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Blog Archive 9
January 2011 to June 2011


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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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Current Blog Page
20. Mar 2017 - Aug 2017
19. Aug 2016 - Feb 2017
18. Aug 2015 - June 2016
17. Jan 2015 - June 2015
16. July 2014 - Dec 2014
15. Jan 2014 - June 2014
14. July 2013 - Dec 2013
13. Jan 2013 - June 2013
12. July 2012 - Dec 2012
11. Jan 2012 - June 2012
10. July 2011 - Dec 2011
8. July 2010 - Dec 2010
7. Jan 2010 - June 2010
6. July 2009 - Dec 2009
5. Jan 2009 - June 2009
4. July 2008 - Dec 2008
3. Jan 2008 - June 2008
2. July 2007 - Dec 2007
1. Aug 2006 - June 2007

To keep the blog page a reasonable length the articles found within will be archived approximately every six months. To access this content click the links on the left side of this page.


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.


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June 30, 2011

When the Navy Landed at Union Square
By Alan Petrulis

New York’s Mayor John Purroy Michel believed that universal military training was an important component of safeguarding democracy, and after the United States declared war on Germany in April of 1917 he did his best to encourage enlistment. To his embarrassment he could not meet the quota of supplying 2,000 new recruits to our armed forces with only 900 enlisting for this unpopular war. Michel had an idea to turn this bad showing around, and he set up his Mayor’s Committee on National Defense to finance it. They would build a new recruiting station, but not like one that anyone had ever seen before.

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Once the center of Union Square was cleared, construction began on a 200 foot long battleship with a 40 foot beam modeled after the U.S.S. Maine. It was designed by Donn Barber and Jules Guerin who were both architects that had naval training and theatrical experience. This was to be no cheap reproduction but a fully rigged ship. Topped with a dummy smokestack and two fifty foot cage masts it rose to seven stories from its waterline amidst the park’s winding paths. Its guns however would be made of wood, and no armor plating was to be added as it was not expected to see much combat.

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The park was crammed with spectators on Memorial Day when the Mayor’s wife Olive commissioned this oddity the U.S.S. Recruit. It was the largest public gathering the city had seen since the great patriotic rally in 1861 that took place after Fort Sumter was fired upon by Confederate guns. The presence of this massive structure in such a small public park cannot be underestimated. Crowds would be drawn to the Neversail as it was nicknamed, leading to hundreds of thousands visits. By the end of summer its uniqueness made it the focus of much social activity in the city, and it began playing host to important city receptions, boxing matches, Vaudeville acts, Red Cross drives, and dances for socialites under a night sky illuminated by its powerful searchlights.

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Not all aboard was fun and games. The U.S.S. Recruit was an officially commissioned landship in the U.S. Navy, and it was manned by a crew of naval cadets under Captain C.F. Pierce. The crew’s numbers would vary between 39 and 80 over time but they all lived aboard ship and they carried out the same normal training activities that would be required on any other vessel. Fully manned facilities for lectures and examinations were located on the lower decks. The Woman’s Reserve Camouflage Corp would also pull duty here, replacing the vessel’s original solid battleship grey with abstract dazzle patterns designed by Everett L. Warner.

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The ability to observe life aboard an actual ship, especially without the pitching and rolling experienced out at sea, reduced the anxiety of many visitors about joining the Navy. By the end of The Great War 25,600 new recruits had been signed up here. It was a great success that Mayor Michel would never live to see. Running on a pro-war platform in 1917, he lost his contentious re-election bid and went on to join the Army Air Corp to prepare for fighting in France. While out on a training exercise in Louisiana he accidentally fell out of his plane at 500 feet and met his end.

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As soon as the War concluded the government began demobilization in a rush to cut military costs. While enlistments would always be needed, giant recruitment centers were now an unwarranted expense and the landship was decommissioned. People were also tired of war and ready to forget this horrific conflict. They wanted Union Square returned to a state that was more amenable to relaxing pursuits. On March 16th 1920 the U.S.S. Recruit was carefully disassembled for its planned relocation at Luna Park on Brooklyn’s Coney Island. This is the point where most narratives end, but what really happened to this landship remains a mystery for it doesn’t seem to have ever been reassembled.

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A clue may reside with postcards. While the back of the Luna Park pass book for 1920 depicts an image of a battleship, I have never seen a Coney Island postcard with the U.S.S Recruit on it. Considering all the postcard publishers that made depictions of it sitting out in Union Square, plus the many real photo cards made by individuals, it stands to reason that there would have been even more depictions of it at Coney Island where postcards of every amusement and attraction abounded. If this does not constitute actual proof that it was never rebuilt, it is a very good indication that this never happened. There has been some speculation that soon after its components were delivered to its new home near the shore it quickly succumbed to termites and rot in the damp air, but this possibility lacks documentation.



May 16, 2011

Jessie Tarbox Beals’s Greenwich Village
By Stephan Likosky

Jessie Tarbox Beals (1870-1942) was a pioneering photojournalist who was the first woman to be hired as a staff photographer for an American newspaper. Born in Canada, she spent many of her most productive years in New York City. Beals’s photo postcards capture Greenwich Village at the height of its reputation as a center of Bohemian life and its subsequent transformation into a popular haunt for slummers.

Beals moved to a small studio in Sheridan Square in the Village in 1917, where she opened an art gallery that displayed her art work and that of her friends. Many of her portraits were of avant-garde artists and literary figures. Her photo postcards depicting the Village typically showed the interiors of shops, tearooms, and restaurants, and to these, she sometimes added a jingle. Beals was a clever businesswoman, enhancing her image by dressing in Bohemian style clothing, such as peasant tunic blouses and beaded sashes. A 1918 guidebook refers to her as “the official photographer for Greenwich Village.”

In the mid 1910’s, Greenwich Village was the epicenter for Bohemian life in America. Political radicals, such as Emma Goldman and John Reed mixed with writers such as Eugene O’Neil and Edna St. Vincent Millet, and painters such as John Sloan and Charles Demuth at the various clubs and restaurants that could be found throughout the area. Discussions on socialism, race, free love and feminist causes dominated much of the discussion. And at a time when women were still expected to fulfill traditional roles in the domestic sphere, the Village witnessed a growing number of independent women, many of them single, opening and managing small businesses.

As the 1910’s advanced, Greenwich Village also evolved into a popular area for slumming parties. Groups of men and women would typically come down to the Village to gawk at the New Woman with her short hair and the venues filled with pansies. Capitalizing on this new craze, many proprietors of village tearooms and cabarets would hire Village character types, such as eccentric looking artists or exotic dancers to lure in the crowds. The 1910’s and early 20’s was a fascinating period of New York history, which thanks in part to the photographs of Jessica Tarbox Beals, comes alive for us today.

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The first postcard, the only one in this article not attributable to Beals, depicts the interior of the Pirate’s Den, a cabaret located on Christopher St. at Shedian Square. Visitors entered the club by walking down a gangplank, where they were greeted by a staff dressed as buccaneers and a parrot continuously shouting out “HELLO!” The club’s entrance was in the shape of a coffin and inside, cutlasses hung from the walls. The card’s caption reads: “Captain and Crew Discussing Plans on the Hurricane Deck / Pirates Den / 8 Christopher St. Greenwich Village N.Y. City.” The stamp box on the verso indicates a 1917 or later printing date.

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Mother Grace Godwin opened her garret restaurant in 1917 on McDougal St. It was said to embody the spirit of Bohemian New York with its informal and colorful atmosphere. In an article which appeared in Culture and Counterculture, the writer notes that diners “could observe aspiring local painters scratching graffiti on the restaurant’s walls or rub elbows with impoverished poets and budding Bolsheviks.” Note the drawings on the wall to the right.

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The Mad Hatter Tea Room was one of the best known and most frequently visited tea rooms in the Village, especially after an article in The Ladies Home Journal featured it in 1920. Women usually visited in groups so as to prevent gossip and uphold their reputations. The card rather romantically shows a young woman gazing into the flooding light as she leans against a wicker armchair. The stamp box indicates a printing date of 1907.

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A sign Down the Rabbit Hole showed visitors where they could descend into the Mad Hatter Tea Room. This card, which is a stunning portrait of a graceful female figure, alludes to Alice in Wonderland with a jingled parody written by Beals on the front: “The dormouse schemes a ream of dreams/ that always turn out new ice creams.”

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Anton Hellmann was an interior decorator whose studio was located at 17 West 8th St. He gave classes in design for which he advertised in The Quill, a Greenwich Village magazine. In an article for The Quill, dated November 1917, and titled Greenwich Village Interiors, Hellmann describes his studio: “My own studio is one of the high-ceilinged houses near the square is papered with a delightfully feathery design of maidenhair fern in black on a white background. The woodwork is white . . . The furniture is varied in period and material and is always changing like the pottery, the pictures and the brilliant lamps. But all are chosen and arranged with such care that they blend into a harmonious whole.”

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The Washington Square Book Shop was established by Albert and Charles Boni on McDougal St. in1912. Among the brothers’ accomplishments were the founding of a series of classic works of literature that eventually evolved into the Modern Library series, and the publishing of social criticism and important new authors. Albert and Charles would later head their own publishing houses and be instrumental in introducing to American readers such writers as Proust, Sinclair, Wilder and D.H. Lawrence. The photocard shows an intimate space with comfortable seating and a fireplace. Perhaps it is one of the Boni brothers who stands at the back engaged on the telephone.

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The Treasure Box, shown above, was located at Sheridan Square across from the Pirate’s Den. The shop was run by Teddy Peck and Romayne Benjamin, both of whom appear in the photograph. It sold a variety of gift items, as related in the jingle that Beals includes on the card’s face. Incidentally, the Treasure Box also sold some of Beals’s photography. The caption reads: “Oh Ho! Let’s go to The Treasure Box at 7 Sheridan Square. We’ll surely find a mine of gifts/ quaint and rich and rare - Mandarin coats and Persian scarves/ Odd rings and china new/ which Teddy Peck and Benjamin will gladly show to you/ So Ho! Ye Ho! For The Treasure Box with Pirates in full view.”

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Polly Holladay is perhaps best known for the restaurant she opened on McDougal St. in 1915. Counted among her regulars were Theodore Dreiser, Sherwood Anderson and Emma Goldman. When she moved the restaurant into a larger, more commercial space, many felt that an older, more authentic Bohemian way of life was about to fade. Professional Villagers were now coming to dominate the scene, catering to the hordes of tourists anxious to experience their visions of a Greenwich Village with its eccentric characters and challenges to bourgeois social and sexual norms. Polly later opened a shop, captured by Beals on a card titled Polly’s Useful Shop. The jingle reads: “If you want to buy some lingerie/ Silk stockings or a brush/ You’ll find that Polly Holladay/ Will get’em in a rush. She has easy chairs for comfort/ And a welcome hand for all/ So if you&rsquo:re near to Polly’ s Shop/Just go in and call.”

Two final cards depict female entrepreneurs in their shops. A sociologist, Harvey Warren Zorbaugh, has noted that the majority of tea rooms, book shops, and restaurants in the Village (as well as in Chicago’s Bohemian quarter) were managed by women. It’s hard to overemphasize the role of the Village in the promotion of women’s struggles for social and sexual freedom. Free love, women’s suffrage, and birth control were all hot topics of the time, and in the Village, women could explore and experience new ways of being unimaginable in the environments from which they had come.

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In the first card, Amy Mali Hicks displays an embroidered piece of work amidst a vast array of colorful items, while in the second, the owners of Home Art Masters look welcomingly out at the viewer as they display, at card’s center, a marvelous dining room table complete with individual free standing candle holders.

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April 28, 2011

Human Contraband
By Stephan Likosky

Cover

The picture depicted above is highly dramatic. A group of runaway slaves are seen racing over an unmarked line to Virginia’s Fort Monroe as a slave master whip in hand, call out, “Come back here, you black rascal.” The black rascal in question is thumbing his nose at the slave master, and calling back, “Can’t come back nohow, massa, Dis chile’s contranban.” On the left of the scene, slaves work at picking cotton, while to the extreme right stands Fort Monroe, the goal of the runaways.

The illustration is from the front of an envelope printed during the Civil War. Such illustrated envelopes (covers) were common at the time and were produced by both sides of the conflict in support of their cause, though the vast majority were anti-slavery in message and originated in New York and Boston publishing houses. This particular envelope dates most likely to the early days of the Civil War. Since President Lincoln did not recognize the South’s right to secession, the Federal Government was still required to uphold all U.S. laws, including the Fugitive Slave Act mandating that all runaway slaves be returned to their masters.

Shortly after war was declared, three slaves who were helping to construct defense batteries for the Confederate Army managed to escape and sought refuge in Fort Monroe, located in a nearby part of Virginia behind Union lines. The Fort’s Commander, Major General Benjamin Butler refused to return the men to their masters. Instead, in order to circumvent the Fugitive Slave Act, he declared the runaways contraband. Meanwhile, though Butler was told not to encourage slaves to run away, many more were finding their way to Fort Monroe, and before long a new settlement called Grand Contraband Camp (nicknamed Slabtown) was founded near to the overcrowded base. By war’s end the town’s population was estimated to be 10,000 former slaves. Butler’s policy was eventually adopted by the Federal Government. In August, 1861, the Confiscation Act allowed Union Forces to confiscate any property used by the Confederate armies, including slaves. Then, in March 1862, the Act Prohibiting the Return of Slaves was passed, prohibiting human contraband from being restored to its owners. As compromise between proponents of slavery and their opponents proved impossible, it would take the bloodiest war in American history to finally resolve the issue.

Illustrated envelopes are part of an art tradition of using the postal system as a medium. William Mulready (1786-1863), an English artist, is credited with designing the first postal art when he mass printed pictorial designs for envelopes and prepaid postage wrappers for the penny post in Britain in 1840.

Illustrated envelopes were soon being produced in the millions, many to promote various causes and freely using humor and satire. The advent of picture postcards, the first of which were authorized for sale in the Austrian Empire in 1869, heralded the demise of the illustrated envelope’s popularity; the picture postcard was far easier to produce in mass quantities, and more cost efficient. Today, however, First Day Covers, another example of mail art, are still being produced and enthusiastically collected.



March 29, 2011

The Lions of Qasr al-Nil
By Alan Petrulis

The Qasr al-Nil Bridge spanning the Nile in Cairo has been a well known lover’s lane for many years but recently I’ve come to see it in a new light. Over this past February it became a daily sight on my television screen as an endless stream of Egyptians filed across. This quarter mile span is the gateway to Tahrir Square, where those wishing to depose President Mubarak gathered with unyielding determination. On the day of his resignation the newsmen reporting on the jubilation found ordinary people armed with brooms and buckets of soapy water cleaning the giant blackened lions guarding this causeway that had been neglected by the regime in power for over thirty years. When a reporter asked, “Why are you washing it, isn’t that the government's job?” they shouted back, “We are the government now!” While these lions have been used to represent Cairo on many postcards since the end of the 19th century, I found my own Egyptian album completely devoid of them. Since my interests lay more in Western portrayals of Orientalism, I had avoided collecting what seemed to me nothing more than symbols of colonialism. The pride that the citizens of Cairo exhibited toward these statues had surprised me. It forced me to reflect on my own rush to judgment as to their true meaning. Little in history is as simple as it seems.

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Napoleon Bonaparte’s invasion of Egypt in 1798 had vast repercussions that went well beyond the short span of their occupation. An Albanian expeditionary force led by Mohammed Ali put an end to the chaos that followed the French departure, and he was subsequently appointed Viceroy of Egypt by the Ottoman Sultan in 1805. His loyalties however proved to be his own, and his enemies and friends became interchangeable in his bid to consolidate personal power. His primary objective was to destroy the power of the Mamluks who had ruled Egypt for centuries and replace them with his own dynasty. After taking power he began to make sweeping reforms. Having grown up in Macedonia he was very familiar with Western ways, and he did much to bring these ideas to this old land. It should be of no surprise then that his tomb on the citadel that towers over Cairo was designed by a Greek architect, Yusuf Bushnaq, and modeled after the Blue Mosque in Istanbul. Built in a style suited for royal Ottomans, it is devoid of all Islamic decoration. It even sports a brass clock, a gift from King Louis Philippe of France. In fact there is little of classic Islamic design left in Cairo as Ali did much to erase any vestige of the Mamluks.

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Alexandria, which had been the focus of much of Ali Pasha’s attention during the years he ruled, was chosen for the site of a great monumental statue to honor him after his death. It should be of no surprise that in 1873 the commission fell to one of the most prominent European sculptors of the day, the Frenchman Henri Alfred Jacquemart. The choice of Jacquemart came with some irony seeing that fifteen years earlier he had designed the giant stone Sphinxes that surround La Fontaine du Plamier (palmtree fountain) in the Place du Chatolet in Paris to commemorate Napoleon’s victory in Egypt. He was however a student of the prestigious Ecole des Beaux-Arts and a famous animalier; who better to create a giant equestrian statue guarded by four lions of bronze. While the statue of Mohammed Ali Pasha was cast and ceremoniously mounted in the street, his lions were abducted by Linant de Bellefonds, Egypt’s chief engineer of public works. Bellefonds, a French sailor and explorer was latter responsible for many of Egypt’s irrigation projects and was appointed to oversee the construction of the Suez Canal. Three years after his retirement in 1869, one of his last projects, an iron bridge over the Nile that replaced the ancient ferry was finally coming to completion. That same year he was given the title of Pasha, and perhaps he thought the bronze lions better suited to honor his own career. Whatever the reason, alterations were made to elongate these statues and they were mounted in pairs on high stone pedestals at both ends of the bridge. It was given the name Gezira after the island that it spanned, but it soon began to be called the Palace of the Nile (Qasr al-Nil).

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Efforts to modernize Egypt had created a number of improvements but it also brought financial ruin to the land. Egypt was forced to sell off their share of the Suez Canal to England and accept British and French advisors into their government who created in turn policies that only benefited their own empire’s moneyed interests. Throughout the 1870’s dissatisfaction festered, and as people began crying out against a corrupt leader sitting in power for far too long that seemed more interested in pleasing foreign powers than his own citizens. In 1882 a popular revolt rose up led by an military officer, Ahmad Urabi and they took control of the government. His claim that Egypt’s problems only began after letting Westerners occupy their country put much fear into the British and French. Anticipating a loss of control, the British landed an army at Alexandria but they were halted at the battle of Kafr-el-Dawwar for five weeks. When an even larger army began advancing on Cairo from Suez, the Urabists called upon the Grand Mufti to issue a fatwa condemning all visual representations of man and animal, and for the destruction of the four lions, and a statue of Mohammad Ali’s son, Ibrahim Pasha in particular. The prohibition against idolatry is a long standing tradition within Islam but it has been interpreted differently in different places at different times. While the fatwa issued here was a religious document the purpose for asking for it was political. Not only did the revolutionaries want it to be seen that Egypt’s woes were a punishment for religious neglect, it was a backhanded criticism of Ali’s Khedival Dynasty who let outsiders in and were foreigners themselves. When the British crushed the Urabi movement after the Battle of Tel el Kebir and exiled its leader to Ceylon, the lions were spared from destruction. The Khedival Dynasty backed by Egypt&rsqios wealthy elite would continue to rule but they were now little more than puppets of a de facto English colony.

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The four lions remained sitting safely on the bridge until 1931 when they were removed and placed in the zoological gardens at Giza while a new bridge was being constructed. When finished in 1933 they were reintegrated back into its design, but it had been renamed the Khedive Ismail Bridge for King Fouad’s father. Little had changed over the passing decades as all opportunity reserved for the few. The revolution of 1952 led by Gamel Abdel Nasser and the Free Officers Movement was in many ways a continuation of the populist uprising by the Urabists against colonial rule seventy years earlier. But times had changed and there was no call for the lions’ destruction this time. Instead most names honoring the royal family were discarded and the old name, Qasr al-Nil returned to the bridge. It still remains the Palace of the Nile. Symbolism and meaning is not something set in stone or bronze in this case. The four lions have become an important part of Egypt because of their history, not in spite of it.

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There was no facebook back in 1881, no emails or tweets to spark a revolution and yet it came to the shores of the Nile more than once. People from every corner of this globe are usually unhappy about the same things, which lead to the same consequences. It is often impossible to understand old postcards because we view them apart from the context in which they were made, but while the particulars around us continue to change, people remain relatively the same. If we can integrate the known ideas of a time past with behavioral patterns we know to be true from our own experience of events, we can gain understanding. A postcard may accurately capture an image but nothing more. Meaning must come out of our interpretation of it, but to do so we must have insight into the past as well as the present. A comprehension of history works both ways; it helps us to understand old postcards, and old postcards help us understand ourselves. As we have often seen failure to do so is too often paid for in lives.



March 25, 2011

In Remembrance

Real Phoro Postcard

The fire that took place at the Triangle Shirt Waist factory one hundred years ago to the day was a tragedy just too significant for its anniversary to be overlooked. It is a sad part of our history that too few remember today, and because of it we are poised to suffer the same mistakes. This subject was touched upon in the September 26th article of 2007 entitled Honor the Brave Who Sleep, and it has been revised and expanded today in remembrance of all those who died, and to remind us that their struggle continues. It is available to read through the archives.   - Alan Petrulis



February 4, 2011

Dark Skin, Light Skin
Sexual Transgression on Early Postcards
By Stephan Likosky

Part I: The Turk

During the Golden Age of Postcards, European societies commonly regarded darker-skinned peoples as exotic, and indeed countless cards were printed romanticizing life in Turkey and North Africa, or capturing the lives of black peoples in far-away Africa. Portraits of veiled Moslem women, often posed in fabricated harem settings evoking the mysteries of the East, abound, as do depictions of noble black warriors in war-like stance. However, one runs across totally different understandings of “the other” as well on postcards. These include two categories I would like to discuss: the dark-skinned male as a threat to white womanhood, and the colonized woman as sexual object or seductress. The motivation for producing such cards is varied. At times they were created for propaganda purposes to dehumanize a perceived enemy or to justify colonial exploits, at other times simply to titillate the viewer or raise subjects considered taboo. In all cases, social and historical context is important in understanding their fuller meaning.

The first four cards are from a set of twelve drawings created by the English artist Archibald Smith and published privately in Vienna in 1909. The set is entitled: Balkangreuel (Balkan Cruelty). The subject is the brutal behavior of the Turkish army in its oppressive wars against the Greeks (and other Balkan Christian peoples). In the scenes, light-skinned women are being humiliated, ravished, and raped by darker- skinned Turkish soldiers.

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On the first card, set within a church, an Eastern Orthodox priest is bound to a railing and forced to witness several naked women being sexually abused by Turks. Three of the women struggle against their captors while a fourth, in the foreground, appears to have passed out. It is an affront not only to white womanhood, but to Christianity itself on the part of the savage outsider.

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A second card depicts a Turkish soldier viciously attacking a woman; her terror is reflected on her face and by her frantic attempt to physically resist. The soldier’s hand is claw-like as he restrains the woman and his eyes are filled with lust. The juxtaposition of dark skin to light skin is highlighted as is clothed to unclothed bodies.

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On a third card, a male villager has been hanged, and the naked captives are being presented by the soldiers to their officers.

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On a fourth, outdoor scene, Turks forcing themselves onto their light skinned captives are taken by surprise when enemy fighters arrive to rescue the women.

The image of Turks as lustful creatures dates back centuries and is related to the fear of the “other,” in this case Moslems, by Christian Europe. Narratives, both factual and fabricated, tell of Moslems capturing European women and giving them as gifts to sultans for their harems, or putting them up for sale at slave markets, in cities such as Constantinople, Algiers, Tunis and Tripoli. Perhaps the most popular of these accounts is The Lustful Turk (1828), whose full title reads: The Amatory Adventures of the Lustful Turk, or Lascivious Scenes in a Harem. Another classic of this genre is Paul Little’s Turkish Delights, which tells of the rape and torture of Greek and other European women at the hands of Turkish army officers at the time of the Allied invasion of the Dardanelles in 1915. In addition to inciting Islamophobia as part of a political agenda, these narratives were often meant to titillate the reader’s prurient interests. The Turk as sexual transgressor has remained so standard a notion in the West that it takes only a couple of quick clicks on the Internet to find web sites such as barenakedislam, with its allegations in May of 2010 of the dire threat to Norwegian women by the many “African and Turkish” Moslem rapists living among them. Predictably, the light skinned woman is a metaphor for a civilized Christian West being threatened by a barbaric East.

Many of the captive narratives that were popular from the eighteenth to early twentieth centuries included kidnapping at sea. Indeed, between the sixteenth to nineteenth centuries, it is estimated that up to one and one quarter million Europeans were taken hostage in raids along the coasts of Europe by Barbary pirates. When not ransomed, men were often slaughtered, while boys were dispatched to serve as pages for the rich and young women to be used as sexual slaves.

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A postcard entitled The Wreckers in French, English, German and Russian, shows a shipwreck with an Eastern figure casually witnessing a horrific scene as he sits by the wreckage with a weapon at his side. The European men are bound and being taken off as the women, naked, sit with hands tied or are stretched out unconscious. The whiteness of the female flesh almost glows in contrast to the darkness, both physical and metaphorical, of the painting. The canvas, by Paul Emile Boutigny (1854-1929) was exhibited in Paris in 1913.

The white woman as a symbol of innocence, purity and virtue has persisted as a powerful image throughout recent centuries. In the United States, her honor was supposedly under threat by African-American men with their unbridled sexual passion, and many a black man was beaten or lynched for allegedly challenging it. During much of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, stories of American white women captured by and forced to live among the savage Native Americans were a popular genre. In India, British women, likewise, were projected as being under threat by the Hindu.

Historical perspective is important in understanding this phenomenon. Until the Mutiny of 1857, indigenous males in India (as males in many colonized nations) were regarded as passive, weak and effeminate. After the Indians’ uprising, the image of the brutal and threatening native came into popularity. It served the purpose of justifying the British repression of the rebel groups by attributing their anti-colonial struggles to nothing more than the savage behavior of uncivilized natives. At the same time, the British army could be seen as nobly defending the honor of the white woman, now under threat. In a similar manner, African American men under slavery were pictured in the popular white culture as child-like and happy in their subservient positions on plantations. With the Emancipation and the political empowerment of blacks under Reconstruction, the black male now became perceived as a threat to civilized society and a danger to white womanhood, giving rise to the Ku Klux Klan.

In 1851, American sculptor Hiram Powers exhibited his statue, The Greek Slave (1846) at London’s Crystal Palace. It was perhaps the most popular piece of art in mid-century America, having been seen on its 1847-1848 tour by more than one hundred thousand paying visitors. The white marble figure was of a naked women, wrists chained, awaiting her fate at the hands of Turkish slave traders in Constantinople. A Christian cross is incorporated into the drapery at her side. The sculpture eventually was used to raise money for the abolitionist movements in American and England, and to represent the cause of the Greeks (and Europeans) against Turkish (Moslem, dark-skinned) barbarism.

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A French postcard with undivided back and titled Captive shows a similar subject, a naked white woman, wrists bound, head thrown back in agony, awaiting her fate.

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On another early French card, titled in Russian The Sale of a Slave, a dark-skinned and turbaned man undrapes the figure of an almost blindingly white female captive.

What is interesting about all of the above images of the victimized white women is that they express a message of disgust at the cruelty of “the other,” while at the same time placing the cardholder into the role of a sexual gazer, whereby he or she must confront his or her own sexual impulses and responses. This reflects how much of Victorian society dealt with the erotic. On the surface there was a disapproval of erotic expression, yet underlying this, an often unacknowledged fascination if not obsession with all things sexual.

The fes (fez) was the universal symbol of the Turk, at least until it was banned by Ataturk in 1925. The cylindrical hat is found throughout the scenes in Balkan Cruelty as an identity marker for the rapacious Turk. In a series of erotic drawings from the mid-twentieth century, the fes again appears to link the dark skinned “other” with the reputed viciousness of the Turkish rapist.

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On the first postcard, two dark-skinned men, each wearing a fes, have tied down two white women, one of whom they are proceeding to sexually abuse.

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On the second card, two black men carry off two kidnapped white women from a car.

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On the last two cards, naked and muscular black men help in the sadistic torture of white females. The juxtaposition of white women being kidnapped, tortured and raped and their dark-skinned tormentors echoes back to the light-skin/dark-skin, victim/tormentor, civilized/savage dichotomy of previous generations.

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A German card with undivided back, depicts Sleeping Beauty (Schneo, die schöne Schlaferin), a light-skinned blond, lying in a glass enclosure and being gawked at by a variety of visitors. Framing the scene on the upper left and right are a gorilla and a dark-skinned native. The gorilla holds a struggling woman in his arms, while the native, who is wielding a club, stands over a blond white-skinned woman who has passed out. A fully-clad woman in a red hat looks away in horror. Psychologically speaking, this card is perhaps one of the most honest in openly expressing the revulsion and fear of white Europeans regarding the black man’s threat to white womanhood.

American postcards and those depicting colonized peoples of the era stereotype black males as brutal and crude but few to my knowledge explicitly picture the root of the underlying fears; black men possessing white women. This fear, however, did take on prominence in two major instances, in the use of political propaganda and in the enactment of anti-drug legislation. In the case of propaganda, during both world wars civilian populations were warned of the allegedly savage behavior of black enemy soldiers and their threat to the native white women of the home countries. Thus, Germans during and after the First World War admonished the French for their employment of African troops, whom they regarded as uncivilized and even cannibalistic. Germany’s schwarze Schande (black shame), according to Hitler in Mein Kamp, were the offspring of black African troops and the German women they molested.

Postcard

A German World War One postcard depicts an ugly stereotype of a French African soldier, referring to him as “a captured cannibal.” Italian posters in World War II singled out black American soldiers specifically as threats to white Italian women, and even the Vatican asked that black soldiers of the U.S. army not be assigned to the liberating of Rome for fear of mass rapes. Propagandist art works in the United States were no less kind, at times showing bloodied white woman being carried off by vicious stereotypes of yellow Jap soldiers.

Postcard

In an earlier generation, King Menelik II of Ethiopia (1844-1913) had defeated Italian invaders at the battle of Adova in 1896. It was a stunning victory by an African nation over a European army and resulted in Italy’s recognition of Ethiopia’s independence. A French postcard predating 1904 depicts Menelik II holding a miniature figure of a naked white female in his hands. Menelik is drawn as beast-like with hands like claws, while the defeated symbol for Italy is a humiliated white woman with head downcast. The caption below ironically reads: The good King takes advantage of his victory but never abuses it.

Lastly, the image of the black man’s threat to white women is found in the push for the enactment of new legislation in the United States to criminalize cocaine (Harrison Narcotic Tax Act, 1914) the drug was claimed to be a factor in the black man’s rape of white women. Testifying on behalf of the bill, Dr. Christopher Koch of the State Pharmacy Board of Pennsylvania maintained that “most of the attacks upon the white women of the South are the direct result of a cocaine-crazed Negro brain.”

Part II: In Africa

The image of the dark-skinned woman as sexual object or seductress manifests itself in various ways in early postcard history. The majority of cards targeted the women of North Africa and the Middle East and those of sub-Saharan Africa. Literally millions of such cards were printed for European consumption. Early scenes and types cards purported to be produced for the anthropological or educational enlightenment of their viewers, but later a more blatant and exploitative motivation becomes apparent. The realities most often were in direct contrast to the images conveyed on the postcards. Colonization involved military force, the negation of indigenous values and traditions, and a reordering of societies to the advantage of the conquering powers. The degradation of women, including many instances of their wanton murder and rape, are well documented, though rarely shown on postcards.

Three postcards exemplify the North African woman as sexual object. The women on them are posed bare-breasted and in alluring ways, as exoticism is linked with the legendary sensuousness of the East.

Postcard

On the first card, titled in French Oriental Types. The Slave, a woman with a large gold hoop earring looks away despondently as she stands against a Moorish style opening. A wrap helps highlight her exposed breasts and draws the eyes down to her pubic area, barely hidden. The young and supple body is there to serve the desires of its owner. Many such pictures of slaves were fabricated at the photographers’ studios, employing non-Moslem women, often prostitutes, to portray the part.

Postcard

A second card shows a young bare-breasted woman with head, ear and wrist ornaments, draped colorfully, sitting amidst two large clay vessels. Her body is positioned to highlight her breasts and bring the viewer’s gaze to her exposed upper thigh. Though her expression seems more like one of indifference, there can be no doubt that her sensuality is the card’s chief focus. Ancient style pottery has traditionally been used by early photographers to justify the erotic nature of their work: to the degree the image echoed biblical or classical themes, the less prone it was to censure.

Postcard

A third, French postcard, titled Une Almée, captures a woman who is both bare-breasted and facially veiled. Almées were North African women who were well educated and famous for their beauty and charm. They were hired to sing and perform erotic dances at various festivities, and can be found on the orientalist canvases of painters such as Gérôme and Toulouse-Lautrec. The figure on this card is indeed alluringly portrayed, with her arm raised to lift her breasts into more visibility. Needless to say, images of bare-breasted European women during the postcard’s Golden Age would have been limited to the realm of pornography and officially censored.

Dark-skinned women of sub-Saharan Africa, also widely represented on early postcards, were initially portrayed frontally, standing nude, or in profile poses like some exotic anthropological find. Before long, however, they too were being exploited on postcards for erotic purposes like their North African and Middle Eastern counterparts.

Postcard

On a souvenir card with greetings from French Senegal, ten illustrations are chosen to represent the colony, six of which show naked breasted women, while only three display pictures of European-style buildings and a civic ceremony. Several of the women gaze directly at the viewer, some smiling, and the woman at the lower left has arms raised to uplift her breasts and appear more sensually inviting. Similar use of the Black woman’s allure was a commonplace feature in French army advertisements to recruit colonial forces.

Postcard

Two German cards indicate what delights await the white European sailor. On the first, captioned Other Towns, Other Women, a German sailor kisses a black African woman in a romantic setting by the sea. Stereotypically portrayed with large red lips and seemingly naked, she reaches her arm over across his backside. On her wrist is a cuff from the seaman’s uniform, symbolizing perhaps their mutual bonding.

Postcard

On a second card, labeled in German Our Sailors, an indigenous woman embraces and kisses a sailor rowing their boat out to sea. In the distance stands a large naval vessel. The woman exclaims: “Carry me across, my handsome skipper!”

Postcard

A third German card depicts an army officer conversing with three darker-skinned women in a scene reminiscent of the Balkans. The smiling women, two of whom are barefoot, are flirting with the officer over a smoke. The translated caption, In firing position, usually referring to a military maneuver, here likely indicates the lighting up of cigarettes and passion.

Postcard

In some colonized lands, there was a scarcity of European females to accompany the colonial administrators and settlers. In this case, many men went native, or began setting up house with an indigenous companion. Others chose native women primarily as sexual outlets. Several cards idealize the openness of the dark-skinned woman to the colonizer and paint her as flirtatious and seductive. On the first postcard, a warmly smiling African woman freely exposes her breasts and teases in broken French (petit nègre): “Look, but don’t touch.”

Postcard

On a second card, a colonial figure in sun helmet playfully touches a Malagasy woman under her chin. The caption reads in English translation: Oh! How nice these little Negresses are, and they are not at all shy!

Postcard

On a companion card with the same two figures, the dark skinned woman fans the officer and the caption reads: It’s all the same, with a little negress taking care of your needs and showing you favor, it doesn’t matter what people say, these are good times in Madagascar. The woman smiles with pleasure and the man exudes contentment as he smokes his pipe.

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A fourth card depicts a settler with rifle interacting with a bare-breasted black woman. The caption couldn’t be simpler: Casamance-Sénégal - Flirt.

Postcard

Two undivided back American postcards depict the seductive dark skinned woman in more ambiguous circumstances. On the first, a uniformed soldier guarding a jail is being coquettishly approached by a barefoot native black woman. The guard shows surprise on his face, while from behind bars in the background, a black man looks on with wide eyes and mouth agape. One interpretation might have the woman trying to entice the guard with her charms as a means to attain the release of her imprisoned male friend. Another interpretation might have the prisoner, surprised and angered, witnessing his female friend trying to form a liaison with his white jailor. The caption is Dryden’s None but the Brave Deserves the Fair.

Postcard

On the second card, a bare-breasted native woman stands coquettishly flirting with a sentry. The soldier is distracted and somewhat embarrassed as he stands with rifle over his shoulder. The caption reads: Philippine Islands - Filipino Belle Flirting with Sentry. In this instance, fantasy and historical reality could not be further apart. The American incursion into the Philippines resulted in the needless massacre of countless civilians as entire villages were put to the torch and their inhabitants shot for sport. As Americans were highly ignorant of the country’s peoples and cultures, the word “niggers” was applied to Filipinos and images in the press frequently depicted them as black African in features. In this context, cards such as this one served to reinforce the myth that America’s imperial goal was to bring civilization to the Filipino when news of torture and mass killings was still little known.

Postcard

A refreshing play upon the cliché of the colonial soldier and the seductive native woman can be found on the following British card. The illustration depicts a uniformed British soldier sitting next to a voluptuous native woman, naked except for an arm bracelet and an Egyptian-style headdress. The man is playing a flute-like instrument in the style of a snake charmer. Instead of the cobra, however, it is his own flaccid penis the soldier is trying in vain to awaken.

Postcard

Another postcard image of the sexualized darker-skinned woman is as a prostitute. In North Africa, for example, red light districts were commonly pictured on tourist cards, as were images of individual prostitutes. Traditionally, women had been used to provide sexual services within harems, as slaves, or as well paid dancers. With the conquest of North Africa by the French, however, a revised system for sexual access to women became established. Regulation of prostitution allowed for it to thrive if restricted within well-defined districts, called quartiers reservés, or red light districts. On a photo postcard, titled Casablanca - aerial view of the Bourbir red light district, the images of four prostitutes are inserted over a photograph of the district. Each exudes an allure and eroticism of her own.

Postcard

Interestingly, the woman on the upper right can be identified more specifically on another card, captioned Casablanca. Red Light District. Young Jewish Type.

Postcard

The easy availability of North African women is more than hinted at on another photo card titled Moorish Type. Young Caryatid. Bare-breasted and with raised arms, the black woman stands against a tiled fountain. In France, meanwhile, humorous cards often depicted brothels where black women were seen as special treats.

Postcard

On the first, postmarked 1919, a black prostitute is accosting a somewhat hesitant solider. The caption reads: The Ten Commandments of a Soldier. Love’s Pleasure Does Not Come Solely From White Whores.

Postcard

A second card shows a black prostitute inside a brothel inviting a soldier to her room as he claims he only loves dark-skinned women. A white prostitute, perhaps jealous, whispers a warning to him: “You know, sometimes she loses her color!”

Regarding the theme of prostitution on early postcards, it is worth noting that European and American views on the practice are reflected in the paucity of cards from the United States treating the issue and their ubiquity in Europe, especially in France. Generally speaking, Europeans were more accepting of prostitution and worked on ways to regulate it, while Americans were more prone, especially in the Progressive Era (1890-1920), to eradicate it. Furthermore, a puritan ethic in America and strict censorship inhibited its treatment on the postcard as a subject for humor or as a variant of legitimate sexual expression.

Another major difference regards the attitude and experience of white American men with darker-skinned women. In the United States, black women might be regarded in the popular imagination as promiscuous, but at the same time they were often seen as being repulsive due to their skin color. In France, by contrast, black women were far more apt to be appreciated for their beauty, and indeed, after the First World War, they were exoticized and eroticized as embodiments of primal ways of being, from which Europeans had to their detriment strayed.

Postcard

On a final, American card, encouraging the buying of war stamps and bonds on the verso, and titled Embarcation Dreams, a soldier dreams of the exotic females he might encounter overseas. The first two visions show a veiled blond woman with large breasts against a Middle Eastern or North African background and two Hawaiian dancers in grass skirts, also light-skinned. Then, suddenly, the dreamer is rudely awakened by his third dream - turned nightmare; a black African woman appears with nose ring and a bone earring.

Demonizing darker-skinned men and eroticizing their women into sexually seductive objects served Europeans well during the early postcard era. Though not the only means of portraying “the Other,” it was instrumental certainly in producing and reinforcing ugly stereotypes used to justified war and colonial exploits, while titillating the fantasies of viewers rooted in more sexually repressed cultures.



January 22, 2011

A Memory from ’69

On the recent passing of Florence Wasserman her daughter contacted me to ask if I would be interested in some memorabilia; a generous offer I gladly accepted. It seems that not only were both her parents postcard collectors, they were also early members of the Metropolitan Postcard Club. Florence had joined the Club in 1955 after a chance meeting with founding member Joe Nardone at an antique show while gleaning for postcards. Her husband, Joseph Wasserman joined two months later to become the Club’s Treasurer the following year. They were certainly bitten by the postcard bug considering the size their collection had grown to by 1969.

Newspaper Photo

This picture of Florence and Joseph Wasserman amidst their postcard boards first appeared in The Star-Ledger on December 9, 1971. Florence is holding the plaque she won two years earlier at the Metropolitan Postcard Show.

While we are now struggling to restart the tradition of making postcard boards for our shows after a long hiatus, it should be remembered that this was once a popular club activity surrounded by much enthusiasm and fanfare. It was a different Club back then in 1969 with about 800 members. There was enough postcard board entries at the 23rd annual show to award 75 blue ribbons to the top three boards in 25 different categories. Despite the fact that Florence’s main interest was in collecting Santa Claus cards, she awarded top prize, which was an engraved bronze plaque, for her display of 24 cards depicting old English pottery and porcelain.

Newspaper Photo

A picture from a short article in the New York Sunday News dating from March 10th, 1968 depicts a scene at the Club’s 8th Street Headquarters. Florence Wasserman is reaching for a card in the background as Club Secretary Joe Nardone hands another card to Abe Samuels.

When researching antique postcards I find it amazing how much information has faded away over just the last hundred years. Once gone it might just as well be ancient history. There are artists who produced images for hundreds of cards that we know nothing about as well as important publishers for whom we have nothing left but a pair of initials. All this was allowed to disappear because the manufacture of postcards was just another commercial enterprise of no importance. Businesses come and businesses go. We might say the same about the Club. Dating from 1946 we take pride that we are the oldest in the nation, but few of us know much about ourselves. Once enough information is gathered I will be adding a new section to this website on our history. If anyone out there has images or articles regarding the Metropolitan Postcard Club and would like to share them, please contact the webmaster or ask for Alan Petrulis at any one of our monthly meetings or shows.




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