Saturday, March 31, 2012

The Strange Afterlife of Henry W. Shaw

Sometimes the most unpromising artifacts turn out to be the ones with the weirdest stories attached to them, and the postcard above is a prime example. I imagine that the name Josh Billings will draw as much of a blank with most people today as it did with me, but two things could be immediately deduced from the caption: that he was once a person of some renown, and that he wasn't really named "Josh Billings." In fact, "Billings" was born Henry Wheeler Shaw in Lanesboro, Massachusetts in 1818. He came from a distinguished political family but after a checkered career settled into journalism, a profession at which he became successful enough that he was photographed in the company of two pseudonymous peers, one a certain Petroleum V. Nasby, now largely forgotten, the other a man who went by the name of Twain. He was known for his pithy "witticisms," many of them in dialect, one of which ("I don't rekoleckt now ov ever hearing ov two dogs fiteing unless thare waz a man or two around") turned out to be singularly unfortunate, given what is reputed to be Shaw's eventual fate.

Shaw died in 1885 in Monterey, California, and as the postcard below indicates, was interred near his birthplace. At least most of him was.

According to a bit of Monterey lore that John Steinbeck worked into Cannery Row, when Shaw died, the local doctor, who apparently also served as an undertaker, removed some of his internal organs during the embalming process and unceremoniously flung the tripas into a nearby gulch, where they were discovered a boy looking for fishbait -- and by his dog, whom Steinbeck describes as dragging "yards of intestines on the ends of which a stomach dangled."

When some of the local citizens heard of this discovery, and simultaneously learned of the death of "Josh Billings" at the nearby Hotel del Monte, they quickly put two and two together and hastily summoned the doctor.
They made him dress quickly then and they hurried down to the beach. If the little boy had gone quickly about his business, it would have been too late. He was just getting into a boat when the committee arrived. The intestine was in the sand where the dog had abandoned it.

Then the French doctor was made to collect the parts. He was forced to wash them reverently and pick out as much sand as possible. The doctor himself had to stand the expense of the leaden box which went into the coffin of Josh Billings. For Monterey was not a town to let dishonor come to a literary man.
What Steinbeck's source for this gruesome incident was, and whether there was any truth in it, I don't know (it recalls a similar, and also possibly apocryphal, story about Thomas Hardy's heart and a cat), but true or not I suspect that Steinbeck's retelling of it has probably done more to preserve the name of Josh Billings than anything the latter ever penned.

"Hillcrest," Shaw's birthplace, was operated as an inn for a period during the first half of the 20th century. I haven't been able to find out whether it still stands and if so whether it is still regarded as a local landmark.

Saturday, March 24, 2012

The Erie Canal

The construction of the Erie Canal was one of the key engineering and political accomplishments of the nineteenth century, so it's no surprise that Rotograph's photographers captured many scenes of its 363-mile passage through a varied landscape of rural areas, city centers, and industrial zones. Most of the images below, which I have arranged in rough geographical order from east to west, are from Postcards from the New York Waterways: 1898-1923, an admirable online project created by the Queens College School of Library Science. [Unfortunately, as of March 2013, the project seems to have vanished.] An additional archive of images is housed at

Thursday, March 22, 2012

The moon, a hat, and a waterfall

A likely Rotograph production based on the typography and design, though the publisher's name on the back is given as H. H. Jackson, Bridgeport, Conn., this card sports some extra doodles, possibly in the hand of the anonymous sender. The addressee is Mr. Ralph Tiffany of 59 Bancroft St., Springfield, Mass.

"Hope to see you this Summer." Haven't heard from you in such a long time though[t] I would write a line or two, and see if you were dead or alive.

According to the Metropolitan Postcard Club website, H. H. Jackson was known for postcards depicting Buffalo Bill's Wild West show. The American Stationer reports that he retired in 1913 after thirty-one years and sold his book and stationery business to two other men. Below is another Bridgeport view bearing his imprint on the back, and in this case, the words Copyright 1905 by the Rotograph Co. on the front as well.

Saturday, March 17, 2012

Keep Your Powder Dry

These two structures, the one above from Marblehead, Massachusetts and the one below from Somerville in the same state, are 18th-century powder houses, once used for storing gunpowder and firearms. The onion-domed Marblehead building was built for that purpose in the 1750s, but the Somerville tower from 1703 or 1704, which looks like it could be employed as a projectile itself, was originally a mill. Both still stand.

The design and location of powder houses reflected the need to keep explosive materials safely away from other structures and the general population, but the buildings also came to have a political role. On September 1, 1774, at the order of British General Thomas Gage, who was jittery about leaving munitions under the control of restive Patriots, the Somerville powder house was raided by British troops and largely emptied out, and as reports of the incident spread, mixed with a fair amount of misinformation, armed Patriots descended on Cambridge and Boston in response. Though the "Powder Alarm" quickly abated, it prefigured the outbreak of war at Lexington and Concord the following spring.

There are a handful of other existing powder houses in Massachusetts, including examples at Newburyport (near Salem) and a frequently vandalized one at Amesbury, but most date from the first half of the 19th century. Thus far I haven't come across any record that the Rotograph Co. created images of any of these others, though some of their competitors did so.

Sunday, March 11, 2012

Great Barrington

After having spent considerable time dipping our toes in the waters along the Massachusetts seashore, we move to one of the chief towns of the Berkshires in the western part of the state. The monument above, which refers to a 1774 protest by some 1,500 citizens against the so-called Intolerable Acts, is said to still stand outside the Great Barrington Town Hall, below.

According to Gary Leveille's Around Great Barrington (Arcadia Publishing, 2011), the Berkshire Inn, above, "was considered one of the most impressive structures in all of Berkshire County." Originally built in 1892 and subsequently expanded, it was demolished in the aftermath of a 1965 fire. The treatment of the trees in particular in this postcard seems more painterly than photographic, and the architecture of the partially obscured wing at right seems almost Japanese in inspiration.

The postcards above are good examples of Rotograph's high-quality printing, even if the view of the Berkshire Inn is a bit awkwardly framed. The same can't be said for the unfortunate image below, with its crude, arbitrary blotches of rust. It was published by Rotograph as well, but perhaps this was a budget line.

Saturday, March 10, 2012


According to one account of the sale of the Rotograph Co. in 1911, the company's archives housed more than two million photographic images, only a small percentage of which were ever printed as postcards. That total presumably included the images that had been captured by photographers for the National Art Views Company, a short-lived predecessor that Rotograph had acquired in 1904, but many other new views were probably shot during Rotograph's heyday. Thus far I've found no information on the identities of the company's photographers, though such information may exist. Perhaps, like today's surveyors for Google Street View, they quietly went about their business as they roamed cities and small towns, unobtrusively snapping anything they thought might be marketable.

But there's an additional category of work that Rotograph handled, and that was the output of local professional or amateur photographers whose images were printed by Rotograph (or by its affiliated factories in Germany) and sold under proprietary names by druggists, stationers, and other small businesses, often in towns that were small in size or off the beaten path. These images might not bear the Rotograph name, but they can often be at least tentatively identified by diagnostic design elements, in particular the typeface employed.

That Rotograph (and its competitors) did this kind of work is clear from contemporary advertisements. Allen Freeman Davis refers to one such ad in his Postcards from Vermont: a Social History, 1905-1945:
The Rotograph Company of New York, which also published Vermont view cards, advertised that they could have cards printed in Germany at the cost of nine dollars a thousand if at least 3,000 of any subject were ordered. "We require good sharp photographs," the ad announced. "It is very necessary when ordering colored cards to give the color scheme." The company promised delivery in three to five months.
In addition to the choice between monochrome and color (and possibly, how many colors were to be printed, since each additional color would require an additional plate and therefore additional expense) the quality of the finished product, of course, would depend on the skill of the photographer, as well as on communication between the buyer and the printer. For nature scenes a standard palette of colors might serve, but for buildings the printer would have to be told what colors were true to the actual paint on the structures.

Below are several cards likely to have been printed by Rotograph, though they were "published" by local businesses. (The Rotograph Co., incidentally, published other views of some of the same towns using its regular trademark.) All except the last are from towns in the Catskills that were popular resort areas in spite of their small year-round population. The first two (as well as the card at the top of this page, with its misspelling of "queitude") were issued by J. Fahrenholz in Liberty, NY and postmarked in 1907 or 1908.

The next card, also from Liberty, was published by H. M. Stoddard & Son of nearby Stevensville, NY.

The one below was published by the Foyette Souvenir Store, also in Stevensville.

Finally, a postcard from E[dward] Farrington of Tarrytown, NY, whose later activity as a postcard publisher has been examined by Lucas Buresch at Archive Sleuth.

All of the above share the same Art Nouveau-inspired typeface employed by the Rotograph Co.(there must be someone out there who can identify it by name), with a characteristic florid capital "Y." Rotograph used other typefaces as well, so there may well be substantial numbers of additional "cryptorotographs" out there that aren't as instantly recognizable.

All of the cards from the Catskills show here were mailed to the same family, the subject of my earlier post at Dreamers Rise.

Friday, March 2, 2012

Brant Rock

View cards by their nature tend to depict static scenes, with at most a few distant figures strolling on a beach or in the park, but occasionally you find some that capture more focused activity. Below are two images of a demonstration of lifesaving equipment and techniques by members of the US Coast Guard station at Brant Rock, Massachusetts. Clusters of onlookers, some with parasols, stand in the background.

The large building with the adjoining tower — the printer seems to have been a bit uncertain about the color of the roof — was not part of the Coast Guard station but is the Union Chapel, which still stands. I believe the Coast Guard building is the one at far right in the image at the top of the page; it was built in 1892-93 and the keeper from then until 1915 — possibly the man with the flag — was Benjamin B. Manter.

There is at least one additional postcard in this sequence, "U. S. Life Saving Crew with Beach Apparatus" (G7302), and there were also monochrome versions of some or all of the cards.

Below is the beach at Brant Rock. The tower at left in the background may be the Union Chapel but I'm not sure.

Around the time these images were created an inventor named Reginald Aubrey Fessenden built a wireless station on Brant Rock, where the first radio transmission for music and entertainment was reportedly broadcast on December 24, 1906. The Brant Rock station is also credited with the first two-way radio transatlantic transmission, with a station in Scotland, also in 1906. Its antenna was more than 400 feet high, so when completed it probably would have been easily visible to anyone in the vicinity of the Union Chapel as well as from the beach.