While Hurricane Sandy has temporarily eclipsed such thoughts
from many people’s minds, fall weather is remarkable for crisp, clear nights
illuminated by a harvest moon, highlighting everyday scenes with an eerie glow
and beauty. This dark, mysterious quality inspired night-scene postcards, very
popular in the first half of the Twentieth century.
|Court Square, Springfield Massachusetts, postmarked 1920|
I enjoy collecting these because of their evocative
atmosphere and charm. In the frenetic, rapidly changing world of their heyday, night view cards seem to take a step back and relax, and even often to
bring a bit of nature back into an artificial and developing world.
|Moon over State Capitol and Bushnell Park in Hartford, Connecticut|
They often capture the naïve appeal of Currier and Ives
prints. In addition, many of them with their spooky drifting clouds, bright
moons, and dark color schemes punctuated by yellow-orange lights, are a perfect
complement for Halloween.
|Columbus, Ohio postmarked 1942|
|River Front, Milwaukee, Wisconsin|
Oddly, the photographs on which these cards are based were
not really taken at night. These were day scenes, with the clouds, moon, lit
windows, and pall of darkness all painted in. Often you will find matched day
and night views, identical down to parked cars, strolling pedestrians, or bits
of debris on the beach.
|The Perry Monument in Put-in-Bay, commemorating the great hero of the War of 1812|
Night-scene cards can be divided into two periods. The first
is roughly from 1900 to 1925. These cards often are more romantic in nature,
and tend to preserve the night effect by having the dark scene extend to the
edges of the cards. The artwork also tends to be a little finer in this period.
Around 1925, Art Deco kicked in, and these cards seemed to
have a special affinity with Art Deco ideals, such as geometric shapes and
streamers, and blocks of light and color, all of which showed up well with
nighttime contrasts. Also, the not-quite-realistic look of these linen-finish
cards worked better with night scenes in which atmosphere rather than detail
predominated. These later cards frequently have a white border containing the
title of the card in black type. Night cards were produced after the 1950’s,
but these are often real photographs and outside the scope of this post.
|This view of the State Capitol in Lincoln, Nebraska is pure Art Deco.|
|In my opinion, this painted sky is too bright and colorful, and fails to complement the Mormon Temple in Salt Lake City, Utah.|
|This attempt at showing the Temple in Salt Lake City, postmarked 1930, produced an Art Deco masterpiece of lighting.|
In addition to important buildings, streetscapes of small
towns were popular subjects:
|This linen-finish card, postmarked 1943, depicts Columbus Avenue in Sandusky, Ohio|
Many night cards reflect the influence of the Ashcan
school of gritty, realistic art, showing industrial scenes such as railways,
bridges, and docks. Even city skylines were often shown from a vantage point
which included a water or harbor view.
|Bridge and Skyline in Cleveland, Ohio, postmarked 1954.|
|Early view of Charlestown Bridge and Boston Elevated. No postmark, but early format is verified by 1906 copyright date.|
|Restaurant Ship Hotel in Venice, California, postmarked 1910.|
Nature was also a favorite theme for these cards, and again
water is often involved, partly for its reflective qualities. These scenes,
while quite beautiful, can also seem desolate without any sign of human
habitation or life.
|Moonlight on the Mahoning River, Warren, Ohio--no date, but its early date is evident from the typeface and the lack of a border.|
|Mt. Hood, Oregon, another early card.|
|Another use for the moon that people found in 1911.|
Night cards are fascinating because they show how the people
who produced and purchased them were able to see their world in more than one
way. Night has always held a special symbolism in art and literature,
indicating things that are to some degree evil or frightening. Night-scene
cards, while capturing some of that ‘dark’ mood, also imbue the photos with
beauty and color.
|Murphy's Hotel in Richmond, Virginia|
|Storm after Nor'easter, Old Orchard, Maine postmarked 1911|
This wave-tossed scene of a nor’easter is a special
reminder, if any were needed, of Hurricane Sandy that at this moment is
severely affecting the United States from the East coast all the way to the Great Lakes. Old postcards or photographs may romanticize storms and disasters, but
it is quite different having to live through them.I hope that everyone in Sandy’s
path is able to stay safe and secure.
Please let me know if you have a favorite scene here, or
whether you have any preference between the ‘old style’ and the ‘Deco style’ cards.
(All cards depicted
here in possession of the author.)