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Prairie Fires and Paper Moons: The American Photographic Postcard: 19001920, David R. Godine, publisher, Boston, 1981

The Bakers were an old family, which ran down on the dry prospects of two sons confirmed into a bachelorhood as staunch as their Republicanism. I discovered them in the basement of my farmhouse, in a mildewed box of old diaries and postcards. The elder son’s prose was a combination of droll, self-deprecatory humor and a perpetual, grousing feud with all of nature, which he nonetheless respected even as he saw the rain falling on his neighbor’s corn while his own parched in the July heat. Between that and the old sepia postcards, I soon felt I knew them at least as well as my own remote kin.

The postcards were scattered randomly throughout the diaries and tumbled startlingly out from between Ralph Baker’s days. His parents, John and Martha, were photographed on the porch. John Baker was seated in a plain cane-bottom kitchen chair, dressed in his Sunday coat, vest, and tie, but wearing work pants and heavy field shoes. Martha stood behind him, in a long dark skirt and white blouse. She wore glasses; he wore a thick, graying mustache.

Her eyes were wide open, unnaturally so, and her scant smile was the thin smile of civilization and not much more—the arbitrary gesture of cautious people meeting others for the first time. He was sleepy-eyed, his arms folded as if he were husbanding his strength, which is not to say that he had none for though he was wizened and old, he was not weak. Behind them on the porch was a clothesline, and on it, billowing faintly, were lace curtains, which somehow gave the photograph a slightly haunted look, although it was not a haunting in the sense of the supernatural, but rather an evocation of light, air, and space, as well as of time itself.

The sons would not hold for such scrutiny. They lurked around the edges of the cards, in groups where they stared, solemn and luminous-eyed, from under wide-brimmed hats and in shots of people at work, where they hung back and let the teams of horses or the miraculous, evolving machinery claim the camera’s full attention.

I loved the old cards. I had never seen such curious items before. My family maintained albums of old photographs, but the postcards in my mother’s hatbox were either plain or the beamy pastels of mountain scenery and Florida beaches. It was not in our tradition to publicly mail our relatives around the countryside.

So I dealt out the Baker postcards on my work table and speculated on them. There were family gatherings, work scenes, couples and threesomes in formal attitudes on porches and in yards, even a dim photograph of a dormitory room at Ohio State, where one of the cousins went to school. Most of the cards seemed to be extra copies, pristine, not mailed, without messages—only the printed label: POST CARD.

I began to collect old photographs of my neighborhood, particularly of the first two or three decades of the century, and I discovered that many of these images, too, were made as postcards. From my clumsy survey of that time, there seemed to have been as many negatives made into postcards as into regular photographs. I could picture them fluttering into the new mailboxes over the countryside, when everything must have felt novel, even motion, and imagery itself.

People were new to each other. As late as 1850, a French artist did colored lithographs of New York that included temples, palaces, minarets, pagodas, and pyramids among the city buildings, and people wearing fezzes, coolie hats, Chinese gowns, saris, and top hats. These views were made to calm the fears of Frenchmen coming to work America’s goldfields. At a lesser distance and likely a later time, New England fishermen were not absolutely certain what Ohio farmers looked like, as they peered curiously and somewhat suspiciously over the horizon at each other.

Photography was recent, an industrial invention. This creation by Niepce and Daguerre dated from 1839, the year a German newspaper, recognizing that something formidable was in the works, wrote: “God would have to betray all his Eternal Principles to allow a Frenchman in Paris to unleash such a diabolic invention upon the world.” It is hard to tell how much of that was aimed at the French and how much at the idea of man’s effrontery in trying to build a machine that would capture, in a mechanical process, the image of God. Even so, for a significant part of the nineteenth century, imagery still belonged to painters, novelists, and nature.

The personal American photographic postcard had several nineteenth-century predecessors, the daguerreotype and the stereograph being my own favorites. The old daguerreotype portraits, for all their sameness, still have a power about them. There is, in these old photographs, rage and pride, fierceness and failure, and, in many, something of a subtle but nonetheless wild-eyed look as though the subjects were sitting under duress, ready to bolt if the process turned painful, which they fully expected.


The stereographs—two similar images mounted side viii by side to fit in a stereoscopic viewer—came along after the Civil War and persisted through the time of the personal photographic postcard, but people were still suspicious of the process. Some of the early stereographs carried a written affirmation: “I have looked these views carefully over and find them very correct. I was present when they were taken. The pictures and statuary are in their original places.” Then it was signed by the witness. One picture was not yet worth a thousand words, but photography was on its way toward making people think such a simple-minded sentiment might be true.

The curious—and who would not admit to the virtue of curiosity?—began to study the newly photographed world and draw a few rudimentary conclusions. Oliver Wendell Holmes, who invented the hand stereoscope, noted that no matter where in the world his stereographs came from, the clothesline seemed to be somewhere present. Mr. Holmes’s judgment was that the clothesline was pertinent to what he called “the decencies of civilization,” and he thereby set himself up as one of the first sociologists.

In one of her short stories, Eudora Welty describes looking into the stereoscope, and it is likely that many viewers felt precisely so:


We passed each other those sand-pink cities and passionate fountains, the waterfall that rocks snuffed out like a light, islands in the sea, red pyramids, sleeping towers, checkered pavements on which strollers had come out, with shadows that seemed to steal further each time, as if the strollers had moved, and where the statues had rainbow edges; volcanoes, the Sphinx, and Constantinople ; and again the Lakes, like starry fields—brought forward each time so close that it seemed to me the tracings from the beautiful face of a strange coin were being laid against my brain.

Soon, photographers would confirm the worst fears of that old German editorialist. These practitioners were not only going casually after the image of God, they were taking on all of nature. “Let me advise you here to always have with you on your photographic trips, a spade and a good axe,” wrote photographer James Mullen in 1874. “I remember on one occasion finding it necessary to cut down four large forest trees, in order to get a view of a peculiar formation of rockwork … ”

In 1888, George Eastman marketed a camera that contained a hundred snapshots. When these had been exposed, the camera was mailed back to the company and for $10 (not an insignificant sum, by the way) the pictures were developed, the camera reloaded, and everything returned to the owner. This, of course, prepared the way for the camera to become an amateur’s machine. The commercial photographers would soon suffer like the portrait painters before them, and, in the not-so-distant future, they would all be saved by the invention of advertising. But what Eastman’s work did immediately was encourage photographic democracy. In the hands of everyman, photography relaxed a bit more, bestowing the mixed blessing that marks every form of democracy. The personal photographic postcards were a direct, if somewhat marginal, result of Mr. Eastman’s entrepreneurship.

The simple nature of photography made it increasingly accessible. Even in its first difficult forms, photography had a populist air about it. James F. Ryder, a Cleveland photographer, wrote that it was not uncommon to find watch repairers, dentists, and other business folk making daguerreotypes as a sideline. “I have known blacksmiths and cobblers to double up with it,” he said, “so it was possible to have a horse shod, your boots tapped, a tooth pulled, or a likeness taken by the same man.”

Consider what was occurring in America in the years around the turn of the century: In the 1890s, the first Ferris wheel was constructed. Libraries expanded. The first subway was built. The zipper was introduced. By 1900, a train had gone seventy-eight miles per hour. In 1903, the Wright brothers flew, and, in 1904, a woman was arrested in New York for smoking a cigarette while riding in an open automobile. Motion in every conceivable way. We were getting on and we were delighted with ourselves. The newly democratized photography could promote us and all our new enthusiasms.

Consider, also, the very size of the country. The place was too big. Too much space, too much silence. Man’s nature abhors a vacuum. He would fill it up with something. For a time, the motion belonged largely to the cities. By the time it reached the provinces, it had slowed, wound down under the gravity of distance.

Ralph Baker, eighteen years old by 1900 and living nine rural Ohio miles from the county seat, was as isolated as the moons of Saturn. He and Walter, two years younger, were already farming. The postcard photographs showed them as slight of frame but wiry, the type to stay away from in local arm-wrestling contests. Between diary and postcard, I learned that the boys attended church, got into periodic debates held at the schoolhouse, worried about the treachery of Democrats, read a good bit of Emerson—and were somewhat wary of the camera.

There is one postcard with Ralph and Walter sheltered amidst a phalanx of relatives and, on the back, a message from Ralph to a cousin telling of going to Cincinnati to hear Eugene Ysaye, the Belgian violinist. “Ysaye lived fully up to his great reputation,” read the message. “It was a very fine concert.” Then he noted that the train trip of twenty-five miles had cost him $1.60, remarked on the weather (it was clear in the afternoon and fifty degrees), and signed off.

There was no apparent connection between photograph and message, except that both were personal, which is what gave the quirky little era of these postcards the strong character it had. It was a rather brief fad, but a fine one, carrying with it a particular and enviable sense of celebration, as the splendid postcards collected by Hal Morgan and Andreas Brown in their book, Prairie Fires and Paper Moons, demonstrate over and over.


Many of the work scenes illustrated in this book are both proud and playful. Consider the scene of the work gang perched like blackbirds up and down the utility pole or that of the barn raising with the men standing along the skeletal bent in various attitudes of swagger. There is a great connected-ness in these pictures because the people are involved in what they are doing and because they chose the scenes to represent themselves.

As for the solemnity etched into the faces on the cards, that would persist for a time. Sobriety, after all, was an American virtue, and photography was still a ceremony. A neighborhood child, looking at my old postcards, studied them a long while, her own face as grave as theirs, then said, “It looks as though they never had a red dress ... ” The solemnity, wrote Alan Thomas, a University of Toronto professor writing about nineteenth-century photography, arose from “the self-consciousness of people aware that they may be exposing themselves to the gaze of their next-door neighbor. The men and women of that century did not, generally speaking, take appearances lightly ... ”

Mr. Thomas said it was the longer time exposures of the nineteenth century that gave photography “the pace and tone of a ceremony.” Time exposures were shortened, but ritual persisted, as it has a way of doing. People in the Bakers’ neighborhood were rural folk and, being reminded daily of the rituals in nature, were likely to be influenced by ritual in other places.


Ralph Baker was certainly a man with an eye toward ritual. He lived to be quite old, staying on in the Baker homeplace. Walter died at sixty-five, a victim of heatstroke at harvest time; Ralph found him sitting under the only tree in the grain field where Walter had gone to find shade. Years later, the cousins, as a gift, had a modem bathroom built onto the house and some months afterward, they noticed the seal had not been broken on the new porcelain toilet bowl. Mr. Baker kept himself to the ritual of the long backyard path.

There were other factors, no doubt, that suggested that committing photography was a serious business. An old resident of my neighborhood, looking through his postcard collection, said he suspects that everyone of that time had bad teeth. An acquaintance in Cincinnati, June Rensler, whose father opened a photographic postcard shop there in 1906, said that people were serious because it is difficult to hold a true smile. She recalls that foreign people, wanting postcard portraits to mail home, favored a sober expression for the camera. “Did they think it made them more intelligent?” she wonders.

Miss Rensler’s father was influenced by the exciting field reports of a younger brother who ran away from home to work with a traveling photographer. His response was to open a postcard shop in Over-the-Rhine, the in-town district of brick houses and small shops where most of Cincinnati’s sizable German population lived. The location required the Renslers to know German as well as photography.

Part of Mr. Rensler’s success with postcards was simply timing. His shop opening happened to coincide with an international epidemic of postcards. The postcard was an idea so simple in conception as to be overlooked, in the way one might overlook a favorite pair of cuff links lying in plain sight on the dresser.

The Viennese postal authorities, impressed by a suggestion from Dr. Emanuel Herrmann, a young economics professor at an Austrian military academy, issued the first government postals in October 1869. The United States brought out its first in 1873. The early cards were plain, but picture cards soon followed, and a simple but large industry, based on imagery and without much regard for nation-state politics, was launched.

In a fabulous sort of way, the position of the postcard was illustrated by an episode in the French film Les Carabiniers, in which two peasants join the army, largely because they are promised they can become rich from looting. Years afterward, when they return home, their plunder turns out to be a suitcase filled with hundreds of postcards bearing the images of stores, monuments, nature, and machinery.


The personal photographic postcard had two forms. One was the product of studios like Mr. Rensler’s, mostly portraiture, although backdrops were used more and more often for all manner of effect. The other form was the snapshot, taken by amateurs and transferred onto the cards. This was the upstart idea that, finally, shifted the power of the process from the professional to the amateur. Photography by 1900, wrote the photographer Gisele Freund, was no longer “bathed in the mystery of the creative act.”

Mr. Rensler, meanwhile, lived on bananas, which were five cents a dozen at the little market up the street, and attended to his craft. He began with nothing, unable to afford all the supplies he needed. When customers lined up on the sidewalk, an assistant collected from everyone, then ran out to buy film. Mr. Rensler considered himself, first, a good businessman. For twenty-five years, he did not have a key to the front door—he was open twenty-four hours a day. He ignored the blue laws, which said he must close on Sunday. On Sundays, he had his assistants run the shop and when they were arrested, he came downtown and bailed them out. He did this until the laws changed. “I wore them out,” he told his daughter.

On holidays and many weekends, there were lines down the sidewalk. Halloween was a busy night for the shop. On Halloween, Over-the-Rhine was full of costumed adults, festively roaming the streets, many of them wanting their pictures taken. June, then a young girl, found this somehow frightening: many people were dressed as clowns, but others seemed grotesque. They were good-natured, happy drunks, but to her there was something menacing about adults in costume. Sometimes, she went outside and locked herself in the car.

Many of the same people returned, over and over, to have their photographs made as postcards, in different outfits, with different friends. An old German fellow from the neighborhood came in every weekend. “Mama, no flowers tonight! “ he cried, handing Mr. Rensler the last of his money.

Mr. Rensler had different backdrops made for his postcard work. They were done by itinerant painters who were always a little drunk—pale men who worked at night, finishing in the early morning hours like elves and never seen again.

The customers were infatuated with the moon. They sang songs about it, counted the days until it was full again, and wanted their pictures taken with it as a backdrop. It was as though they were noticing it for the first time. So Miss Rensler’s grandfather, a contractor, made one. It was a great curved sickle of a moon, with a face on it. The customers loved it.


Mr. Rensler considered himself a craftsman as well as a businessman. He trained his daughter as a photographer and would never let her have one of the new box cameras “the little people use,” as he put it. Photography was still a respected craft to him, and his customers—particularly the immigrants who did not like to smile for his portraits—treated him respectfully. “Like a doctor,” he said.

“Go back and look at the Rembrandts,” he told June. “Study the lighting. Photography is all lighting. It is the play of light on a flat surface that gives the illusion of the third dimension. You must have shadows ... ”

The war was as good for the photography shop as it was for other aspects of the economy. The only problem Mr. Rensler had was in finding assistants. He used women and a one-armed man. He estimated that in twenty years he made half a million prints. He built a new house for his family and told them it was made of postcards.

He was a man in the right place at the right time, and the random but coalescing events aided rather than frustrated him. Besides that, he was a man who believed in work. June lay in a hammock, tanning her legs, when he came home and stood beside her. “I love to work,” he said and laughed, without judgment. He was one of the restless, driving men who characterized the first part of this century. He also had a hand in shaping this rather odd fad, of people scribbling messages to each other on personal photographs.

I have a neighbor, well into her eighties, who remembers having her picture taken for a postcard. “I looked forward to having my picture taken weeks ahead,” she said. “I tried my best to look pretty. I used to grieve because I was not pretty and my father said, `If you’re a good girl, no one will notice.’ That was not at all consoling. I did not wish to be good; I wished to be pretty. I tried to decide which side was my best, right or left. I decided that because of my hair, my left was more presentable. Then I was at Mr. Howland’s studio and I knew that soon I would mail myself off in all my glory to my loved ones. I was nervous. I thought the camera could catch me. It seemed so ... permanent. I would be stopped for one moment and then I would be off in the mails, not to be retrieved again ... ”

For the Renslers, the postcard business continued until World War II. The shop, even today, looks very much as it did over a half-century ago. Mr. Rensler, who died last year, occupies the window, staring confidently out onto Main Street from one of the few portraits he allowed anyone to take of him. He is wearing a hat and topcoat and jauntily holds a cigar.

“Everything was family,” Miss Rensler said. “He wanted us to carry on with the shop, and we did. ‘You can trust family,’ he said. Then Uncle Will stole from him. ‘Well,’ he said, ‘at least it’s family.’ But none of the family photographs seem to have been made into postcards.

Miss Rensler still makes postcards. When the rare occasion calls for one, she cuts up a piece of regular eight-by-ten-inch developing paper. Most of the old backdrops have been given away. The moon wore out. Just as we can no longer have old-fashioned novels, we can no longer have old-fashioned photographs. It is not the same world. We are scarcely related. These grand postcards were testimony to a distant family, community, time, and space. Mr. Baker stopped having postcards made and became silent, too. In his diaries, in the last years of his life, he recorded only the weather.

The personal photographic postcard was an interesting alloy of several substances and, in all, a fairly remarkable achievement, given man’s eager proclivity toward random taste and impersonality. The postcards themselves remain, as one collector said about the daguerreotypes, “potent accessories to slightly melancholic rapture.”


This is the foreword for Prairie Fires and Paper Moons: The American Photographic Postcard, 1900–1920, by Hal Morgan and Andreas Brown, David Godine, Boston.

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