Saturday, July 23, 2011

The Bergin postcards: an introduction

These cards, postmarked between 1905 and 1908, were mailed, with one exception, to two women who resided at Canonbury Road (now 90th Avenue) in Eastwood in Jamaica (Queens), Long Island; the two recipients, who were probably sisters, were addressed as Miss Teresa Bergin and Miss Mary Bergin. The sole exception is the earliest dated card, shown above, which was sent, if I'm reading the initials correctly, to a Miss T. T. Bergin at 264 W. 115th St., N.Y.C.

The senders, where they can be identified, were several different women, though because of the vagaries of nicknaming some may actually have been the same people. They were probably in their teens or early twenties; one sender refers to the aunt who accompanies her. Based on the evidence of their names and one card that depicts a church they may have been Roman Catholics.

All of the cards shown here were postmarked in the vicinity of the town of Liberty, which is located in Sullivan County in the Catskills. Even then it was already a resort area, and the cards were mailed between June and early September, so it's quite likely the women were summering away from home, either as vacationers or conceivably as resort workers, though there's nothing on the cards to suggest the latter. Together the images depict a kind of idyllic, marginal zone, thinly populated, not quite wilderness but close enough to it that the women could smell the fresh air and be safely away from the crush of the urban crowd (and apparently, from any need to work from a living). There are few traces, either in the messages or in the postcard views, of the presence of the male sex.

We don't see, naturally, what these images and inscriptions choose not to show us, and we should be careful not to assume that it isn't there. All of the color you see, by the way, is artificial, having been layered by various techniques onto what began as black-and-white photographs.

The postcard craze of the early years of the 20th century began in Europe, and the leading printers were in Germany, where all of these cards were printed. Some of them were distributed by Rotograph, a large company that published tens of thousands of different cards, while others were printed for long-forgotten small-town souvenir shops and drugstores in the Catskills. In some cases identical typography is used by different issuers, implying that they shared the same German printer and perhaps placed their orders through the firm's traveling salesmen. The existence of such a sophisticated international network, one capable of bringing imported custom printing to even rural communities, is a reminder of just how far globalization had already advanced a century ago.

As is more often than not the case with any new means of communication, the rise of the postcard was greeted with a fair degree of hand-wringing. Like the paperback novel later on, it was tainted by association with the minority of examples that were risqué or regarded as vulgar. The ones pictured here are inoffensive enough, of course, but there were deeper issues. Many observers felt that scrawling a few banalities on the back of a card was a poor substitute for the composition of a well-written letter, an art which would inevitably suffer as a consequence. (Little did they know what else the future would bring). Moreover, since the postcard was mailed without an envelope, some thought it indiscreet to expose anything other than a pro forma salutation to the prying eyes of the postman.

In future posts I'll look more closely at some of these images and their inscriptions, as well as some other cards sent to the same recipients. I may, possibly, try to pursue the trails of the Misses Bergin and their correspondents through census records and the like, in order to get a better idea of who they were and how they lived, although something could be said for letting them stay as they are, hovering like phantoms on the margins of sight, as befits the delicate irreality of these images. Of course, if we do become better acquainted there's always the risk that I may find them slipping away from the narratives I attempt to weave around them. For their part, they might not have been thrilled to discover that I've been rifling through their mail.

(I'm indebted to Daniel Gifford's unpublished doctoral dissertation, To You and Your Kin: Holiday Images from America’s Postcard Phenomenon, 1907-1910 (PDF), for much of the contextual information included above.)

Postscript: According to federal census records, in 1900 the two sisters were living at 264 W. 115th Street, along with two brothers, Michael, a mail carrier, and Thomas, whose occupation is listed as "collector - clothing." Theresa (spelled thus) was already 27, Mary 34; their parents' country of birth is given as Ireland. They must have lived at that address at least into the summer of 1905 before moving out to Queens.

The List of Enrolled Voters, Fourth Assembly District, Borough of Queens (NY) issued December 31, 1919 records Teresa Bergin, Mary C. Bergin, and Thomas H. Bergin as registered Democrats residing at 51 Canonbury Road. There is no mention of Michael. In the 1930 census, the three siblings still resided, unmarried, on what was now called 90th Avenue. Theresa, a public school teacher listed as the "head of household," was the youngest at 55; Thomas, an order clerk in an office, was 60, and Mary, whose occupation is listed as "housekeeper," was 63.

Another card, not shown here, suggests that there was at least one other Bergin sister who married and may have had at least one child. Her initials under her married name were A. H.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Thanks for sharing these postcards!

I went to summer camp in Ferndale during the 1990's and early 2000's, and I enjoy looking at old pictures of the Catskills - specifically Ferndale, NY and Liberty, NY - and collecting old postcards. I especially love the ones of Lake Ophelia, because that lake is now part of my camp.

Thanks for a very interesting post!