Friday, February 24, 2012

On the beach

Here's a selection of seaside images moving roughly from north to south along the coast of Massachusetts. Printed in vivid colors with multiple plates that are not always well-registered, some of them seem to hover between the real world and one that only exists in the mind.

If you look carefully at the two images immediately above, which may have been taken on the same day, you'll notice that the colors of the hotel roof and the chalet-like structures lower down change from one postcard to the next.

Saturday, February 18, 2012

Fight Fiercely Harvard

Sports arenas don't last forever; even the original, hallowed Yankee Stadium was eventually deemed antiquated, torn down, and replaced, and the shiny new Shea Stadium of my childhood endured for a paltry thirty-five years or so. Harvard Stadium, only a year or two old when the postcard above was created, has managed to survive for more than a century, so maybe it has now reached the point where its very antiquity will ensure its indefinite preservation.

Be that as it may, I can't help but be reminded of this stirring rendition from the inimitable Tom Lehrer:

Since we're in the neighborhood, below is another Rotograph of Harvard, this one showing the university's Johnson Gate, which also survives.

According to an article in the Harvard Gazette:
The gate is named for Samuel Johnston, Class of 1855, who left Harvard $10,000 for its construction. A resident of Chicago, Johnston is described in his 1886 obituary as a bachelor and a "well-known capitalist," and by a fellow member of the Chicago Club as "a short, ruddy faced bon-vivant." A book of reminiscences by one of Johnston's neighbors describes him drinking a toast on the front steps of his house as the Chicago fire blazed nearby.

Monumenta Americana

This granite monument at Plymouth, Massachusetts was designed by Hammatt Billings (1818-1874), an architect and artist whose varied output included the 1846 Boston Museum (demolished in 1903) and the oft-reproduced illustrations for the first edition of Harriet Beecher Stowe's Uncle Tom's Cabin. His original 1855 proposal, according to historian Richard Stoddard, was for "a colossal composition 153 feet high — comprising a figure of Faith 70 feet high on an 83-foot-high pedestal, projecting from the base of which were four buttresses supporting 40-foot figures of Law, Morality, Education, and Freedom." Though the patrons were enthusiastic, construction delays and inflation eventually led to the downscaling of the project to an 81-foot structure incorporating a 36-foot statue of Faith in addition to the smaller subsidiary figures. It would not be completed until 1889, fifteen years after Billings's death.

The National Monument to the Forefathers still stands, but not so another Billings design, shown above and below, for a granite canopy over Plymouth Rock, the much abused and traveled glacial erratic, unmentioned in 17th-century accounts, that Thomas Faunce, a nonagenarian scion of one of Plymouth's early settlers, had fingered as the very stone on which the colonists had first set foot.

Agnes Rothery, whose 1920 book The Old Coast Road recounting a seaside trip from Boston to Plymouth includes a skeptical, if charitable, account of the Rock's history, was one of the detractors of the Billings canopy:
Just as the mind of man takes a singular satisfaction in gazing at mummies preserved in human semblance in the unearthly stillness of the catacombs, so the once massive boulder — now carefully mended — was placed upon the neatest of concrete bases, and over it was reared, from the designs of Hammatt Billings, the ugliest granite canopy imaginable — in which canopy, to complete the grisly atmosphere of the catacombs, were placed certain human bones found in an exploration of Cole's Hill. Bleak and homeless the old rock now lies passively in forlorn state under its atrocious shelter, behind a strong iron grating, and any of a dozen glib street urchins, in syllables flavored with Cork, or Genoese, or Polish accents, will, for a penny, relate the facts substantially as I have stated them.

It is easy to be unsympathetic in regard to any form of fetishism which we do not share. And while the bare fact remains that we are not at all sure that the Pilgrims landed on this rock, and we are entirely sure that its present location and setting possess no romantic allurement, yet bare facts are not the whole truth, and even when correct they are often the superficial and not the fundamental part of the truth. Those hundreds — those thousands — of earnest-eyed men and women who have stood beside this rock with tears in their eyes, and emotions too deep for words in their hearts, "believing where they cannot prove," have not only interpreted the vital significance of the place, but, by their very emotion, have sanctified it.

It really makes little difference whether the testimony of Thomas Faunce was strictly accurate or not; it really makes little difference that the Hammatt Billings canopy is indeed dreadful. Plymouth Rock has come to symbolize the corner-stone of the United States as a nation, and symbols are the most beautiful and the most enduring expression of any national or human experience.

Around the time Rothery's book appeared, the canopy was in fact demolished and replaced by a more sober McKim, Mead, and White structure that still stands. A few elements were salvaged; in particular the sea shells on the top of the structure were relocated to the grounds of the Monument of the Forefathers. Ungainly and garish as it may have been, the original canopy seems to have had a certain offbeat charm, and I suspect it would be better appreciated now, had it only survived.

Below are some other Rotograph postcards of historic Plymouth, beginning with Alexander Parris's 1824 Pilgrim Hall Museum, which continues to operate.

The Samoset House above, a hotel built in 1846, burned down in the late 1930s, but the Harlow House below still stands.

The message space on the front of the postcard above is awkwardly truncated (remember that at this time only the address was permitted on the back); apparently the company wanted to preserve the lower right-hand corner of the scene.

The Old Colony shown here may be the ship of that name operated by the Fall River Line, which ceased operations in 1937.

Sources: Stoddard, Richard, "Hammatt Billings, Artist and Architect," Old-Time New England Volume LXII, No. 3 (January-March 1972), pp. 57-79. (PDF)

The Old Coast Road was published under Agnes Rothery's pen name, Alice Edwards.

Sunday, February 12, 2012

Cape Tragabigzanda

Here are a series of Rotograph images of Gloucester, Massachusetts and the peninsula to which Captain John Smith once gave the outlandish name that is this post's title, in honor, he claimed, of a Greek woman who had aided him during his captivity in Turkey. Sadly, Smith's tongue-twisting onomastic flourish was overruled in favor of the more prosaic "Cape Ann."

The above images are relatively conservative in their coloring; not so the pair immediately below, for which the printer pulled out all the stops, creating a psychedelic seaside world as alluring as it was unreal. Brilliant streaks of orange and purple flare above the horizon. These are by no means "merely" documentary images; they are miniature, bizarre works of fantastic art.

The rock formation shown above, dubbed "Old Mother Ann" and sometimes compared to New Hampshire's now-fallen "Old Man of the Mountain," was the subject of an 1892 book by the formidable Ada C. Bowles, a Gloucester native who became a leading suffragist, temperance campaigner, and ordained Universalist minister. In a capsule biography written while she was still alive, we learn that
She was born in Gloucester, Mass., in 1836. She grew up with a passionate fondness for the sea and is, as she has always been, equally at home either in or on the water. She is an expert swimmer, and her undaunted courage and rare presence of mind have enabled her upon different occasions to rescue persons from drowning.

Nature gave her a sound mind in a sound body, and her early life among the rocks of Cape Ann gave her the well balanced physical development which resulted in a perfectly healthy womanhood.
Among her other talents, "Mrs. Bowles is possessed of remarkable mechanical dexterity and handles a hammer and saw as cleverly as a rolling pin."

The Colonial Arms, above, burned on New Year's Day, 1908. The other hotels shown on this page are also apparently long gone.

Sources: Tolles, Bryant Franklin, Summer by the Seaside: The Architecture of New England Coastal Resort Hotels 1820-1950, University Press of New England, 2008.

I looked for your beans

This alarmingly livid postcard, depicting a disturbingly phallic monument amid what appears to be tropical greenery, is in fact an upright Victorian tribute to the wife of the second president of the United States, Abigail Adams, who is said to have watched the Battle of Bunker Hill from this elevated vantage point in neighboring Quincy. According to Wikipedia, "The cairn was erected June 17, 1896, by the Adams Chapter of the Society of the Daughters of the Revolution."

During reconstruction of the monument in 2008 a time capsule was uncovered containing a parchment declaration, a book, and some newspapers; it was replaced with another capsule containing CDs and flash drives, which, I suspect, will be far less accessible to anyone who may find them a century from now than if they had simply reburied the original documents.

The recipient of the postcard was Mrs. George O. Williams of South Peabody, Mass. I don't know whether her sister ever found her beans.

Saturday, February 11, 2012


The town of Marblehead, Massachusetts is set on a peninsula across the harbor from Salem. This selection of view cards includes structures, rocky promontories, and beaches, all as photographed ca. 1905. Nanepashemet, the namesake of the hotel above, was a Sachem of the Pawtucket Confederation until shortly before the arrival of the Pilgrims in 1620. Though he was killed by members of a rival tribe, a contributing factor to his downfall was the smallpox epidemic that decimated much of Native New England in the aftermath of the first contacts with Europeans. The Nanepashemet was destroyed by fire in 1914; the the Rockmere below, which was only a few years old when the image shown was captured, was demolished in 1965.

In the postcard above an additional line of explanatory text was added below the title: "Built 1714 of Materials brought from England." The church still stands.

I at first assumed that "Moll Pitcher" above was an error for "Molly Pitcher," the famous Revolutionary War heroine, but not so; she was a Marblehead (and later Lynn) woman (ca. 1736-1813), renowned as a clairvoyant, who was the subject of a poem by John Greenleaf Whittier, a four-act drama by Joseph Stevens Jones, and an 1895 volume by Ellen Mary Griffin Hoey entitled Moll Pitcher's Prophecies: Or, The American Sibyl.

Above, two nearly identical scenes.

I assume that "Highlaud Ave." was an error for "Highland Ave." Such spelling errors are not uncommon in Rotograph cards.

Sources: Tolles, Bryant Franklin, Summer by the Seaside: The Architecture of New England Coastal Resort Hotels 1820-1950, University Press of New England, 2008.

Friday, February 10, 2012

To Irma Juhlin

This postcard of the Newton Theological Institution (now part of the Andover Newton Theological School) in Newton, Massachusetts is one of the occasional cases where we can — tentatively — provide a biography for the recipient. The card, which was postmarked in September 1905, is addressed to Irma Juhlin at 404 Waltham Street in West Newton; the sender's name, written vertically at far right, may be Ida. The first three words, "My Dear Irma," are in English, but the remainder of the inscription, which is very hard to make out, apparently is not and may be Swedish.

An Irma Juhlin emigrated from Sweden to the Boston area in 1902 and in 1910 married Axel Eliason, a fellow emigrant. Six years later they were hired by a wealthy Bostonian named George Nixon Black, Jr. to serve as caretakers for Woodlawn, his estate in Maine, where they remained there until they died, Axel in 1965 and Irma 1970. Irma was renowned for her afternoon teas, a Woodlawn tradition that has outlived her.

The Woodlawn Museum has no record of Irma's address before she came to Woodlawn (other than that it was in the Boston area). If the two women are in fact the same, then Irma would have only been in the US for three years when the postcard was mailed to her. "Ida" may have been a relative or just a friend. I don't know whether Irma or Axel were employed by the Black family before they took over the maintenance of Woodlawn.

I'd love to hear from anyone who can translate the inscription or provide any additional information about Irma Juhlin.

Sunday, February 5, 2012

A Brief History

Here's as much of the history of the Rotograph Co. as I've been able to piece together. There must be more information out there, so I'd be happy to hear from anyone who can fill in the gaps.

The company appears to have been active as a publisher of postcards from 1904 until 1911. It was formed from the merger of the National Art Views Company (active 1902-1904), based in New York City, with the American branch of the Neue Photographische Gesellschaft, founded in 1894, which apparently was the corporate parent. The latter firm may have used the Rotograph name for a line of photographic paper for several years before this. Arthur Schwartz, the company's president, directed overall operations from Berlin; the vice-president, Ludwig Knackstedt, supervised its factory in Hamburg; and the former proprietor of the National Art Views Company, Frederick Schang, became the general manager of Rotograph's American operations. The firm also reportedly had factories in London, Paris, and Milan.

According to a contemporary account in The American Stationer, in 1905 or very early 1906 Rotograph consolidated several offices and warehouses at 771 East 164th Street, 395 Broadway, and 3621 Third Avenue into a new facility in the Mercantile Building at 684 Broadway.

The Rotograph Co. reportedly published around 60,000 images using a variety of printing techniques and styles, and encompassing a wide range of themes in addition to scenic view cards. In some cases, they appear to have produced proprietary cards for local druggists or stationers that didn't display the Rotograph name, although the connection to the company (or to its European affiliates) is evident. Below, for example, is a postcard published by "E. Farrington" of Tarrytown, NY. The typography and layout are identical to Rotograph's H series, and the number (9109) seems to follow the company's numbering system for that line. (The card shows two buildings, since extensively restored, that are now part of Philipsburg Manor in Sleepy Hollow, NY.)

By March 1911, in spite of or perhaps because of its enormous output, the Rotograph Co. no longer existed as such, and the sale of its assets was reported in the Bookseller, Newsdealer and Stationer:
The Rotograph Co., well and favorably known to every dealer as makers of "Post Cards of Quality," have recently been absorbed by the Illustrated Postal Card & Novelty Co., 520-524 West Forty-eighth street, New York, whose plant is now said to be the largest one in the United States devoted exclusively to the manufacture of postcards. They employ 500 people. Their factory is equipped with special postcard machinery of every description, and operated by German experts in the line. Their product is therefore of the highest order, and can be delivered in quick time, and at a low price. Among the assets obtained from the Rotograph Co. is the largest collection of real photographs in the world, comprising thousands of art subjects, old masters, life models and over two million photographic views [emphasis added] from every nook and corner of the United States. The Illustrated Postal Card & Novelty Co. have just finished classifying this immense collection, and are putting the photo views at the free disposal of their customers who place view card orders. This latter inducement, no doubt, ought to bring them large view orders. — Geyer's Stationer.
The Metropolitan Postcard Club website lists two "Illustrated Post Card" companies, one (probably unrelated) in Quebec and the other, active 1905-1914, at 520 West 84th Street, New York, NY, the same address as the one given above. In fact the Illustrated Post Card & Novelty Co. seems to have lasted until at least 1918, but it doesn't appear to have amounted to much as a successor to Rotograph, and in any case importing high-quality cards from Germany was ended with the outbreak of the Great War. I don't know what became of the "two million photographic views" or other company archives. As for the German parent company, which presumably had liquidated its interest at the time of the sale, the Neue Photographische Gesellschaft remained in business until 1948.

Sources: General information: the websites of the Metropolitan Postcard Club and Rotopex (the latter site is no longer available). Information on Rotograph's relocation and its executives and printing plants is from The American Stationer, January 6, 1906, p. 4. The report of the acquisition of the company's assets by the Illustrated Post Card & Novelty Co. is from the Bookseller, Newsdealer and Stationer, March 15, 1911, page 188, where it is in turn attributed to Geyer's Stationer. Advertisements for the Neue Photographische Gesellschaft's bromide "Rotograph" paper can be found in many trade periodicals from the first decade of the 20th century, including the St. Louis and Canadian Photographer in 1900, where the NPG's address is given as 7 West 14th Street, New York City.

Hearings in the US Congress on the Revenue Act of 1918 include testimony that the Illustrated Post Card Novelty Co. (without the ampersand) had manufactured and sold 75,000,000 cards in the previous year, but projected sales of only 15,000,000 in 1918 due to an increase in postage from one to two cents. The Postcard Album website declares that Arthur Schwartz "established the Rotograph Company in New York for the automatic printing of photographs in 1892," thus predating the founding of the NPG itself. The precise relationship between the various corporations involved remains unclear to me, but in any case it seems that the Rotograph name was not used on postcards until 1904.

Saturday, February 4, 2012

Boston at Work and at Play

This selection of some of the many postcards of the city that Rotograph produced begins with a picturesque but far from genteel view of the waterside district. The composition of this image is particularly appealing, as the photographer has made good use of the converging lines of the equally sized attached buildings on the left and the masts of the ships on the right.

Just a few years after the image was taken (it's copyright 1905) a photographer named Henry Donald Fisher began documenting the wharf; some of his work can be found in Andrew W. German's Down on T Wharf: The Boston Fisheries As Seen through the Photographs of Henry D. Fisher (Mystic Seaport Press). Although some sources once contended that the "Tea" Wharf was the site of the Boston Tea Party, this suggestion has apparently been firmly ruled out. Most or all of the wharf is now said to be gone.

The Vendome, above, designed by William G. Preston and completed in 1871, was a high-class hotel for many years. A 1972 fire and partial collapse on the site killed nine firefighters, but the building still stands, though no longer as a hotel.

"Good bye till I see you again — am en route to New York. Wish I might have seen you. Yours E. M. R."

In the image above you can see clearly how the printer applied the red ink using a separate plate that was a little out of register, leaving an unnatural aura around the tree branches at left.

The remaining scenes are all in Frederick Law Olmsted's Franklin Park. The interesting looking building below was known as the Refectory — a fancy word for dining hall — and the elevated ground it stood upon was known as Refectory Hill. Originally designed as an eatery, it was briefly used as a branch library (as the card indicates) before becoming a concession stand in 1928. It was torn down in 1972.

"I am still hear. Coming home Saturday. L. K."

The Overlook, above, was used as a changing area for the adjacent athletic fields and later as a station for the park police. It burned to the ground in the 1940s but its ruins are still marked on the official interactive map of the park.