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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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WARNING: Some of the content to be found in this section, including the archives deals with topics of a violent or sexual nature in both pictures and text, and is meant for a mature audience. If you feel you may be offended by such content you should leave this page now.
A Question of Boundaries
I wasn’t looking forward to visiting the Dia Art Foundation in Beacon as the institution houses most of my least favorite artists of the 20th century. As it turned out this former industrial facility built by Nabisco and now converted into a museum was such a perfect environment to view this work that it enabled me to see it with a new perspective. I was very irked by the no photography policy for the balanced between the interior and the art on display created an intricate landscape that I was dying to capture. Its long wide galleries bathed in natural light from almost endless rows of skylights did not just hold the work but interacted with it; each individual space rendered a work of art in itself. While a new appreciation grew for pieces previously disdained the entire experience raised important questions regarding boundaries. Art’s ability to expand beyond the confines of a frame is nothing new but how dependent it should be on the environment it is placed in is still a matter of conjecture. This is not a question of whether a work is displayed well but rather its ability to function on its own merits. Here groups of paintings completely illuminated rooms with their spirit, and yet if seen individually I could have just walked past them with barely a moments glance. As taken as I was, what does this say about the art itself? Does it fail if it is completely dependent on its environment to be appreciated, or must we just redefine our own prejudices to where the boundaries of art might lay?
This question was on my mind as I approached the one piece I actually came up here to see, You see I am here after all created by Zoe Leonard in 2008. The title is taken from an actual line written on one of the more than four thousand postcards of Niagara Falls that make up this instillation. The cards are amassed into grid like blocks and shapes that single out images taken from specific viewpoints. This allows each block to register as a whole despite the fact that many of the individual cards were printed very differently. Even though the Dia galleries enhanced nearly all the work on display I was very disappointed to find that it actually detracted from this one. The great expanse of this piece was somewhat lost in the dark narrow space that it was mounted in. Well over a hundred feet in length it unfolds as a scroll rendering it contemplative at the expense of its more formal aspects. Though the dim lighting may have been due to efforts to help preserve these cards, most over a hundred years of age, this should have been taken into consideration when first conceived. It would have surely projected more power, like the monumentality of the waterfall itself if not forced to be viewed in such a linear fashion. The postcards have enough pull to draw the viewer in close even if first seen from across a wide expanse. Its obvious dualities were severely compromised by placing it in a space reminiscent of a hallway whose doors interrupt its flow. The major problem with the environment selected for viewing was not its effect on aesthetic appreciation as much at it skewed the meaning of the piece by giving artificial prominence to one aspect of it over another.
I am often frustrated with the art world’s inability to see beyond the boundaries it sets up for itself, even when dealing with boundless art. Leonard should be applauded for not only challenging the public’s perceptions but the stale notions of so many cultural institutions. This said it is unfortunate that this instillation's ability to project multiple levels of meaning does not go as far as it may have been intended. The sheer number of old postcards the artist was able to find is testament to the pull Niagara Falls has had as one of this nation’s oldest tourist attractions; already a popular destination in the 1820’s as part of the Fashionable Tour up the Hudson River. In competing with the Grand Tour of Europe the Falls became a symbol of America and one of the first images to be placed on our postcards. Over time Niagara became more of a commodity than a place; a concept heavily reinforced by the mass production of mementos. The postcards chosen for this piece however do not depict the tourist side as much as the Falls as a natural wonder. While the naturalness of the images forms a nice though somewhat uneasy balance with the abstract formality of the instillation, it mimics the contradictions between sublime revelation and the honky tonk honeymoon capital tourist trap that Niagara became. In more recent years tourists have begun flocking to other types of amusements that offer even more spectacle and adrenaline rush, which has allowed the Falls to disappear from its high perch in public consciousness. If Leonard’s piece is asking its audience to contemplate these older connections there are notions that need to be already present in the viewers mind that for most no longer exist. While art should raise questions it is not prepared to answer, the limited and discordant vocabulary of today’s audience render the tenuous dualities of this piece far less effective than its ambitions.
This exhibit has not been designed with the postcard collector in mind, no great insights into cards or their history will be found here for those already initiated into the hobby. My own familiarity with postcards no doubt dulled my reaction to the piece though even I was impressed by seeing all the variations in these cards at once. What is to be found here is a new way to think about postcards, one that will press on established boundaries and encourage you to open your eyes. Those let down by their first impression of Niagara were often told that the Fall’s sublime aspects could only be appreciated over time. Perhaps this needs to be considered here as well for despite the work’s shortcomings it still provides us with much to ponder.
You see I am here after all is on display at the Dia Art Foundation, 3 Beekman Street in Beacon, NY until September 9, 2010. It is a pleasant walk from the train station served by Metro North’s Hudson Line. Contact Dia, 845-440-0100 or diaart.org for hours and further information.
When a Plum is More Than Just a Plum: Food as Sexual Metaphor on Early Postcards
From time to time I have run across interesting old postcards which depict food in rather sexually suggestive ways. I guess it has surprised me. Being a child of the repressive 1950’s and a witness to the sexual liberation movements of the 1960’s and 70’s, I presumed that publicly acknowledged sexuality was more the exception in preceding decades, limited largely to 8MM films at stag parties, illicit French postcards, Freudians, and collectors of erotica. Many of the cards I found illustrate that dating from the Golden Age of Postcards, mainstream printers also produced and distributed cards with sexual innuendo for the public at large to decipher and enjoy.
Of all the categories of food and drink to lend themselves to the argument, fruits and vegetables have certainly been the most prolific. In the popular imagination they have been appreciated for their aphrodisiac qualities (asparagus, grapes), their suggestive shapes (carrots, cucumbers, papayas,), and their associations with sexuality found in myth and scripture. These connections can be found throughout much of written history and in a wide range of cultures.
On a French card with divided back, two lovers are shown from the waist up opposite the caption: The Language of the Fruits of Love. The male is wooing the female, who lies seemingly nude in a bowl of fruit. Five specific fruits are depicted, each with its associations with love. Thus, the Banana is for lovers a sign of long and happy days together; the peach is round and downy and evidence of voluptuousness; plums, “my love,” are best for plum brandy; figs not too mushy signify loving like little fools; and the apricot is the most splendid fruit - it portends a burning love.
The fruits that are shown are meant to evoke for us images of the female sex organs or derrieres, with the one exception of the banana. This fruit, with its phallic shape, is instead a well established symbol of the male member. Its appearance in the fruit bowl might remind us of the off-color Banana in Your Fruit Basket, an early 1930’s song by jazz artist Bo Carter. On a card from Fiji dated 1927, the banana as sexual metaphor is likewise made apparent, with its nine native boys lined up, hands covering their genitals. Written at the bottom is the caption, “Yes, We Have No Bananas.” This is a song title from the 1922 Broadway hit Make It Snappy, sung by Eddie Cantor and later re-popularized by both Benny Goodman and Spike Jones.
The demeaning of non-white children on the Fiji card echoes the sexual ambiguity expressed on many American cards depicting African-American children, such as on “May be You Think I’m a Girl?/ But I Ain’t! That’s Where You Get Fooled.” During the post WWI period in Paris with its fascination for Black culture, Josephine Baker in 1925 performed her sensuous Danse Sauvage at the Folies Bergéres, wearing a skirt composed of artificial bananas. This image of the dancer became her universal trademark. Sex symbol Carmen Miranda (the Brazilian Bombshell) sang Bananas is my Business, and sported a hat replete with tropical fruits.
Further afield, on a postcard from Latvia dated 1939, a Black fruit vendor infuriates a white shopper as she passes, by holding up a banana (showing off his banana?). Volumes could be written analyzing this one humorous cartoon. It is of little surprise that in our day the banana has become the fruit of choice in sex education demo’s on how to properly use a condom.
Two non-divided back German cards play upon the shape of the plum for humor and sexual innuendo. On the first, dated 1901, two plums hang from separate trees. The lyrics of the Plum Waltz tell us that of the two plums the narrator desires, one has a worm while the other has a slit.
A second card featuring the same waltz lyrics shows two women replacing the plums. Both exhibit round derrieres in the shape of plums, while the narrator, now shown, tells us of the one plum he desires (the prettier younger female), and the other that he rejects (the older female with fuller face).
Returning to our fruit bowl, the fig is perhaps one of the most enduring sex symbols of all the fruits. Its ripe, juicy cross section has symbolized the vagina in dozens of languages for over 4,000 years. The fig gesture using one’s hand to indicate “screw you!” is well known in countries as diverse as Russia, Turkey and Indonesia. In the Hebrew Scriptures, Solomon’s Song of Songs mentions figs, as well as apples, tender grapes, and the pomegranate in evoking images of sensuality.
An American card discretely finds its humor in the popular metaphor of a woman as a peach and the juxtaposition of “pear to pair.” A somewhat elongated pear in this case flirts with a peach, depicted as juicy and with a cleft (“A Peach Like You Should Pear With Me”).
Papayas enjoy a history as well of sexual connotations, due to their resemblance to breasts and their juicy interiors. In Mexico the papaya is a euphemism for the vagina, while in Cuba, the word itself is so very much associated with the vagina, that the standard word for the fruit is fruta bomba. Wikipedia tells anecdotally of the American tourist in Cuba who asked the local grocer for a papaya, only to be told, “I’m not a pimp!” A photo postcard labeled: “Papaya Growing in Southern Florida” pictures a muscular young black man in a t-shirt standing in a papaya orchard showing the viewer the two halves of an open papaya which he holds below waist level. It’s reasonable to assume that the photographer has posed the male deliberately to add sex appeal to the fruit.
Quite the contrast to “Coconut Tree in Florida,” showing a rotund older man sporting a three piece suit and holding a cocoanut at his side.
Leaving the fruit bowl, we turn to the vegetable. The aphrodisiac qualities of the asparagus were noted as far back as 1653 in Culpepper’s Complete Herbal, which claims that when boiled in wine, the asparagus “stirreth up bodily lust in man or woman.” It figures in ancient Greek erotic poetry, as well as in Chinese literature and India’s Kama Sutra, where the drinking of a paste composed of asparagus is said to provoke sexual vigor. Brought to the United States by the early European settlers, the asparagus has been a stalk figure in sexual jokes ever since. It even makes an appearance as such in a classic American film, Young Ironsides. On the French postcard depicted, “How They See the Asparagus,” thirteen females react to the phallic shaped asparagus stalks pictured. The women respond to the stalks chastely, innocently, with astonishment, fearfully, avidly, etc. The card is a male’s self-flattering vision of what power the visual image of the asparagus, read penis, carries.
On a German card postmarked 1908, “Gruss aus dem Rubliland,” a young woman coquettishly bites on a carrot, the gesture open to more than one interpretation.
Nuts are generally considered to be seeds, but are often encased in shells which are technically fruits. In “I’m Gathering Nuts,” an American card postmarked 1913, a young couple kiss among the leaves while the woman holds up part of her skirt to hold the collected nuts. Since nut collecting is not usually associated with secret trysts, I’ll go for the interpretation that the card’s viewers were well familiar with the slang term nuts meaning testicles. Its first appearance as such in English was in J.S. McKee’s Throb of Drums in Tennessee in 1863 (OED). Since then the double meaning has been commonly found in popular culture, including the naughty blues hit Hot Nuts.
It would be amiss to leave our tour of gardens and orchards without mention of the Garden of Eden. It was here that the eating of a fruit caused the world’s first two humans to lose their (sexual) innocence, and the concept of forbidden fruit and sex as sin was born. (Also here that God’s first commandment can be found, “Be Fruitful, and Multiply,” whereby fruit is metaphor for procreative sex). On a pre-1904 bilingual (French/German) postcard, Adam and Eve are shown beneath a fruit (apple?) tree. Eve asks Adam to lend her his handkerchief; Adam replies that if he were to do so, the card might be seized. Nudity here invokes censorship - innocence has been lost underneath and due to a fruit tree. Interestingly, due to a double meaning in Latin of the word malus - evil as an adjective, apple as a noun - other Christian interpretations, especially in Eastern Orthodoxy, have suggested that the forbidden fruit was either a fig or a grape. The fig leaf of course covers over nudity in art.
When we think of grapes metaphorically, we recall Dionysus (Greek) or Bacchus Roman), the god of ecstasy, for whom grapes and grape vines served as standard symbol. Grapes in mythology often suggested sexual activity and procreation, its significance no doubt related to the production of wine with its aphrodisiac qualities. Champagne, the sparkling wine associated with celebration, is a common find on early postcards. Its fizzy aspect and phallic shaped bottle with a popping cork add to its evocative representations. The scene depicted on an Austrian card by painter Robert Schiff shows a couple in the background abandoning themselves to a soulful kiss. The masked woman with her limp body and overturned glass indicate a certain state of inebriation. They have left the masquerade ball and taken refuge in a private space. In the foreground, a servant leans over clutching a bottle of champagne. This bottle, if at all needed, will no doubt lead to the sexuaI seduction. The crouching servant with the bottle extending upward from his thighs might be seen here as a masturbatory figure. I am reminded of Whitman’s narrator in Leaves of Grass secretly masturbating to the naked bodies of twenty-nine young men bathing: They do not know who puffs and declines with pendant and bending arch.
On a 1900 German New Year’s Card, four frolicking women straddle a champagne bottle soaring through space.
On another German card, postmarked 1910, four men in red jackets cling to a champagne bottle and reach upward as the cork pops and a beautiful bare-legged woman emerges. The bottle serves as a large phallic symbol for the men, the popping cork is orgasmic and the emission is the woman of their dreams. Voila!
A 1915 German postcard, captioned “Guten Appetit!” (Good Appetite!) depicts two loaves of bread in a sexually suggestive way. One of the card’s owners, just to make certain the message is clear, has penciled in “Penis u. vagina.”
A last card, American in origin, plays upon the common association of candy with sex and the lollipop with the male member. A young male figure offers his lollipop to a girl. The caption reads: (female) “Oh You Lollypop!” (male) “Shut your eyes and I’ll give you sump’n sweet!” Here we’ll depart with rapper 50 Cent and his major hit song Candyshop, in which he would take his girl to the candyshop and “let you lick the lollipop.”
In summation, many early cards of both European and American origin employ food and drink as metaphors for sex. Though public morality was rather strictly regulated and censors active, there was space in popular culture for sexual humor and innuendo. The public at large was aware of many of the sexual associations through their familiarity with scripture, classical mythology, and their exposure at the time to naughty songs and dance.
Ethnic New York
I’ve been a collector of New York City postcards for the past 27 years. This has not only been my main collecting quest, but I found it the best source of educating myself in both the physical and social aspects of the greatest city in the world, at least according to myself. I must admit that the social, ethnic, and racial diversity of New York City fascinates me the most.
My enthusiasm for the city of my birth, specifically as shown on the N.Y.C. postcards of yesteryear, has been imparted by me to my own children as well as to my students before I retired from teaching. The physical beauty of our city is breathtaking, but the real story is in the heart and soul of every New Yorker, past and present, ever changing.
I consider the postcards showing all the diversity of our multiracial, multi-ethnic city to be my favorites. These cards tell us so much about the everyday lives of the people who inhabited our neighborhoods long ago. These postcards do not have a singular look but display a diversity of character as broad as the faces on our streets. Much has changed, much has remained the same, but each and every group has indelibly etched its mark on the total picture of what is New York City today.
At our International Postcard Show this May 14th, 15th, and 16th I would like to share some of my favorites with all of you. They will be on display throughout the three day weekend on the mezzanine floor just outside of the entrance to the grand ballroom. I hope you find them as wonderful as I do.
A selection of ethnic postcard presentation boards by other Club members and dealers will also be on display at the May show.
Where da ya worka John?
I learned this simple rhyme as a young child even though the term Push was more a part of my parent’s youth than anything from my own experience. It came from an era when encounters with pushcart peddlers were an everyday affair. Even back then there was a romantic air about them, an attitude that postcard publishers were eager to exploit. Many images depicting the pushcart trade began to appear on early view-cards of New York City as they were already synonymous with it. Some of these were issued by notable publishers such as the Detroit Publishing, the Rotograph Company and also in sets like the New York Street Life series issued by the Platinochrome Company, and the Cosmopolitan New York series by Raphael Tuck & Sons.
Whether photography based or artist drawn these postcards captured an accurate slice of life, at least as far as the individual card was concerned. As a whole they represented scenes confined to the immigrant community of the Lower East Side even though pushcarts operated all the way up to Harlem and into Brooklyn. More than depictions of a place these cards were published in the tradition of representing regional, ethnic, or racial types, a prevalent practice at the turn of the 20th century. This wasn’t just a neighborhood, this was how New Yorkers who were comprised of immigrants lived, just like depictions of salty New England fishermen, or lumberjacks from the Pacific-Northwest. On occasion these venders were shown midtown, but here they were more likely to be portrayed selling more picturesque items such as flowers.
While poverty and desperation were no strangers to the Lower East Side, it had already changed from the time that Jacob Riss and the Society of Amateur Photographers captured lurid scenes behind the streets of Five Points and Mulberry Bend. This district, the Tenth Ward had long been a contender for the most overcrowded slum in the world. Riss’ lantern slide show and later book titled “The Other Half: How it Lives and Dies in New York” helped reformers pressure City Hall into tearing down the worst of it and replacing it with a park. Hester Street, the Pig Market as it came to be known still remained an overcrowded center of commerce. These reform efforts may have been good for the slums but not for postcard publishers searching for scenes that would coincide with the public’s perception of this place. The problem was easily solved by producing cards from old photos then marketing them as contemporary images. Some of the imagery depicting the slums of New York were already twenty years old when first published on the face of postcards.
While these postcards reinforced stereotypes they weren’t that far from the truth. Pushcarts had been an integral part of the City from the very beginning and had become inseparable from the large sea of immigrants who settled here in the 19th century. For many new arrivals peddling from baskets or for those who could afford it, actual carts, vending provided necessary income until they could settle into steadier employment. For many others it provided a stop gap between salaried jobs. Though often seen as only a temporary situation the average pushcart vender worked the streets for ten years and it became the second largest occupation for immigrants just behind the smata industry. Irish, Italians, and Greeks were the primary groups working this trade with merchandise peddling dominated by East European Jews. They were basically the poor selling to the poor in the familiar traditions of the Old World.
Images placed on New York postcards were chosen carefully for they needed to appeal to tourists, though in the end they wound up feeding two different audiences. Where some saw romance and tradition in these images others saw squalor and and an evil that was poisoning the City that needed to be acted upon. An article in a 1895 issue of Harpers Weekly described Mulberry Bend as “picturesque, squalid, dilapidated, thoroughly interesting and lively,” but it better illustrated the love hate relationship with these people that existed in people’s minds. Even those who could entertain romantic notions about the push resented having to confront the reality of it in the City’s cosmopolitan streets.
Ordinances attempting to control pushcarts have been in place since 1691. This type of vending provided unwanted competition threatening the City’s ability to regulate the public markets that they licensed. Unable to eliminate them, the use of pushcarts were first confined to specific streets by the 1880’s and then later placed into larger outdoor markets. Venders however continued continued to set up illegal markets wherever they found enough customers to support them. The City was still fighting this problem in 1913 when it assigned the spacious approaches to the East River bridges as areas where pushcarts could operate without interference from authorities.
While logical arguments against the push were made it hid undercurrents that few were willing to publicly speak of. The improvement of traffic flow was the word of the day but most pushcarts operated in poor neighborhoods where the city cared little about congestion. Stores had also long complained about the unfair competition but pushcarts were severely limited to the amount and variety of merchandise they could hold. The real battle rising was largely driven by two concerns; one was the City’s inability to control this segment of the population, the other was based on broader social prejudice against the infestation of the poor and the foreign.
The street’s traditional uses for entertainment, socializing, and even political rallies were all activities of the working class, disdained by high society and they would no longer be tolerated. The job for urban planners was to create greater class separation. They needed to eliminate all that did not fit into this new vision of an ordered modern city with streets turned into avenues of fast flowing traffic incompatible with anything else. Cosmopolitan New York would have to go. This clash of values between the working class and the City’s growing elite, and who had the right to use the streets refused to take economic realities into consideration. The outbreak of World War One however forced many to open their eyes in the face of growing food shortages. The push were now seen as a necessary evil to be tolerated if the City was to survive. This new outlook caused the number of designated street markets to increase to 20 by the War’s end, and then to 60 just after the start of the Great Depression.
Despite Mayor LaGuardia’s distain of the push, the tipping point against it may have been his campaign against corruption. Ordinances had always required venders to stay on the move, while venders were always reluctant to leave a spot where they had a steady flow of customers. This conflict created a constant flow of bribes to policemen on patrol who were otherwise advised to exercise little restraint in enforcing laws enacted against the poor. Local Alderman were also in the habit of handing out vending licenses in exchange for votes. Corruption and graft had become a normal and expected part of New York street life, which reenforced the status quo that kept everyone happy except City Hall. LaGuardia was determined to rid the city streets of the push even going so far to threaten upcoming businesses like Good Humor venders who were now selling their ice cream wares from small trucks.
Over the years venders had often petitioned against reforms using the same basic argument; administrators were attempting to deprive the City’s most needy residents of income while providing no alternative for them to make a living. While the street trade had been threatened and harassed for decades it largely continued unabated as enforcement was intentionally lax as City Hall played to both sides, but now as the 1939 Worlds Fair approached the appeals of venders fell on deaf ears. Mayor LaGuardia wanted New York to be presented as the model city for a modern future. The poor were an embarrassment, highlighting the City’s failures, and he was afraid they would become an unremovable blight. With pockets full of New Deal money and backed by stores and residents fearful of declining property values, LaGuardia who had a knack for manipulating those around him forced most pushcarts into enclosed markets where they would at least be out of sight. These markets however were purposely designed to be very limiting and pushcart licenses fell from about 7,000 to 1,000. Though the pushcart trade was almost forced out of existence by the late 1930’s the Mayor was unable to eliminate it completely. At the end of World War Two, Brooklyn and Manhattan retained five markets apiece but only six would survived into the 1960’s.
The same romantic notions that found their way onto early postcards refused to die, in some ways partially due to the millions of postcards created and their ability to create distance between viewer and subject. Despite all the efforts to eliminate the push it had grown into an urban legend, and as a nostalgia for them grew, more vender licenses began to be granted. While some of the familiar complaints rose once more, pushcarts were now creating an image of New York, not of blight but of color that could be used to support and encourage tourism. The new green markets in our squares and the venders encased in stainless steel wagons that many of us buy our morning coffee and bagel from are a direct descendent of the push, but they are now more strictly regulated as to where and when they can set up. They share the streets however with a new generation merchants working with black market licenses or none at all, obedient only to the laws of supply and demand. City Hall has continued its efforts to regulate venders even to the point of wasting millions of tax dollars arguing before the courts that merchants of books and artwork are not covered under the right to free speech by the Constitution. The current Administration may try to argue these same stale points again on the dawn of a new crackdown against these small entrepreneurs. The push as it was once known may be long gone but the same battle for the street continues.
Postcard of the Month
A French horn player, a clown, and a dancing dog walk into a bar. Oops! I’m sorry, that’s the wrong story. A French horn player, a clown, and a dancing dog, along with a strongman, an Indian, and a gypsy are all placed on a postcard together creating an incomprehensible composition. As narrative goes this is one of the strangest cards I have ever seen. Luckily a title is provided, “The sold bride,” which only adds to the mystery for those out of the know. For those in the know this postcard apparently makes reference to a scene in the comic opera by the same name, written by the Czeck Bedrich Smetana. While the plot line follows the tribulations of Hans and Marenka in their quest to join in matrimony, the real story relates to the composer’s ambition to finally write a modern opera that would incorporate Bohemian traditions. The publication of this fanciful card however goes far beyond representing a staged theatrical scene, it is a political statement promoting the desires of the Czech people to free themselves from the yoke of the Austrian-Hungarian Empire and achieve statehood. This subtle piece of subversive propaganda was designed to slip by under the noses of agents representing imperial power, always ready to quash any displays of nationalist ambition.
Despite Smetana’s success the names of modern Czech comic operas are no longer on the tips of most peoples tongues, and deciphering such postcards today remain a challenge. There are many more mysterious cards just like it where we are left to our own speculations in the absence of any clues. This opera was first performed in Prague in 1866, and it reached New York in 1909. If not currently playing, perhaps the movie version can be rented from your local store; it was made in 1932 and if anything like the postcard it may be worth a look.
Hotel Howard, rising three stories above Jamaica Bay boasted of its large windows that offered panoramic views all the way out to the Atlantic beyond the Rockaways. In summertime a thousand pleasure craft could be seen sailing these waters but on this 24th of October, 1907 they held but a handful of oystermen. The northerly autumn winds that now whipped the giant American Flag flying high above its roof would normally indicate good conditions for sailing but today its howling foretold disaster.
In this flat desolate landscape the rarity of the Hotel’s electric lights had made it a novel landmark. After this nightfall all eyes for many miles out would turn and stare at the quickly expanding conflagration fanned by high winds. Its construction out on a 2000 foot long pier extending from the landing at the end of Haw Tree Creek had added a sense of romance to the place. Known as “the coolest place in Greater New York,” the well to do flocked here in numbers without ever having to pass beyond the city line. Now the Hotel’s isolation put it at great risk with the nearest firefighters far away in Ozone Park. By the time they arrived their truck fell through the burning pier and into the bay. When additional help came over from Brooklyn all they could do was chop down the wooden catwalk that led to the railroad trestle to keep it from burning. Within hours the hotel with its dancehall and private cottages had all burnt down to the water line.
The brackish marshes of Jamaica Bay had long been considered a wasteland, the land unsuitable for farming, the bay too shallow for commerce. Harvesting tidal grasses for livestock, bird hunting, and oystering brought only handfuls of people into the area with some fishermen building shacks on stilts along the many creek banks. Along Haw Tree Creek the group of shacks that became known as Ramblersville was not just a good place for fishing, it was a place where one could disappear into. This community that did not appear on any map was built further away from downtown Manhattan than mere miles can ever describe. Here you could just grab some land, build a shack, and disappear from the world without anyone caring.
When the New York, Woodhaven & Rockaway Railroad finished building their five mile long trestle in the 1880’s, straight across Jamaica Bay from here to the Atlantic resorts they created a flag stop at Ramblersville. Getting off the train at the wrong end of the tide cycle could mean wading through water but it still provided for a new reliable method of transportation through the marshes. This soon made the area more attractive to those wishing to escape the oppressive summer heat of the city and cottages began springing up in ever increasing numbers. This community of renters and squatters was strung together by frail wooden walkways put up on stilts that gave no guaranty of dry feet at at high tide. This manner of living had limited appeal even to the adventurous and despite much growth there was less than a dozen full time residents of Little Venice at the turn of the 20th century.
The burning of Howards Pier wasn’t the first setback that William J. Howard suffered. His family had roots in the leather business, and after returning to New York from an unprofitable venture out in California Howard decided to become a supplier to his brothers firm, Howard & McDermott. His purchase of a high acreage of low meadows in 1897 seemed senseless to the locals here and it gave him the reputation of being eccentric even to those living in the swamp on stilts. When his flock of Mexican Angora goats were unloaded from a train and herded out to a pen made from mounds of sod they knew for sure that he was crazy. Though this enterprise with his goats helped to create countless gloves and footballs it ended tragically when his property flooded during a fierce storm, probably in 1903 and his entire herd was swept away. Howard however was already making substantial profits from his popular hotel at this time and he was ready to seek out a new venture.
Howard had acquired an additional 300 acres of seemingly useless marshland west of Haw Tree Creek in an area known as Marcela Park. After his hotel burnt he slowly began the laborious task of filling in the tidal meadows with sand dredged up from the shallows of the bay while carving straight channels through them such as Hawtree Basin dug from the mouth of the existing creek. By 1909 he founded the Howard Estates Development Company that began constructing summer homes on the newly created solid ground next to Ramblersville’s shaky cottages that occasionally fell off from their perches. By 1912 fourteen bungalows were up for sale at $2,000 apiece, a casino had been built on a new sand beach, poplar trees planted, and a cobblestone cycle path laid. Good motor roads to the area would be long in coming with railroad interests fiercely protecting their monopoly.
About the same time as Howard began selling summer homes the Bay Harbor Plan was issued that proposed large scale dredging and industrialization of Jamaica Bay. These ambitious plans called for the creation of two large islands centered in the bay, which would be deepened to accommodate cargo ships and ocean liners. A canal would also be constructed along the ancient course of the Hudson River to connect the Bay to Long Island Sound at Flushing. Dock Commissioner Tompkins preferred to see residential development here and saw to it that these plans never came to fruition. All the talk however did create an environment for much speculation in the area. Howard was able to sell his development company for a profit and moved upstate to Ardonia to grow alfalfa. Perhaps with clouds of war looming over Europe he shrewdly saw that there were larger profits to be made in providing feed for horses.
In our age when we are more connected than ever it is difficult to even conceive of a place where the simple introduction of postcards was a radical change. Ramblersville’s obscurity had been no deterrent for those seeking to profit by producing postcards. Summer residents no matter where they went were a prime audience for postcard sales, and even in small communities there were those with no reluctance to publish cards for them. Among the number produced, Anderson & Sierk published a large set of black & white views, and A.M. Simon created a notable set of crudely hand colored cards with peculiar charm. Photographer Emile J. Godon, of which little seems to be known supplied many early images for various printers though a good number of real photo postcards depicting scenes all around the bay were also made by ordinary residents. Unfortunately many untitled cards can no longer be matched to place in this very indistinct landscape. If lucky they may have a old Ramblersville postmark on them, in use from at least as far back as 1907.
Within a few years Howard Estates had greatly expanded to the west beyond the 500 or so homes in Ramblersville. The railroad had already taken note of these affairs and relocated its stop here. When an actual station was built and named Howard Beach in 1916 the older residents of Ramblersville were upset but the writing was both literally and metaphorically on the wall. Pollution from development had killed the areas resort potential, which in turn only encouraged the construction of more year round homes. In 1920 the Shelbank Basin was dredged to greater depth for a submarine base that was never built. It did however create more sand for landfill and opportunities for even more waterfront homes. Additional new homes would also be constructed three years later on the east bank of Hawtree Basin that would be promoted as Hamilton Beach. The construction of Cross Bay Boulevard at this time finally ensured motor access.
Despite all the surrounding growth Ramblersville remained in a world of its own for many years. Continued plans for industrial development never materialized and for some this was still hillbilly country. Even by World War Two many of the Japanese who had settled around Jamaica Bay as farmers and nurserymen were able to escape being marched off to internment camps by hiding out in the desolate marshes with the help of friendly neighbors. Only in the 1950’s after the old railroad line was connected to the city subway system did a real housing boom come to Howard Beach. Today most parts here look no different than other nearby residential communities. Old Ramblersville disappeared some time ago but there are still places along its narrow streets, canals, and weedy fields where the remains shacks and bungalows that were once captured on postcards a hundred years past refuse to completely blend in.
We all look at old postcards and remember the buildings torn down, the trees that were felled, the empty field built upon. For some reason it is more difficult to remember those intangible things lost that often meant much more. Perhaps it’s because we tend to take that which we cannot touch, what does not fit within the grasp of our hand for granted. We are not so different from those summer visitors on postcards from Ramblersville, but today we live under a mountain of laws, rules, and regulations guiding our every move, where credit cards, social security numbers, and the eye of ever increasing surveillance cameras watch our every step. You can stand on a quiet beach past a wall of reeds and look out at the pilings of Howards Pier, still visible stretching out into the bay. Few realize what it is they see, but its significance is not in a hotel that has disappeared, it is a whole world that is gone.
The Most Common of Cards
As I walked down Portland’s Eastern Promenade I was having great difficulty composing my photographs. Whether I moved closer to the street or further out onto the wide lawn something just didn’t feel right. Then it suddenly hit me, it was the trees, they were missing. A picture of this Promenade lined with tall elms is what had inspired me to come to this place, only now the giants were all gone replaced by the occasional sapling of insignificant age and prestige. The absence of these trees now defined this place as much as their presence ever did.
One of the most common motifs found on old postcards is that of the tree lined street. Quite often the foliage depicted is so dense that it hides any recognizable clues as to what structures lie behind it. Today in an age when most collectors place value on clearly defined landmarks these cards that many think all look the same are not very popular. Too often we just miss the point of them for in their day these postcards were sold in communities that took great pride in their trees and viewed them as being of the same stature as those cards that captured the town hall or local railroad depot. These most common of cards were not only published in all parts of the country but in such numbers to suggest a significance that cannot be underestimated.
When Europeans first arrived to settle in America they brought their system of mixed husbandry with them. It was felt that the raising of crops and livestock within enclosed cleared fields gave them the civil right of ownership to the land, not only in their own eyes but in Gods’ as they were subduing the land according to biblical injunction. This was in stark contrast to the more mobile existence practiced by Native Americans and it soon took a heavy toll on the land. While conservation methods were known and laws even passed to protect forests they were largely ignored by colonists who viewed trees as an unlimited resource making no effort to curtail waste. A typical home in New England would burn forty cords of wood for heat in a year, which was more than existed in its frame construction. By the end of the American Revolution there were already severe shortages of timber. This was in great evidence when in 1855 Henry David Thoreau wrote his essay about how the great despoliation of the American landscape had emasculated this country and impoverished the world. More than half the land here had been cleared for farming, mills, and towns, and the lives of our best trees extinguished. Vast amounts of wood were not only used for shipbuilding, home construction and for fuel but for hundreds of thousands of miles of fencing.
Other European traditions kept certain trees intact such as those planted along roadsides as windbreaks that would offer protection for crops and slow the drying of the soil. There was also the tradition that the presence of certain trees indicated the fertility of the soil not realizing the trees contributed to its richness. By planting examples of specific species a village could demonstrate the sweetness of its soil and thus show off its prosperity. As the Romantic Movement grew many sought a closer balance with nature if only on a garden path. The idea that deforestation demonstrated the height of civilization was falling out of favor as many sought out the uncorrupted ways of the noble savage. Tree rows had been used to great effect in formal gardens when geometric artificialities began being imposed on nature, but now they began to take on a more spiritual aura. Romanticism was by no means a unified movement, and while it mostly revolved around the class politics of gentry land ownership in England, the Americans borrowed more from the French concept of new growth as found in our liberty trees. America with its vast frontier however was its own place that eventually generated its own ideals as exemplified in Transcendentalism. As we began to redefine our relationship to nature the absence of trees from our scarred landscape began to be corrected.
The mid-19th century saw the extraordinary growth in improvement societies that promoted civic ideals. They did more than concentrate on improving conditions to increase commerce and incorporate new concepts of sanitation into town planning, they became concerned over the damage that decades of unbridled growth had done to their communities. Many individuals were already planting trees on their own properties and now whole towns would be encouraged not only to add trees to their streets and village greens but along the roads that connected one town to another. The planting of trees came to reflect the civic mindedness and good character of a community, and planting societies began to expand in number and membership. As rivalries increased Nebraska’s Governor J. Sterling Mortin created a Statewide Arbor Day in 1872 to encourage the planting of trees. Teachers who felt their urban students were loosing touch with nature became enthusiastic promoters of this holiday, and its observance was added to the curriculum of many schools throughout the nation. These planting festivals would expand into huge community events and by the 1920’s every State had designated its own Arbor Day. In 1948 the last Friday of April was designated a National Arbor Day.
The City Beautification Movement rose from the growing sense of national pride that followed the American Civil War, taking the planting of trees from the exclusivity of small towns to our urban centers. The placing of trees on city streets and the creation of public parks grew out of a great moral concern among the progressives of the day. It was believed that the environment one lived in had a direct impact on character, and that the creation of attractive tree lined streets would create better citizens and a more cohesive society. These ideals were exemplified in the designs of Frederick Law Olmsted whose urban planing did not just incorporate aesthetics and functionality but a moral dimension as well. His term landscape architecture has come to be defined not only in the great parks he designed but in his creation of tree lined communities, promenades and parkways.
In 1899 the Massachusetts legislature passed the Tree Warden Act that required every municipality to have an official to take charge of the planting and care of street trees. These officers replaced the volunteer work of more informal garden clubs and did everything from erecting protective fences and repairing gas leaks to levying fines against those posting handbills to tree trunks or anyone else who might damage a tree. The appointment of wardens would soon spread to other New England States but in large urban areas they would be replaced by entirely new civil departments of parks.
As cities grew and urban sprawl spread into surrounding communities the need to provide more trolly service and then more room for the increasing number of automobiles caused the widening of many streets and a serious loss of trees. Giants that traffic once had to maneuver around lost their value in the face of increasing commuter demands. Even today the plantings along many highways are now disappearing as more lanes are added and high walls are erected in their place. As many wealthier residents fled our cities for quieter residential communities and eventually the suburbs less care was given to replace those trees that were lost.
Many of the trees initially planted alongside our roads relate to the concept of sweetness. Those that grew well in the fertile bottomlands of our valleys such as buttonwoods (American sycamore or plane), the red and silver maple, the red and pin oak, and the American elm were all commonly used. The elm in particular was a very popular tree with its distinctive tall spreading funnel shape that completely canopied many streets. They have graced so many images of New England including the countless number found on postcards that they are almost synonymous with the region. Their loss like that of many others has not been due to construction alone but a variety of natural pests. Dutch elm decease spread by bark beetles has killed about a hundred million street trees coast to coast since it first made its appearance in the 1930’s. While elms still stand and some towns have been spared, the loss of this grand tree has changed the face of our streets in both urban and rural settings beyond belief. Their presence on our streets has become such a solid part of the American myth that they continue to loom large in our imagination despite the tragic depletion of them.
While many municipalities continue to plant street trees they have fallen from favor with large segments of the public that complain they block signs, take up room for parking, and drop messy leaves. For many decades the planting of trees seemed obligatory in most new land developments. Rows of young saplings standing alongside newly laid streets was a common sight on early postcards, but now the planting of trees are too often deemed an unneeded expense and those already standing are usually clear cut to hasten construction work. Even utility companies now routinely mutilate and injure street trees as if nothing has any value beyond their precious wires. If these most common of cards were to be reissued with only the views available to us today they would be rare cards indeed. We must learn to look beyond the obvious for old postcards have not only captured the many shaded streets all across this country that have been lost to us, but reflect a very different attitude toward what we consider important in our lives and what we are willing to live with.
Food and Folly
When examining postcards printed over decades one can sometimes find words that fall in and out of vogue over time. Nowhere is this more clear than when dealing with what has become one of America’s most popular foods. It remains uncertain exactly when saloon keeper Charles Feltman first began selling sausage at Coney Island but by the early 1870’s he had definitely established a flourishing business that would eventually grow to a full block in length. These foot longs of spiced meat slurry had come to be known as Dachshund sausages back in Germany and were traditionally eaten cold. While the many German immigrants who frequented Coney Island continued to eat them this way, Feltman saw a potential new market in those throngs of visitors who longed for a warm meal but could not afford to eat in the local restaurants. This shrewdness gave birth to the Red Hot served on bread so his costumers would not have to burn their fingers while eating. Soon this sausage began to be called the Coney Island, but as its popularity spread beyond Brooklyn these all pork sausages became generally known as Frankfurters from its city of origin Frankfurt while the mixed pork and beef variety popular in Vienna (Wien) was referred to as the Wiener.
Not all had a love for this Brooklyn delicacy for at the turn of the 20th century cartoonist T.A. Dorgan began satirizing it as the Hot Dog. While some claim he used this new name simply because he could not spell Dachshund, it was may have been an attempt to create a derogatory connection between Germans and dogs. Even though the Dorgan story lacks credibility for the term Hot Dog had been been in use sporadically for quite some time, it grew to become so closely associated with actual dog meat that by 1913 the Coney Island Chamber of Commerce had banned its use on all signs. This ban however would run into problems after the outbreak of the First World War when President Wilson established by executive order the Committee on Public Information under George Creel. In a nation where those of German ancestry made up sizable portion of our population and did not want to fight their European cousins, anti-German propaganda became a critical part of promoting an unpopular war. By 1917 Creel would order German newspapers be closed, forbid the language to be taught, and encouraged boycotts of German music. In an atmosphere where everything German needed to be demonized and denigrated the words Frankfurter and Wiener were replaced by Hot Dog almost everywhere and its favorite accouterment, sauerkraut would become known as Liberty Cabbage.
By the 1930’s five cent Frankfurters were being advertised on the signs above the Nathan’s grab joint at Coney Island for much of the old war rhetoric had been forgotten. Hot Dog however was now so ingrained with the public that it would remain in common usage but without the bad connotations, even to the point of expressing exuberance. The word Liberty however is not one that pairs well with food and it did not stick. We can see this in more recent attempts at creating Liberty Fries after the French criticized our invasion of Iraq, conveniently forgetting how much we loved them when we renamed German Toast.
Postscript: Though Feltman’s has been closed since 1952 the eatery’s kitchen that cooked up countless numbers of Hot Dogs, and which Nathan Handworker (the founder of Nathan’s Famous) once worked and even slept in is still standing. Afterwards it served as a workshop for Astroland but it has been unused for some time. It will probably be demolished this year for new development, for in New York the old is nothing more than something in the way of the new.