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POSTAL CARDITIS AND SOME ALLIED MANIAS (1906)

by JOHN WALKER HARRINGTON

reprinted from American Magazine, Volume 61, March, 1906, 562-7.

OSTAL carditis and allied collecting manias are working havoc among the inhabitants of the United States. The germs of these maladies, brought to this country in the baggage of tourists and immigrants, escaped quarantine regulations, and were propagated with amazing rapidity. A few of the pathogenic variety which had for decades been dormant have been by these foreign infections called again into activity and the result is a formidable epidemic. There is now no hamlet so remote which has not succumbed to the ravages of the microbe postale universelle, the bacillus rotula tabacae cinctura, the insecta viola, and other malevolent cranko-organisms. Unless such manifestations are checked, millions of persons of now normal lives and irreproachable habits will become victims of faddy degeneration of the brain.

The onset of these insidious diseases is often sudden, although there are basic weaknesses in human nature which make even enlightened races susceptible to attack. There is in all mankind a predisposition to gather ill-considered trifles, an incipient mania for cherishing the useless. Boys garner birds' eggs, door knobs, chalk, and miggles; girls assemble shreds and patches, buttons and marshmallow boxes. The man, if he gives free rein to his inclination is likely to become a chronic hoarder of beer labels, champagne corks, old fiddles, theater programs, or pewter mugs; while the feminine failing is led away in the pursuit of dress samples, crazy quilt squares, and progressive euchre prizes. Every man, woman and child is a collector at heart.

Those of us who do not shut the light out of the home with conch shells, lobster claws, stamp albums, and the what-nots accustomed to be found on the what-not, have an indulgent feeling toward persons afflicted with the more malignant forms of acquisitive insanity. If Smith is given to the unholy joys of the coupon craze, his friends know it sooner or later and confer upon him green and yellow slips which otherwise they might have refused to accept. The result is that Mrs. Smith finds the house so littered with moulded glass, celluloid handled cutlery and flameless lamps, that if she be a woman of spirit her only refuge is incendiarism. The man of high artistic ideals himself saves the colored labels on his perfectos to give to a friend, whose wife has an incurable inclination to paste these gold and red atrocities over creme-de-menthe bottles or on the outside of glass saucers.

It can be accepted then that collectively all mankind is demented, and that those whose attack of the mania for the worthless are less acute than that of others, show the milder forms by abetting the idiosyncrasies of their fellows.

By far the worst development of the prevailing pests is postal carditis, which effects the heart, paralyzes the reasoning faculties and abnormally increases the nerve. It had its origin in Germany, twenty years ago, but did not assume dangerous proportions there until 1897. Sporadic cases of it were observed in the United States and year 1900 saw the malady rapidly spread from one center of infection to another. It seems only yesterday that the postal cards were on view almost entirely at hotels which were patronized exclusively by foreigners or in little dingy shops in Third Avenue, or on the remote East Side. A population which had only recently come from outre mer purchased them to send to friends and relatives in Europe. Advertisements appeared in the Sunday newspapers, setting forth that certain Germans had for sale the rights of a "novelty." So as opium was introduced into China by the way of Hong Kong, virulent forms of the post card pest found their way to the United States by way of Munich and Berlin. Shrewd speculators imported these bits of pasteboard by the million and in fact large quantities of postal cards are still made abroad. Germany, where the output is constantly becoming more artistic, sends large consignments; England furnishes tons of the heavy humorous variety; France inflicts the piquantly flavored ones, while the United States grinds out halftone views, comics, and the high art variety, good, bad, worse and indifferent. Some of them are so high pictorially that they no longer hang in the shops of vendors because Anthony Comstock, who looks after the artistic health of the community, has ordered them to be destroyed. Tons of the pernicious varieties of postal cards have been burned by the authorities, and as transmission through the mails has been denied to them, the number of off color products is steadily decreasing.

It was the original idea of the souvenir postal card inventors to show that the sender was staying somewhere and was too indolent to say anything about it except to convey the intelligence that he had arrived. The motif of the souvenir postal card is the equivalent of "On again, off again, Finnegan."

The American tourist in Germany bought postal cards and sent them to his friends, because he observed that such was the custom of the country. If Hans traveled from Strasbourg to Munich for a day, it was his custom to communicate the fact by sending to Strasbourg a picture of the largest art gallery or something of the kind. If Fritz left Munich for a journey to Strasbourg he was sure to send back to inquiring friends a picture of the clock, for which the municipality is noted. In fact the primitive kind of postal cards bore only views of buildings, scenery, and an assortment of facades of hotels and museums. When everything worth seeing had been photographed, the makers put on the market and on the backs of postal cards, actresses, paintings, illustrated poems—in fact almost anything.

The name of the man who stopped throwing postal cards into the waste basket or scattering their fragments in the street as soon as he got them is justly lost in oblivion. It was not long, however, after the craze had seized upon the human race that the fad for collecting its objects grew apace. As the purpose of these souvenirs is to show that the possessor of them has received a greeting from somebody somewhere, the cards are considered incomplete unless they have been sent through the mails and have been properly postmarked. To the collector, a bit of pasteboard which has not received the imprimatur of the post-office is a useless as a blank in the government mint before it has been decorated by the impress of the die. The postal fiend will not thank you for sending him a package of unstamped picture cards, fresh from the store. Not only must they be properly mailed, but they are considered imperfect if the postmark should happen to be on the back instead of on the face. Scores of complaints are received in the course of a year at the New York post office from collectors who have received cards which have been postmarked after the manner pursued with regard to letters. These causes of dissatisfaction were made known by the recipients of the wrongly stamped pasteboards to the postmaster general, to whom the evidence was sent. Investigation was made concerning each case, and now it is only at very rare intervals, possibly once in three months, that a wail from the cardomaniacs reaches a paternal government.

It often happens that collectors, either through their unfortunate habits or owing to circumstances over which they have no control, have not enough friends to increase their hoards in a normal manner. Hundreds of them haunt establishments where the causes of their besetting sin ar exposed for sale, select such as strike their fancy, stamp them and mail them to their own addresses, so that the addition to their exhibits may be entered in regular form. a woman from Georgia recently purchased in a Sixth avenue store, in New York, one hundred and fifty dollars' worth of these cards, representing between five and six thousand specimens, and carefully forwarded them to herself.

With an ingenuity worthy of a better cause, dealers have abetted this form of insanity by inventing new and diabolical designs of postal cards, as well as albums, racks and other means of preserving them. a favorite device is the album. The specimens to be retained are placed in slits so they may be removed in a second should their owner wish to demonstrate that they were actually mailed. The postal card fiend, in addition to his other abnormalities, is often an expert forger, for he will frequently counterfeit the handwriting of real and imaginary friends and acquaintances in order to give the proper semblance of authenticity to his collection.

One of the methods of inflicting the fad on the attention of visitors is the postal card sofa-pillow, which consists of specimens of the leather variety sewed together in an insane patchwork. Postal cards are also made of blocks of wood or heavy thicknesses of papier-maché, which are scooped out in order to give receptacles in which may be concealed strips of photographs and pictures.

These monstrosities are often bestowed on the center table in the parlor, and about the only thing that can be said in their defense is that they crowd off the plush thesaurus of family celebrities. Manufacturers have recently offered for sale frames, the exact size of a postal, in which some gem valued by gentle lunatics may be displayed on the walls of dens or parlors. I have seen many such collections, which bear testimony to the mental lapses of carditis sufferers. When the crisis in the disease is reached the victims have been known to decorate all the available surface of their living apartments except the ceilings.

One of the most complete collections was harbored in the narrow hall bed-room of a notorious murderer in New York, who had converted his habitat into a box, the sides of which were veritable mosaics.

Contributory negligence has resulted in the spread of this mania, according to various postal mortem confessions. The private mailing device is the refuge of the lazy correspondent. If he travels, all the word which he usually sends to his family is scribbled under the pictures which are offered for sale in the hotel news-stands. Sometimes he finds a half-tone print of the hostelry at which he is stopping. A Maltese design on one of the windows, and a scrawl, "Cross shows room. Regards to Broadway," takes the place of a letter to which the writer was wont to say that he took a pen in hand to let his dear ones know that he was well, and to inscribe the hope that they were enjoying the same good health. the record of such desultory correspondence is often kept by the household of the derelict husband or father, sometimes as a card index of his wanderings, or, in many instances, it is conserved with that melancholy interest which attaches to the jar containing the ashes of the departed. No person can ever be what he once was after he has been inoculated with the virus of private mailing card mania.

From small beginnings the pasteboard souvenir industry has fattened upon epistolary sloth and collecting manias until there are extant in this country to-day 150.000 varieties of picture postal cards. Bookstores which formerly did a thriving trade in literature are now devoted almost entirely to their sale. There were in Atlantic City last season ten establishments where nothing else was sold, and Chicago, Boston, Pittsburg and New York have emporiums where postals constitute the entire stock. The American Athens had a postal card exhibition which vied with the Whistler picture show for public attention. These wares may be seen in New York on practically every street corner and most of the drug stores, cigar stands, hotels, barber shops and department store gridirons are interested in their sale. Ten large factories are working overtime in this country to supply the demand and many smaller ones are selling their output as fast as it is produced.

The methods used by manufacturers and dealers to stimulate the demand for private mailing cards are low cunning itself. They know that for every card which is sent from centers of civilization to country places that another one is likely to return. Mr. Knickerbocker sends to his brother Reuben in Tenafly, N. J., for instance, a picture of the city hall. The inmates of that New Jersey suburb awake to the fact in this way that they have no postal cards which set forth the glories of their native place. They see the local stationer about it and prevail upon him to have some made. He sends a small order for private mailing cards, depicting the main street, or the Deer's Leap, or the Lovers' Tryst, of Tenafly, to New York, and in the course of time receives a few hundred germ-laden specimens. The manufacturer who receives that order is in high glee, and he willingly will make the first consignment at a loss, for he knows that when the pest takes hold of a community it cannot be stayed. The pastor of the Baptist church at Lone Pine prevails upon the stationer to have the edifice over which he presides placed on a postal card. The "Second Adventist" leader sees it and demands why such favoritism has been shown. Tea Neck and Peapack, New Jersey, hear that Hohokus has been immortalized, and they are consumed by the pang of jealousy, which is one of the premonitory symptoms of postal carditis. Heart burnings, rancor, spite and all fault findings stimulate the spread of souvenir dementia and fill the coffers of dealers and manufacturers.

So greatly are the mails burdened with cards that this mania has already become the subject of official investigation. It has increased the number of postals by fully thirty-five per cent in the United States, while a large part of the mail arriving here from abroad is made up of these mementoes. There is now a movement on foot here to have all postal cards from the other side placed in separate bags so as to save the enormous amount of labor now entailed by picking them out of the regular mail.

To the boom in picture post cards the postmaster general of Great Britain ascribes a decrease of one-half per cent in the number of letters delivered last year in London. There were delivered in the United Kingdom 734,500,000 postals—an increase of nearly twenty per cent and of these eighty per cent were privately printed. The per capita allowance of postal cards in the Kingdom would be seventeen to each person. In many localities in the United States the post-office facilities have been swamped by the excess of souvenir postals, while on the boardwalk at Atlantic City riots have been narrowly averted because the authorities had neglected to supply enough one cent stamps to meet the demand of the victims of carditis postale.

Other insidious forms of the collecting mania, however, are co-incident with that which is propagated by pasteboard. Thousands of well meaning persons are gathering cigar bands and pasting them in ornate designs on nearly everything but doormats. Women of culture and refinement are sewing the painfully yellow ribbons which come around bundles of cigars into sofa pillows and the expostulations of husbands and fathers are of no avail. The latest mania is for ink-kissed kisses. Small albums are now provided on the pages of which may be imprinted the impress of the carmine soaked lips of the person who subscribes his regards in the book. Some if these kisses are bunchy; others well defined and many small and pecky.

Among the other forms of mania are the eccentric fevers which result in their sufferers gathering newspaper headings, pewter mugs, old locks, stones of queer shapes, arctic fleas, old tables, souvenir spoons, hotel loot, beer labels, theater ticket coupons, meteorites, tumble bugs, birds' eggs, and scarabi.

In fact, if one goes about looking for tendencies of this kind he may nearly anywhere scratch a Tartar. This may seem an extravagant statement, but I have on more than one occasion put it to the test. There was Newborough, for instance, who was regarded by a large circle of friends as the most sensible and practical man in the city of New York. His time was largely devoted to tabulating statistics, writing matter about aqueducts and water supply, the clashes of labor and capital, and other themes which involved the exercise of high endowments and a well developed common sense. He was the last person who would be suspected of having a collection fad. You remember Sir A. conan Doyle's story, in which the message "All is discovered, fly at once," was sent to the bishop. His grace disappeared as soon as it was received, although for many decades he had been celebrated for piety and virtue. That was much the same plan which I pursued towards Newborough, although it was the intention to demonstrate that there was at least one man in the world who was not fad insane.

"Well," I asked of him suddenly as he was bending over his desk, "what do you mean by spending so much money on that sort of thing? Do you think that you can afford it? What did you pay for the last one?"

He looked up guiltily. "Only $150," was his reply, "and it was a genuine Guarnarius. I put it alongside the Strad. I don't spend much money on them. I have got a Tinoni and Amati, about twenty I guess."

It was thus that I discovered Newborough, the Fiddle Bug, known far and wide as one of the most slavish adherents of the fancy for amassing old violins. H not only bought them, but he made them out of maplewood tables which he snapped up in the course of long pedestrian tours through Connecticut. He was in correspondence with other victims of the insecta viola, in all parts of the world, and his enemies finally succeeded in persuading him to write a book.

All these studies of abnormality manifested in postal carditis, cigar band heart, fiddle bug proclivities, and similar afflictions show that there is in human nature a queer magpie strain which may never be overcome. It is the purpose of this article to ask that the reader deal gently with the erring and to remember that much as he may deplore the failings of others, that in the words of Kipling "We are all alike—under the skin."

 

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