Tuesday, October 30, 2012

The Shadowy World of Night View Postcards

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.

San Antonio, Texas

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

Special Postscript:
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.)

Wednesday, October 24, 2012

Yale 1870, Dressed for the Pump

This post is a blog-response to Reggie Darling’s coverage of the Ivy Style show, which emphasizes the collegiate look present on many campuses in the 1920’s-1960’s period. It is interesting to turn the clock back a little farther to see how the college beau was arrayed in the nineteenth century.

In older photos, students seemed to be even more formally attired, although perhaps missing a cohesive college look. It must be kept in mind that back then there were few casual photos or snap-shots, so people might appear dressier in photos than they often were, yet a natty or formal appearance was the norm. One of the old photos I brought to Taiwan features a group of student, yet even in the pictures mainly of buildings, the occasional students seen on the pathways all are as properly dressed as these here:

 A congenial group of Yale students, click to enlarge 
This photo depicts a group of Yale students from the class of 1870, so the photo is from that year or possibly the late 1860’s.  They are surrounding the South Pump, located next to the Old Laboratory, the brick building in the photo. (There was also a North Pump, but I’ll save that for another day.) One can imagine these pumps were quite the campus gathering spots, especially in those post-Civil War days when there weren’t too many spots on campus to get a simple drink of water.

For those familiar with Yale’s Old Campus, this scene of pump and laboratory is roughly between McClellan and Vanderbilt halls, and the white house in back is about where Linsley-Chittenden is now.

While these students are individually well dressed, their clothes are not similar, and represent a variety of types and colors of suits. The hats are even more noticeable—I count three top hats, four derby-like hats, one cap and one possible straw hat.

Beside the sartorial element of this photo, I find the commercial aspect interesting, that the pump, very internal to the campus,  is covered with advertisements, but no Yale-related announcements, unless you consider the seven banners for Coe’s Dyspepsia Cure a critical comment on the Yale Dining Hall of the period.

I’ll have to get hold of the Ivy Style catalog to see how they cover the early roots of their subject. Moreover, when I can find the time, I will use more old photos to divine the Precursors of Ivy Style.

Photo property of the author.

Wednesday, October 17, 2012

English Adventures in Taiwan Supermarkets

Caveat: I hesitated before writing this post, because I don’t want to appear to be making fun of people having trouble with English. I know that that every time I say something in Chinese, I make more numerous and more ridiculous errors than these. 

Yet there is a difference. In many countries including Taiwan, English is considered more as a decoration than as a way to impart information. Thus people blithely name companies, design packages, and commission neon signs with complete disregard for whether the English actually carries any meaning. Even for public or official purposes, they never double-check with a “native speaker”.

Every visitor notices with relish the surreal quality of the ambient English. Despite good intentions, the locals have an incredible tendency not just for getting it wrong, but for doing so spectacularly and memorably.

The simplest errors are small mistakes in spelling, although these can have a large effect. While snake is occasionally eaten in Taiwan, and there is even a Snake Alley featuring these restaurants, “snack” was obviously meant in this aisle marker. Likewise, in the second photo for “Smowdrop” cookies, the small deviation from “Snowdrop” makes the word peculiarly unappetizing.

SMOWDROP Square Cake Store

Many foods do not have regular English names, and strangeness creeps in when attempting a translation. These small, whole fish are frequently encountered in Taiwan, but this was not a good name for them:

Spinach Soup with Silver Fish

"Silver fish" sounds decidedly unpleasant, but the second attempt turned out even worse:

Everyone loves their wontons to be full of larvae.

Déjà vu: Sometimes the humor derives when a package is a clone of a more famous product.

Separated at Birth?

Look familiar?

Since the use of English is decorative, there is a tendency to use fancy words, resulting in severe thesaurus abuse. 

A hectograph is a type of mimeograph that uses a non-edible gel to copy stencils. 

"Chocolate Chip" must have sounded too common.

I am guessing that the “Happily Times” in this “House Drean” were meant to be ‘sweet’, but they came up with “treacly”.

Sometimes it is not easy to discern the original thought behind the translation, resulting is some of the most bewildering examples, such as this brand of hot dogs. Even the Chinese part is somewhat confused, assuring us both of “Japanese-style flavor” and “Fresh European spices”.

Don’t you want to bite into an Emulsion brand hot dog?

The English might be technically correct but still lame, such as using “House of Steamed Potato” as a brand name. The Chinese version sounds slightly better. By the way, why the post mark? 

House of Steamed Potato

Yappy Puffs—Take Easy!

Some brand names are just plain rude:

This example might have originated in Europe—no stranger itself to eccentric English. 

I’m not sure what can explain this picture—these peanut butter cookies have no cheese of any type in the ingredients.

Despite limited success with short words and phrases, designers frequently try their luck with more extended passages:

As always, click to enlarge.

“Sweat” for “sweet” was an unfortunate mistake on these chocolates. Is Volunteer’s Day really Valentine’s Day?

Perhaps there is nothing wrong with this last picture, but I find it amusing. It reminds me of the lyrics “Eat a plate of fine pig’s knuckles, and the undertaker chuckles” from the old song Some Little Bug.

Do you want a knuckle sandwich?

I find it fascinating how mistakes made in rendering a second language reveal the mindset and characteristics of the speakers attempting to use it. Sometimes they employ their own language patterns substituting English words, which rarely works. Other times they try to follow an English rule, but get into trouble with English idiom—some words for example have a correct basic meaning but cannot be used to describe foods. 

Taiwan, like most countries, is a synthesis of many cultures and languages, and slip-ups like these remind us that language should be used with a sense of fun, and not to make judgments against people.

All photos by the author; none have been edited or modified.

Sunday, October 7, 2012

A Tribute in Tin to Adelina Patti, the Queen of Song

Adelina Patti, 1843-1919, was one of the great phenomena of the Nineteenth century.  Her career as an opera singer was a succession of triumphs from her debut in 1859 until the early 1900’s, when she “retired” into an endless series of farewell tours.  In addition to her musical accomplishments, Patti possessed a true star quality that made her a household name even to those unable to attend her performances.

Her fame also made her quite possibly the most photographed woman of the Victorian era. Dozens of portraits abound, typically as paper photos mounted on cardboard. Yet not long ago I came across this fairly unusual one dating from the 1880's, painted over a full-plate tintype. 

Painted tintype of Adelina Patti, after Mora.
As usual, click any picture to enlarge.

Tintypes, sometimes called  ferrotypes, were photographs on tin plates that were very common in the 19th century. As much as we might admire them today, they were originally an inexpensive form of photography suited to itinerant photographers and outdoor venues. Perhaps the quintessential tintype is one that depicts beach-side vacationers in their Victorian bathing suits. 

Some people as an economical alternative to regular oil portraits had full-plate tintypes (about six by eight inches) taken, then colored or painted over to simulate an original painting. However, a star of Patti’s stature would have been above this form of photography, and in fact tintypes of celebrities are rare almost to the point of non-existence.

The original of this portrait is instantly recognizable. It was taken in 1882 by the American celebrity photographer Mora, and with others from the same session is often seen in cabinet format (about four by six inches) . Although there were dozens of Patti portraits to choose from, the Mora photograph seemed to represent an ideal of the period, and was seen in many guises.

A slightly different angle.

3/4 length, and hand tinted.

In addition to being copied in tin in the present case, this photo was also pressed into service for advertising, among other things, Chicago Corsets and Pears’ soap.

Celebrity endorsements are nothing new.

One wonders if Patti were paid or even consulted on these ads.

I also have a stereoview of the Mora portrait encased in skeleton leaves. These leaves were a favorite Victorian craft, and arrangements were encased under glass domes or preserved in photographs. Often, portraits encircled by wreaths of skeleton leaves are erroneously assumed to be memorial pictures. Since Patti lived until 1919, the wreath in this 19th century photo was only meant to provide an attractive setting.

It is easy to imagine some early fan of Patti’s, entranced by her fame, beauty and personality, creating this unusual tribute.  The Mora photograph was first copied as a tintype.  Perhaps some experimenting was required to produce the large tintype; when I bought this it was accompanied by a rather poor-quality, small-sized tintype of the same photo.

The artist who colored this photo was a very good one.  The skin tones are perfect, every eyelet and detail of lace painstakingly depicted, and the background is beautifully stippled, resembling enamel. The dress was enlivened with bright red, and the highlights in the hair wonderfully enhanced. Age has crazed the painted surface, and although the paint is solidly adhering, and not yet separating or flaking, this will have to be monitored in the future.

In addition to photographs, Patti’s image was also recorded by professional artists. The painter Franz Winterhalter famously painted her twice; the beautiful picture below is at Harewood House in Yorkshire, England. The almost folk-art charm of the painted tintype becomes very apparent when compared to the elegant Winterhalter portrait.

Formal portrait by Winterhalter, via Harewood House website.

I love to imagine the Patti tintype in its original setting, on the wall of some Victorian parlor. Portraits of this period were often mounted in deeply-molded walnut frames, and one can clearly see the shadow of an oval mat. I will be on the lookout for an appropriate frame, but in the meantime through the magic of photo-editing I have restored the tintype to a surmise of its original appearance.

Adelina Patti was one of the greatest artists and celebrities of the Nineteenth century. Through her career, portraits, advertising and recordings she left her mark on both the serious musical history and on the popular culture of her day.  Her admirers were legion, and one of them went to substantial trouble to commission this unusual souvenir in tin and pigment.