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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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Our Elusive Autumn Holidays
Seated atop his great white horse General George Washington watched the Sons of Liberty approach to guide him past the well to do homes and neat farms of Bowery Road down to the Battery. These were the last hours of the American Revolution and this would be the last pause he would make before entering New York. Washington then turned to face his triumphal army waiting impatiently behind him and raised his arm to offer benediction before proceeding. Upon reaching Manhattan’s southern tip they found the British had left a parting gift, a greased flagpole with the Union Jack nailed to its top. It took some effort to replace it with the Stars and Stripes but it hardly mattered. After seven long years of occupation the last of the British troops could be seen sailing away toward the Narrows, firing one last shot of defiance at the jeering crowds that lined the shores of Staten Island. The war had left New York badly scared, and the fleeing loyalists and freed slaves deprived the city of forty percent of its population. Despite these hardships New York would hold a celebration exactly one year later on November 25th, 1784 that would become an annual holiday known as Evacuation Day. Speeches, parades, fireworks, and flag pole climbing competitions would fill the city’s streets for years to come.
As the last States were ratifying the Constitution, the newly elected President Washington called for the last Thursday of November 1789 to be put aside for a national thanksgiving. While some tried to make this an annual event tied to the celebration marking the first and only thanksgiving dinner held between the Wampanoags and the Pilgrims, many considered this local observance just too divisive for a nation attempting to unify. Even Thomas Jefferson would comment on its unworthiness as a holiday. A number of New England States would continue to hold thanksgivings but there was little consistency as to date and form as they fell more into the tradition of harvest festivals. It wasn’t until Daniel Webster gave a speech at the bicentennial of Plymouth Rock in 1820 that people began to take notice of this day. As his oratory circulated around the country in print a new founding myth was born. An early convert to the Pilgrim thanksgiving was Sara Josepha Hale, well known for her nursery rhyme Mary Had a Little Lamb. In 1846 she began using her position as editor of a Boston woman’s magazine, Godey’s Lady’s Book as a pulpit to tirelessly promote her favorite holiday but without much success.
The year 1863 had had begun with a number of serious military defeats on Lincoln’s armies and by that summer the Confederates had taken the offensive and invaded the North. The fate of the Union looked dire, but as Lee’s army began to retreat after their defeat at Gettysburg, and the the besieged town of Vicksburg finally fell to General Grant a new sense of optimism began to rise in the North and a day of thanksgiving was held on August 6th. By this third year of civil war patriotism had taken on the form of a new national religion in both the North and the South. In the Confederate States, Jefferson Davis would call for a number of public fasts to humble themselves before God and demonstrate that their unyielding faith made them worthy of victory. In similar fashion Lincoln would call for days of thanksgiving and prayer throughout the war. Hale is said to have met with President Lincoln, convincing him that a larger observance of Thanksgiving would do much to help encourage national unity. Whether or not they ever actually met, Lincoln decreed a new national Thanksgiving Day to be held on the same date chosen by President Washington 74 years earlier. This last Thursday of November 1863 fell right after Evacuation Day in New York.
The new national Thanksgiving Day, though inspired by military victories and loosely based on the experience of the Pilgrims was to supersede their more limited meanings. It expressively called for national unity through the recognition of the common sacrifices made as Americans in carrying out our sacred destiny in the pursuit and promotion of freedom. To better understand this holiday one only need read the ideals expressed in the battlefield cemetery dedication Lincoln made just one week earlier in his Gettysburg Address. After the war this proclamation would give Thanksgiving Day a boost in New England where many saw it as an an acknowledgment of the roots of the abolitionist cause in Puritanism. For the very same reason this holiday never caught on in the South despite Lincoln’s design to make it one of unity and redemption. It was perceived by many as the forced expansionism of Yankee culture for the celebration usually took on an anti-Southern emphasis and was often used as an excuse to condemn Southerners in public speeches.
Evacuation Day had always been popular among New York’s Irish residents because of its anti-British tone, but in 1864 a year after the city was gripped in violent and bloody draft riots its observance was spotty. John Wilkes Booth, a resident of Greenwich Village, with his two brothers Edwin and Junius would give a special one night performance that evening of Julius Caesar at the Winter Garden Theater as a fundraiser to erect a statue of William Shakespeare in Central Park. That very same night a conspiracy of Confederate sympathizes would attempt to burn down the city but accomplished little more than lightly damaging a dozen hotels and P.T. Barnum’s Museum. New York was a much different place on June 5th, 1865 as crowds formed at Union Square for the dedication of the finest equestrian statue to grace the city since revolutionaries tore down the eminence of King George III at Bowling Green to melt into lead bullets. Sculpted by Henry Kirke Brown this statue of George Washington would stand facing the square from the very spot on the Bowery that the General had given thanks to his army. Brown would latter sculpt another statue for Union Square, one of the assassinated Abraham Lincoln in the robes of Julius Caesar.
Before Thanksgiving Day there were only two recognized national holidays in the United States, Washington’s Birthday and Independence Day, but other historic events and ethnic customs such as Halloween were also celebrated on a local level. Halloween, whose origins are often attributed to the Celtic observance of Samhain is more likely a fusion of many different customs with newer practices added in along its evolution. Even the old Roman festival of Saturnalia with its role reversals between rich and poor is no doubt an influence. Throughout the world one can find numerous autumn rituals relating to harvest and death. It is pointless to chose only one old custom to find the roots of a modern one, especially in the mixed communities found in America. While some Christians now decry the observance of Halloween, it has been the Catholic Church’s attempts at spreading their faith though absorbing traditional local practices that has done the most to keep Halloween alive. Disguising it in the form of All Saints Day did little to dissuade people from continuing to see it as a time when the boundaries between the living and the dead were most permeable. Even on November 2nd, All Souls day, beggars began seeking alms in the form of soul cakes in exchange for their prayers for the dead, a practice eventually mimicked by children in Britain. In New York it became customary for children to dress down in rags, and greet people in the street with “Anything for Thanksgiving” hoping to acquire some pennies. These ragamuffins as they became known are very similar to the guisers found on November fifths Guy Fawkes Night celebrations in England and in their Colonies before the Revolution. While adults busied themselves with burning bonfires and effigies of the Guy and the Pope, tattered children, would ask “A penny for the Guy” to buy fireworks. In Mexico we can very clearly see how a Christian observance morphed with older Aztec rituals that were meant to strengthen the ties between the living and the dead to become the Day of the Dead. As the popularity of this hybrid holiday has spread northward it has come to have influence on modern Halloween celebrations.
While witches with their brooms, kettles, cauldrons, and black cats are basic symbols used on Halloween postcards, in some places like Sweden they are more a part of the Easter tradition. This clearly shows us that some symbols are much older than the holidays that eventually absorbed them and they hold meaning beyond them. Halloween postcards also display additional symbols with the carved pumpkin used in greater number than any other. In mid-19th century America the pumpkin, already a harvest symbol took on the form of Old World carved vegetable lanterns to become the Jack-o-Lantern, that could guide or repel spirits. Bats, owls, spiders, ghosts, and all creatures of the night were also commonly added to cards. Despite Halloween’s connection to death and the spirit world, postcards as a whole tended to approached these subjects in a playful manner even when providing warnings against its darker side. It was as common to find a witch depicted as a young happy child as a sinister hag. Early Halloween rituals were often segregated by sex; women set out to divine their future husbands while boys set out to engage in mischievous pranks. While many cards depict woman divining with mirrors or engaged in the practice of bobbing for apples, more socially unacceptable behavior was not generally represented on postcards no matter how common it might be.
The iconography of Thanksgiving Day postcards are based on a few simple themes, some shared with Halloween such as acorns and pumpkins. Unique to it are rusty oak leaves, corn on the cob, and the cornucopia of a good harvest. The most common symbol of the holiday however was the turkey, though not so much for historical accuracy as the Pilgrims probably ate fish. The turkey however was a popular bird, Benjamin Franklin once suggested it be put on the American flag, and its reoccurring appearance on countless postcards has just reenforced its ties to this holiday over the years. Turkeys are presented in all sorts of forms on cards from the natural to the comical. Even turkey fantasy cards were published along with novelties that incorporated real feathers. Noticeably absent are images of Native Americans. While these cards do exist they tend to be rare, usually displaying romanticized maidens or presented in the image of children to lighten their historical ties. Images of corn, especially on decorative borders were often used symbolically to represent Natives. Pilgrims though not as rare are still not common. It was only after expanding tourist marketing began incorporating feel good history in ad campaigns during the 1890’s that the Pilgrims began to be seriously associated with Thanksgiving Day in the national conscious. This new advertising slowly replaced the older symbols harkening back to Lincoln’s time but many early Thanksgiving postcards continued to display strong patriotic themes.
Advertising’s use of holiday iconography wasn’t the only factor that created a shift toward commercialization. During the First World War Evacuation Day festivities that were no longer being widely practiced were further discouraged so that its anti-British rhetoric would not counter the pro-British propaganda being issued to help our new ally. Some of this lost energy from New York’s streets was soon refocused with the introduction of the Macy’s Christmas Parade in 1924 that was held on Thanksgiving Day. Before it was dominated by the balloons we know today, the parade featured marching bands, zoo animals, Mother Goose characters, and of course ragamuffins, all to welcome Santa Claus to town. The parade was very popular from the start even though it related more to the department store’s promotion of early Christmas shopping than any traditional connection to the Thanksgiving holiday. In 1939, at the request of retailers the holiday itself would be moved to the second to last Thursday in November by President Franklin Roosevelt to provide more shopping days before Christmas. The move proved unpopular for it created all sorts of scheduling problems with events already planned such as football games. Only half the States accepted this change causing even more confusion. Two years later a compromise was made with Congress, and Franksgiving as it had become known would be reset to the forth Thursday of the month. As Evacuation Day observances became overshadowed by Thanksgiving, the statue of George Washington was removed from the Bowery in the 1930’s and remounted along with its granite pedestal further into Union Square park where it would now face down Broadway. Fading memories had allowed aesthetics and convenience to trumped any allegiance to historical accuracy.
Halloween was also destined to become commercialized in reaction to the holidays darker side. While pranks that could be blamed on goblins and ghosts had become a strong American tradition, it changed from one practiced in the rural countryside as a form of communal stress release into one incorporating serious acts of vandalism, robbery, and arson in our cities where social bonds were not as strong. To counter this trend good citizenship began to be taught in schools and the practice of holiday begging was seriously discouraged, but the coming of the Great Depression slowed these reforms and throughout the 1930’s dressing down and begging for food became much more commonplace. At the same time communities began to sponsor holiday events for children as an alternative to vandalism. The traditional begging of Thanksgiving ragamuffins was soon replaced by Halloween trick or treating. By the end of World War Two the potential profits to be found in this holiday caused the sugar industry to become more heavily involved in buying off destructive tendencies through the promotion of candy. Even the simple act of dressing down has been replaced with ever more elaborate and expensive store bought costumes that are often tied to media promotions. In many respects Halloween has been brought closer to the look and the spirit of Carnival.
Holidays are not about remembering historical accuracies but are used for their binding effect on a society. They transform both truths and falsehoods into myth through the use of familiar symbols that can be understood and are acceptable by all. The term “All” of course is a relative one that includes only those who matter to the group using it. Native Americans have been raising objections to the racist hypocrisy of Thanksgiving since the early 19th century, but few wanted to see the Pilgrims as an uncompromising revolutionary sect who perceived themselves as the chosen elect and saw indigenous people as nothing more than pawns provided by God for them to use. It is God who is given thanks for the bounty while the Natives who fed them were nearly all dead or exiled from New England only a half century later at the end of King Philips War. It was not until 1970 when some Native Americans inaugurated a National Day of Mourning to replace Thanksgiving that their voices were finally heard. Regardless of the merits to this argument, this has little to do with the holiday most celebrate today. Thanksgiving has largely become a day when many of us pause to recognizing the value of family. If the associated Pilgrim symbols should disappear altogether few would even take notice as long as our favorite foods were not touched. Controversy however improves media ratings and it has now become a staple of all our holidays without it ever going so far as to seriously challenge them. Halloween, which remains a pagan observance for some has panicked others to the point of having the unchristian rite of trick or treating outlawed in some States. While some communities continue to ban Halloween outright it has grown to become the second most popular celebration in this Country next to Christmas, and New York’s Halloween Parade is now one of the city’s great pagan festivals.
Holidays only exist when we have a need for them to answer something deep and longing inside us. This allows us to drop those parts that become trite and meaningless over time while we can hold on to that which resonates deep within us. Unfortunately too many of us are not always capable of separating these two aspects well and we end up fighting over empty rituals and symbols we do not even understand. Perhaps we will always be too fractured a nation to have true national holidays but even as their specifics fall victim to cultural wars their essence will survive. Most of the holiday postcards printed a century ago can still touch us because what they are really about is being human.
In his book Mountain Light, photographer Galen Rowell relates a story of his encounter with a yellow cab out on the Nevada desert. The contrast between this urban conveyance and the open red landscape that surround it are strangely pronounced, yet he holds back temptation to shoot it. For Rowell this scene consists of elements so out of place that he is unable to make a personal connection with it. While I understand the value in trying to capture a true sense of place, I have always been troubled by his reasoning. It seems to me that no matter how unusual something may appear to be it is still as much a real part of the place it is found in as anything else. A scene is what it is, all problems that may arise from it originate from within. This does not mean that everything is equal for there is value in composition and narrative that cannot be ignored. One must be careful however not to confuse the artistic editing a scene of what does not work from sanitizing compositions of elements that do not fit in with preconceptions of how something should appear. Too often we have such strong emotional responses to what we see because we so tightly frame the world with our own personal definitions while refusing to open our eyes.
When I found this old real photo postcard depicting a scene somewhere on the border between New York and Vermont I was immediately taken by the unexpected combination of subjects it contained and could not help but remember Rowell’s story. This snow filled valley is the most peaceful of scenes with a paleness that gives the impression of gently falling flakes. Yet in this quiet we are confronted by a police officer mounted on a blanket draped horse, both of whom stare at us intently. Is this a planned pose carefully set up by the photographer or a chance meeting out on the road? Would not a small town sheriff be more appropriate to this rural scene if out on patrol than a uniformed cop? No answers are forthcoming to a swarm of questions that arise and the tension heightens.
I doubt very much that this unknown photographer had any intention of creating as surreal a looking image as it appears today. I am equally confident that the whole scene must have seemed very matter of fact and ordinary at the time when he snapped the shutter of his camera. If drawn this scene would appear totally contrived, but as a photo it is only awkward, nothing here seems coerced. The intensity of this image is not derived from its subject but through our disassociation with the circumstances from which it was shot, forcing us to reflect back in on ourselves. This image may not capture the essence of this place but it certainly is of this place whether we can understand it or not. Sometimes questions are the answers.
Truth from Fiction
There are few who collect old postcards that have not come across at one time or another those brightly colored fruit exaggerations published by Edward H. Mitchell a century ago. Considering the number of variations in this series and the quantity of these cards still around they must have been very popular in their day. Everything is bigger in America they shout out at us. Well, certainly not that big, but then think again. The Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade in New York looms larger than life for many, and what once only existed within the purveyance of the surreal has now taken on corporal form as witnessed by my very own eyes. While inflatable cartoon characters on Thanksgiving have not been strangers to me for some time, I was a bit surprised to see a pair of giant pumpkins drift by high overhead. One pumpkin may be within reason considering the season, but why two? Was this a subtle attempt to mimic Mitchell’s exaggeration postcards? To live in a world where the spirit of imagination can bare such literal fruit is one I will give my thanks for.
The Politics of Martyrdom
We don’t use the term martyr very much in the United States anymore, hero has become the popular new catch phrase. I have heard so many called heros over the last few years the word has just about lost its meaning. This is not to say there are not those who have made significant sacrifices for others, some have willingly done so at the cost of their own lives; it is just when I hear this word evoked I cannot help but wonder about the possible agendas behind it. We demand monuments be built least we forget some event or person we deem significant, but in the end history tells us we eventually forget these events anyway along with their monuments, if at the very least in the way we originally intended.
Not many New Yorker’s are familiar with the Monument to the Martyrs of the Revolution though thousands pass it on a daily basis. Even at the turn of the 20th century when there was a paying audience for the newly published postcards depicting it, few would have remembered the heated controversy that led to its construction. It was in 1853 when the battle started brewing between wealthy downtown businessmen and Trinity Church. The business community spearheaded by James Boorman petitioned the City to build an extension of Albany Street to connect it with Pine, one block over. This move would not only improve the traffic flow in this heavily congested area but allow for a spur of the Hudson River Railroad to be built that would greatly aid those commuting to Wall Street. The fact that the new street would also greatly enhance the value of Boorman’s adjacent properties was conveniently not brought up as a arguing point. The only thing standing in the way of this project was the Warden of Trinity Church, William H. Harison who did not want to sacrifice the far end of the churchyard for a road. Passions were soon stirred as it became not an just an issue of church property but one of disturbing the hallowed remains of those who died in the Old Sugar House Prison.
At the battle of Brooklyn in 1776 the Americans suffered their worst defeat of the Revolution. Thousands of more troops were soon captured by the British after the fall of Fort Washington on the north end of Manhattan Isle. The normal course of prisoner exchange was not possible at this point because Washington’s army held few British captives, and New Englanders refused to release the prisoners in their custody to help their New York neighbors. William Cunningham had no compassion for Americans having been badly beaten on the streets of New York when he broke ranks with the Sons of Liberty. Now serving the British as Provost Martial he ordered all captured soldiers and revolutionary sympathizers to be warehoused where ever they could, suitable or not. Most wound up and died on prison ships but hundreds were also crowded into the five story brick sugar refinery that once stood on Liberty Street. Air barely flowed inside this low ceilinged structure and men had to take rationed turns sitting by its small windows. These portals held no glass and in winter it was as cold in as out. Most prisoners only had whatever summer clothing they were captured in to wear and they suffered greatly. There were no furnishings or blankets, just a bed of vermin filled straw scattered across the floor. The dead were carried out every day having succumb to the cold, typhus, or starvation. It is these men that were now said to have been thrown into unmarked graves in the back of the Trinity churchyard.
At a rally a suggestion was made to Harrison that the Church should erect a monument to these martyrs and place it directly in the path of the proposed road. By the following year the firm of Willis & Dudley were busy designing this monument and soon after its sandstone blocks began being laid. Boorman was outraged; when he claimed no such bodies were ever buried there the distraught children who had carried their dead parents from the prison to the yard were paraded out as witnesses. His pleas that no one had ever bothered even once to take notice of these men over the past seventy years fell on deaf ears, and Boorman himself was attacked for being an unsympathetic Englishman with no love for this Country. Many of the City’s Councilmen were afraid to touch the new Martyrs Monument when the matter finally came up for a vote in 1854, for the public’s emotions on this issue had riled up to a feverish pitch. In the end the street was never built and those who now walk up and down Broadway within feet of this hulking monument barely even give it a passing glance.
Africans on Display
The exhibiting of exotic peoples by Europeans has a long, if inglorious, history. Columbus brought back to Europe an Arawak Indian, who for two years was kept on display at the Spanish court, while in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries Native Americans from the New World were put on exhibit in both England and France. Then, in 1877, Carl Hagenbeck, a famous German impresario, brought to the Jardin d’Acclimation, Paris’ zoo in the Bois de Boulogne, a group of wild animals from Africa accompanied by several Nubian caretakers. To his surprise, the visitors were more fascinated with the Africans than with the beasts. The money-making potential soon became apparent, and before long, the Jardin was hosting groups of Lapps, Eskimos, Kalmucks, Gauchos, and others. In 1881, the Fuegians alone attracted some 400,000 visitors.
Some of the early showings of indigenous peoples were established as ethnographic exhibits. Peoples of a foreign culture were put on display in public with the goal of educating the viewing audience. Anthropologists, beginning in the 1850’s, very much welcomed these exhibits as they provided the opportunity of studying native peoples without having to rely solely on skull and bone fragments or having to travel to faraway locations. Visitors to the exhibits, meanwhile, found what they believed to be living evidence that demonstrated the superiority of the white race and Western civilization. Before long, however, the exhibitions, sometimes referred to as Human Zoos by modern day scholars, began to capitalize on the exotic nature of the peoples on display, and ethnographic exhibits became spectacle. Exhibits of native peoples were often placed in the entertainment areas of the fairs and now featured activities, such as demonstrations of native dance, music, and even simulated battle scenes. The first African villages appeared in Paris in 1889, followed in 1893 by the World’s Columbian Exposition in Chicago. Hundreds followed and visitors numbered in the hundreds of millions. In these Black, African, or Senegalese Villages, all of the rich variety of cultures and habits of Black Africans were reduced to a single notion of African-ness. Here, science, in the guise of anthropology and ethnography, combined with popular amusement and colonial propaganda to produce the intended effect. Ethnic villages abounded at fairs and exhibitions in the period from 1890 to 1931. In France alone, excluding Paris, they could be found in this period at 58 exhibitions in 41 cities. They also made their appearance in Saint Petersburg, Palermo, Milan, Prague, Oslo, Warsaw, Glasgow, Dublin, Barcelona, and innumerable cities in Germany. Across the Atlantic, ethnic villages were constructed at World Fairs in Chicago in 1893, Saint Louis in 1894 and 1904, San Francisco in 1894 and Buffalo in 1901.
Before long, however, the exhibitions, sometimes referred to as Human Zoos by modern day scholars, began to capitalize on the exotic nature of the peoples on display, and ethnographic exhibits became spectacle. Exhibits of native peoples were often placed in the entertainment areas of the fairs and now featured activities, such as demonstrations of native dance, music, and even simulated battle scenes. The first African villages appeared in Paris in 1889, followed in 1893 by the World’s Columbian Exposition in Chicago. Hundreds followed and visitors numbered in the hundreds of millions. In these Black, African, or Senegalese Villages, all of the rich variety of cultures and habits of Black Africans were reduced to a single notion of African-ness. Here, science, in the guise of anthropology and ethnography, combined with popular amusement and colonial propaganda to produce the intended effect.
Ethnic villages abounded at fairs and exhibitions in the period from 1890 to 1931. In France alone, excluding Paris, they could be found in this period at 58 exhibitions in 41 cities. They also made their appearance in Saint Petersburg, Palermo, Milan, Prague, Oslo, Warsaw, Glasgow, Dublin, Barcelona, and innumerable cities in Germany. Across the Atlantic, ethnic villages were constructed at World Fairs in Chicago in 1893, Saint Louis in 1894 and 1904, San Francisco in 1894 and Buffalo in 1901.
Above is an early example of an African village on display at a European world exposition. The card was produced for the 1894 Universal Exposition at Anvers, Belgium, and shows, to the left, a grouping of Africans, and to the right the Congo Village set up at the fair. Between the two settings, a colonial soldier stands guard with rifle. Africans of both sexes are shown, the women sitting and the men mostly standing and with spears. An oval inset at bottom center depicts a bare-breasted female. The African scene is rather subdued, with no indication of the atrocities and bloodshed being committed at the time by Leopold II in this, his private colony, the Congo Free State.
The three cards above show the gateways to typical African villages at three European fairs: Reims (1903); London (1908)), and Brussels (1910). They are called Villages Senegalais and Villages Noirs and were more often than not to be found in the entertainment districts of the fairs. In Figure 4, visitors are enticed with promises of seeing 150 natives, demonstrations of their music, dance, religion, and customs, samplings of their jewelry and cloth, and even a harem. Whatever style of architecture chosen was meant to represent all of Black Africa.
Within the African Villages, the visitor would find examples of Africans pursuing their day to day activities. Examples on the two postcards above illustrate The Tailor and The Shoemaker. On the latter card, well-dressed visitors can be seen ambling about. Note the fences separating the African structures from the observers. These enhanced the notion of We vs Them, but also served a more practical purpose - to discourage the harassment of the natives by whites who might poke at them or invade whatever little privacy the persons being exhibited might enjoy.
In a card from the 1930 Anvers Exposition entitled The Women’s Meal, a group of African women are eating their meal in front of the camera and in view of the visitors who have come to observe. The scene is demeaning as it is hard to imagine a bourgeois family at dinner in Brussels being ogled by a group of paying African tourists.
Two other cards are of interest here. The first card was produced in conjunction with German impresario Carl Hagenbeck’s Animal Park display (Tierpark Stellingen) in Hamburg. It shows four Ethiopian warriors with spears and shields. Once the African continent was subdued militarily, the image of the African warrior, no longer a threat, could be marketed as spectacle. These warriors, indeed, look more bored than vicious.
This card is from the Paris Zoo, and is simply entitled Negresses. Nine African females of various ages, some bare-breasted, stand before the camera. Their faces express open resentment at being posed in such a manner. There is no indication of who they are, the ethnic group(s) they are from, or from which part of Africa they have come. They are simply Negresses, generic symbols of an entire continent.
To further capture the attention of visitors, the African Villages at the expositions often incorporated performances. On this card a mock battle is being waged by Abyssinian warriors at a fair in Prague.
Senegalese dancing is featured above.
The economic development of the colonies was another frequently found motif at the world fairs. This double card, shows a diorama in the Colonial Palace at the 1913 Gand (Ghent), Exposition in Belgium. A colonial figure in pith helmet and white stands significantly in the center surveying land. Signs of Western style progress are evidenced by the heavy equipment to the left and the boat docked below. Natives embellish the scene, standing about almost as ornaments. A bare-breasted female is seen to the right. The captions are in French and Flemish, Belgium’s two major languages.
Conditions for Africans living and working at the expositions were oftentimes appalling. There was not only a lack of sanitation, but contagious diseases to be contended with. In addition, the change of climate took its toll, resulting in illness and even death. In the card above a European medical team is inoculating the Africans of the fair’s Village. Of obvious propagandist value, the card demonstrated the noble mission of the colonizer in bringing scientific advance to the barefoot native.
Humor and satire can also be found on cards depicting ethnic villages. This card is rather unusual in that it satirizes the amorous attraction the inhabitants of human zoos, in this case Bedouins, may have had for some European women. The card is titled: No Racial Hatred at Hagenbeck’s. A female visitor to Hagenbeck’s Zoo Park is being shown the exit by an angry policeman, who warns her: Madame, Kindnesses are not Allowed Here!
A more self-critical approach is taken in the card on the left. This pre-1905 German language card, labeled Greetings from the Ashanti Village, shows a double scene satirizing the negative impact of Europeans on Africans. In the first, three children are smoking cigarettes, the eldest coughing from the effect. In the second scene, a German woman looks on mischievously as a child drinks from a large mug of beer. The second card on the right, postmarked Hamburg 1903, is more to the point: The scene of three children with their cigarettes is reproduced, but here, following Aschanti-Dorf (Ashanti village) the caption ironically and unambiguously reads: Beginn europäischer Civilisation. (European Civilization Begins).
In the period between the two World Wars, the popularity of World’s Fairs and the ethnic villages declined. Among the factors for this were the Great Depression, the rise of tourism, the growing rejection of the biological basis of racial inferiority (Germany being an exception), and the popularity of the cinema. Still, the interwar period is considered by many to be the epitome of Europe’s colonial enterprise. The infrastructure of many African colonies had been strengthened to include railroads, ports, factories, hospitals, and schools. The International Colonial Exposition held in Paris in 1931, represented the consolidation of French colonialism. It served as a show piece for France not only of the economic importance of its colonies, but of its purported success in civilizing its native subjects. Figure 17 exemplifies its pride in the West African Colonies. One panel on this trio of connected cards tells the reader basic facts about French West Africa. The eight colonies are enumerated along with their capitals, climates, and the overall area and population. The number of kilometers of navigable rivers, roads and railroads are listed, as well as the number of students enrolled in schools. The chief products of the region include wood, textiles, cocoa, coffee, and bananas. On the verso, there is a map of the region, flanked by two adjoining cards illustrating a mosque in Senegal and the River Niger. Both sections of the cards assigned for messages come pre-printed with the scripted: Visit French West Africa at the Colonial Exposition of Paris 1931. The visitor, of course, will find only a social construct of Africa at the fair, the Africa the colonizer would like him to see. There would be no exhibits referring to the system of forced labor or other forms of multiple oppression to which Africans were still subjected. Whatever benefits European colonialism brought to the Africans continued to be largely by-products of the developing exploitation of their countries’ resources.
The notion of racial hierarchies can be seen in an official advertisement for the International Colonial Exposition. The postcard features four males representing the races encompassed under French rule: a North African Arab, an East Asian, a Black African, and a South Seas Islander. Interestingly, the North African at the top and the East Asian in the foreground stand out most prominently. These two races were considered by the French to be superior in intelligence to the other two. In the background, they are represented by a North African mosque-like structure, topped with the French tri-color, and what is probably the Angkor Pavilion in the Indochina section of the Exposition. The Black African and South Seas Islander wear only necklaces, while the African’s eyes are almost indiscernible, negating whatever semblance of character or individuality he might possess.
This postcard titled Souvenir of the Colonial Exhibition, a young white girl cuddles a black African baby, a souvenir. The card echoes perhaps the self-congratulatory image many French had of themselves in the role of rescuing and civilizing the savage African (mission civilatrice).
Interestingly enough, a counter-exposition was mounted in Paris at the time of the 1931 Colonial Exposition to protest French colonialism and the exploitation of the colonized peoples. It was organized by a group of French surrealists and the Communist Ligue anti-imperialiste, and supported by a number of French intellectuals, such as André Gide and André Malraux. It opened in September of 1931. Although it drew only 4,226 visitors, it served to heighten awareness in the French public as to the cruel aspects of its colonial policies and proved an inspiration to the students and workers from the colonies in their anti-colonial struggles. Two manifestos were published for the occasion which critiqued the opposition of primitive to civilized, satirized the hypocrisy of missionary movements, and enumerated colony by colony the violence, exploitation and forced labor being imposed on millions of indigenous peoples. There were various displays at the counter-exposition, although I know of no postcards that might have commemorated the event.
In this postcard the Abyssinian ruler Menelik II (1844-1913) is shown visiting an exhibition in his automobile with colorfully dressed groups of natives in the background. Though the king is not technically on exhibit himself, he is certainly a center of attention. Abyssinia, or Ethiopia, had the distinction of being one the very few independent African nations in the early 20th century. The card is sprinkled with glitter.
A final German postcard dated 1930 celebrates the departure of Colonial soldiers from their post-War occupation of German soil while at the same time likening them to spectacles found at zoos. A boy points to a group of retreating soldiers comprising North and sub-Saharan Africans and an Asian, and remarks in Frankfurter dialect to his buddy: Take a last look, Naazje! From here on in you’ll have to pay 5 cents entrance at the Frankfurt Zoo if you want to see them again! A sign below points in the direction of Paris.
Africans placed on exhibit at world exhibitions were a major means by which Westerners had their first encounter with peoples of the Dark Continent. Postcards of the era reflected and served to reinforce the image of the African as the savage other and juxtapose it to that of to the civilized white European. The legacy has not been lost to history. As late as June of 2005, an African Village exhibition in Augsburg, Germany, was planned at the City Zoo, to be placed next to an enclosure of baboons. Fortunately, there were immediate protests at this racist act. Have Germany (and the West in general) learned nothing from the degradation of African peoples they have placed on display in their past?
Postcard of the Month
Many complain about the almost endless supply of unlabeled real photo postcards that give no indication to what or where is on it. But on the positive side the lack of definitive information adds a seductive mystery to many of these cards that enables our imagination to run wild. This card does not only hold a grace and beauty but is so strange to invite contemplation. Is this a great collaborative work of community art or barrels and crates of bootleg whisky confiscated during prohibition? The most likely answer harks back to bonfire days when 4th of July fireworks were scarce but when almost everything was packaged in wood. Yes, this is the most likely story but there is plenty of room left to dream.
Fulton, Schooners, and the Slow Pace of Revolution
There hangs an old framed map on a wall of my home displaying the metropolitan expanse around New York City. It has a beautiful decorative border made up of steel girders that pocket little vignettes of important landmarks and the most famous New Yorkers. Sitting in one of these pockets is the likeness of Robert Fulton, one of the most prominent residents of the City in his day and still quite famous when this map was published in 1939. This is less than a lifetime ago but it has been long enough to be another world. In this centennial year of the Hudson-Fulton celebration both the public and our politicians have taken scant notice of this milestone. What little publicity I’ve seen has only payed cursory homage to Henry Hudson. I doubt most New Yorkers today could even tell you who Robert Fulton was.
After moving to London to study painting with Benjamin West, Fulton became interested in practical mechanics through his acquaintance with certain wealthy patrons of the arts. This was not an age of specialization and men of imagination often dabbled in many fields. This is not to say these were trifling endeavors for Fulton managed to invent a powered saw for cutting marble, a machine for spinning flax, he designed cast iron aqueducts and a number of improvements for canals, not to mention torpedoes for the military. His best known invention was to be a small boat named the Clermont that he built on the shores of the East River after returning to New York. On the 11th of August 1807, when it completed its 32 hour trip up the Hudson to Albany powered solely by steam driven paddle wheels the world was radically changed though few yet knew it. While bragging rights to the first steamboat has been bitterly contested, Fulton’s Clermont was easily the first practical example and gained notoriety by running packet service between New York City and Albany that very autumn.
Steamboats would eventually become a major mode of transporting people and goods, not surpassed by the railroad until the 1870’s. At the same time the Navy began to experiment with steam powered ships. This reached critical mass during the American Civil War when there was a premium on the advancement of new technology. The prospect of accumulating huge profits by inventing a product that would determine the course of the war became irresistible to many. As it turned out there would be no magic bullet for victory but navies would never look the same again. Steam power allowed ships to discard their vulnerable sails and begin covering their wooden sides with thick metal plating. In battle these new armored ships proved nearly indestructible, a formidable and often deadly opponent for any ship of wood. As the war drew to a close all industrial nations began a race to rebuild their navy in fear that obsolescence would put the quest for empire out of their reach.
The creation of large steam powered naval fleets had unforeseen consequences on American expansionism. While our small navy had long sailed the world they were transient extensions of power for much of the 19th century, a policy sometimes characterized as butcher and bolt. They would go to where it was felt they were needed as a show of might or to briefly battle with those interfering with American interests, and then they would leave. But the new navy ran on coal and stations that could hold thousands of tons of this precious black commodity in reserve were needed to be set up around the world in order for our Navy to continue its global presence.
In 1893 when American businessmen overthrew the monarchy of Hawaii and then petitioned to join the United States our government saw it for the shameful and illegal act that it was and they were turned away. Only five years later, on the eve of war with Spain the strategic importance of a dependable coaling station at Pearl Harbor to fight a war in the Pacific was so evident that Hawaii was just annexed and suddenly found itself a U.S. Territory. We had rented refueling facilities in many foreign ports but after acquiring new colonies in the Spanish American War we began setting up larger military bases in Guam, Manilla, and Guantanamo Bay where we felt our presence could not be seriously contested. While these bases helped give us global reach they were not located in places where coal was a natural resource and it had to be transported there. Ironically the cheapest way for our navy to do this was by sailing ship. The largest sailing ships ever built would largely be used to transport coal.
As important as steamboats had become there was no quick demise of the sailing ship. New designs in the 19th century made them larger and faster than ever before. Steam power was not without its problems. The early ships were slow and fire spreading from the boilers were a constant threat. Many of our worst marine disasters were not from ships sinking but burning. Many steamships needed a nearly endless supply of wood to power them and those with coal bins were subject to spontaneous combustion. Over the years technology solved most of these problems except for one. Steamships had to reserve a large percent of their holds not to carry valuable cargo they could charge for but for coal they had to buy. Those who continued to transport goods by sail did not have to pay for their fuel as the wind came for free. For many ship owners this was a logic from which it was hard to dissuade.
While sail held a number of advantages over steam power, it blinded diehard ship captains to changing economic realities. At the turn of the 20th century America had become a wealthier and much larger consumer society than it once was. Shoppers would no longer settle for what a store had in stock, they wanted variety to chose from and there was stiff competition to provide it. From a store owners point of view this seemed a disastrous trend. Not only were there space limitations on how much inventory could be carried but to do so would mean having to put up large outlays of cash upfront that would be slow to return. Overstocking items that could quickly go out of style might also ruin a business. While steamships had to charge more to transport goods to cover their cost of fuel they had one distinct advantage over sail, its service was reliable. A sail ship could find itself becalmed for days or even weeks out at sea while a steamboat could guarantee a date of delivery. If store owners knew when they could replenish stock they could keep lower inventories thus needing less cash to operate; a deciding factor.
This new economic model had doomed the sail ship but the perceived edge held by sail over steam was a paradigm slow to die. Between 1890 and the First World War the merchant marine doubled in size with many of these new ships still relying on sails. Ten six masted schooners, the largest of their kind would test the limits of this old technology just after the turn of the century. When filled to capacity they could each carry about 6,000 tons of coal. While these ships were easy to load and unload the weight of their cargo could make them bulge as much as three feet, a problem when tied up to a dock. The Percy & Small shipyard in Bath, Maine produced the most, the Eleanor A. Percy built in 1900, the Addie M. Lawrence in 1903, the Alice M. Lawrence and Ruth E. Merrill in 1904, the Edward B. Winslow in 1906, the Edward J. Lawrence in 1908, and the Wyoming in 1909. There was also the George W. Wells built in Camden 1900, the William L. Douglas built in Quincy in 1903, and the Mertie B. Crowley built in Rockland, Maine in 1907. The largest at 475 feet in length was actually a seven masted schooner, the Thomas W. Lawson built at Quincy’s Fore River Works in 1902. Even in an age full of sailing ships they were a sight to see and they became a popular subject for postcards. Many cards were published of their construction and launchings that were huge public celebratory events. Other images were captured serendipitously by photographers as they moved along the coast or entered ports of call.
While many postcards of six masted ships were published during their short lives there are few to be found depicting their demise. These ships even when equipped with powered winches were difficult for their small crews to handle and eight including the Thomas W. Lawson went down in heavy seas, two of them burnt, and the William L. Douglas, with her steel hull had masts removed and was then used as an oil barge towed by a steam tug. These were monumental craft, but as much a tribute to man’s will and engineering skills as to man’s folly.
The end for thousands of smaller sailing craft came in a less dramatic manner. After unloading their last cargo they were usually tied up to abandoned docks or anchored in shallow bays and left there to rot. Some schooners managed to continue working into the 1930’s carrying less time sensitive raw materials, but when barely break even profits became impossible to make they too died out. There was a lucrative business in running whisky but this lasted only as long as Prohibition kept prices high. Few postcard publishers bothered to capture images of these forlorn ship graveyards until the survivors became more of a rarity. In a few backwaters that were easily accessible to tourists they became popular attractions and began appearing on postcards once more. Some became better known in their neglected state through postcards than they were when functional ships.
In cities greedy for land to build on, thousands of the hulks left to die in tidal flats disappeared under fill. For many aging sailors these ships were there only home until finding their own safe harbor on Staten Island. At Sailors Snug Harbor they were able to pass their own last days within sight of great schooners now rotting away on the opposite shore. Postcards had stopped depicting these sailors as active members of society but rather archaic types sitting around at Snug Harbor or in small New England towns waiting for their own days to end.
Though we now look back at postcards in an attempt to discover our own history, in their day these cards were designed more to reinforce American myths even when contradictory. While postcards could inform and did capture realities their purpose was to provide a profit for the publishers by appealing to the widest audience. This caused the subjects chosen and the way they were presented on cards to be skewed. In 1909 when we were celebrating the 100th anniversary of Robert Fulton’s steamboat, planks were still being laid in shipyards that were building obsolete schooners as if the last hundred years never happened. Publishers eagerly played both sides issuing many cards depicting steamboats of every conceivable size and shape as symbols of American ingenuity and progress while at the same time romanticizing ships under sail as a solid piece of Americana. Postcards continued to play upon these themes even as the age of sail died. Rotting ships were not refuse when they were able to become monuments to our glorious past because there was a paying audience for this type of myth, at least until they actually decayed beyond recognition. A few entrepreneurs seeing value in this dying breed managed to salvage the last schooners from an otherwise certain death. These windjammers that began offering cruises to tourists continue to appear on modern chromes. Inadvertently postcard publishers captured much of this slow paced revolution though few realized they were doing so at the time.
A new revolution began with the invention of aircraft before we fully recognized the overthrow of sail. As we stand before the crossroads once more we cannot underestimate the value of imagination and open eyes.
The Blurring of Bounderies
There have always been postcards that pretended to portend the future but these cards have usually been characterized as fantasy or comic in nature. On New York’s Lower East Side there is a building rising that tests these assumptions. Perhaps we have not given early illustrators their due for some at least now seem to be true prophets. Dealers will have to rethink the topics they file their cards under. It seems we now need the category of prophecy or at the very least inebriation.
REVIEW by Alan Petrulis
Art Nouveau & Art Deco Fashion Postcards
Published by Schiffer Publishing Ltd.
Some postcard books are written by those with an intense interest for history, others by those who have a passion for the beauty of the cards themselves. Edith Weber certainly fits into the second category for this book clearly illustrates where her love lies. Illustrated with over two hundred artist drawn postcards in full color this book is a feast for the eyes.
The book’s primarily format is presented as a running list of 22 artists who contributed work for the creation of fashion postcards from the turn of the 20th century through the 1920’s. This was an age when there were far less distinctions made between low and high brow art, and many well known artists and illustrators lent a hand in creating postcards. Work by such notables as Alphonse Mucha, Henri Meunier, Raphael Kirchner, and Xavier Sager are all featured here. Postcards of the time did not just reproduce their work, the artists themselves often redesigned their best known images specifically for the postcard format. These cards were not seen merely as reproductions but as works of art in themselves. While only a sampling of each artist’s work is shown in this book, Weber’s never ending quest for completing sets gives us an unusual opportunity to see all the postcards issued within some series.
Each set presented is accompanied by a brief description of the cards and some biographical information on the artist. In general what is written seems much to brief though in this case I did not find it terribly troubling. Extensive biographies on many of these artists can be found elsewhere and for many others little or virtually nothing is known. Weber is not shy about interjecting her own professional judgments where facts are scarce but makes it clear we know these comments are editorial. In fact I found the personal voice that comes through in her writing to be refreshing. While the intent of her narrative is not meant to be scholarly I do wish she spent more time defining these postcards in terms of their style. Though the book is roughly divided in half between the Art Nouveau and Art Deco movements it is not always clear why a particular artist is placed in one category and not the other. I am also not certain if some of the artists within this volume fit neatly in either. Despite this weakness we are still provided at the very worst with an inclusive and strong visual record of artist signed fashion postcards of the day.
While this book does not provide an in depth written record of its subject the value of its illustrations cannot be overlooked. For many the postcards found here will present a new medium through which to perceive a form of graphic art that had up till now escaped them, and even the most adept collector will no doubt find new discoveries for many of these pictures are of rare cards indeed. This book serves as a good introduction to a subject that has been written on too scantily, and for those in need of a good visual record this is a rich volume. In the back of these pages there is a guide for evaluating fashion postcards but make no mistake, accumulating a collection such as this took a lot more than money and to be able to view them even in book form is a real treasure.
Art Nouveau & Art Deco Fashion Postcards sells for $29.99 and should be available at area bookstores and online. It can also be purchased through Schiffer Publishing:
Postcard of the Month
The back of this card reads:
The Bonus Army Marchers
It had been a long standing tradition ever since our colonial wars to pay soldiers a bonus to make up the difference between military pay and the income they would have earned if they remained in civilian life. In 1924 the American veterans of the First World War were granted an additional $1.00 per day served ($1.25 for overseas service) but due to political opposition payment would be deferred until 1945 when interest could accrue on the set aside. This appeared to be a satisfactory compromise until the Great Depression descended impoverishing families across the land. In 1931 veterans asked the Government for an early payment, and half the amount due them was made available in the form of loans. But this amount did not last long as the Nation’s economic woes deepened and unemployment rose. By next summer veterans began arriving in Washington, DC to support the Patman Bill that would provide them with the remainder of the funds due.
The first veterans and their families began settling in the park along Pennsylvania Avenue. As their numbers increased to nearly 20,000 the overflow set up a shanty town further away on the Anacostia Flats where they lived in tents and shacks made up of cardboard and scraps of discarded wood. Some made due living in the remnants of the cars and trucks that brought them here. This rag tag bunch would march up to Capitol Hill on a daily basis to let their presence be felt and they soon caught the public’s attention as the Bonus Army.
Times however had changed, and not for the better. Not only was there a growing Federal deficit, Herbert Hoover had become President and he had little sympathy for the plight of the impoverished. While the Patman Bill passed Congress it died in the Senate where the Republicans did not believe it was the roll of government to help the poor or unemployed. The Bonus Army Marchers were only offered financial assistance to help them leave Washington. Some accepted this offer but many were jobless, homeless, and destitute and had nowhere better to go.
President Hover upset at the permanent rabble now living in town ordered their camps evacuated on July 28th. The police moved in but after a couple of marchers were killed the officers were hurriedly turned back by a flurry of stones. It would now be the Army&rsquo:s turn. General Douglas MacArthur, Hoover’s Army Chief of Staff would come out from behind his desk to personally lead his troops against the Bonus Marchers. Major Dwight Eisenhower would serve as his liaison with the police while Major George Patton would command a contingent of cavalry. When the Bonus Army camped near the Capitol Building saw a line of soldiers with bayonets fixed headed their way they could not believe their eyes. Backing them up were six tanks and a machine gun section to make sure everyone knew MacArthur meant business. Taken by surprise the marchers dispersed after continuous rounds of tear gas were fired at them. The Bonus Army had fled without any deaths inflicted on either side and it seemed an easy victory.
After seeing the carnage in the streets of Washington and the large crowds of onlookers that had poured out of nearby office buildings to watch, Hoover began having second thoughts and ordered MacArthur to halt any further movements upon the marchers. MacArthur, ever contemptuous of civilian command had his own agenda. He continued his advance on to the Bonus Army camp at the Flats and attacked it by nightfall. There were light but serious casualties this time but the tear gas did its job well and the remainder of the Bonus Army were driven away. Their shanty town with the last of their meager belongings were ordered burnt.
General MacArther characterized the affair as a skillful and decisive deployment against those attempting to forcefully overthrow the government of the United States. But the public was not unfamiliar with those that made up the Bonus Army. Outside of traditional media coverage many photographers were attracted to the camps and they fulfilled their long standing role of disseminating images of news worthy events by producing real photo postcards. A set of printed postcards was also issued by C.O. Buckingham, Inc. that spread images of the marchers solidarity and plight across the country. These cards were cheaply printed in black & white, and were probably published with the Bonus Army in mind as potential customers. People in the camps created their own handmade postcards as well, some for personal use and in order to earn a few pennies.
Congressman Patman was criticized afterwards for fomenting this event by offering hope to the poor, a role that the government should not play. But public sentiment was shifting in the climate of a failed economy, and as theater audiences watched newsreels of the burning camp of the Bonus Army set against the backdrop of the Capitol their mood soured. The men now being labeled as Communist revolutionaries, were the same heroes hailed as the saviors of World Democracy only a decade earlier. MacArthur was soon forced to turn down his rhetoric in fear of public backlash. Patton, who had to face off against the man who had saved his life in the Great War began speaking out against the excess of force used against unarmed veterans and their families. For the already unpopular Hoover, this was the final nail in the coffin of his re-election bid for President.
When President Roosevelt took office some of the Bonus Marchers returned to press their demands for payment. While no additional funds were soon forthcoming the President promised veterans 25,000 slots in the newly formed Civilian Conservation Corps. This ugly and embarrassing affair eventually provided much momentum for veteran advocates pressing for protective legislation. In later years President Eisenhower would gloss over his role in this affair just like many others who tried to wipe it from public memory. But there are too many postcards sitting around in attics waiting to remind us of those events we would like to conveniently forget.