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Picture Post-Cards

reprinted from Art and Progress, November, 1909, 11-12.

The attention of the Citizen has recently been called to picture post-cards, by having them thrust upon him at almost every turn. The picture post-card today is something none can escape. It greets you in your morning mail, it meets you on the street corner, it follows you into the railroad train; at the hotel, the bank, the art gallery, it is waiting for you on the threshold. Therefore, why not consider it seriously? There was probably never an age so picture-mad as the present. The Citizen has a friend who declares that in a generation or two this will be the only means of communication — that people are forgetting how to read because they are being over-fed by the magazines on pictures, and that they are likewise forgetting how to write because of the picture post-cards. But this friend is a pessimist, or likes to make people think he is.

All these dark forebodings the Citizen does not share, but he will not affirm that they are groundless. He was talking with an architect the other day, and happening to mention a certain uncommonly interesting article which had appeared recently in a technical magazine, was asked if it was illustrated. Replying in the negative, this architect exclaimed, with perfect candor, "Ah, that was it. I never have time to more than look at the pictures." And the Citizen has observed of late that very few long, interesting letters come back across the Atlantic from friends taking summer tours. "Only time for a postal, but this picture will tell you beautiful this place is," is the form of superscription to be found on the majority of picture post-card missives. Now if this were true there would be little reason for complaint — but, alas, many of the picture post-cards tell their story very feebly — at least those which set forth scenes in America.

The Citizen has a misgiving that many of the American postals are printed abroad, but, if so, it is hard to understand why they should be so inferior to those one can buy on the other side of the ocean. Perhaps the sellers here are greedier and, wishing to make more profit, secure inferior product; possibly those who make the photographs from which the reproductions are made have less instinct for art and think that anything at which they may snap their camera's eye will make a picture. Certainly there are comparatively few which merit regard as works of art. This does not apply to those one sees abroad. Traveling from place to place in England, and on the Continent, one finds that the choicest views have been hunted out and with delightful feeling reproduced on post-cards. And most of the post-cards offered for sale across the sea are in one tint — black and white or sepia — seldom does one see any in color — and perchance when one does, as at Bruges, they are really gems — examples of the highest order of color-printing. But here, in America, what fearful atrocities are offered! Shiny, slippery, meaningless colors, bearing false witness of the worst kind to the beauty they would declare. Glance at Niagara as thus pictured, or at the Yellowstone Valley — would anyone be attracted to either? And yet it is the colored picture post-cards which the Citizen is told "sell best," the truer ones in monotint being little in demand. Seeking an explanation the Citizen is reminded of an account he read in a newspaper some years ago of an exhibition which was said to display "much taste — some good and some bad."

But what a business it has become this making and selling of picture post-cards! An acquaintance who saved enough out of a modest salary to take a two-months trip abroad, a season or so ago, recently confessed to the Citizen that she had spent forty dollars on picture post-cards to keep and to send during that comparatively brief time — probably a sixth of the cost of her whole holiday trip; and, if she, then probably many like her. As the Citizen remembers having purchased one hundred in Paris of a guileless young Armenian, who generously offered to "spleky American" with him, for the enormous amount of a franc, he wonders what his acquaintance's home-coming hand-luggage must have weighed. To return, however, to the point — if there is one. If the world has gone picture-mad and would satisfy its appetite with post-cards, certainly some philanthropist ought to make it his business to see that the public taste is not vitiated — that it has the right kind of food to feed upon. And if picture post-card making and selling is becoming a great business, then the better product logically the more reward. There are two extremes in picture-postals, the reproduction of works of art so superior that it seems a desecration to send them through the mails, and the representation of semi-comic things too vulgar to be circulated. From the standpoint of the Citizen here is an opportunity and a danger — but then, of course, the Citizen isn't all-wise.

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