Wednesday, April 27, 2016

An Uncomfortable Artifact

Look, we can all agree that history contains a lot of bad stuff.  Wars, Crimes, Catastrophes, and Stupid Ideas.  The further back in time they lie the less they make us angry or sad.  Odd, that time seems to be more of a factor than how awful the fact is question really is.  We might briefly acknowledge a civil war or famine in Roman times.  We get hopping mad about some ignorant thing a politician said yesterday.

So I present today's artifact with trepidation.  How old does an Uncomfortable Artifact have to be before we just shake our heads and say, "well, times were different then."?

This came out of a box at a local thrift sale:

Wait, wait....this is the year 2016.  I must insert a warning to Delicate Flowers who would feel micro-aggressed or something.  If you are easily offended:

And with your peripheral vision click off of this page.

There.  With that out of the way....

What the Hell is this?

Inappropriate on so many levels.  We no longer think it acceptable to show semi-clad children.  What was once a silly "Copper Tone" ad would now be regarded as deeply creepy stuff.  It is still OK to poke fun at rural people - note the standard sight gag of outhouse and mail order catalog. (Sorry, oh my British friends, if you don't get this one I won't explain it).  But regarding black children as slow talkin' pickaninnies is entirely uncouth.  (Oddly I am told that Black individuals are among the collectors of this sort of artifact).

But once you get past the initial dissonance between current and past culture norms, this simple post card has a very odd feature.  Specifically, why does the newspaper say "Sinking of the Maine" in obviously scrawled on lettering?

To answer that one I need to back up a little.

In the bottom right corner you can see the copyright on this is from Curt Teich and Co.  This Chicago firm was America's largest producer of postcards in the Golden Age of same.  Teich was a German immigrant trained in printing, who came to America in 1895.  He worked his way up from "printer's devil" to foreman before moving to Chicago and starting his own firm in 1898....the same year as the battleship Maine was sunk in Havana's harbor.

In 1905 Teich took a memorable cross country journey by train, stopping in a wide variety of small towns and snapping photos.  His timing was superb.  Postage on cards had been reduced to one cent a few years earlier.  Automobile travel was just starting to take off.  Teich had the technical skills of the German printers who had to date dominated the business.  He also had the idea that businesses in small towns would want to order high quality advertising post cards at low prices - one dollar per thousand cards.  His 2500 mile trip resulted in orders amounting to $767,000 as measured in inflation adjusted dollars.

Teich and Company had a great run, finally closing in 1978.  Their company archives have been preserved and contain some 400,000 postcards from about 10,000 geographic locations.  While sitting down to write this I thumbed through a few cards we have sitting around our cabin.  The usual sort of things you find "Up North", images showing stringers full of fish, rustic bumpkins and outhouses, main streets.  There was no shortage of Teich views.

With that background what can we make of the above?

Well, with a portfolio that diverse Teich had a few genres we now consider in poor taste.  The racial sensitivities of an earlier age allowed for more "humor" at the expense of others.  There are dating guides to Teich products but they are not inclusive and shed little light on the designation C-245. But by tracking down various similar cards with post marks I can say that this series "Chocolate Drops Comics" dates to the 1940's.

But what on earth is "Sinking of the Maine" doing on that newspaper.  It does not quite sound like a double meaning.  It is a reference that would be considered outdated to a nation freshly outraged by "Remember Pearl Harbor".  Post cards from the early 1900s referencing the Maine are uncommon and none of them look anything like this so I think we can rule out a simple reprint of old stock.

I did find an occasional reference to similar cards with a 1940 post mark on them.  If this is actually the issue date of the series then lets chalk it up to odd coincidence.  But if this is after Pearl Harbor then perhaps there is another meaning here.

Curt Teich had several sons one of whom was an Army Lieutenant stationed in the Phillipines at the time of simultaneous surprise attacks there and at Pearl Harbor.  Lawrence Teich was taken prisoner and died on the Bataan Death March.

Is this scrawled on headline an oblique reference to the events of December 7th, 1941? I suppose it is unlikely.  But Curt Teich and Company did go on to become a major supplier of maps for the US Military.  They made 50% of all maps used by the US Army and 100% of the maps showing invasion beaches.  Curt Teich was said to have been devastated by the loss of his son.  Perhaps the reference to the more recent sneak attack was being gently alluded to in the discordant mention of an earlier one.

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