Friday, August 26, 2011


For most of this summer I've been devoting this space to looking at images and inscriptions from some century-old postcards, trying to understand something of what such humble artifacts might have to say about the people who made and sent them and the world in which they lived. This faded "real photo postcard" and its dapper subject will finish the theme for now, not because it's exhausted but because I want to sail other waters as well.

The man, perhaps a prosperous farmer, is wearing a straw boater, light-colored pants and vest, a white shirt, and a dark tie with some sort of clasp or pin; beneath his folded sleeves you can also make out part of the chain of a pocket watch. The elaborate decorated border -- perhaps a common stock device, although I haven't come across another example so far -- echoes the vegetation behind the figure, which appears to be pea vines. Above the photo there's a space that was obviously intended for an inscription, but it's been left blank. There are some faint oval blisters in the paper that are apparently the result of flaws in the developing process.

From the markings on the back, which was never addressed, it can be determined that the variety of Azo photographic paper on which the card was printed was manufactured between 1907 and 1918. The previous owner thought that the location of the photo might have been the small upstate New York town with the improbable Homeric name of Ilion, which will do for a working hypothesis. In any case the man's identity is probably unrecoverable, unless by chance another likeness survives somewhere in a photo album, labelled "Uncle Theo, 1912" or something like that. Somewhere, no doubt, his name, perhaps otherwise forgotten, can be found inscribed in the ink of census records or an old family Bible, but nothing now connects it to this fading chemical memory of a man who once posed in his garden on a summer afternoon, wearing his finest suit of clothes.

We live in a world that is saturated with pictures, moving and still, the vast majority of which are created to serve commercial or political purposes or just to provide an instant's ephemeral amusement. We've become so desensitized to the torrent that we forget the alchemy that lies behind every photographic image, as well as the utter strangeness of being able to view, in meticulous detail, the visible trace of where one man stood for a second a century ago, squinting a bit in the sunlight, no doubt little reflecting on the possibility that his monochrome ghost would linger long after him and reappear to the eyes of a distant stranger decades after his bones had been laid to rest.

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.

Saturday, August 13, 2011

Mr. Greenawalt's world

This is a moderately interesting postcard view of the City Hall Park in lower Manhattan area looking with the East River and Brooklyn in the background; the long low building pointing across the river just left of center is, I'm told, the terminal for the cable cars of the New York and Brooklyn Bridge Railway. Although it may not be immediately evident in the above scan, the card has been extensively decorated with glitter, which is easiest to spot on the horizontal lines of the tall building in the center of the frame. It was manufactured by the Rotograph Co. in Germany and bears the Sol Art Prints trademark. The stamp on the reverse has been cancelled but there's no date; 1906-1908 would be a good guess.

As interesting as the view itself, perhaps, is the brief message on the front and the person to whom it was addressed. The recipient was Mr. W. G. Greenawalt of 1428 Chestnut Street in Philadelphia, and the inscription ("These ought to sell well – With Phila views. J. R. M.") would have been of particular interest to him, for Greenawalt, a pharmacist, was the author of several articles on postcards written from the retailer's point-of-view, articles that appeared in now obscure -- but surprisingly lively -- trade journals. Here, for example, are the beginning paragraphs of an article on "Making Capital of the Post-card Craze," which appeared in May 1908 in the Bulletin of Pharmacy:
Having traveled abroad, and knowing the popularity of picture post-cards, as most foreigners call them, I watched with eager interest their advent into America. I felt that they would become just as popular here, if not more so.

When they were first coming into vogue, I was located up on Broadway in New York. I was one of the pioneers in the post-card business, making some of the first window displays to be seen on Broadway.

Knowing that human nature is much the same in all countries, and feeling sure that Americans would buy postal cards at home, just as the travelers and tourists did abroad, I displayed a few local views. Gradually I added others of a fancy nature — flowers, fruits, dogs, cats, and later scenes from the various cities of the East.

I soon realized that my theory was correct. Americans did buy them, and I was developing quite a nice trade in souvenir cards, when a real estate deal brought a change of location. I came to Philadelphia*, where I located on Chestnut Street.

Here again, with renewed energy and zeal, with my confidence in the souvenir postal cards unshaken, I gave them a conspicuous place in my store and began making window displays. Never shall I forget the comments, the criticisms and sneers which followed: "Picture postal cards, a whole window full, in a drug store on Chestnut Street!"

Some laughed, while others took the matter much more seriously. But many who stopped to scoff remained to admire and came in to buy. Notwithstanding adverse criticisms, I continued to show postals, making occasional window displays. Finally, it became quite the proper thing, for others followed as soon as they saw what was being done.
Incidentally, the American Druggist and Pharmaceutical Record of June 13, 1904 records the druggist's move from New York to Philadelphia, in a somewhat mocking tone that suggests there may have been a whiff of disapproval in the industry over the way he ran his business:
William G. Greenawalt, of Chambersburg, Pa., who opened a pharmacy on Broadway, near Twenty-eighth street, Manhattan, about 18 months ago, has either found the pace too swift for him, or the New Yorkers unappreciative of certain innovations to which he tried to accustom them, for he has shut up shop and removed to Philadelphia, most of his stock and fixtures being transferred to his new location in the Y.M.C.A. Building at 1428 Chestnut street, Philadelphia.
The Alumni Report of the Philadelphia College of Pharmacy Alumni Association for August 1904 put a more positive spin on the move, declaring that the New York store was "both a sensation and a success," and that its owner "was induced by a handsome offer (owing to the great rise in real estate values) to sell his unexpired lease." The reference to "innovations" in the one account, and "sensation" in the second, makes one wonder whether Greenawalt's display windows of postcards might not have been raising a ruckus.

Not everyone was enthusiastic about the coming of the postcard craze, particularly since "naughty" or "vulgar" comic cards quickly gained a foothold in the market. Greenawalt was reassuring, however. The March issue of the Bulletin of Pharmacy records the druggist's views on the controversial topic of "The Propriety of Selling Souvenir Post-cards":
In a paper read before the Pennsylvania Pharmaceutical Association, W. G. Greenawalt dwelt incidentally on his attitude toward the fitness of carrying postal cards. Mr. Greenawalt said, in part: "As a business bringer the post-card is one of the best we have ever had, and it bids fair to continue. There are post-cards and post-cards. There are those of a high class, which have an educating and refining influence, and their sale adds to the tone and dignity of any establishment in which they are found. There are others much less so, yet still attractive and interesting, and also the cheaper common ones, which are crude, coarse, and often vulgar. These naturally prove a disadvantage, but it is good to know that few pharmacists have taken them up. Generally he prefers better cards, and so long as he does so he will most surely derive profit and pleasure, even though his ethical sensibilities are shocked. However, he has as his defense that he must live, and if the sale of souvenirs and post-cards is creditable, and makes him more comfortable than some other side-lines, it should console him for any injury to his feelings in the matter."
In his own article he declared, perhaps prematurely, that
The sale of the comic postal has fallen off, as most persons have no longer any interest in them. That was a passing fad.
Greenawalt's original base of operations was apparently Chambersburg, Pennsylvania, which may also have been his birthplace, around 1865; it appears that he or his family ran a drugstore there for at least twenty years. In the 1900 federal census a "G. William Greenwalt," age 33, was listed as living in that city with his mother and two siblings; both he and his brother David were pharmacists. The 1910 census shows a druggist with the same name, age 45, boarding on Pierrepont Street in Brooklyn, perhaps while traveling on business, and in 1912 the brothers purchased a drugstore in Frederick, Maryland. In 1917, William contributed another article to the Bulletin of Pharmacy, this one recording his experiences with "An Unusual Caller" to his store. Census records for 1920 have him again living with his siblings on Queen Street in Chambersburg. David was still the proprietor of a pharmacy, but William's occupation was now given as "none." David was still living at the same address in 1930 (occupation "none") but there is no further mention of William. It appears neither brother ever married.

Though the postcard would remain popular throughout the 20th century, the great boom itself lasted only a few years. By 1912 the Rotograph Co., one of the most prolific producers and arguably one of the most aesthetically successful, had ceased operations.

Saturday, August 06, 2011

Buildings and inscriptions

These four postcards were each sent to unmarried women members of the Bergin family at their address on Canonbury Road in Jamaica, Queens. One is addressed to "Miss Mamie Bergin," the only record I have of a person bearing that name (or nickname). Paying visits, church activities, and the health of various family members were recurrent topics. The words in brackets aren't clearly legible.

"Birthplace of Ex-President Grover Cleveland, Caldwell, N. J."

Dear Teresa,

Will not get a chance to visit you until later on. Pleased to know you are well. We are doing nicely. We are going to have a fair in our church. don't you want to make a small donation and help us in this poor little country town? Love to all –


Box 14

[Dated August 5, 1907]

The Grover Cleveland Birthplace was opened to the public in 1913 and remains in operation as a museum.

"New York Hippodrome. Largest and most famous playhouse in the world"

[Postmarked January 4, 1906]

Dear Mamie,

Will not be over tomorrow as father is not well. He has been home from business since Sat.


Once advertised as the largest theatre in the world (it could reportedly accommodate 1,000 performers), the Hippodrome, located on Sixth Avenue between 43rd and 44th Streets, became a financial white elephant and was razed in 1939.

"Portland, Me., St. Dominic's Church"

Hotel Eastman
N. Conway N. H.
July 17– [1909]

This is the church we attended in Portland [Me.] L. is doing her duty you see. I have improved physically & spiritually. We are enjoying this place immensely. The [Healys?] are here. We walk and talk & read & eat and dance a little. Nothing exciting. Hope you and your sister are well. What are you doing? Won't you send me a line? [words unclear] to get letters. Mary [Routh?]

Constructed in the 1880s, St. Dominic's Roman Catholic Church was acquired by the city of Portland in 2000 and subsequently sold to the non-profit Maine Irish Heritage Center, which has continued to refurbish it.

"Main Road in Fort Totten, N. Y."

Nov 15 1909

Dear Sister,

The men went to work again so I will have to wait for another day. Joe is not very well he has a bad cold. The Doctor thinks it is the gripe so he will be home from school for a day or two. We us [sic] are all well. Love from all to all.

A. H.

[A week earlier, the same correspondent had written, intriguingly: "The men were laid off. Their man was elected. If they do not go to work this week I will be over on Saturday for the day..." Was this a municipal election or a union election, and were the men punished for the outcome?]

Constructed during the Civil War to help protect New York Harbor, Fort Totten is now owned by the City of New York and much of the property is now a public park and museum.

(The moiré patterns in the first and last of the above images are an artifact of the scanning of the original halftone prints.)