1 Bagrel

Postcard Essays

Suggested song: San Francisco Days, Chris Isaak
Suggested drink: tremblement de terre (earthquake) cocktail: equal parts absinthe and cognac, attributed to the late great French painter Henri Toulouse-Lautrec

Again I descend from the clouds over San Francisco for a 10-day visit to this kingdom of magic. It’s an interesting time to take the pulse and gauge the temper of America from a very unconventional American assemblage. And few cities are more interesting to write about than Bagdad by the Bay.

February can be an unpredictable time to visit and indeed the rains this winter  have been biblical. Reservoirs are flooding, dams are bursting, avalanches are sliding, and all the anxiety over drought concerns seems suddenly quaint, … for the moment.

But Provence weather has followed our flight all the way from Marseille and our first 2 days in country have been sunny and warm. Not quite tee shirt weather yet, but the umbrellas and raincoats are safely tucked away. Fingers crossed for the rest of the stay. Onward!

Dispatch #1 – Something in the Air

The veneer of life in San Francisco is largely unchanged from my trip here last fall. It remains a city of hyper-active super achievers. You can’t swing a cat without hitting a jogger. Lululemons remain le vigueur for Saturday morning café garb (a yoga matt over your bony shoulder earns extra points). The dinner talk we overhear at a communal Nopa table centers on innovation and investors and the fortunes possible if stars align before the bubble bursts. (Great meal by the way.)

Despite the indefatigable positivity that defines this kingdom a destabilizing uneasiness is seeping in below the surface. Trump is not popular here. Signs of resistance are evident in the windows and walls of businesses and homes scattered across the city: Not our President! and Why I Marched and Make America Love Again are just a few examples of the sentiments expressed boldly and widely across this 49 square miles. The new president is an unapologetic technophobe and his economic policies introduce uncertainty into no industry more than Tech, with his promises of lower taxes on repatriated profits (very good) to higher tarifs on Chinese imports and harder limits on immigrant visas (very bad).  74% of Silicon Valley-employed computer and mathematical workers ages 25 to 44 are foreign-born, according to the 2016 Silicon Valley Index.

While the Bay Area still remains The Big Show to brilliant innovators and startup dreamers across the globe, it’s eminence is under attack by other, smaller centers of innovation. America is closing its borders to the best and brightest, and other countries stand to gain. In just one example, the new French Tech Ticket Program awards each year 70 foreign startups (no, they CANNOT be from France) financial support (a 50,000€ grant for starters), free incubator space, and active mentoring for moving their budding operations to the land of great wine and cheese. One of these countries is closing its borders despite no real history of immigrant driven domestic violence. The other is opening up, despite having one of the highest incidences of this particular brand of horror.

It all makes one wonder if the golden sun will continue to shine here for years to come, or rainclouds are forming.

February 13, 2017

Dispatch #2 – Across the Gate of Gold

The SF Bay Area is of course much more than just a center of technology innovation and startups. It’s home to some of the nation’s largest banks, most creative artists and giants of literature, some of the world’s most innovative chefs, … and then there is the wine. We set the compass north and head across the Golden Gate, up through the Marin headlands and past the Sonoma frontier, then point east and into the mecca of American wine: Napa Valley.

The wine industry commands an emotional center of San Francisco history. The Italians, Germans, and French all journeyed here in the late 1800s, impressed by its rocky rich soil and moderate climate that rivalled any region in the old world for making fantastic vino, wein, du vin (mon dieu c’est bon!). The Valley covers about 42 thousand acres and hosts 450 immoral havens of the fermented grape, the wineries. The biggest names in industry have their roots in this valley: the Mondavis and Krugs; the Beaulieu and Montelena families.

None were greater than the house that Jacob and Frederick Beringer built, established in 1864 and considered the oldest continuously operating winery in the Napa Valley. It is here that our best efforts at sobriety for an afternoon end, led through a private tour and then generous tasting of the really good stuff by a great friend and shameless corrupter, Hubert. After leading us through the nuances of Beringer’s top flight reds, and they were top, we sobered up over Champagne at the ranch of my old pal Chris, followed by dinner and more amazing cabernet at the All Seasons Bistro in sleepy Calistoga. (Yet another great meal.) I slept well.

Addendum: We had braised gently in piping hot, smoothy thick tubs of stinky brown mud, then had our baby pink bodies cleansed and bubbled in artisanal spring water baths, cool cloths over our beading foreheads. The final act at the Roman Spa in Calistoga was a relaxing one-hour massage with lavendar oil, and truth be told I may have snoozed through a bit of that. This early afternoon pampering had been our prep for the wine immersion at Beringer and I’ll offer as my excuse for the wobbly performance by evening’s end. It’s my story, I’m sticking to it.

February 15, 2017

Dispatch #3 – The Great Cheesecake Hunt

How hard can it be to find a great slice of cheesecake in San Francisco? It’s pretty damn hard I’m here to attest, and that’s a reflection of how this town has changed. Apparently the nouveau rich of SF don’t stoop to that pedestrian dessert level.

Cheesecake is one American recipe that the French enjoy. They don’t try to hide its origin or claim some adaption as their own. They list it as cheesecake américaine when offered, not gateau au fromage. Attempts at it – mostly mediocre – are not uncommon on bistro menus across the hexagon, and I have been tasked with finding the real American deal while here in the magic kingdom. “Not to worry,” I’ve assured my traveling companion, cheesecake is as American as apple pie. Try finding that too.

A cheesecake from Zanze’s in SF.

There are a lot of innovative, delicious desserts on the menus throughout San Francisco. Nopa, for example, offers cream cheese doughnuts and huckleberry buttermilk panna cotta as 2 options. The doughnuts ingredients: shinko pear butter, nocino raisins, cinnamon honey syrup and fried walnuts. And for the panna cotta: white chocolate labne, puffed grains, cacao nib and candied meyer lemon. We loved our meal there and the desserts were indeed scrumptious, and it’s great to have this kind of creative gastronomy across the city. But some nights I just want a simple (and cheap) scoop of ice cream or slice of cheesecake; something with ingredients I can pronounce and afford. Honestly, I don’t know my shinko from my nocino, but I do love how they fall off the tongue.

Does Bar Crudo serve cheesecake? No. Does Cafe Claude or the Bean Bag Cafe or Mario’s or Napa Valley Burger in Sausalito or the 2 to 3 dozen places I tucked my head into and asked, “Hey, do you guys have cheesecake?”? No. My promises of a quick cheesecake fix were starting to sound hollow, my reputation as an expert SF guide tarnished.

San Francisco has become a thrilling playground and gastro destination for the newly minted techno-rich who don’t blink at paying $3 for a cup of Indonesian bean drip coffee each morning, or $50+ per night on a Nopa dinner capped with huckleberry buttermilk panna cotta, or $60 on 12 pieces of nigiri at Tsunami Sushi across the street. Are they worth it? Your call, but that’s not the point. For the rest of us seeking more humble options that won’t break the bank, like cheesecake, the availability is getting thin. It’s been encouraging to walk along Divisadero street each night this week and see the bars and restaurants humming, people paying, the local economy hitting on all cylinders. But something is being lost in the excess. It’s called diversity, and San Francisco doesn’t want to lose that part of it’s amazing charm and distinction.

Did we ultimately find our cheesecake? Yes, by paying a visit to Zanze’s in the outer reaches of the city’s southwest corner; the fogbelt along Ocean Avenue. Sam Zanze has been making one thing and one thing only here for the past 30 years: cheesecake. And any SF foodie worth their toque will tell you it’s the best in the world, … not only in this city. We would have to agree: light, fluffy, divine. Assignment completed and my reputation salvaged for the moment.

February 18, 2017






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Tags: cheesecake, french tech ticket, Nopa, San Francisco, Zanze's

Postcard Collection - Appendix C
Wish You Were Here!: The Story of the Golden Age of Picture Postcards in the United States

by Fred Bassett, Senior Librarian, Manuscripts and Special Collections

Early postcard from the 1893 Columbian Exposition (Chicago World's Fair).

Picture postcards in the United States began with the souvenir issues sold at the World Columbian Exposition in Chicago in 1893. The hobby of postcard collecting began soon after and continued unabated until the beginning of World War I. With that event, the postcard album, a book second in importance only to the family Bible, suddenly vanished from the parlor.

The Columbian Exposition cards proved to be so successful, that publishers in other parts of the country were emboldened to issue views featuring large cities, historic landmarks and popular vacation resorts. Like the exposition cards, these were also well received, despite the fact that the federal government subjected them to the full-letter postage rate of two cents while government-issued postals could be mailed at one cent. Public demand to use privately printed postcards became so great by 1898, however, that Congress granted a concession and lowered the postage rate to a penny. After 1898, the postcard industry was off and running, and so was the hobby.

Postcard collecting had become widespread in Europe by the turn of the century. By 1905 it had reached comparable proportions in the United States. The enormous growth of the postcard craze in this country, within so few years, can be attributed to many factors, including a shift in tastes of the American public from sentiment to modern art, and the development of a sales and distribution network of jobbers and importers that linked German printers with small town merchants (who wanted to immortalize Main Street on viewcards) and retail outlets, such as drugstores, bookshops, newsstands, and department stores, which strongly promoted the sale of postcards, since they required small amounts of display space and bore a good profit. The initial souvenir cards of vacation resorts and big cities gradually evolved into diverse lines, which included viewcards, comics, holiday greetings, and advertising. This diversity placed postcards within the means and interests of almost everyone.

The decade between 1905-1915 – the Golden Age of Postcards – saw postcard collecting reach a zenith of staggering proportion. Literally millions of postcards were printed, imported, sold and mailed. Official U.S. Post Office figures for the year ending June 30, 1908 revealed that approximately seven hundred million postcards had been mailed in this country. By 1913 the total number mailed had increased to over nine hundred million, and, by this date, the craze was reportedly on the decline!

During the heyday of the postcard craze people bought them for the simple pleasure of owning them. They preserved the cards carefully in albums or posted them to friends and relatives, with the expectation of receiving many in return. In essence, postcards served as an inexpensive form of entertainment in almost every American home, just as radio and television were in later eras. Visitors often viewed with delight the heavily padded postcard albums adorning parlors, living rooms, and sun porches. Postcards were so ubiquitous that a person could not visit any sizable town, without seeing them in almost every store window – either for sale, or for the sheer delight of sharing a view. In turn, postcard publishers endeavored not only to sell cards embracing a variety of subjects, but also tried to provide for the public a postcard of charm and originality, often superbly colored and even embossed.

"Looking down on the locks from Pine Street Bridge, Lockport, N.Y.," a 1906 postcard from the Rotograph Co. In the hand-written message at the bottom, Nellie asks "Well, Howard, when you coming to see us?"

At first postal regulations permitted only the name and address of the recipient on the back, so by necessity, messages defaced the illustrated side. In 1907, however, the Post Office Department relented. The back of the postcard could be split down the middle to provide space for both correspondence and address. This epochal decision saved the picture, unless, of course, someone chose to mark an "x" over a hotel window or whatever. The additional message space enhanced the use of postcards for communication at a time when people traveled less frequently, telephones were few, and the postal system was quite efficient. Greetings were often posted December 24 for Christmas and January 1 for New Year’s Day. Cards were frequently mailed ahead to announce a family visit or sent as an invitation to friends for parties. Much of the news conveyed was trivial and mundane, the exact sort of detail that makes up the day-to-day life of humanity today. Progress or decline in the state of health of relatives was meticulously chronicled; cards were sent to convey news of death and birth, purchases at stores, church activities and employment. In other words, to the general public postcards provided a convenient way to keep in touch with friends and relatives, without the burden of extensive writing. The postcard industry promoted this point as much as literary critics decried it. To some the fine art of letter-writing appeared threatened with extinction.

"Real photograph" postcard showing the Herkimer flood in 1910.

Picture postcards were more than just a means of communication; they provided a portrait of life in America, especially life in the first two decades of the twentieth century. Postcards were produced for every occasion. At a time when newspapers (especially in small towns) carried few if any photographs, the postcard offered an incredibly inexpensive and convenient way to capture people, places, and events. Whenever America paraded or celebrated anything, the postcard photographer was there. He was also there when disasters – fires, floods, earthquakes, train wrecks – occurred. The political climate and figures of the time were also recorded, as were the prohibition and suffrage movements. Furthermore, the postcard reflected the attitudes, pastimes, sentiments, and tastes of the American people. They advertised the products available to the consumer and featured the current vogue in fashions. Heroes and celebrities of all kinds were portrayed on postcards, as was home, mother and the Flag. They also covered love and courtship, humor, racial attitudes, sports, and sexy girls. This does not even begin to speak of the almost infinite number of viewcards depicting America's main streets, civil buildings, schools, churches, businesses, factories, trolleys, railroads, amusement parks, lakes, rivers, mountains, and cemeteries.

Postcard by Raphael Tuck & Sons showing "Hudson trading with the Indians on Manhattan Island," created for the Hudson-Fulton Celebration in 1909.

Publishers and Printers

To supply the insatiable demand for postcards, publishers sprang up like wildflowers. Frequently, they had their pictures printed in Germany, where lithographic techniques were superior and painstaking workmanship was very cheap. One of the most famous names in the postcard trade was the Detroit Publishing Company, with almost sixteen thousand views taken by its photographers, who traveled all over the country. Most of their cards were models of color, composition, and meticulous detail. A firm which rivaled Detroit for quality during the height of the postcard craze was the Rotograph Company in New York City. The quality of its gravure style views was exceptionally high. The leading English firm, Raphael Tuck & Sons, exported many delightful cards for the American market. They usually issued their cards in sets of six, and were notorious for the extent to which they retouched photographs. Edward Mitchell, the largest western company, and other large publishers, such as L.J. Koehler (famous for its hold-to-light cards), American News Company, Hugh C. Leighton, Samuel Langsdorf, International Art Company, Illman, and Winch also marketed very attractive postcards. The German publisher, Stengel, and the Italian firm, Sborgi, set the picture postcard standard for reproductions of fine art.

The large publishers, however, did not always penetrate the small towns with their photographers. So the local druggist, stationer, department or novelty store sent photographs or negatives to Germany to be printed as postcards. Hence the name of some obscure druggist appears frequently as the publisher. The German printers, in fact, retained agents in large cities to facilitate orders. A New York City firm advertised to "make postcards exclusively for you from any size photo or print you send us, deliver them in ten days' time, guarantee not to use your subjects for anyone else, and put your name on each one as the publisher." Prices were quoted at five hundred cards for four dollars and a thousand for six dollars.

Panoramic (double) postcard of the New York State Normal College, Albany, NY. Information on the back indicates it was "Published by The Albany News Company, Albany, N.Y. Made in Germany."

German printers dominated the postcard manufacturing business until 1909, when the enactment of the Payne-Aldrich Tariff effectively cut off low-cost importation of postcards, along with many other goods. Although American printers and publishers had strongly promoted the tariff to protect and develop the postcard trade in this country, it ironically did just the opposite. The tariff and a combination of other factors, eventually contributed to the demise in the postcard’s popularity, and ultimately sounded the death knell for the postcard industry in America. The most noticeable effect of the tariff was the gradual deterioration in aesthetic quality of the pictures and art work. American printers did not possess the advanced technology to match the high quality of German lithography. There were a few exceptions, of course, like the Detroit Publishing Company. But in general, the standards had clearly declined after the tariff, and as a result, people began to lose interest in postcards.

On the other hand, following the enactment of the Payne-Aldrich Act, firms such as the Cargill Company of Grand Rapids, Michigan, began to issue cards. Jobbers and importers, however, anticipating the tariff, made a concerted effort to stockpile German cards. Every link in the chain was overloaded. importers overloaded jobbers, jobbers overloaded retailers, and according to Orville Walden, "every rack in the country was loaded." Most retailers were faced with a year's supply of cards. In an effort to move stock, price cutting began. cards which sold two for five cents became three for five, then a cent each, and even ten for five cents. Without fresh stock, dealers began to lose interest and turned to more profitable lines.

In an attempt to correct unfair practices, price slaughtering, and stores filled with unsalable cards, the National Postcard Association was formed to stabilize the industry. However, in 1912, F.W. Woolworth released for sale, through its chain of stores, millions of postcards to retail at ten cents a dozen. In the same year, trade papers announced the introduction of French-fold style greeting cards, with envelopes to retail at five cents each. By 1913 vast numbers of folded cards were being stocked in retail outlets, and postcards had to be unloaded to make space. One western publisher advertised two million views of the United States at half their production cost. Unsalable cards reached an all-time low price of five cents a dozen on retail racks. Fifteen American publishers ceased production during 1913, while several others went into the greeting card business. One last effort was made that year to recapture the market with unusual novelty items, wire tails, phonographic records, and mechanicals. But the fascination of postcards had passed. The outbreak of World War I in August 1914 shifted people’s minds away from fancies like postcards to more serious matters. The same year, the postcard manufacturers cancelled their annual conventions due to lack of interest. By 1915, trade journals omitted discussion of postcards entirely. The Golden Age of Postcards had passed.

Postcard Collection | Appendix A - History | Appendix B - Bibliography | Appendix C - Essay

Last Updated: August 16, 2016

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