Back in December, I was holiday shopping at Vroman’s Bookstore in Pasadena (the oldest and largest independent bookstore in Southern California, don’t you know), when a sad, serious woman in a black fur coat stared me down from beneath her hat brim, hesitating to entrust a postcard to me. I yearned to accept the mysterious lady’s invitation, but the elegant art book was understandably pricey, and at Christmas/Hanukkah, I needed to put my pennies toward presents for others.
With that book still on my mind, it recently occurred to me how I could purchase it in a way that would feel reasonable to me. I design book covers for writers who are self-publishing (kickasscovers.carbonmade.com), and I told myself that once I completed the cover for my most recent client, I’d buy myself the book. Today was the day.
“The Postcard Age” consists of about 400 turn-of-the-century postcard images. (In the late 1800s and early 1900s, postcard sending and collecting was an absolute cultural frenzy.) The postcards are from collections Leonard A. Lauder (son of Estée Lauder) donated to the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston. Here are the postcards I enjoyed most and ones that taught me something.
The House of David (also known as the Israelite House of David and the Israelite Community) was a Judeo-Christian religious society with a number of offshoot communes throughout the United States.
In 1888, a couple named Benjamin and Mary Purnell fell in with a prophet-dedicated sect called the Visitation Movement. The Visitation Movement goes back to 1792 with an Englishwoman who became its “First Messenger.” By Benjamin and Mary Purnell’s time, the movement was up to the Sixth Messenger. Then, in 1895, the Purnell’s had a revelation that bonded them as the Seventh and final Messenger. They founded a colony of several hundred followers. By 1906, the House of David owned around 1,000 acres in Michigan, where a cannery, carpenter shop, coach factory, tailor shop, steam laundry, three brass bands, two orchestras and a zoological garden all enjoyed power from the colony’s own electric plant. But what the House of David is best known for is its baseball teams.
Benjamin Purnell was a sports enthusiast and, by 1913, integrated baseball into House of David, believing it built physical and spiritual discipline. (Whatever that means. Purnell died in 1927 before the trial concluded in which thirteen of his female followers admitted to underage sexual relations with him.) From the 1920’s through the 1950’s, longhaired and bearded House of David teams toured rural America, evangelizing and playing any game they could get. The most famous team was the African-American “Black House of David” that played in the Negro Leagues. (Nebraska state prison)
“Crossing a Crevasse” c. 1900. As if early mountaineering wasn’t extraordinary enough, I’m always blown away by the women who did it in petticoats and bustles. “The first Women poster hangers” (in Paris), c. 1908
Michelin Tires, Houston, Texas c. 1910 (The book also has illustrated Italian and German Michelin postcards)
I learned that postcards were not always cheerful early on. Like Tweeting, writing on Facebook or posting a shot on Instagram related to late-breaking news, some early twentieth century postcards captured very serious events.
“The postcard bears witness to events, such as one series that chronicled the last moments of the life of Archduke Franz Ferdinand, before he was shot in Sarajevo on June 28, 1914. The last card of the series in my collection has a cross inked above the head of one of the assailants, conjuring up the card’s original owner, who might have marked it as if to say, “That’s him–I saw him do it,” before he sent it along to a friend” (The Postcard Age, p. 11).
“The bomb-thrower Cabrinovic” 1914 Though I would not recommend traveling by airship, a sea voyage aboard the Red Star seems quite luxurious. The Red Star Line cleverly advertised its gourmet menus via postcard. Passengers could brag by mail to the folks back home, or keep them as souvenirs.
On August 14, 1905 aboard the S.S. Zeeland, your dining options would have been:
Celery, Pickled Walnuts, Olives, Anchovy Toast
(comes with Windsor Potatoes)
Halibut à la Choisy
Vol au Vent, Financière made with Prime Rib of Beef, Horse Radish, String Beans, Tomatoes à la Drew
Crumbed Lamb Cutlets with Potatoes Dorée and Flageolet beans
Stuffed Capon with Escarole Salad
Strawberry Ice Cream
Assorted Viennoise Cakes
Roquefort, Cream, Swiss
A similar feast awaited on Aught 17th (righthand menu)
Like these menus, the postcard for both practical (mailing a ticket to your sweetheart, say) and souvenir purposes is featured in these ticket stub ones from 1899, among the prettiest I found in the book:
As well as single ticket postcards like these, there were also postcard ticket books one could mail as a gift.
Another discovery for me was the pinup girl’s presence before World War II. An Austrian illustrator named Raphael Kirchner created “more than 125 series of postcards featuring coquettish women (all modeled on his wife, Nina) that were published throughout the world between 1898 and 1917. Soldiers hung Kirchner’s cards in the trenches during World War I, earning him a reputation as the father of the pinup” (The Postcard Age,p. 40). “The Favorite” 1900 Raphael Kirchner
Finally, I think the two postcards below are my favorites visually. Designed by Luigi Bompard around 1900, it’s incredible how modern they are. The way the Art Nouveau style is simplified makes them look Sixties!