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.


Bob Ambrogi said...

This is very interesting. Are there any clues on the reverse sides of these cards that would connect them to Rotograph?

Chris Kearin said...

The typography on all the Catskill cards is uniform, regardless of the local publisher whose name appears on the back, and they all say that they were made in Germany. There are Rotographs that seem to use the same fonts and layout. The back of the Tarrytown card is virtually identical to one style of Rotograph back (Including the decoration of the space for the stamp) except that the little Rotograph sun icon you would expect to see doesn't appear. But there's nothing on any of them that states i so many words that they were made by Rotograph.