarily from a series called CMCB, featuring costumes and customs of every-day people who lived in Brittany, France in the early 1900’s. Edouard had a show the following week in Brittany, and took the collection there, and started a sensation in the French postcard-collecting world. Many of those cards were very scarce and collectors despaired of ever finding them. But all that changed with the unveiling of Edouard’s album of cards from Ernest Cooper’s collection, which Cooper had acquired in a trade with an early Belgian postcard collector. Soon an all-time high price would be realized in auction on one particular card from the collection. And most of all, everyone there wanted to know where on earth Edouard had found such a collection. He said from an American lady postcard dealer, and one year later he invited me to attend that same postcard show in Brittany as a special guest. There I was feted as the “Queen of Brittany” along with the King of Brittany himself, Edouard Pécourt. Morale: follow your instinct and know when to hold or when and where to sell.
Sidebar: Being a woman dealer really stood me in good stead for acquiring the Cooper collection. She told me that right after Ernest died, she was besieged by men dealers with requests to sell his collection. She wasn’t able to cope at that time, so did nothing. I contacted her several years after his passing, and she was receptive to me because I was not an “aggressive man”, so she said. Plus the fact that she invited me to stay in her home during the duration that I reviewed the collection to come up with an offer, which ended up taking several days. Since I lived 100 miles away, it was very helpful to me to stay with her, and she would not have felt comfortable having a strange man in her home that way.
The postcard show schedule expands: Once I’d broken the ice with the NYC show, there was no holding me back. I started doing shows in Wichita, San Diego, Pasadena, Kansas City, Atlanta, Chicago, Cedar Rapids, NYC, etc. Edouard joined me from France when possible, and soon we had combined our stocks and our lives. For several years we traveled to NYC by plane, and then by van, twice a year, doing other shows along the way whenever possible. Then I moved to France for several years, where we continued doing shows there, all over Europe, including London, Brussels, Strasbourg, Monaco, Madrid, Paris, and many other places in France. What a great way to travel and be able to afford it! I learned to speak French while living there and doing the shows as Edouard’s assistant.
. . . and it contracts: After driving to NYC twice a year for several years, we experienced burnout and cut way back on out-of-area shows. Today I do shows only in Portland, Oregon, where I live, as well as an occasional Seattle area show.
In memory of Edouard Pécourt 1925-2008: Sadly, my darling Edouard passed away this July from lymphoma, after 27 fabulous years together. We always talked about visiting NYC and another postcard show there, but it was not to be. I do miss the excitement of visiting NYC and its postcard shows. Hopefully I will be able to come back again someday. If so, I look forward to seeing some familiar faces, as well as many new ones who are now in the postcard business.
REVIEW by Alan Petrulis
Walker Evans and the Picture Postcard
Published by Steidl for the Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York
I think Walker Evans, that anti-establishment photographer would have been pleased to see his postcards hanging on the walls of a prestigious art museum in New York. Except for the protective glass cases they rested under, the atmosphere was similar to what would have been found in any one of the thousands of postcard shops that filled America in the early 20th century. Upon entering the exhibition I was confronted by a wall of postcards, those folk images previously deemed irrelevant to the art world. To the uninitiated the hundreds of cards on display, edited down from the 9,000 cards in the Evans archive, easily steal the show. For the most part they are broken down and arranged into the same categories that Evans had carefully filled them in. Though none of these cards can be considered rarities even a veteran collector as myself was drawn into the display. I have always looked upon postcards as miniature works of art and their fine presentation at the museum only solidified this perception. It is a tribute to the Metropolitan Museum of Art that they would not only break with the long standing tradition of excluding this type of work from the public’s view, but in publishing a large book to accompany the show as well.
Antique postcards remain one of the great and largely untapped resources for historians. They illustrate the ways in which we once saw ourselves and the ways we perceived others. They have also preserved many of life’s everyday small details from days gone by even when there was no intention of doing so. It is these overlooked particulars of our world that often add something extra to an image beyond mere documentation, something lyrical as Walker Evans would say. The term “lyrical documentation” is a phrase Evans used to describe the simple poetry that exists on many postcards as well as in his own work. The fact that he connects the two so closely in their visual language tempts us to examine the correlation between Evans collecting of postcards and the photographs he produced. The exhibition Walker Evans and the Picture Postcard at New York’s Metropolitan Museum of Art revolves around just this relationship.
Many artists are collectors, if not with literal objects then by capturing the world around them through their art. Evans said that “his eye collects,” a living process of seeing the world that can be evidenced in his photography as well as in the postcards he accumulated. Collecting for Evans was not just a pleasant pastime but something that really possessed him. He sometimes went to great lengths to retrieve postcards he had mailed out to friends, revealing how deep his relationship was to these seemingly incidental items. There were vast arrays of postcards published that do not fit in to any of the categories on display here or even resemble his characterizations of them. But this is beyond this exhibition’s scope, which centers in on the single question of whether there was some relationship between the postcards Evans collected and his photographic style
The book published to accompany this exhibition reproduces much of the evidence put forth in an attempt to make this connection between postcards and photographs. Not only are there numerous examples of the cards Evans purchased but interesting samples of the correspondence on them as well. Even the paper tabs that he used to divide his cards into categories are on view, which is a nice graphic touch within the confines of the book but dangerous at the show as it borders on treating what was of little significance to the artist as a holy relic. While it was wonderful to see the actual Fortune Magazine issues containing articles on postcards written by Evans at the museum, their reproduction in the book though smaller gives us a chance to actually read them in their entirety out from under glass. But for me the stars of the show were the real photo postcards that Evans created in 1936 as part of a failed collaboration with the Museum of Modern Art. They are displayed for compariso alongside reproductions of the larger 8 by 10 inch prints that they share the same negatives with. Originally taken while working for the Resettlement Administration, their new format in a severely cropped down postcard size gives us some insight into the evolution of Evans’ style. While the book reproduces some of his real photo postcards, the original photographs from which they were taken were left out. I found this very disappointing for they added much to the understanding of his decision making but this is the only real downside to this otherwise splendid volume.
Also to be found on these pages is a transcript from a talk Evans gave on postcards at Yale University in 1964, which include his comments on the specific cards that were part of his slide presentation. While the postcards from this talk are on display at the exhibition, they are much more effectively presented within the book where they more clearly help illustrate the points he is making. To hear Evans in his own voice through this transcript and other numerous quotes leaves us no doubt of the importance he attributed to postcards and of their connection to his work as a photographer. While this is very helpful and lessens our need to speculate, in the end we must speculate. This book gives no definitive answers to the important questions it raises, which is as it should be since we can not know with any certainty what was in Evans’ mind. But the author does lean toward the assumption that the lyrical type of postcards he collected since a child of eight affected the aesthetics of his later professional photo work. I am more inclined to believe that his ability to see the lyrical within the vernacular was an innate characteristic that he shared with the countless other photographers employed by postcard publishers. His postcards worked to reenforce this simple vision and give him the courage to express it to a world expecting the sentimental and idealistic. It is difficult to say if he would have been the same photographer without postcards but the act of collecting cards surly honed his search for vision.
This book does as close a job of capturing the spirit of an exhibition as I have seen. Most visual aspects of the show are presented here along with a very well researched and detailed essay on the various aspects of Evans’ connection to postcards. Unlike many postcard books that are forced to reproduce images in black & white to cut cost, this volume presents 395 cards and photographs from the show in color that is so accurate I was tempted to see if I could lift some cards off from their pages. The design itself is very clean and comfortable. This is not a book about postcards as much as it is about a close life long relationship between a photographer and his collection. It is not just a scholarly document as it asks us to examine how we perceive images and thus the world; an endeavor everyone should engage in collector or not. We all need to put a greater effort into learning how to see and not just in looking. For this alone the exhibition and book are valuable.
Back in the 1930’s a photograph by Evans would sell for about fifteen dollars. This was not just due to the hard economic times but because little to no value was placed on photography as an art. This all began to change for Evans after his first show at the Museum of Modern Art. His work was no different but the show greatly elevated its cultural status. We live in a society that does not like to admit to class differences yet we constantly rank everything around us. This show gives us pause to think about the distinctions we make when there are none. Evans first wrote and lectured on postcards decades ago but few took these sermons of his seriously as they did not fit into the established way of looking at art where low and high never meet. That is until now. It is good to see that Evans can still stick it to the art world, only this time with a little help from the Met.
The exhibition, Walker Evans and the Picture Postcard will be on display at New York’s Metropolitan Museum of Art from February 3rd to May 25th, 2009. For more information on the exhibition log on to www.metmuseum.org
Jeff Rosenheim, the curator and author of Walker Evans and the Picture Postcard will be doing a book signing at the Metropolitan Postcard Club’s annual Spring Show on May 15, 16, and 17th.
The Lyric Documentation of Walker Evans
As I rambled across the dunes of Cape Cod a distant hill framed by two stunted pines caught my attention begging to be photographed. It was only much later while looking through some older work that I realized I had captured the exact same composition nine years earlier without the slightest recollection of having done so. The only difference between the two shots was that the newer photograph was taken in the harsh light of summer and the other on a grey drizzly autumn day. My trek had taken me over highly broken terrain devoid of trails; the odds of arriving at this exact location twice were high, the odds of framing the same composition twice seemed phenomenal. Of course what sometimes passes for coincidence may be in fact nothing more than the results of limited perception. Perhaps a seemingly random walk is guided by subtle nuances in the terrain that one is barely aware of. All the scenes we take care to capture in our photographs must be singled out by some internal criteria, conscious or not from the incessant visual stimulus that surrounds us through our days. The question is, where does that criteria that silently guides the photographers eye come from? This too is the question raised by the Metropolitan Museum of Art’s Walker Evans exhibition that compliments the work of this great photographer with a large sampling of postcards from his vast collection.
I had known for some time that Evans collected cards but had always assumed they were real photo postcards that directly related to his own professional interest in photography. I was quite shocked when I had a chance to actually see them. His cards were not only of the printed variety, they were quite ordinary. Ordinary of course may seem like a simple word to define but it can be froth with subtleties of meaning. Evans often referred to the types of cards he collected as examples of folk art to denote their lack of sophistication. In his mind they basically served as raw documentation, designed without all the pretentious layers of concerns heaped upon the deciphering of fine art. But while millions of postcards were produced without much, if any artistic value there were also countless numbers that went beyond mere documentation. Evans had compared this trait to the scientific drawings of Leonardo, created for practicality but presented with all the mastery and vision found in his most accomplished works of art. This Evans described as “lyric documentation,” a term he coined at Yale University in 1964 during a lecture he gave on postcards, and subsequently applied to his own work.
While nearly all postcards were manufactured as a sellable commodity the rationality behind choosing individual subjects varied a great deal. Important landmarks and tourist destinations were obvious choices but general views of our city streets and the byways of small towns were also captured in numbers beyond anything found on postcards today. Many other subjects on these old cards were depicted nowhere else. We can tell that it was these street scenes that interested Evans the most for they make up the bulk of his collection. Some of these scenes were created from photos taken by local residents, particularly those who could sell them in their own stores, while others were the handiwork of itinerant photographers working for publishing companies. When the least amount of care was given to the framing of the composition the resulting photos tended to lack many of the superimposed notions of what a ideal landscape should look like capturing instead a real sense of place. Though many images were retouched before printing, everyday detail was largely left in of that place and time. With the distance of time it is now easier to read those images with a fresh perspective that can allow the lyrical elements to outshine the outdated meanings placed on them in their own day. Evans ability to see this lyricism in the present of everyday life guided his own work.
In many ways it is surprising that Evans followed such a simple path. After his return in 1927 from a two year stay in Paris he settled in New York City and began taking his first photographs a year later. His strong anti materialistic views and rebellious nature made the socially unacceptable bohemian lifestyle attractive to him. The career of artist was not something decent people aspired to and there was even less respect at that time for photographers. But the Great Depression that soon cast its shadow over America made it easier for Evans to evade holding down a regular job leaving him more time to pursue his photographic interests. “Always against the grain” as he put it, he approached his taking of photographs in a manner he considered anti-art. His associations with the New York art crowd imparted little influence on him as he pursued what was least acceptable to them. Evans felt that to be part of the art world establishment was to be tamed into producing works of stale conventionality. But his distain for forcing images to serve a greater purpose outside of the vernacular also kept him away from a more intellectual outlook as adopted by others in his circle. Evans continuous belief that he was on the right track kept him from straying from his own ideals.
Evans always claimed his work was born of intuition not intellect. He also assumed this was generally true of most other photographers as well, whether they admitted to it or not. He even went out of his way to label certain photographers such as Steiglitz, “decadent” for trying too hard to force mood and meaning into a photograph. Evans however remained blind to his own prejudices by seeing them as something natural. In many ways the simplistic attitude he presented did him a disservice for Evans was truly a modern photographer of the 20th century. His use of high contrast and stark cropping of subjects created abstractions that were certainly deliberate in a way that would have been unheard of just forty years earlier. When one examines Evans’ most famous works, those scenes from Appalachia taken as part of the Farm Securities Administration project during the Great Depression, we can easily see that cold hard matter of fact style of his. It is also easy to see that these photos hold a great depth beyond definition despite their documentary approach. Evens was aware that something lyrical shown through these ordinary images just like they did on the simple postcards he collected. When Evans states that the lyricism in his work comes from intuition rather than intellect I believe that he believes that’s true. But to isolate himself to a single narrow focus in the world of ideas that he sat in is very much a conscious philosophy in itself whether he recognized it as such or not. His singular intent seems to come more from a purposeful lack of introspection than any attempt at manipulation. Perhaps this has to do with his modest Midwest roots, but I cannot help but wonder if his failed attempt at becoming a writer in his younger years left lingering fears that prevented him from confronting his latter career in photography to any significant depth.
Evens let it be known that he had his doubts that the photographers that produced the images for postcards had any real intentions of capturing the lyrical but often did so despite themselves. This idea most likely arose from Evens’ struggle to understand his own work. Despite his early infatuation with postcard imagery it took him awhile to clearly understand what it was he was really interested in. This can be seen when comparing his early work to the same images reprinted as real photo postcards in 1936. As to be expected he began by following a more traditional and thus acceptable approach to composing a landscape despite his cries against unconventionality, while his later postcards are severely cropped down from the much larger negative to strengthen the image’s internal poetry revealing what truly attracted him to the scene in the first place. It is often not a matter of what one sees; it’s a matter of courage to say that there are other ways to perceive the world from that which we are accustomed to. Jeff Rosenheim, the curator of the exhibition at the Metropolitan Museum states, “I believe he had the ability to see the present as if it were the past and to create a body of work that stands the test if time . . .” I believe it is just the opposite. Evans’ gift was to be able to live in the moment and reject seeing the past, eliminating overtones of sentiment and nostalgia from his work. His photographs are timeless for this disconnect weakens cultural ties to reach what is human within all of us. This may be a fine point to argue since we both agree on the final results but it makes a world of difference when living it as compared to just observing it.
In reading Evans’ remarks concerning postcards and in comparing the images found on his cards to his own photographs there can be no doubt that a connection exists between the two. This appears most evident in Evans’ photograph of Morgan City, Louisiana which shares its empty straight forward composition with the same wide street and distant river found on a postcard from his own collection. Some have said that the relationship between these two cards is just too great to be a coincidence, but is this really true? We need to come back to the question as to where does the criteria that we select imagery come from? To state that the postcards Evans collected since his childhood created an aesthetic that influenced his later photographs would be too simplistic. I believe what ever inner voice caused Evans to choose those specific cards that he added to his collection above all others was the same voice he later came to depend on when composing his professional photographs. The postcards did not so much guide his style in the direction that it took as much as it reinforced his innate intuitive vision that allowed him to follow a course beyond the ordinary with conviction. That none of his other photographs match any of his postcards to this degree makes it even more likely that the Morgan City pairing was not a deliberate creation. If it was his postcards that directly influenced his compositions as a photographer even if only in spirit, what was it that influenced his decisions to purchase those cards? They appear to be selected with the same discriminating eye from which he later created his photographs. We can continue to extend this argument even further by asking what influenced all the photographers that took the photos from which these postcards were made?
I first became familiar with antique postcards at small New England museum that had numerous cards on display depicting local scenes. I immediately fell in love with them and wished that there were some way to add these little works of art into my life. It was only a short time later after being introduced to postcard club shows that I began to purchase my own cards. With a limited budget I had to confine myself to picking out only those images I could incorporate into my artwork, but it did not take long to find myself constructing a small collection of pictures that I did not really need but could not live without. Even so I partially rationalized this endeavor by placing restrictions on location and subject matter as if by categorizing them in definable ways it would be okay to spend scarce funds on these nonessential items. It took many years before I gained the courage to start buying postcards based solely on their more indefinable artistic merits. As it turned out it was those images that shared the same sensibilities with my own work as an artist that appealed to me most regardless of subject matter. Evans, who began collecting postcards when he was only eight years old, had no such adult concerns to justify. But even while approaching this activity with childhood exuberance, he too was drawn to possessing images of certain character.
While most of us superimpose some sort of order on everything we look at to the point of blinding ourselves to the real world, some possess a deeper ability to see. But even if this trait is a natural one, it still needs to be nurtured for it not to be buried under the artificial environment in which we surround ourselves. A strong conviction is also required to push the boundaries of tradition to the point of actually expressing ones vision for anything different is always met with resistance. Evans did not consciously recognize that he had this vision as a child when he ran into a five & dime to emerge with a handful of postcards. But each of those 9,000 cards that found there way into his collection required an aesthetic choice to be made, and each of these decisions had the same function as if he snapped his own camera’s shutter to capture them. His ability to see is something he had to learn to recognize and pull out of himself before being able to become a successful photographer. His postcard collection helped him find that path and it gave him the courage to stay on it.
REVIEW by Alan Petrulis
The Upper West Side
Published by Arcadia Publishing
The City of New York saw a ceaseless expansion during the 19th century. As it grew ever larger it incorporated the smaller towns that lay nearby with their own traditional centers, while speculators developed huge tracks of outlying farmland into planed communities. The Upper West Side however was a product of neither of these. Its streets were laid according to the Commissioner’s plan made back in 1811 while most of the City still lay below Houston Street. A grid was simply thrown over a map ignoring all terrain and the whereabouts any current residents. It presumed that every street in this young Republic would continue to be lined with modest scale homes and shops.
It took decades for this illusionary map of Manhattan to begin filling up with actual structures, and by then a more commanding and decorative style had taken hold. The decision to build Central Park and its actual construction that begun in 1860 did much to disrupt the grid and segregate what became known as the Upper West Side from the rest of the City. But in many ways this neighborhood remained little more than an extension of the City’s northward crawl. All this said it would seem a difficult task to present any sort of cohesive narrative on this community, especially in the limited format of a postcard history. It is to Michael Suzi’s credit that he was able to do just that.
This book is not presented in the more common manner of progressing through time periods or dividing a town into structural themes such as churches or parks but it is given to us as strict geography. Each of the area’s great avenues has been given its own chapter and we progress through them block by block as if on tour, often delving down a side street, with images of structures that were captured on postcards. The captions that accompany each illustration are full of exacting facts such as dates and names that can be very useful in further research. Little known bits of curious information are thrown in here and there to prevent the reading from becoming stale or dry. I was intrigued to discover that when the Ansonia Hotel was built it had extra thick walls put in so that in pre air-conditioning days, chilled brine could be pumped through them for the comfort of their guests. In addition to views of streets and numerous buildings we are also treated to interior scenes of churches, hotels, restaurants and various businesses.
For a neighborhood that only grew up around the turn of the 20th century it is very surprising how few of its buildings, even those touted as the ultimate in luxury living have not survived into the next century. But luckily for us this was the age when postcards were at their hight in popularity and every structure deemed of even some importance seems to have been pictured on them. This volume provides us with both the more common postcards that capture the required classic views of the neighborhood and also many cards that are quite rare. But this is not just an inventory of lost architecture. Even when some of these grand apartments and hotels continue to survive to this day, all these postcards seen together add up to generate a colorful and clear impression of an era long gone. This book reminds us of the excitement that once surrounded the development of this area that we now take for granted.
In the introduction, Suzi states that he would like to see this book used as a guide to the neighborhood, a purpose that it is well suited for in both its organization and detail. It has also been researched well enough to take it beyond being a mere picture book, allowing it to be used for basic reference. While limited in scope this volume presents as clear a picture of the Upper West Side that a book in this format can provide and it is a step above most others like it. While this new volume would naturally be of interest to postcard collectors it is actually oriented toward a more general audience. It is presented in a way that anyone with a light to serious interest in the history of New York would find valuable. It should be indispensable to all those who live there.
The Upper West Side sells for $21.99 and should be available at area bookstores and online. It can also be purchased through Arcadia Publishing:
As postcard collectors you should be aware that many have been autographed by both famous and infamous people. One must be careful of forgeries, auto pen signatures as well as relative and secretarial signings. To get an idea of what an autograph might be worth one should use The Sanders Price Guide to Autographs. This book does not include sports figures. For that you must reference The Sanders Price Guide to Sports Autographs.
Several years ago I purchased a group of postcards that showed the Gramercy Park Hotel in New York City on them. The manager would hand them to famous people to be signed. This occurred from the 1930’s up until the early 1980’s. The autographs I purchased contained those of Babe Ruth, Jesse Owens, as well as famous politicians and entertainment celebrities. I kept the Babe Ruth autograph and had it framed with a photo of the Babe and a Jimmy Powers article about the manager. I have included four pictures of postcards used by the Gramercy Park Hotel showing the different styles for the 1930’s to the 1980’s. Also included are the backs of these cards showing the autographs of the famous and not so famous personalities.
As with stamps, really high priced autographs must be expertised. There are organizations that just do that for a modest fee. Many famous people’s autographs are known not to be real. Walt Disney, Jean Harlow, Marilyn Monroe are rare and valuable autographs that have many really good forgeries, so be careful.
While you might believe very famous people’s autographs go high, this may not be true. Certain signers of the Declaration of Independence who are practically unknown go for over $100,000 each. Babe Ruth and Lou Gehrig are relatively good autographs but that of Shoeless Joe Jackson goes for over $20,000. Kay Associates recently sent autographed photographs of the Bonanza crew. It was evaluated at $500, at auction it went for $2,300!
Looking for autographed postcards might add a new interest to your collecting hobby, but again be prepared with knowledge and catalogs as well as auction prices.