Saturday, August 20, 2011

New pastures



These photographic postcards, issued by the Rotograph Co., were sent as New Year's greetings. The sender is unidentified, but the inscriptions suggest he or she may have lived in West Warren, Massachusetts; the recipient, a J. Chester Forté, could be the person of that name, aged 27, who lived in nearby Worcester in 1910 and was employed as a salesman in a grocery store. Three are dated 1912; the fourth date of 1919 may be a mistake, since all four appear to be written with the same ink and the Rotograph Co. was long gone by 1919. They aren't postmarked, so if they were mailed they must have been enclosed in an envelope.


Unlike most commercial postcards of the era, these were not produced by lithography but are actual continuous-tone photographic prints, in this case on bromide paper. The so-called "real photo postcard" technology, marketed by Kodak's George Eastman, lent itself both to amateur production, in some cases of single unique prints, and to larger-scale manufacture (though probably not often on the scale of the mass-produced lithographic cards). Rotograph was a prolific company, producing tens of thousands of different images in the few years it was in operation, but these "O series" cards, printed in Britain, seem to be relatively uncommon and probably cost a bit more at the time. The designs have a three-part composition: an outer faux-wood frame, an intricately textured embossed "mat" (more cream-colored than these reddish scans indicate) and the high-gloss oval photograph itself.


There are several excellent collections of real photo postcards. The ones I've seen include Luc Sante's Folk Photography: The American Real-Photo Postcard 1905-1930 and Rosamond B. Vaule's As We Were: American Photographic Postcards, 1905-1930, both of which have extended and thoughtful essays on the history and interpretation of the genre, as well as Letitia Wolff and Todd Alden's Real Photo Postcards: Unbelievable Images from the Collection of Harvey Tulcensky. For those with a strong stomach, Without Sanctuary: Lynching Photography in America will dispel any lingering notions about the innocence of the era.


And now for a bit of a digression (or more than one): below are two cards, not from the same sender, that were obviously made by the same maker at around the same time as the examples above, but instead of the Rotograph name they bear an emblem of a winged circle enclosing the letters "SL & Co.," the mark of Samuel Langdorf & Co. of New York City (though again, they were printed in England). Although it may be hard to make out in these scans, the images have been delicately -- and quite skillfully -- treated with washes of added color, and could easily be taken for true color photographs.



This particular pair, which are neither stamped nor postmarked, bear the handwritten names of Prof. Theodore Perkins and Mrs. Mary Perkins of Chalfont, Pennsylvania on the reverse. If my identification is correct, this Theodore E. Perkins was a noted composer of hymns, a co-founder of the music publishing company Brown & Perkins, and the author of such works as Physiological Voice Culture and its Application to the Singing and Speaking Voice. One of his collaborators -- they composed a cantata together -- was the blind poet, prolific composer, and urban missionary Fanny Crosby. Coincidentally, Crosby was a supporter of Jerry McAuley's Water Street Mission in Manhattan, about which I have written in the past. It seems you can't swing a stick in the field of 19th- and early 20th-century American culture without hitting an evangelist.

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