History with its flickering lamp stumbles along the trail of the past, trying to reconstruct its scenes, to revive its echoes, and kindle with pale gleams the passion of former days. ~Winston Churchill

05 November, 2014

Soldier Singalongs

Back in the days before recorded music was easily portable (or even extant), getting a group together to sing around the piano was a popular form of entertainment. In accumulating photographs of this activity (which will probably still be in a future post), I was struck to see just how many there were of soldiers having a good sing at the piano. In the earlier twentieth century, pianos were, of course, much more ubiquitous than they were today, and a common feature of recreational spaces. Even today, an open piano seems to be pretty irresistible--how much more so to fellows who really need a chance to unwind. And, of course, wartime photographers, particularly official ones, tend to flock to the more reassuring types of images, ensuring the capture of some of these spontaneous moments of fun amidst the turmoil and uncertainty of war. 

© IWM (C 107)

RAF men sing around a piano in a billet in France, December 1939. Source

© IWM (A 1431)

Officers sing after dinner onboard the battleship HMS Rodney, 1940. Source

Trainee airmen singing at a piano, WW2. Source

Soldiers relaxing at the Aldwych YMCA with a piano, London, 1918. Source

© IWM (A 18151)

Soldiers sing around a piano brought onto the deck of the HMS Prinses [sic] Beatrix just before the 1943 invasion of Sicily.  Source

© IWM (CH 8025)

RAF men with drinks and a song at the local pub, Hampshire, England, WW2. Source

Australian soldiers singing to a piano in an English YMCA. Source

A singalong to a newly donated piano at a Melbourne military hospital, 1942. Source

Australian soldiers singing at a YMCA, London, 1918. Source


Soldiers at a piano in a barracks recreation room, Reading, England, 1919-1939. Source

A large-scale singalong on a troop transport ship, en route from Australia to Malaya, 1941. Source

An English civilian leading the soldiers she's invited for dinner in a song, Sussex, 1943. Source

© IWM (A 7108)

Navy men in a Christmas singalong, Alexandria, 1941. Source

The wonderful original [presumably press] caption: " 'Music hath no boundaries" is an adage that still holds good at the Music Box Canteen, on New York's Fifth Avenue, where long, lanky Australian RAAF aces, grinning American tars, and rosy-cheeked French sailors of the Tricolour's ships, the Richelieu and Le Terrible, all make merry around a Piano, singing "Le Marseillaise." It's coffee the boys are drinking out of paper cups, not champagne." 1943. Source

Exuberant singing on V-J day, Borneo, 1945. Source

03 November, 2014

Mille Baisers II

As long-time followers may remember, I'm an avid collector of a certain genre of postcards most readily defined as "French romantic fantasy postcards of the 1920s and 30s" (though admittedly not most catchily). I've devoted a couple of posts to these, as well as, last year, starting them their own blog. Eventually I decided the blog format wasn't doing what I wanted to, and set out to create a more online collection-like site to share the postcards and the research I've done with them (there is currently no source that discusses them at any length, at least in English). I have many more ambitions for the site than are currently realized, but I feel it's reached the point of being meaningful to launch, with the caveat (or bonus) that much, much more is still to come. 

The new site, like the old blog, is named Mille Baisers, which is a French term of endearment often written at the ends of letters and postcards. It means "a thousand kisses." 

The site currently features about 150 of these postcards, front and back, with relevant tags and cataloging information; I have somewhere over 300 in my collection which shall be added on an ongoing basis. Here are a few favourites. 

personal collection

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To see many more, along with the (usually written) backs, and to learn more about the ways these cards were created, do pay the site a visit!

30 October, 2014

Homes of the Stars

Among the over 900 postcards of 1930s-40s California held by the Boston Public Library, a distinct set stands out. Apparently in this period it was very popular to print postcards depicting the private homes of movie stars. Many are even verifiable as having belonged to the named celebrity. Even then, the line between the private and public lives of celebrities was certainly blurred. 

These aren't dated (beyond the vague ca. 1930-1945 range given to the entire collection), but based on the celebrities, they seem to come from the mid to late thirties. The first postcard below, the home of Bing Crosby, was certainly created between 1936, when the house was constructed, and 1942, when it burned down. 

Boston Public Library

Home of Bing Crosby, 1936-1942. Source

Boston Public Library

Home of Gary Cooper. Source

Boston Public Library

Home of Ginger Rogers (I). Source

24 October, 2014

Marked Up

Before Photoshop, photographs were hardly left untouched. Professional portraits were retouched and airbrushed from the start. Press prints in particular were worked over to meet the needs of page layout and halftone printing. The main difference is simply in the marks left behind. Crop marks and the painting out of backgrounds for a cut-out effect are common leftovers of the manipulator's hand, leaving behind a wealth of inadvertent surrealism. 

Nina Leen, LIFE © Time Inc.

A man in a business suit, 1946. Source

Nina Leen, LIFE © Time Inc.

Polar bears at the Bronx Zoo, 1956. Source

Nationaal Archief

George Mallory (with halo) and other members of the 1924 Everest expedition. Source

21 October, 2014

19th Century Baseball Players "in Action"

Cards depicting professional baseball players began to be produced in the 1880s, as a sub-variety of cigarette card. Though some of these were simple head-and-shoulder portraits, there was a greater interest in images of baseball players actually playing baseball. The problem was that camera technology at the time was not quite up to the task of actually capturing action (at least, not without extremely specialized equipment like Muybridge's). The compromise was these posed studio portraits. Baseball players would pose as if throwing, catching, or batting balls suspended on wire. Most, it must be said, were not natural models. 

Large numbers of these early baseball portraits are held by the Library of Congress, which has over 2,000 early baseball cards (photographs, lithographs, and half-tone), and the New York Public Library, which holds many cabinet card-mounted versions of the same photographs used for the mass-produced cigarette cards (see, for instance, this mounted print and this cigarette card). This post draws mainly from the higher quality card-mounted prints from the NYPL, but interested viewers are highly advised to check out both collections--even for a non-baseball fan like myself, they are tremendous fun. 

New York Public Library

Deacon McGuire, Philadelphia Quakers, 1886-1888. Source

New York Public Library

Unidentified player. Source

New York Public Library

Jack Clements. Source

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