Postcards: 100 Years since the End of World War I

On Veterans Day, November 11, 2018 we show our respect and gratitude for the service of our country’s veterans. This year’s celebration is a little more special than past observances, as it marks the 100th anniversary of the ending to World War I.

On this occasion, we invite you to explore these postcards from the Philo Holcomb, Jr. World War I postcard collection. Holcomb was a native of Atlanta, Georgia who served in the U.S. Army from 1918 to 1919. After the war, he traveled extensively in Europe, collecting numerous postcards, travel guides, and maps.

[Postcard front] The home fires are burning

[Postcard rear] Dear Philo
Dear Philo, You are constantly in our thoughts. Mother has given all the news. Father

World War I consumed the better part of Europe between the years 1914-1918. Its battles were fought with a brutality that was never before seen. The Great War took a significant toll on the men who fought bravely.

These men were sons, brothers, fathers, uncles, and nephews. Many of them had a family waiting for them to come home. While the soldiers were abroad fighting, the most common method to communicate with family, friends, and acquaintances was through letters and postcards.

 

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Millions of postcards were created between the years of 1905 and 1915. This time period is known as the ‘golden age’ for postcards. In Germany alone, there were about three million printed. In some ways, communication by postcard is similar to today’s use of social media such as Twitter, Instagram, or Facebook. Postcards have a limited amount of space for writing and picture to tell a story. That story could be about the place the person was currently stationed, a place someone visited, or just to reassure loved ones that they were okay.


 

[Postcard] Nenette et Rintintin - Right - Don't Leave Me - Ne t'en vas pas sans moi!
“If Rintintin is a soldier under special orders (like me most of the time) the allegory of jerking him away is true to life. Don’t blame me for the short dresses ladies wear these days. “
One could analyze this piece–featuring the French character Rintintin as well as the writing on the back of the card–and see this as him being “jerked away” from focusing on his duties in the Army with his interest in the women of Europe. You can see this again in the postcard below with Philo’s friend Bill having accidentally chased away a girl. Another example how postcards have the power of image and words in a short small package.

[Postcard front] Bar-aus-Aube - Usine Gadenne - Montagne Ste-Germaine

[Postcard rear] The flour mills - still a little farther upstream. A girl in the mill smiled at Bill but when he showed interest she ran away. Girls is funny creatures I guess.
“The flour mills – still a little farther upstream. A girl in the mill smiled at Bill but when he showed interest she ran away. Girls is funny creatures I guess.”

Postcards printed during this era sometimes reflected the politics and popular sentiment of the day. During the World War I era, humor became darker, illustrated below in the text of these British postcards.

British wartime postcards
My Latest Portrait: Just Me, Gas Who It Is; Some Bonnet: I eat & drink out of it, it protects my brains, it’ll come home with me under it.

Some Germans who opposed the war expressed their defiance through art. In the postcard below, one could interpret that it is making a mockery of the people in power. You can tell by the man’s luxurious clothes, clean nails, and wine glass that this is a wealthy man. In the corner of the postcard on the right, there is a small printed statement–SCHENKER– which means “boozer” in German.

 

Mockery of those in power has often been used by the common people to make their displeasure known. It can be seen in a lot of German artwork for the period of World War I. Mockery is still frequently used to the same effect in the present day, through its proliferation in memes and social media.


But more often than not, postcards were a quick way for soldiers, sailors, and airmen to connect with those they held close to their hearts.

[Postcard front] Remembrance and Love, when you're a long way from home
A postcard from Grand Valley State University Professor of History Dr. Jason Crouthamel’s WWI postcard collection
It is important to understand the sacrifices our military veterans have made.  Today, we honor them the best way we know how—Thank you, for your service and your dedication to our country.

 

 

Michigan Picture Postcards

Postcard. Why Don't You Come to Holland, circa 1910
Holland, Michigan. Why don’t you come to Holland, Mich. and runabout the town with me, circa 1910

Among the many instruments that people have devised to communicate with one another, the postcard fills many roles. If you need a simple way to send a quick note, to let someone know you’re thinking of them, to save or send a souvenir of your travels, or merely to document your own surroundings – postcards can meet all of these needs and more.

The American postcard was first developed in the 1870s, and the first souvenir postcard in the 1890s. They quickly became immensely popular, with their “Golden Era” spanning from around 1907 to 1915.

During that period, the U.S. Postal Service introduced the “divided back” postcard, which included a line on the blank side to separate the address area from the message area. Also during this period, Kodak produced a specialized “postcard camera” which enabled the quick production of “real photo” postcards.

The postcards highlighted in this exhibit come from our American Picture Postcard Collection (RHC-103).  Their photographs and illustrations depict the locales and sights of Michigan, and show us how things used to be.

The Alabastine Company

alabastine_envelope

The Alabastine Company, founded in 1879, produced a variety of paint products from the gypsum that was mined from the shale beds abundant in the area surrounding Grand Rapids, Michigan. Though the company was founded in New York, it derived its name from its largest gypsum quarry near the town of Wyoming, just south of Grand Rapids.

Alabastine color sample brochure, 1925
Alabastine color sample brochure, 1925

It’s earliest product, a dry pigment wall paint, was marketed as a “sanitary” and “hygienic” alternative to more traditional wall coverings of the day, such as lead-based paints, whitewash, and wallpaper.

Alabastine Home Color Book

The company advertised broadly in magazines such as Ladies Home Journal, the Delineator, and House Beautiful, and created colorful advertisements, catalogs, and other promotional materials.

Alabastine Stencil Catalog

The company was in business until about 1948 when it failed due to mismanagement. More information about the Alabastine Company can be found online at Antique Home Style and HistoryGrandRapids.org.

School-Pak Alabastine Art Paint Kit

These items, along with other Alabstine Company odds and ends, can be found within the Special Collections in Seidman House.

Grand Rapids Carnival of Fun

COF_01a_web
Cover of the “Carnival of Fun 2 Step” music for piano solo by Dan Ball, 1897

The first Grand Rapids Carnival of Fun was held in October 1897 and organized by the Hesperus Club. Modeled after the “Carnival of Rome,” Grand Rapids’ carnival was a four-day festival of parades, music, Midway acts and games, and the election of Carnival King and Queen. Advertisements and souvenirs featured images of leprechauns, devils, jesters, and people in fanciful costumes.

At a meeting of the Hesperus Club in November 1897, heated debate arose about the worth and morality of the recently concluded festivities. It was reported in the Grand Rapids Herald that during the 4 days of the carnival there were 61 arrests for drunkenness, compared to 8 from the preceding week and 10 for the following week. Such public displays of “immorality and degradation” were met with furious opposition from a number of the city’s prominent businessmen and ministers, including Gen. Byron M. Cutcheon, the very founder of the Hesperus Club itself.

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However, since the carnival’s events and attractions brought a great financial boost to the city, Grand Rapids’ Mayor,  Lathrop C. Stow, declared that the city was none the worse for having held it. The following summer the organizers petitioned the city once again to repeat the Carnival of Fun. The new mayor, George R. Perry, citing “no law to prevent” the holding of the carnival, granted permission for its use of public streets once again.

COFenv2_web
Carnival of Fun 1898 commemorative envelope – “More fun than last year.”

The 1898 Carnival of Fun was nearly twice as large as the previous year. It held opening ceremonies, three parades, free shows on four stages, fireworks, Midway games, food stands, and more. Local businesses even ran special carnival sales to attract both locals and out-of-towners.

Following the rousing “hot time” of the 1898 Carnival of Fun, a conference of ministers gathered to oppose the “immorality and drunkenness” of the carnival. The conference demanded that the carnival never be repeated, noting that arrests for public drunkenness increased threefold from the first year to the second. They vowed to fight any future proposals of carnivals with all of the weapons at their disposal. Their efforts were victorious, and the Grand Rapids Carnival of Fun was never held again.

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