Thursday, January 26, 2012

Manhattan: City Hall & Brooklyn Bridge

One of the interesting things about these postcard views of lower Manhattan in the first decade of the 20th century is how familiarly urban and congested the area appears, even though there have been many changes in the past hundred years. The first two of these images overlap; the cupola of city hall and the tall building on the extreme right in the card at top reappear on the left side of the colored card beneath it. I imagine both were shot from one of the skyscrapers on lower Broadway. The low building pointing across the Brooklyn Bridge in the first card is the terminal for the cable cars of the New York and Brooklyn Bridge Railway.

At one time many of the city's major newspapers were published in buildings visible here, although some had moved on by the time these photos were taken. Of the structures I've gotten around to identifying thus far, some, like the New York World building in the center of the top image, are long gone, while others, like the two-towered Park Row building on the right side of the bottom card, remain. The large domed building in front of the latter is the City Hall Post Office and Courthouse, widely regarded as an eyesore and finally demolished in 1939. That's lower Broadway we're looking down on its flank.

(See my earlier post for more about the top card and its recipient, a Philadelphia druggist who was a bit of an expert on the marketing of postcards.)

The image below shows the area just a bit further south and closer to the river. This was fairly rough turf back then; one of the buildings clustered around the base of the bridge housed the famous Water Street Mission, begun by ex-con Jerry McAuley and still in operation a few blocks uptown.

The obelisk-like structure on the right is actually a factory, the Tatham Shot Tower, designed by cast-iron architecture pioneer James Bogardus and no longer standing; see my earlier post for more.

Postscript: Below is a close-up of the entrance to the Brooklyn Bridge.

Monday, January 23, 2012

Manhattan: Midtown

Looking west along 23rd Street. The diagonal line across the image may be a flaw in the printing process that affected an entire batch, as I have seen it on another copy.

Herald Square.

"Nov. 29, 1907. Dear Mother - Received your letter but haven't had time to answer, and may not before Saturday. Am busy getting ship ready. M. R. P."

The letters on the bottom may be U.S.S.R.I.; if so, the ship would be the battleship Rhode Island, launched in 1904 and scrapped in 1923.

Looking west along 42nd Street, with Bryant Park on the left and the Sixth Avenue El in the background. The obscured face of the nearest pedestrian (he appears to be looking down under a cloth cap, and may be dark-skinned) gives a slightly eerie quality to the scene. Looming above everything is the Times Building, seen better in the image below.

Occupied by the New York Times for less than a decade, the building is now designated One Times Square. Now almost entirely covered in advertising signs and digital marquees (at rental rates reportedly reaching $10,000 per hour), it has been used to commemorate New Year’s Eve since its inauguration. The sign on the building in the lower right-hand corner reads "Wilson High Ball."

Sunday, January 22, 2012

Three Views of the Derby Library

"Thank you very much for the handkerchief which was very nice. Wish I could return a gift but cant just now but will later. I got a card signed Detroit who was guilty? HaHa. Yours Winona." (Addressed to Mrs. Belle Gibson, 417 Third Ave., Detroit, Michigan.)

These three reproductions of a single view of the Derby Library in Derby Connecticut provide one example of how Rotograph's coloring processes could produce distinctly different outcomes. Above is a monochrome version; below are two tinted collotypes, one more aggressively colored than the other. Notice that the roof of the building is dark red in one, blue-grey in the other. Since the printers worked from a black & white original they may have been provided with notes from the photographer as to what colors to apply. The copyright date for all three cards is the same: 1904.

The inscription on the bottom of the card above, which is not fully legible, may be a request for postcard of Georgia in return. It was mailed to Athens, Georgia.

All three of these cards have undivided backs, which were made obsolete by changes in postal regulations in 1907, but no doubt the Rotograph Co. or individual stores may have had old stock on hand for some time afterwards, particularly of a slower selling small-town scene like this one. In fact, although the the first of the tinted cards was postmarked in 1906 (the other was never mailed), the monochrome version was not postmarked until 1910.

The Derby Library, also known as the Harcourt Wood Memorial Library, dates from 1902 and is still in use. The architect was Hartley Dennett, whose wife at the time of the building's construction, Mary Ware Dennett, would later, after the couple were divorced, become a prominent advocate for sex education and birth control.

Cleveland, Ohio

A selection of views including industrial zones, office buildings, and idyllic parks.

"A street car went through this viaduct several years ago killing all passengers."

"Dear Mrs Blake I know that you felt hurt last week because I left you out not send you a postal card you have to excuse me if do so because I thought I send one. hopin this find you well I am your friend Peter Alex"

Except for the Garfield Building card, I believe these are all tinted collotypes. They are either from Rotograph's "G" series or designated only numerically, and probably date from 1905-1907.

O Series

Rotograph's "O" series of bromide prints are outside the scope of this project, which is limited to scenic view cards, but as I'm fond of them and they're relatively rarely shown I'm including the example above. These were not lithographic reproductions like most of Rotograph's output but true photographic prints, printed continuous-tone on glossy stock with embossed backgrounds and trompe l'oeil frames. More information and other images can be found in my post at Dreamers Rise.

An item in the August 10, 1907 issue of the trade journal Walden's Stationer and Printer probably refers to this series:
The photographic postcard offers still another variation from the ordinary. An entirely new card in this country, but one that has made a tremendous hit in Europe is the countersunk frame post card, a photograph plate sunk in a card so as to form a frame around the picture. This new post card is being sold by the Rotograph Company, 684 Broadway, New York. The photographs are of sepia finish, glazed and sunk in white cards. They cover about two hundred subjects, including marine scenes, copies of famous paintings and statuary and Christmas cards. These countersunk post cards are considered by some to be the highest perfection of the "Post Card Art."

Lake Ophelia

These "handcolored" Rotograph views of the area around Liberty and Stevensville NY are part of a small cache of postcards (mostly produced by other companies) that were mailed to two sisters, Teresa and Mary Bergin, in the first decade of the twentieth century. More information can be found in my original post at Dreamers Rise.

Mr. Greenawalt's world

This is a moderately interesting postcard view of the City Hall Park in lower Manhattan area looking with the East River and Brooklyn in the background; the long low building pointing across the river just left of center is, I'm told, the terminal for the cable cars of the New York and Brooklyn Bridge Railway. Although it may not be immediately evident in the above scan, the card has been extensively decorated with glitter, which is easiest to spot on the horizontal lines of the tall building in the center of the frame. It was manufactured by the Rotograph Co. in Germany and bears the Sol Art Prints trademark. The stamp on the reverse has been cancelled but there's no date; 1906-1908 would be a good guess.

As interesting as the view itself, perhaps, is the brief message on the front and the person to whom it was addressed. The recipient was Mr. W. G. Greenawalt of 1428 Chestnut Street in Philadelphia, and the inscription ("These ought to sell well – With Phila views. J. R. M.") would have been of particular interest to him, for Greenawalt, a pharmacist, was the author of several articles on postcards written from the retailer's point-of-view, articles that appeared in now obscure -- but surprisingly lively -- trade journals. Here, for example, are the beginning paragraphs of an article on "Making Capital of the Post-card Craze," which appeared in May 1908 in the Bulletin of Pharmacy:
Having traveled abroad, and knowing the popularity of picture post-cards, as most foreigners call them, I watched with eager interest their advent into America. I felt that they would become just as popular here, if not more so.

When they were first coming into vogue, I was located up on Broadway in New York. I was one of the pioneers in the post-card business, making some of the first window displays to be seen on Broadway.

Knowing that human nature is much the same in all countries, and feeling sure that Americans would buy postal cards at home, just as the travelers and tourists did abroad, I displayed a few local views. Gradually I added others of a fancy nature — flowers, fruits, dogs, cats, and later scenes from the various cities of the East.

I soon realized that my theory was correct. Americans did buy them, and I was developing quite a nice trade in souvenir cards, when a real estate deal brought a change of location. I came to Philadelphia*, where I located on Chestnut Street.

Here again, with renewed energy and zeal, with my confidence in the souvenir postal cards unshaken, I gave them a conspicuous place in my store and began making window displays. Never shall I forget the comments, the criticisms and sneers which followed: "Picture postal cards, a whole window full, in a drug store on Chestnut Street!"

Some laughed, while others took the matter much more seriously. But many who stopped to scoff remained to admire and came in to buy. Notwithstanding adverse criticisms, I continued to show postals, making occasional window displays. Finally, it became quite the proper thing, for others followed as soon as they saw what was being done.
Incidentally, the American Druggist and Pharmaceutical Record of June 13, 1904 records the druggist's move from New York to Philadelphia, in a somewhat mocking tone that suggests there may have been a whiff of disapproval in the industry over the way he ran his business:
William G. Greenawalt, of Chambersburg, Pa., who opened a pharmacy on Broadway, near Twenty-eighth street, Manhattan, about 18 months ago, has either found the pace too swift for him, or the New Yorkers unappreciative of certain innovations to which he tried to accustom them, for he has shut up shop and removed to Philadelphia, most of his stock and fixtures being transferred to his new location in the Y.M.C.A. Building at 1428 Chestnut street, Philadelphia.
The Alumni Report of the Philadelphia College of Pharmacy Alumni Association for August 1904 put a more positive spin on the move, declaring that the New York store was "both a sensation and a success," and that its owner "was induced by a handsome offer (owing to the great rise in real estate values) to sell his unexpired lease." The reference to "innovations" in the one account, and "sensation" in the second, makes one wonder whether Greenawalt's display windows of postcards might not have been raising a ruckus.

Not everyone was enthusiastic about the coming of the postcard craze, particularly since "naughty" or "vulgar" comic cards quickly gained a foothold in the market. Greenawalt was reassuring, however. The March issue of the Bulletin of Pharmacy records the druggist's views on the controversial topic of "The Propriety of Selling Souvenir Post-cards":
In a paper read before the Pennsylvania Pharmaceutical Association, W. G. Greenawalt dwelt incidentally on his attitude toward the fitness of carrying postal cards. Mr. Greenawalt said, in part: "As a business bringer the post-card is one of the best we have ever had, and it bids fair to continue. There are post-cards and post-cards. There are those of a high class, which have an educating and refining influence, and their sale adds to the tone and dignity of any establishment in which they are found. There are others much less so, yet still attractive and interesting, and also the cheaper common ones, which are crude, coarse, and often vulgar. These naturally prove a disadvantage, but it is good to know that few pharmacists have taken them up. Generally he prefers better cards, and so long as he does so he will most surely derive profit and pleasure, even though his ethical sensibilities are shocked. However, he has as his defense that he must live, and if the sale of souvenirs and post-cards is creditable, and makes him more comfortable than some other side-lines, it should console him for any injury to his feelings in the matter."
In his own article he declared, perhaps prematurely, that
The sale of the comic postal has fallen off, as most persons have no longer any interest in them. That was a passing fad.
Greenawalt's original base of operations was apparently Chambersburg, Pennsylvania, which may also have been his birthplace, around 1865; it appears that he or his family ran a drugstore there for at least twenty years. In the 1900 federal census a "G. William Greenwalt," age 33, was listed as living in that city with his mother and two siblings; both he and his brother David were pharmacists. The 1910 census shows a druggist with the same name, age 45, boarding on Pierrepont Street in Brooklyn, perhaps while traveling on business, and in 1912 the brothers purchased a drugstore in Frederick, Maryland. In 1917, William contributed another article to the Bulletin of Pharmacy, this one recording his experiences with "An Unusual Caller" to his store. Census records for 1920 have him again living with his siblings on Queen Street in Chambersburg. David was still the proprietor of a pharmacy, but William's occupation was now given as "none." David was still living at the same address in 1930 (occupation "none") but there is no further mention of William. It appears neither brother ever married.

Though the postcard would remain popular throughout the 20th century, the great boom itself lasted only a few years. By 1912 the Rotograph Co., one of the most prolific producers and arguably one of the most aesthetically successful, had ceased operations.

(The above post originally appeared on my other blog, Dreamers Rise.)

Friday, January 20, 2012

An Introduction

This project, which is a spinoff of my blog Dreamers Rise, is intended to present a focused selection from the many thousands of scenic images produced by the Rotograph Co. of New York, NY in its short history (c.1904-1911), a period that corresponded to the height of the early 20th-century American postcard boom. These images, the vast majority of which were produced in Germany (German manufacturers were at the leading edge of photographic and printing technology), captured a wide variety of scenes, ranging from skyscrapers to slums, from country churches and schoolhouses to seaside resorts. Since the technology for the mass-reproduction of true color photographs was in its infancy, many of the cards were hand-colored or treated with various processes to add layers of color. While other important card manufacturers, some of which lasted far longer, were active at the same time, at their best the Rotograph cards stand out for technological and artistic excellence as well as for their comprehensiveness in subject matter.

The guiding principles of this project are three propositions:

1) That these images, which originated as photographs, have documentary value based on the buildings, streets, parks, beaches, and other public and private spaces which they depict. This shouldn't be taken too far; many of these images, or similar ones, have been reproduced elsewhere, and there may be little specific information in them that is not already amply documented. Nevertheless, even bearing in mind the highly subjective (and no doubt largely market-driven) process of determining which scenes would be chosen for portrayal, the images provide, even if unintentionally so, useful cumulative evidence about the physical appearance of the United States a century ago that may be unfamiliar to many viewers.

2) That the manner in which, in much of Rotograph's production, black-and-white photographic originals were transformed into colored view cards added an extra dimension which transforms the results into something more aesthetically complex. They are, in effect, hybrid images, partly documentary photos, partly paintings (or prints of paintings), and the resulting ambiguity of their status not only opens up additional possibilities for their interpretation but anticipates certain movements in contemporary art and photography. (For more on this argument, see my post "Two More Bowery Views" at Dreamers Rise.)

3) That an examination of the ways in which these postcards were created, mass-produced, marketed, and distributed may provide interesting insights into aspects of early 20th-century American society, in particular in regard to such themes as urbanization, the spread of leisure activities and consumerism, and developments in transportation, commerce, and the mass media. In addition, the inscriptions and addresses and identities of the senders and recipients may cast light on daily life and personal relationships. I'm not a professional historian (or even an amateur one), so my aim will be more to provide food for thought than to defend any particular thesis.

In spite of its short lifespan, the Rotograph Co. produced tens of thousands of images (one estimate its 60,000). Many were not scenic view cards and thus lie outside the scope of this project, but even among the view cards I have no interest in being comprehensive. Instead, I would like to focus on certain locations and specific themes, as well as, to a lesser extent and when information is available, on the history and operation of the company and its relation to the American marketplace. My intention is to organize these images into a series of thematic posts that will serve as virtual "rooms."

I want to make it clear that I am not an expert on the Rotograph Co. or on any of the themes alluded to above. Although there appears to be no published volume devoted solely to the Rotograph Co., whose corporate history consequently remains poorly documented and somewhat mysterious, there are several useful resources for those seeking more authoritative information. The best place to start is probably the website of the Metropolitan Postcard Collector's Club, which is not only an indispensable source for the study of postcards in general but also has extensive material about the Rotograph Co. and its production methods in particular.

A periodical called the Rotograph Review was issued beginning in 1977, but I've been unable to track down an archive of the numbers that appeared before it ceased publication. There is a rather nice YouTube video montage of Rotograph view cards of New York City, entitled Wish You Were Here. A web project by the Queens College School of Library Science, Postcards from the New York Waterways: 1898-1923 (link no longer functions), has many Rotographs and is a model of intelligent online presentation. Daniel Gifford's doctoral thesis, To You and Your Kin: Holiday Images from America's Postcard Phenomenon 1907-1910, though not directly related to the history of the Rotograph Co., is an excellent source of general information on the early 20th-century postcard boom; a PDF of the thesis is available online.