Monday, August 6, 2012

Collecting Souvenir Postcard Books

Please welcome printer, author, and Poltroon Press co-publisher Alastair M. Johnston to the Booktryst roster - SJG.

By Alastair Johnston

It seems that the Post Office will soon vanish into history, and along with it the art of writing letters. Gone too will be whole legions of postcard collectors, first day covers, humble cancel collectors, and the 150-year old profession of stamp collectors, who should have learned long ago that Philately will get you Nowhere.

Time was when you could put a postage stamp on just about anything and it would get to its addressee. Now the sour rule-abiding clerks at the Postal Orifice size up your mail and tell you it’s too big to go one way or too heavy to go another, that your return address is in the wrong place and on and on. So before they vanish into the dustbin of time here are some postal curios. 

The postcard booklet is either a set of cards in a folder or a single accordion-fold booklet that folds up into a cover. Such photo-illustrated books are a wonderful adjunct to books with other types of imagery. Everyone has family photo albums and scrapbooks, although today more and more people have folders of digital images precariously perched on their desktop. I found* a copy of Tugby’s Illustrated Guide to Niagara Falls, from 1890, printed on newsprint. 

It contains a booklet mentioning all the suicides and so forth that make this such a romantic spot, and a fold-out section of photographic views, but they too are printed on newsprint and not marked for mailing. Also, some folding postcards were printed on both sides so were not meant to be detached but kept as a surprising fold-out that echoed the journey through changing landscapes. 

The Scenes along the Ogden and Shasta Routes is postmarked 1914. 

The folder containing loose cards is a popular souvenir, so many people have them stashed away with views of places they’ve visited, or reproductions from museums. 

Tiny Badlands souvenir, made by the Rise Studio, Rapid City, South Dakota.
21 miniature photos by Carl Rise (?) in die-cut folder, no date, ca 1930.

The Yangtse River Bridge at Nanking has an interesting set of views of this splendid product of the Great Proletariat Cultural Revolution. Indeed, we learn about the struggle between the bourgeoisie and the proletariat in the construction of the bridge, between Mao’s thought and the “counter-revolutionary revisionist line represented by the renegade, hidden traitor and scab Liu Shao-chi” whose “line became totally bankrupt.” I wonder what became of him. 

The city of Reno came up with a novel idea: a “bonus album” of miniatures, so you could mail 20 postcards and keep the stapled stub which had miniature versions of the cards you’d sent. The Convention Center and Airport (if not the whole place) qualify for the “banality” collection. 

From 1972 comes a folder containing Russian Gingerbreads in the Collection of the Ethnographic Museum of the Peoples of the USSR. The collection spanned over 60 years of inedible artifacts. 

Accordion-fold postcard booklets were popular from the 1940s through the 1970s. Instead of choosing a card, you could send someone a dozen cards all folded up to the size of one card, in a printed cover, for the price of a first class stamp (which was 1 and a half cents). Curt Teich & Co, Chicago, who used a technique called Art-Colortone (unreal flat hand-coloring: see the views of Oakland below), seem to have printed many of these. There was also Stanley Piltz & Co of San Francisco and the king of picture postcards, Mike Roberts Litho of Emeryville, California. Color printing was always a step ahead of color photography for the first half of the twentieth century. 

A few years ago there was a vogue for banal postcards: drear motelscapes & similar blots on the landscape. The most banal set in my collection is a six-card promo for Alamo and their General Motors rental cars. It also features dull (as in lifeless printing) views of Yosemite, the Palace of Fine Arts and the “World’s Crookedest Street” in San Francisco. The cover shot has a modest 1970s Chevy and a couple at the beach in Southern California. There’s no cover, and the printer’s scoring rules were not equally spaced so the folded cards are not square, suggesting a quick and cheap job. 

Gatefold souvenir booklets are not necessarily intended to be torn apart for mailing as you may want to keep all the views for yourself. An example is the set from Le Jardin de Nos Deux, the environment built by Charles Billy in Civrieux d’Azergue, France. 

My trip to a similar spot, Bomarzo in Viterbo, Italy, in 1985 was typically memorable for the effort involved in getting there as much as the experience. I couldn’t get my companions moving and by the time we got there, after detours and delays, we only had an hour to explore while they complained, Why didn’t you tell us it was this magical? Sadly, after our visit the park was closed then changed hands and has since been “restored” in the worst possible way.

The park was begun by Count Orsini in 1552 who commissioned Pirro Ligorio to adorn it. Incredibly it lay unknown for 400 years when it was purchased by Giovanni Bettini who cared for it until his death. There are 24 major works of art — buildings, grottos, fountains, fantastic sculptures — set in a Bosco Sacro, or Holy Grove: it’s a kind of Disneyland for fans of the Italian Renaissance. In addition to the elephants, ogres and other mythical beasts there is a temple dedicated to Orsini’s wife and a tilted house. Now all we have are these photos to recall what it looked like then. 

Bomarzo Souvenir booklet (cover detached), 18 leaves, accordion fold.
Rome, Italy, De Cristofaro Editore, ca. 1978.

As a form for artists books I must mention Jaime Robles’ version of this. While living in Venice, Los Angeles in 1984, Robles created a spoof version of the “Homes of the Stars” postcard book with photos of her and her friends’ homes and quips about them:

“I just love high tech,” chirps songstress Lana Adohr, “It’s so much more American than Bauhaus. And a home is so much nicer than the Chateau Marmont.”
*Thanks to Frances Butler for allowing me to rummage in her collection.

1 comment:

  1. Where can I buy an album to store antique postcards?


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