Thursday, January 9, 2014

The Mission



This Rotograph depicts Manhattan's Five Points Mission, founded in 1853 just off the complex intersection that gave its name to one of the city's most notorious slums. It does not, however, show the original mission building, which itself had been constructed on the footprint of the squalid Old Brewery tenement that the Police Gazette once proclaimed "the wickedest house on the wickedest street that ever existed in New York, yes, and in all the country and possibly all the world."

Standing across from a tiny triangular plot of land called Paradise Square (later Paradise Park), the Old Brewery, true to is name, had been a working brewery until around 1837. It served as a tenement for only about fifteen years, but that was long enough for it to establish a reputation as a warren of depravity like no other. Tyler Anbinder, the author of the definitive book on the Five Points neighborhood, is understandably skeptical of some of the more lurid accounts of the building, such as Herbert Asbury's "ridiculous" contention that an average of one murder a night occurred there throughout its occupancy, but the important point is that contemporary New Yorkers — or at least some of them — regarded it as an intolerable carbuncle on the body politic. It was demolished in 1852 at the instigation of the New-York Ladies' Home Missionary Society, a Methodist organization that seemed to be at least as interested in converting the Catholic heathen of the neighborhood to Protestantism as it was in helping the poor, and replaced with a four-story complex (shown below) that included a chapel, a parsonage, school rooms, and apartments.


The Five Points Mission remained active throughout the second half of the 19th century, hosting an elaborate annual Thanksgiving dinner for the local poor, but it eventually outgrew its building, which was torn down in 1894 and replaced with the more expansive structure shown in the postcard, which was designed to incorporate, among other things, a choir loft that could accommodate 150 and enough classroom space for 900 children. It would serve its purpose for only one generation, however, before succumbing to the wrecker's ball in 1915 in order to make way for New York City's Civic Center district, which largely obliterated the original topography of the Five Points.

Thursday, November 21, 2013

Washington Bridge



Not to be confused with the more famous George Washington Bridge, this older structure, which spans the Harlem River, was opened in 1888 and still stands. The postcard was mailed on August 9, 1907 to Miss Georgia Pratt in Essex, Connecticut.

Tuesday, August 27, 2013

American Holiday Postcards



McFarland & Company in North Carolina has just published Daniel Gifford's American Holiday Postcards, 1905-1915: Imagery and Context, which promises to be an invaluable resource for the study of the production and dissemination of postcards during the Golden Age. I have drawn on Gifford's related doctoral dissertation as background material for this project. The book can be ordered from independent booksellers, from the usual sources, or directly from McFarland.

Sunday, June 23, 2013

Before the fire



A view of Bar Harbor, Maine in the early years of the twentieth century, when it was already a popular tourist destination, especially for the wealthy. This image was probably captured from one of the islands in Frenchman Bay. Much of this terrain was altered in 1947, when a wildfire wiped out much of the forest cover on Mt. Desert Island, along with a large number of hotels and private homes in and around Bar Harbor.

The recipient of this card was William B. Chase, music critic for the Evening Sun, and it was mailed to his office in New York City on August 14, 1906; Chase later moved on to the New York Times. At a party for his seventy-first birthday, in 1943, he was serenaded by a composition written in his honor by the composer Nikolai Lopatnikoff, entitled "Arietta on the Name C-H-A-S-E." Chase's father, Austin C. Chase, was a farmer, piano manufacturer, postmaster of Syracuse, real estate developer, and lieutenant-colonel in the National Guard; the Encyclopedia of Biography of New York notes that among his many other accomplishments in 1882 he became president of the Chilled Plow Company, "when that institution was in very straightened circumstances and its affairs in a very unsatisfactory condition," and quickly put it to rights.

The unidentified sender of the card was staying a few miles away in Seal Harbor at the Seaside Inn, which escaped the 1947 fire but was later torn down.

Monday, June 17, 2013

Winter



Similar in manner to the images in my previous post, these snowy rustic landscapes all depict unidentified (though in some cases perhaps not unidentifiable) locations. Only the first features human figures (a woman and child to the right, and another, very blurry child just to the left of center), though many include buildings or other structures. Some show the faint bluish coloration of Rotograph's "Delft" line, others have a reddish hue, and two bear a bit of crudely applied glitter. Most are marked on the back with the words "Winter Serie" [sic] followed by the letters A, B, or C (multiple scenes correspond to the same letter); two have a numerical code beginning with D (for Delft.)


Some kind of shed or tipi-like structure is visible behind the trees in this one:


The next, which is one of only two in this particular group that were ever addressed and mailed, has some added doodles, perhaps meant to suggest footprints or snowshoes:


As far as I know, whatever records that may have once existed that could identify the photographer or photographers who captured these images were destroyed long ago.

Sunday, June 16, 2013

Trees



The muted aesthetic of these Rotographs sets them apart from the multicolored scenic view cards. Except for the first, which reads "Picturesque Lake Geneva NY" in a partially cropped-off caption at the bottom, none of the locations are identified. Most have a slight bluish cast, not entirely captured in these scans, that Rotograph compared, rather optimistically, to Delft china. Three have markings on the back indicating that they were included in Rotograph's "Landscape View Serie [sic] A."

It's hard to believe that these subtle images were ever able to compete with all the livelier and more colorful postcards on the market, but at the height of the postcard bubble no doubt some companies felt free to experiment a bit with alternative approaches. At least when grouped together, they still provoke an appealing mood of quiet respite.

Saturday, May 18, 2013

The pleasure palace



The second of four Manhattan structures to bear the name, this incarnation of Madison Square Garden, designed by Stanford White, was opened to the public in 1890. In this postcard view the building and nearby structures have been garishly outlined with the addition of glitter, which isn't readily visible in the scan. There is some lettering on the tower that appears to read "OPEN BY NIGHT."

In 1906, the year after this copy of the card was mailed to Mrs. Leo Keck of Grand Rapids, Michigan, the building proved White's undoing. While enjoying a musical performance in its rooftop theater, he was shot to death by Harry K. Thaw, the pathologically jealous husband of one of his former lovers, Evelyn Nesbit. Confined to a mental institution after two sensational murder trials (the first ended in a hung jury), Thaw was released after a few years and died a free man in 1947.

The building also hosted the 1924 Democratic National Convention, which took 103 ballots to nominate John K. Davis to run, unsuccessfully, against incumbent President Calvin Coolidge. It was torn down the following year.

Saturday, May 4, 2013

On Jordan Pond?



This card doesn't bear the Rotograph name or any other identifying markings, but the typography and layout are recognizable enough to classify this as a likely "cryptorotograph," possibly commissioned by a local merchant. I haven't noticed the bizarre capital "H" elsewhere, however.

Jordan Pond (the possessive, if it was ever used, has been dropped) is located on Mt. Desert Island within Acadia National Park. I've stopped there many times to eat popovers on the lawn of the Jordan Pond House, one of the few dog-friendly restaurants in the area. (It draws tourists by the busload but is worth a stop anyway.) The original structure, dating from the nineteenth century, was replaced after a fire in 1979.

But the postcard above is incorrectly captioned. Compare the prospect shown below, identified by the U.S. Geological Survey as Little Long Pond, which is a bit further to the south of Jordan Pond. According to the accompanying information on the Maine.gov website, the building on the left, which no longer stands, was at one time the Seal Harbor post office.


The two low hills in the center distance, which are known as the Bubbles, appear much closer and higher when seen from Jordan Pond, as below:

Saturday, March 30, 2013

Enthusiasm



"Having a passable time."

Apparently the attractions of the Jersey Shore in August 1909 left something to be desired, at least in the neighborhood of Bayonne.

A Mr. Henry J. Lehman of the same Walworth Street address as the recipient is listed in several city directories of the period as an insurance agent; I've found no evidence that he was related to the famous Lehman Brothers banking family.

The January 7, 1913 edition of Brooklyn's Daily Standard Leader reports that one Benjamin Silver, who had previously been arrested for attempting to pick Henry Lehman's pocket, was charged, along with a bail bondsman named Abraham Treibitz, with offering the intended victim a $50 bribe to fail to identify Silver in court. Two detectives, tipped off by Lehman and concealed in his house, promptly arrested the pair and charged them with bribery. The charge may not have stuck: an Abraham Treibitz was still active as a bail bondsman in New York City at least as late as 1931, when he arranged for the release of five Communist leaders arrested during the International Unemployment Day demonstrations. His name also seems to have surfaced during the Seabury Commission's investigations of municipal corruption in the early 1930s, which suggests that perhaps Mr. Treibitz was not one of the more ethically scrupulous members of his profession.

Friday, March 22, 2013

A view of the countryside



This sepia-toned Rotograph has a relatively uncommon 2 5/8'' x 6 1/4'' format more suited for use as a bookmark than as a postcard, though it does have a space for the address on the back (this example was never mailed). It's unnumbered and there's no caption to identify the location, which features a field of some kind of cereal crop on the right, a cluster of trees (probably mostly evergreens) on the left, and some tiny white dots in the center distance that might be grazing livestock. The soil seems to be sandy or chalky.

According to the Rotopex website, many but not all of the other bookmark-shaped cards depicted views of the Dutch countryside, but the topography here seems to be more upland than pays-bas. The format doesn't seem to have been popular, and may represent an experiment that was abandoned, but I like the quiet stillness of the scene.