The Oaks News
Lane Baker on a Century-Old Social Media Obsession
While vacationing in Europe during the spring of 1900, the English journalist George Sims decided to scale Mt. Rigi. At nearly six thousand feet, the massif offers a stunning view of the surrounding Swiss Alps. A railroad track, added in the nineteenth century, allowed foreign bon vivants like Mr. Sims to ascend the peak and enjoy the mountain scenery with minimal exertion. Sims boarded the train and went up with “a large party” of vacationing Europeans. Regrettably, the splendor of the vista seemed entirely lost on Sims’s traveling companions. He recounted the scene with annoyance in The Referee, an English newspaper: “Directly we arrived at the summit, everybody made a rush for the hotel and fought for the postcards. Five minutes afterwards, everybody was writing for dear life. I believe that the entire party had come up, not for the sake of experience or the scenery, but to write postcards and post them on summit.” The frenzy atop Mt. Rigi was hardly unusual. Unfortunately for the loftier-minded Sims, this was the nature of travel during Europe’s “postcard craze.”
In 1900, George Sims joined a growing chorus of writers perplexed and alarmed by the continent-wide mania for postcards. Reading their accounts today, one cannot help but experience déjà vu in chronological reverse: swap postcards with Facebook or Instagram, and the past begins to sound eerily like the present. Sims sneered at tourists for mobbing the postcard stall and neglecting the natural beauty around them; modern critics chastise travelers for viewing the world through a perpetually raised (usually smartphone-mounted) camera lens. Just as Sims held aloft the value of the “experience,” one does not lack for recent articles—often written by repentant social media fanatics themselves—that extol the virtues of unplugging, disconnecting, and “living in the moment.”
The picture postcard, although hardly an object of obsession today, once occupied a niche filled more recently by Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram. There is an obvious similarity in function: to borrow terminology from the tech world, postcards allowed users to share experiences with long-distance connections through their innovative image- and text-based platform. There are deeper similarities too, in the ways that both can hijack our minds and shape our culture. Many of the same obsessions and anxieties triggered by the postcard craze have resurfaced with the rise of digital social media. If we wish to understand our own personal and troubled relationships with social media, we might gain some much-needed perspective from a look at the postcard craze. It was after all, the moment when Westerners first became addicted to the simple but ensnaring pleasure of “posting pictures.”
As an episode in popular history, the postcard craze has largely been forgotten. The picture postcard of today offers few hints of its erstwhile glory. In the first decade of the twentieth century, however, postcards were an inescapable feature of daily life. “[The postcard] takes possession of everyone, penetrates everywhere,” wrote Charles Simond in France. “The palaces of kings are as open to it as the humble cottage; it has loyalists in the city and in the village; all resistance is in vain.” This was in 1903, the same year that Germany broke all records and sent over one billion postcards through the mail. The numbers and ubiquity of cards only grew with time. George Sims, who decried the postcard stall atop Mt. Rigi, found no respite elsewhere: “Wherever you go, picture postcards stare you in the face. They are sold at cigar shops, libraries, chemists, and fruit stalls; they are arranged on stalls and every table at the restaurants; they are in the halls of hotels; they are in railway stations.”
The most popular cards, then as now, featured photographs of tourist destinations. The postcard that may be credited with starting the craze debuted at the Paris Exhibition of 1889, celebrating the recent completion of the Eiffel Tower. The newspaper Le Figaro began selling and posting souvenir postcards from the top of the tower, a winning combination that granted tourists excitement, novelty, and no small amount of bragging rights over their more earth-bound friends. Other tourist destinations soon followed suit, reproducing famous monuments and views. However, turn-of-the-century postcards boasted more versatility than their modern-day descendants: people sent cards featuring actors and actresses, works of art, jokes, insults, professions of love. Those who happened to own cameras could even print and send their own personalized cards. Senders often included short, telegraphic messages to their recipients: “Hugs and kisses”; “Am ‘OK’”; “Sending love,” occasionally giving more detailed updates to their status.
Postcards were among the most convenient ways to keep in touch at the turn of the century. People communicated over vast distances via postcard, bypassing the formalities of letter writing and the hassle of telegrams and phone calls. Travelers could share snippets of their experiences as they happened—thus evincing cultured and adventurous lives. Postcards did not always offer an accurate reflection of foreign locales (many featured photos colorized with garish and inaccurate hues, not entirely unlike Instagram’s popular filters), but this fact caused little to no alarm. Even if one’s postcard captured only a glimmer of the lived experience, it was enough to send a picture and say with confidence, “I have been here.” In many cases, postcards served simply as a convenient way to exchange greetings and plans. “Baby's arrival, his first tooth, his first trousers, his first bicycle, his first girl and his first baby, all go to the family circle by souvenir postal,” wrote one commentator. “Thanks to it, we know more than we once did about our relatives and friends, as well as about Burn’s house and the catacombs of Rome.”
As the postcard industry spread its tendrils into daily life, a now-familiar barrage of criticisms followed. Nowhere do the similarities between postcards and modern social media appear more sharply than in these anxious analyses. In his extended criticism of the postcard craze, George Sims lamented the deleterious effect postcards had on social interactions. “You enter a railway station,” he wrote, “and everybody on the platform has a pencil in one hand and a postcard in the other. In the train it is the same thing. Your fellow travelers never speak. They have little piles of picture postcards on the seat behind them, and they write continuously.” Another commentator sneered at the typical German traveler, whose “first care on reaching some place of note is to lay in a stock [of postcards] and alternate the sipping of beer with the writing of postcards. Sometimes he may be seen conscientiously devoting to this task the hours of a railway journey.” One writer freely admitted to this practice, describing himself with a heap of amusing postcards on the train, “muttering over them as if I were an incipient madman.” As with modern complaints against cell phones and social media, such critiques rested on an assumed bygone era of gregarious strangers and lively train-ride conversations, all of it spoiled by the siren song of handheld images.
Many commentators feared that the postcard’s popularity spelled doom for written communication as well, echoing modern worries over text-speak and Twitter’s character limits. A 1910 article in American Magazine made this grave claim in its title: “Upon the Threatened Extinction of the Art of Letter Writing.” Its prognosis was grim: “In another generation the hand-made letter will be as extinct as hand-made music. It will be used only at one age—the time when life to the young man or the young woman consists merely of a series of long and uninteresting hiatuses between the daily mail deliveries.” Such fears were not entirely unfounded, as seen in the writings of a young girl in 1903: “[I have] a friend who is so foolish that he writes letters. Did you ever heard about anything so ridiculous? As if I care for a good-for-nothing letter.” George Sims complained about this development: “For the purpose of correspondence, they are practically useless. There is so much view, that there is barely room for you to write your name. . . . They are utterly destructive of style, and give absolutely no play to the emotions.” When postcards did convey emotion, they often conveyed too much for the tastes of those raised in the Victorian era. Because postcards traveled without envelopes, they were theoretically open to prying eyes. This sometimes led to serious scandals, as occurred in France when a postal worker intercepted and shared an inappropriate postcard sent to a woman by her local priest. To people who grew up with the social mores of the nineteenth century, this dissolution of privacy and decorum was cause for distress. The art of well-written letters, with their fine-tuned verbal etiquette, seemed doomed for extinction on account of the crass and abbreviated postcard. What was to be done?
Of course, nothing was done. With each passing year, the number of postcards increased, extending their coverage to ever more obscure locales and attractions. “Every pimple on the earth’s skin has been photographed,” wrote James Douglas in 1907, “and wherever the human eye roves or roams it detects the self-conscious air of the reproduced.” In this description of the photographed and commodified world, Douglas perceived the seeds of the postcard craze’s natural decline: “The aspect of novelty has been filched from the visible world. The earth is eye-worn. It is impossible to find anything that has not been frayed to a frazzle by photographers.” Postcard mania eventually subsided. One might cite any number of causes to explain the decline: a loss of novelty, the rise of the personal camera, two World Wars (to say nothing of the financial crash between them). It is unclear if any single development led to the end of the mania. What is clear is that the critics did not win. People may have stopped sending cards out of boredom and fatigue, but they did not stop out of worry for “the experience” of travel, the quality of their train-ride conversations, or the decline of their letter-writing etiquette.
Digital social media can be frightening in its novelty. Developments of the last decade have forced a rapid cultural redefinition of privacy, etiquette, and friendship, and at times the leaps in technology appear to be outstripping our culture’s ability to adapt in a healthy fashion. One might thus forgive the more pessimistic commentators among us for their anxious hang-wringing over social media addiction. The story of the postcard craze, now over a century in the past, should serve to allay our more hysterical fears. At the turn of the twentieth century, ordinary people grappled with the arrival of a new and exciting form of visual communication. Many were addicted; a few were bemused and even disgusted by their compatriots’ passion. As we sail further into the uncharted territory of digital social media, it is important to recognize that our technological obsessions and anxieties—alarming as they may be—are not a complete aberration. Europe emerged from the postcard craze with its social and cognitive functions largely unscathed; the joys of travel, conversation, and a well-written letter did not perish.
One should be careful to not stretch the analogy between postcards and digital social media too far. Indeed they differ in some important ways. Postcards never became tools of official communication; modern social media has turned into an instrument of mass political influence, evolving into something quite different from the image and status-sharing platform as it was originally conceived. A single postcard has one recipient; a single Instagram post may have thousands. Facebook and Twitter allow for instantaneous long-distance communication; postcards, quick and convenient as they may have once appeared, still rely on the slow crawl of the postal system. Postcards offer travelers premade images; modern social media assumes that its users will double as photographers. This final aspect of modern social media allows one to share perspectives that were typically unavailable to the average traveler at the height of the postcard craze: selfies, videos, food photography, pictures taken with monuments rather than photographs of monuments. In a world increasingly saturated with photographs, a picture of the unobstructed Eiffel Tower is hardly cause for a thrill anymore. Modern social media has become more self-centered—alternatively, more intimate and personalized—than postcards could ever allow. But this is a difference of medium, not of generational virtue; armed with a smartphone and Instagram followers, a traveler in 1900 would probably fall into the same habits as any modern traveler. Behind the differences in form lies an uncanny similarity in human nature.
It is sometimes lamented that future historians will shoulder the burden of sifting through the inane and trivial records of our social media lives. Yet few participants in the postcard craze would have expected their cards to hold value to scholars one century after their time. It is often the most ephemeral artifacts—postcards then, social media now—that forge the most relatable links across eras. Postcards are, after all, rather intimate objects: they were not written and addressed to society at large; they were never intended for posterity. As such, their senders were pleased to dwell on the mundane and personal: the weather, travel annoyances, good food, growing babies. Such matters are of little concern for the histories of politics, economics, and ideas, but they offer beautiful glimpses of the past as it was lived and experienced on a daily basis. Some postcards close the gap of a century with just a few words, offering to us a touching snapshot of an ordinary life. Some of them are, with their simplicity and lack of pretension, nothing short of beautiful. George Sims may have dismissed his travel companions as negligent of the beauty surrounding Mt. Rigi, but another mountaintop postcard from 1912, this one from Chamonix, paints as fine and delicate a picture as any landscape painting in just three short sentences: “Ethel and I have not climbed anything quite as steep as this, but we have seen such things as we never saw before. We are right up among the clouds, which are very tame here. They come nosing around just like kittens.”
The Dumbarton Oaks Archives Launches Online Ephemera Collection
One often stumbles upon ephemera—those items, like pamphlets and postcards, designed only to last a short while—in the recesses of secondhand bookstores or at flea markets, stacked up wildly in crates and hardly cared for at all. Now they’ll be available in a new location, where, hopefully, they’ll be easier to peruse: online.
Dumbarton Oaks is pleased to announce the launch of its online Ephemera Archive, a tool that makes available to a wide audience the institution’s extensive and growing ephemera holdings. The Ephemera Collection comprises postcards, magazine pages, pamphlets, trade cards, and other materials related to Dumbarton Oaks’ three programs of study: Byzantine, Pre-Columbian, and Garden and Landscape studies.
The catalog’s launch culminates two years of work on the ephemera project, an initiative started in 2015 to collect, catalog, preserve, and display institutionally relevant ephemera. Materials in the Dumbarton Oaks collection are typically taken from a fairly narrow time period—approximately 1890 to 1920—that coincides with a boom in printed ephemera production.
Lain Wilson, Dumbarton Oaks’ digital content manager, believes the catalog will open up a number of research possibilities: “It’s really going to serve students, scholars, and interested amateurs who want to look at these subject areas from the particular angle of their reception during the late nineteenth and early twentieth century.”
For Wilson, who helped to develop the catalog’s interface, the value of ephemera lies in their ability to communicate subjective worldviews. “Ephemera reveal how people—some people—a hundred years ago viewed and valued monuments, places, and practices, many of which are still present, studied, and visited today.”
Behind the catalog lies meticulous research and labor. After images are carefully scanned and uploaded, they must be described with metadata (that is, data that describes other data, rendering it usable and searchable), an arduous process that can involve transcribing captions or translating the handwritten notes on postcards. And even after all of this information has been obtained and logged, ambiguities and unknowns often remain.
“One big challenge is that with a lot of our items, especially the postcards, we don’t have a lot of data to begin with,” says Lane Baker, a postgraduate research fellow in ephemera. “Though the items might be in great condition when we acquire them, with plenty of clues that suggest they’re from this or that period, it’s sometimes difficult to track down their provenance in a way that would be ideal for researchers.”
Even if the printer or photographer responsible for a particular postcard can be identified, there’s often little more information to be found. “Sometimes, these postcards were literally just the result of an amateur photographer snapping a picture and dropping it off with a friend who ran a local print shop, who’d then print them, just for that shop, and sell them to tourists,” Baker explains. “That sort of thing really doesn’t leave much of a paper trail to research.”
Regardless, the image remains, and perhaps even gains from the utter obscurity of its origins. Examining a postcard of the ruins of Tiahuanaco in Bolivia—a set of capsized stones half-sunk in a broad field—it’s difficult not to consider the combination of circumstances that brought it into existence. As an activity, however, this wondering quickly flounders. Though we know the name of the publishing house that produced the card (Arnó Hermanos Editores), the rest—the identity of the man posed on the stones or the individual behind the camera, the date the image was taken—is mystery.
Ultimately, the academic purposes to which the catalog can be put shouldn’t obscure the more fundamental pleasures of ephemera-gazing. Without exception, the ephemera collected by Dumbarton Oaks present some sort of joy to the eye, whether that means a beautiful tableau or a strange one, an accurate depiction of the past or a skewed one. A brightly colored image of the Tuileries Gardens, sparsely walked by soberly dressed strollers, adorns one card, while the Dome of the Rock dominates another, surmounted by a garish holiday message in flowing red script.
For now, the online catalog displays a selection of Dumbarton Oaks’ ephemera holdings, though items will continue to be added as they’re acquired and logged. “The nice thing is, not only does the catalog introduce people to ephemera,” Baker explains, “but it might also help us expand the collection by attracting the attention of dealers or people with collections of their own.”
As far as the health of the collection is concerned, Dumbarton Oaks finds itself in a good position. The diversity of research fields at Dumbarton Oaks allows for both focused and wide-ranging collecting. “Of course, we’re trying to remain focused on our institutional interests,” says Baker, “but we want to do that while also being expansive in the types of ephemera we search for, acquire, and use.”
The Ephemera Collection Expands in an Upcoming Exhibit
It was “the supreme spectacle of the age,” according to one effusive advertisement. In 1922, the Astor Theater in New York screened Theodora, an Italian silent film about the scandalous life of the eponymous sixth-century Byzantine empress. The film featured live lions, a cast of twenty-five thousand people, and reconstructed Byzantine architecture, sculpture, and mosaics. Most important, however, was the “love-mad woman” at the heart of it all.
This film, like several others of its day, was born from a larger western fascination with the empress Theodora. In the early 1880s, average people in Europe and North America became increasingly interested in the aesthetics and style of Byzantium. The French playwright Victorien Sardou propelled the empire into the mainstream with his sensational 1884 play Théodora, which starred the famous actress Sarah Bernhardt as the empress and boasted extravagant sets and costumes. The following decades saw Theodora transformed from an obscure historical figure to an icon of fashion, theater, and film. Her face appeared on postcards, newspapers, magazines, and advertisements. Many westerners received their first exposure to the Byzantine world through these imaginative renderings of Theodora.
The Dumbarton Oaks Archives is excited to announce the arrival of a new exhibit focusing on this cultural phenomenon. Imagining the Empress: Theodora in Popular Culture, 1882–1922, was curated by Lane Baker, postgraduate fellow in ephemera, in conjunction with the Dumbarton Oaks Archives’ Ephemera Collection, a new and growing assemblage of historical ephemera related to the institution’s three programs of study. The exhibit aims to expose viewers to the ways in which a single historical figure infiltrated popular culture and helped bring an awareness of Byzantium—albeit a skewed one—to the general populace.
Though Dumbarton Oaks began acquiring ephemera in 2015 and has continued at a steady pace since then, the collection’s focus on Theodora is a new phenomenon. In fact, many of the objects on display, which range from buttons to postcards to theater programs, are new acquisitions. “Part of the idea behind the exhibit was to assess the collection as a whole,” Baker explains. “We wanted to find interesting themes in what we already had, and then pursue more focused acquisitions from there.”
Of course, ephemera present their own unique curatorial challenges. “When you’re working with these disparate types of materials—buttons, postcards, newspaper advertisements—it’s difficult to tie them together in a compelling way,” Baker says. In the early stages of planning, Baker researched methods of displaying ephemera and other exhibitions that had effectively utilized the fleeting materials. Ultimately, he decided that an exhibit that relied solely on one type of object (like postcards) would be difficult to pull off.
Instead, Baker opted for a chronological approach, capable of encompassing a wide array of materials. “Essentially, the exhibit moves from the foundations of the Theodora craze, in Sardou’s play, all the way to the conclusion of the craze, with film posters from the 1920s,” he explains.
This broadened purview means the exhibit can include anything, from a set of cameo-bearing buttons—designed as party-going accessories that were meant to be affixed to a sash—to an elegant 1902 play program for Sardou’s Théodora, designed by the famed jeweler and artist René Lalique.
The program, as Baker explains, is a curio. “In a lot of ways, it’s really different from what we’d expect from a program—it has concept sketches, costume models, set designs, small bits of sheet music, some of Sardou’s notes. It’s sort of a behind-the-scenes view of the play.” The program’s assortment of background trivia that gesture at the mechanics of Sardou’s spectacle emphasizes that the play, like the larger Theodora phenomenon, was about the larger world of Byzantium as well.
“I think Theodora, as an idea and a cultural phenomenon, really captures a good idea of what ephemera can be, and what they can express,” Baker says. Not only did the empress-craze find its way into the manifold crannies of consumer culture—it also found there, in each postcard and button, a unique, and often beautiful, expression.
Imagining the Empress: Theodora in Popular Culture, 1882–1922 will be on display at Dumbarton Oaks in the Orientation Gallery when the museum reopens in spring 2017. In the meantime, interested readers can browse selections from the ephemera collection.
James N. Carder (March 2017)
The Dumbarton Oaks Archives is building a collection of ephemera that relates to the institution’s three programs of study. A recent acquisition for this collection is an illustrated souvenir booklet printed for the 1902 revival of Victorien Sardou’s play, Théodora, which in 1884 had helped rebuild the fame and fortune of its star, Sarah Bernhardt. Théodora soon traveled the world, including America, bringing to its enthusiastic audiences a theatrical Byzantium complete with Oriental mystery, lavishly decorated spaces, and, especially, luxurious clothing and jewelry made from gold and colorful gems. For this reason, the booklet offers us an important chronicle of the turn-of-the-century popular culture perception of the Byzantine world.
The booklet is more a theater souvenir than a program—there is no cast list or enumeration of the play’s eight scenes, for example. But the ten pages of illustrations offer an interesting glimpse into the props, costumes, stage sets, and even the music of this widely popular play.
The cover has an image of Bernhardt as Theodora painted in 1894 by the French jewelry and glass designer, René Lalique (1860–1945). Theodora, her head backed by a cruciform halo, wears an imaginative crown ringed by imperial eagles, which, more menacingly, are also seen on the pendilia that hang across the empress’s ears. Included in the booklet are sketches by Georges Clairin (1843–1919), a French painter and illustrator and Bernhardt’s reputed lover, who designed the poster for the play’s 1902 revival.
Also found are prop designs by René Foy, a French jewelry designer, and examples of the costumes of Théophile Thomas (1846?–1916), originally designed for the 1884 production. Among the set designs are those of Alfred Lemeunier, Marcel Jambon (1848–1908), Alexandre Bailly, and Amable (Dauphin-Amable Petit) (1846–1916). Several bars of the incidental music that Jules Massenet (1842–1912) composed for the 1884 premier are also included in the booklet.
Several pages from the booklet are on display in the exhibition, Imagining the Empress: Selections from the Dumbarton Oaks Ephemera Collection, which opens in late April.
LANE BAKER (NOVEMBER 2016)
Scholars typically study significant objects that were made to last—books, artworks, buildings, inscriptions, etc. More often than not, these objects have been made by and for the elite. The general population tends to leave a more ephemeral record. “Ephemera” are historical artifacts that were never meant to be preserved and may come in many forms, e.g., postcards, stamps, playbills, flyers, catalogs, and more. These commonplace objects offer unique glimpses into everyday life and culture, revealing dimensions of the past that scholarly documents might obscure or overlook. Since 2015, the Dumbarton Oaks Archives has been collecting historical ephemera relevant to the institution’s research interests of Byzantine, Pre-Columbian, and Garden and Landscape studies. Most of these items date to the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries and were created primarily for audiences in the United States and western Europe. They offer us insight as to how the general population encountered and learned something about the Byzantine Empire, Pre-Columbian cultures, and garden and landscape design and horticulture.
The following are three examples from the collection.
In 1916, a tourist in Constantinople bought this postcard. It depicts the interior of “the Mosque of St. Sophia,” thereby at once evincing the city’s blend of Byzantine and Islamic cultures. The colors, which have been layered on a black-and-white photograph, paint a fanciful portrait of the Byzantine building. For many people in the west, such imaginative images would have been their first exposure to the exotic grandeur of Byzantium.
The Swiss chocolatier Toblerone created this stamp as part of its larger “Temples and Churches” stamp series (1920s). It depicts an imaginary “Temple of the Aztecs,” taking cues from a variety of real Mesoamerican temples. Like many of Toblerone’s earliest advertisements, this stamp is written in Ido, a constructed language for international communication. The same spirit of internationalism that spurred the creation of these artificial languages also led advertisers to appeal to the recipients’ interest in far-off and exotic locales like those of the Pre-Columbian world.
In 1914, a prospective home gardener picked up this eye-catching pamphlet. Distributed by Maryland arborists J. G. Harrison and Sons, the pamphlet claims that trees from Harrisons’ Nursery benefited from an ideal climate and healthy soil. It lists the prices of many different species, from fruit trees to ornamentals. In the early twentieth century, ornamental and orchard gardens became something that ordinary people could afford. Pamphlets like this one document that transition, showcasing the ways that arborists reached out to novices hoping to craft their own landscapes.
The Dumbarton Oaks Ephemera Collection is an ongoing project, presently numbering some five hundred objects. Coming soon is a website featuring the collection as well as a special exhibition, which will open in the new year.