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

19 December, 2014

Christmas Greetings from the Trenches

Embroidered silk postcards soldiers at the Western Front sent to their families back home, for Christmas. These kinds of embroidered postcards were very popular among soldiers of World War One, and were made in large numbers by French and Belgian women during the conflict. The Australian War Memorial collection holds over 600, which I intend to return to. The themes are mostly floral and/or patriotic, their reassuring prettiness belying the conditions lived by the men who sent them. 

These postcards are especially poignant this year--one hundred years since that first Christmas in the trenches. 

A postcard with the same pattern, but a non-Christmas greeting, can be seen hereSource

16 December, 2014

"Coming Attractions," Tinted

A couple months ago, Slate's wonderful history blog, The Vault, posted on the earliest "coming soon" advertisements on cinematic screens. These were hand-tinted lantern slides which would be projected before and between films. The post reproduces a number of these slides from an extensive collection held by the Cleveland Public Library. With my love of both hand-tinting and the 1920s, I was terrifically excited to discover this trend, and even more to discover the library's digitized collection of the slides exceeds 700. So I just had to share a few more, with many thanks to Rebecca Onion of The Vault. Some are for movies that are still known; others are delightfully obscure. All are very, very colourful. 

Cleveland Public Library

Orphans of the Storm (with Lilian Gish and her sister Dorothy), 1921. Source

Cleveland Public Library

Strictly Confidential, 1919. Source

Cleveland Public Library

The Runaway, with Clara Bow, 1926. Source

14 December, 2014

Australian Soldiers Playing in the Snow

Though it certainly does snow in Australia, and the country even has ski hills, the majority of Australians don't grow up with snow. Particularly in the days before long-distance travel was commonplace, a lot of Australians never even saw snow. So when Australian soldiers were posted abroad to places like Northern Europe, Canada, and Korea, they tended to have an awful lot of fun with it. 

Snowball-armed soldiers and their prizewinning kangaroo snowman at a Convalescent Camp in England, 1917. Source

Australian soldiers having a snowball fight at a camp in southern England, 1916. Source

Nurses and convalescent Australian soldiers have a snowball fight at a hospital in southern England, WWI. Source

11 December, 2014

Brilliant Luna Park at Night

Photographs of the fanciful nighttime illuminations at Luna Park, one of the two major early twentieth century amusement parks on on Coney Island, shortly after it opened in 1903. 

Library of Congress

New York Public Library

Library of Congress

30 November, 2014

Petra in Early Colour

Early colour photographs of Petra, the Jordanian city carved from rock. 

These photographs are early Agfacolour transparencies, essentially a film-based version of autochromes made in the early to mid-1930s. They were taken by the photographic division of the American Colony, a utopian Christian sect in late 19th and early 20th century Jerusalem, the archive of which was donated to the Library of Congress in the 1970s. 

Most are not in very good condition, but as usual I find this only adds to their fascination. 

Library of Congress

Al Khazneh. Source

Library of Congress

Library of Congress

24 November, 2014

Flying, 1920s Style

A terrific set of cigarette cards depicting a flight from London to Amsterdam in the early days of commercial air travel. The images (each "from an official photograph supplied by Imperial Airways") are accompanied by text detailing "our" flight, from check-in and take-off, to views over the Channel, France, and Brussels (where we land for lunch), to the final landing in Amsterdam. I've included the backs with the text, as the little details are fascinating insights into a time when planes held "as many as" 20 passengers, reached cruising altitudes of 3,000 feet, and got from London to Brussels in "only" two and a half hours. 

(The cards aren't specifically dated, but Imperial Airways existed from 1924-1936, the plane named (the [Armstrong Whitworth] Argosy) was used from 1926-1935, and the clothing is solidly late 1920s)

New York Public Library

New York Public Library

Check-in ("weighing-in"). Source

New York Public Library

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

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

personal collection

personal collection

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

15 October, 2014

Do you know...?

Illustrated cigarette cards from the 1920s and 30s with the theme of "do you know?" Though the set these belong to is the most visually interesting, this theme ran for hundreds of cards. The best part of them is just how random the trivia is, jumping from "Why do we clink glasses?" to "Why do we call them 'pistols'?" to "What is smoke?", all in this one set of 30. 

New York Public Library

New York Public Library

New York Public Library

New York Public Library

New York Public Library

New York Public Library

12 October, 2014

Edinburgh in Calotype

David Octavius Hill and Robert Adamson were a pair of Scottish photographers working in the 1840s. They are best known for their wonderful portraits, but over the course of their sadly short partnership (Adamson died only five years in, aged 27) they also created quite a few city views. This blog has previously featured a selection of their photographs of St. Andrews, Adamson's hometown; today is Edinburgh, the city in which they worked. At a time when most photographers worked with daguerreotypes, Hill and Adamson used the negative-positive process, creating negatives on paper (calotypes) which could then be printed on salted paper. The Special Collections at the University of Glasgow holds large numbers of their original negatives, and their online collection provides digitally reversed positive images. 

The photographs are wonderful not only as some of the earliest views of a beautiful city, but for the aesthetic of the early paper negative. Even with skill level like Hill and Adamson's, the process was still highly unpredictable. The photographs are imperfect--which, I feel, is ultimately a testament to the incredible fact of their existence. 

University of Glasgow Special Collections

View of the Mound, 1843. Inverted negative--the writing in the sky is a watermark in the paper, made visible by the process of negative scanning. Source

University of Glasgow Special Collections

A view of the Old Town. Source

University of Glasgow Special Collections

Edinburgh Castle and the Grassmarket. Source

09 October, 2014

Victorian Fun at the Beach

It's always delightful to come across photographs of nineteenth-century people having fun. We're so used to the image of the stern, still Victorians that as soon as you see them relaxed and smiling, they almost stop seeming like Victorians. Suddenly they look like they could be people we know, just in costume, and the gap between 2014 and 1894 seems suddenly a lot less. 

These stereographs, from the Atlantic City beach in the 1890s, have quite a bit of that wonderful "just people in costume" feel. 

New York Public Library

1894. Source

New York Public Library

1890. Source

The crowd shots are especially good when you use the NYPL's zoom-in feature: 

24 September, 2014

The Alps in Photochrom

High time for photochroms! Today, the Swiss Alps, in images published in 1905. 

Photochroms, for the uninitiated, are a kind of photolithograph, made commercially in the late 19th and very early 20th centuries. 

Library of Congress

Gemmi Hotel and Leuk, Valais. Source

Library of Congress

Bernese Alps, from Stanserhorn. Source

Library of Congress

Frutigen, church and Alps. Source

06 September, 2014

An Air-Ship Built For Two: Songs of the 1910s

Before there were records, there was sheet music. Popular songs could be enjoyed over and over again at home, if only you had someone who could play the piano and sing all right. Thanks to the New York Public Library's collection of popular American sheet music, we can still enjoy these songs over and over again. Or at least the titles and covers, which are pretty great. 

In February we had a look at love songs of the 1890s; this time around the decade is the 1910s. By then, of course, there were also records, and of course, by now, there's Youtube, so, amazingly, a few of the selections below come with the chance to listen, too. 

So what did people like in their songs in the 1910s? Apparently rags, romance, and air travel. 

New York Public Library

Published 1910. Source

New York Public Library

Published 1913. This one actually stayed popular for a long time, at least into the 1950s. You can listen to a 1913 recording, although it doesn't have the words. Source

New York Public Library

Published 1912, and apparently a classic rag. On YoutubeSource

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