Wednesday, November 25, 2020

Post Cards, Souvenirs, and Rubber-Neck Busses!

Postcard. Dietsche Remembrance Shop and Auto Tours, Detroit, MI. circa 1910

Still suffering pandemic lockdown? 

How about a virtual sightseeing trip to Detroit?

Long before Smokey Robinson, Diana Ross, Marvin Gaye, Gladys Knight, and so many other wonderful musical artists gave us the “Motown Sound,” Detroit was labeled “Motor City” when the explosive growth of the automobile industry made Detroit the fourth largest city in the nation by 1920.  


Automotive pioneers like Henry Ford, Ransom Olds, Walter Chrysler and the Dodge Brothers, established Detroit as the world’s automotive capital. Henry Ford test drove his first automobile in Detroit. Detroit was the first city to use stop signs, lane markings, traffic signals and marked pedestrian crossings, and the city had the first traffic cops and traffic courts. 

After devastating fire of 1805 leveled the city of Detroit, Territorial Judge Augustus B. Woodward laid out a new city plan fashioned after cities like Washington D.C. and Paris, with broad avenues that radiated outward and traffic circles that opened the city to the world. Woodward Avenue, known as “Detroit’s Main Street,” was named in the Judge's honor, and it flows through the heart of the city, providing access to local businesses and a receptive welcome to visitors and sightseers. 


Just after the turn of the twentieth century, as Detroit was enjoying immense population growth, postcard publisher and retailer, A. C. Dietsche saw the commercial potential of a business corner at Woodward Avenue and Larned Street. The corner was in the center of Detroit's commercial district, a place where he could sell Detroit souvenirs, postcards, booklets, valentines, and cigars! His well-positioned Remembrance Shop was also the headquarters for Dietsche’s “Seeing Detroit” bus tours. Not only was Detroit attracting thousands of newcomers and visitors, but postcards were at their peak; the “Golden Age of Postcards” was in full swing; postcards were the social media of the day, and sales were soaring!

Postcard. A. C. Dietsche’s Remembrance Shop, Detroit, Mich. Circa 1910.

Note postcards on racks, walls, and ceiling!

Newspaper advertisements for Dietsche’s shop were small, but frequently posted in the Detroit Free Press from 1906 to 1910, offering gifts, mementos, and postcards in all categories, including holidays, scenic views, and the State Fair; especially popular were postcards depicting the Detroit Tiger baseball stars, Ty Cobb, Bill Donovan, Sam Crawford, Ed Summers, and others during their American League pennant years of 1907-09. If a postcard collector ever wanted to go back in time (and we all do), Dietsche's shop would be a prime destination!


In addition to the postcard and souvenir shop, Dietsche acquired a fleet of seven three-ton Packard, open mini-busses between 1910 and 1915, each designed to carry twenty to thirty passengers. The Dietsche Sight-Seeing Company afforded visitors a look at the famous Bell Isle Park, the beautiful Detroit River, and the grand boulevards, handsome residences, and modern buildings of the city. The Packard Automobile Company was proud that Mr. Dietsche employed their multi-passenger vehicles, and Packard featured them in a large advertisement in the Detroit Free Press on May 7, 1916:


All through the day, these touring cars stood ready and waiting at 83 Woodward Ave., but the location was not without controversy. In 1915, a competing touring company took Dietsche to court, claiming that the shop illegally monopolized parking spaces on Woodward by keeping their busses in front of the shop continuously. When one bus was full of paying customers, the Dietsche drivers would pull another bus alongside and transfer the passengers, thus preventing the parking spaces from becoming available. An account of the complaint ran in the Detroit Free Press on August 7, 1915, under the headline:

The outcome of the dispute is not recorded, but Mr. Dietsche may have been a determined man. He knew that the location at 83 Woodward Ave., was prime commercial real estate and, of course, it still is today. In a 1910 photo one can see the Dietsche touring cars outside the shop in the lower right corner and, in a more recent photo, it is apparent that big business still claims that corner today.

Woodward Ave., Detroit, MI, 1910.

Woodward Ave., Detroit, MI, today.

 “The world is a book, and those who do not travel read only one page.” – Saint Augustine

Ken Wilson

Thursday, October 8, 2020

Un Petit Voyage à Paris Pendant la Pandémie

If you are feeling like you haven’t been able to travel or, like some of us, haven’t been able to dig into boxes of old postcards, here’s a little trip to Paris at the turn of the 20th century:

1900 Exposition in Paris. Mailed Aug. 6, 1900.
Written to Mrs. von der Heydt in Chicago. Message translated from German:

    Today, I’m going on an excursion to Versailles and visiting the sites in Paris. The exhibition is packed with rural people on Sundays. The food here is bad and expensive. Today, there is a summer festival – the thunder of drums and music woke me very early.   Paris, August 5, 1900 at 8 a.m.   
L.M. sends warm greetings. Yours, Herman


Barnum and Bailey Circus in Paris 1902.
Written to Mr. Albert Raymond at his parents (button makers) in Lörrach, Germany. 
Message translated from French:

   Dear Albert,  If you had gone to the circus, you would have been amazed. I went 6 more times before my train left the station and thought it was really interesting. I think you and your family must be enjoying Germany a lot.      Heinsey

 And, finally,  here is an image of young woman selling postcards in Paris at the fancy kiosk of L. Lippens (photographer?) about 1904-5. Today, 25 Rue du Rambouillet would be near the brown rock wall in the center of this Google Map photo, at the intersection of Rue du Rambouillet and Ave. Daumesnil in the 12th arrondissement of Paris, on the right bank of the Seine, east of Notre Dame and the Bastille.

Au revoir. Voyager en toute sécurité.

Ken Wilson

Translations by Cathy Lara:

Thursday, August 6, 2020

A Spoonful of Sugar

Hostilities, Sweets, and Language

The landscape of the internet is strewn with rabbit holes which can lure one into tunnels of unending junctions, warrens, and burrows. This is the story of one such maze that I wandered into recently and the unexpected prize I found just below the surface.

I fill some of my time doing research and writing on a number of subjects; at the moment, I am documenting the details of a 2015 trip which my son Ned and I took to France and Belgium. We not only traveled to unfamiliar places but we traveled back in time to the Western Front of WWI. The so-called “Great War” has just now passed the edge of living human memory and moved into the realm of history and archeology. We “remember” the war by the objects left behind: photographs, letters, journals, damaged landscapes, rusted armament, monuments, and cemeteries. One historically rich category of such objects are century-old, war-related postcards.

Verdun en 1916 pendant la bataille, Arrivées des Dragées de Verdun.

The antique postcard above, titled “Verdun en 1916 pendant la bataille, Arrivées des Dragées de Verdun,” arrived recently as an eBay purchase and it fit nicely into my research about the Battle of Verdun. The translation of the title is: “Verdun in 1916 during the battle, the arrival of Dragées of Verdun.” The image presents five French soldiers unloading artillery rounds. I wondered what Dragée meant and why it was capitalized. I’m not a cook or a baker but, if you are, then perhaps you are ahead of me. It wasn’t hard to find a definition of dragée on the internet; 

1. A candy consisting of a center such as an almond or hazelnut covered with a sugar coating. 2. Small silver balls or colored bits of candy for use in decorating cookies or cakes.

It was a short internet step from dragée to Jordan Almonds, the cautious choice for a first movie date in the 1950s or 60s. Jordan Almonds are commonly known to the French as dragées. Many cooks and bakers are aware of this French word for these confectionary bits, but hey, this postcard is from one of the most horrendous military engagements of World War I.  Why does its title refer to candy? 

The battle of Verdun lasted ten months in appalling conditions. More than sixty-million artillery shells fell in nearly uninterrupted barrages by both armies, pulverizing forts, trenches, roads, villages, and the city of Verdun, and leaving more than 600,000 soldiers dead or wounded. This postcard describes artillery shells as sugar-coated candy, so perhaps it’s a cruel pun. “Here, enemy troops, swallow these little, sweet treats!”

Postcard, Verdun, Mazel Place, after WWI bombardment, 1916.

Just around another corner of my internet journey, I discovered a book of French and English slang, cant, or argot published in London in 1899 by Albert Barrére, and titled, A New French and English Dictionary of the Cant Words, Quaint Expressions, Slang Terms, and Flash Phrases Used in the High and Low Life of Old and New Paris––and there it was––page 120: “Dragée, f. (military), bullet, “plum.” Dragée, properly sweetmeat. Gober une dragée –– to receive a bullet.” 

Title page, Argot and Slang, A. Barrére, London, 1899.

This odd, jam-packed book represents a lifetime of Barrére’s work recording thousands of words of slang in French and English. The work is available online through the generous efforts of Marcia Brooks, Hugo Voisard, Fay Dunn, and the proofreading team at Distributed Proofreaders,, an organization that converts public domain books into e-books for the benefit of all. In the introduction to the book, the author, Monsieur Barrére, described his interest in linguistics: 

During a long course of philological studies, extending over many years, I have been in the habit of putting on record, for my own edification, a large number of those cant and slang terms and quaint expressions of which the English and French tongues furnish an abundant harvest. Whatever of this nature I heard from the lips of persons to whom they are familiar, or gleaned from the perusal of modern works and newspapers, I carefully noted down, until my note-book had assumed such dimensions that the idea of completing a collection already considerable was suggested… 

Argot is but a bastard tongue grafted on the mother stem… [and it] pervades the whole of French society. It may be heard everywhere, and it is now difficult to peruse a newspaper or open a new novel without meeting with a sprinkling of some of the jargon dialects of the day. These take their rise in the slums, on the boulevards, in workshops, barracks, and studios, and even in the lobbies of the Houses of Legislature.

An Argo, or a cant, is a unique language of a particular group or profession, used as a means of cohesion or to exclude others. The term cant is often used in a disparaging way, as when describing the cant of thieves, gypsies, or beggars. Noted French authors like Victor Hugo and Balzac used such argot or slang to good purpose when putting words in the mouths of their fictional characters. In Les Misérables, Hugo describes argot as the language of the underworld, a dark and “deadly language of misery.”

For years the French have used the word dragée, a sweet candy, as a pun for bullet. In his highly acclaimed work, La Boue [The Mud], based on his experiences as a French soldier during WWI, Maurice Genevoix describes a scene during an artillery barrage: “Tomorrow morning, eight o’clock. There are batteries all along 372, batteries behind Senoux, batteries in the Bois-Haut, batteries everywhere ... The shooting will start all at once, all the dragées loosed on the salient boche.” 

My adventure down this particular rabbit hole had taken an unexpected turn––from the vicious tools of warfare to the histories of languages and sweets––but it was only a matter of one more twist to come back to Verdun as this beautiful image popped up on my monitor:

Braquier Dragées, Verdun, France.

The French dragées, which we know as Jordan Almonds, are said to have been invented in ancient Rome, about 177 BCE, when a baker named Julius Dragatus, created honey-covered almonds as a special confection. Called dragati, these sweet treats were later coated with sugar and served at the weddings and births of the nobility. After sugar was brought to Europe by the crusaders in the 13th century, it was often used to coat medicines to making them more palatable. That’s right, Mary Poppins fans, “a spoon full of sugar…” 

Verdun, 1638. Wikimedia (unknown origin) Public Domain

In the mid-1300s an apothecary in Verdun began coating medicines with sugar and calling them dragées and a Verdun grocer began creating dragées as sugar-coated almond candies. The word dragée is closely related to dredge, an English transitive verb meaning to coat (food) with powder, sugar, or flour. And dredge origins are the Middle English dragge, from Old French dragie, both meaning to dredge sweetmeat, perhaps from Latin tragēmata, confectionary, so perhaps it all started with Julius Dragatus in ancient Rome. 

The English name, Jordan Almonds, may be related to the River Jordan, after a variety of almonds grown there, or it may be a derivation of the French word jardin, meaning garden. The very popular Dragées des Verdun are still being produced there today. Elsewhere, Jordan almonds have long been popular, not only at the movies, but for hundreds of years, in many cultures, they have been offered as traditional wedding favors and to some they are thought to be an aphrodisiac. 

At this point in my exploration, I quickly backed out of one internet maze and into another, as I placed an online order for Dragées des Verdun. They should arrive soon, and I look forward to sharing them with friends and displaying the colorful tin alongside my collection of Verdun WWI postcards. Note that the boy on the far left of the illustration on the tin is wearing the early WWI French red and blue uniform.

The 1916 postcard provides a detailed view of preparations behind the lines of the Western Front and it offers avenues of research including the details of the artillery shells, the soldier’s uniforms, and the truck. During WWI, automobiles and trucks began to replace mule or horse-drawn wagons as a means of transporting people, equipment, and supplies. One can read numbers stenciled on the truck and that, along with other details such as the hard-rubber wheels, could likely identify the make of the truck. Similarly, the men’s uniforms can date the image. For example, the fellow in the center is wearing the metal Adrian helmet, which was introduced in the summer of 1915. These are the sort of historical details which I look for in old postcards and if a card happens to include a handwritten message, address, postal cancellation, or other markings, it may divulge much more. This particular card, even without a personal message, offered me an unexpected adventure into the history of sweets and language.

When I was an elementary school student, my teachers frequently asserted that I wasn’t working to my “full potential” or that I was “not applying” myself.  Many years later, I often go to sleep or wake up with a recurring thought: There is so much more to do and learn. I seem to be motivated by deadlines, and old age arrives with a very authentic deadline. The future may seem a bit short but, on the other hand, I am grateful to have planned ahead and arranged to access entire libraries and worldwide travel via cyberspace, and at speeds my teachers could not have imagined.

Ken Wilson

Postscript Comment:

Praise the Lord and Pass the Tootsie Rolls (1)

An unexpected additional turn to this particular rabbit hole took place when my mother-in-law, Ginny, read this blog entry. She told me that an old friend of the family, the late Fred Glueck, had often related a story about his experience as a Marine at Chosin Reservoir in 1950 during the Korean War. The story involves 60mm mortar rounds being referred to as Tootsie Rolls­­––with unexpected results.

In November 1950, the First Marine Division and two US Army combat teams were in a very tough spot in the mountains of North Korea. Their location was the Changjin Reservoir, known to American troops as “Chosin.” Facing ten Divisions of Chinese, they had suffered 3,000 killed and 6,000 wounded in two weeks; it was freezing; they were low on ammunition and food; they had been written off as lost. 

In radio transmissions, the beleaguered troops requested 60mm mortar rounds, and the code word for the ammunition was “Tootsie Rolls.” One such message was translated verbatim without the code, and soon boxes of Tootsie Rolls were dropped to the troops by parachute. The unexpected sweets provided the men with welcome calories and energy; the soldiers also melted the frozen candy in their mouths and under their arms, and used the resulting soft “putty” to make equipment repairs. Ed Szymciak, a Marine from Ohio, was quoted as saying “By large, Tootsie Rolls were our main diet while fighting our way out of the Reservoir. You can bet there were literally thousands of Tootsie Roll wrappers scattered over North Korea.” (2)

Ginny told me that their friend Fred often spoke of reunions of the Marines who called themselves the "Chosin Few," and that he proudly called himself one of the Tootsie Roll Marines."

Also See: 2017 Facebook post by Susan Kee, Honoring Korean War Veterans: 


Sunday, May 31, 2020

The Artisans of Victory

Nos Artisans de la Victoire
Une Carte Postal de La Grande Guerre

"… a ma mince chérie"

[A WWI postcard from the Western Front. Translated* from French]

Saturday, June 17, 1917
     Ma mince chérie, I am writing in response to your letter dated Monday the 12th of this current month. Your letter made me very happy. Forgive me, my Chérie, for not writing you a letter today, but today we are deprived of light. There is no lamp or candle. We are required to go to sleep. I am in good health. I am very happy about your letter which tells me a lot about our loved ones. Embrace them a million times for me – and mother too. I am waiting for the package you said you sent.  See you soon, my pretty one, and my most tender kisses – I’m sending them all to you, your little husband who loves you,     Albert

The Message: Albert wrote the message to his wife on June 17, 1917, and the salutation is "Ma mince chérie" [My dear sweetheart]. The words "mince chérie" are literally translated as thin (or slender) sweetheart, but in common usage it meant my dear or dearest sweetheart. The message expressed tender affection and longing for home and family. He asked forgiveness for not writing a letter, explaining that he was deprived of both lamp and candle, and was required to go to sleep.

Albert addressed his wife as "ma jolie" [my pretty one]; he sent "a million" hugs to the family, and he ended the message with, "mes plus tendres baisers tout à toi, ton petit mari qui l'aime" [my most tender kisses to you, your little husband who loves you]. We have only to imagine a wartime environ where Albert had no lamp or candle, and we know Albert was quite far from home.

Albert's rank is unknown, as is his level of schooling but after the education reforms of the 1880s French children, both boys and girls, were provided with free secular education. They were taught in school that in times of family separation one should correspond regularly with detailed, honest, and intimate reports of daily life. The exchange of correspondence between French soldiers and their families during WWI was particularly vibrant with emotional expression.

The CardThe card that Albert chose to send home is titled "The Artisans of the Victory." It's a commercially published postcard with a hand-tinted photographic print which illustrates five components of the anticipated (and hoped for) French victory of World War I and the artwork  is signed "Gloria." The card was likely purchased by Albert in a small shop or railroad station in a village near the front.

The Five Artisans   

1. Upper left, "Nos As" [Our Aces]: The illustration portrays the most modern and daring weapons of war––the airplanes and the pilots who flew them. French aviation pioneers like Louis Blériot, Henri Farman, and Gabriel Voisin, built and piloted some of the most advanced aircraft of the time. The French aces, pilots who shot down five or more of the enemy planes, included Georges Guynemer, Charles Nungesser, Paul Augustin Barbreau, René Fonck, and many, many others. The skill and daring of the French pilots in the skies over war-torn France established them forever as aviation legends.

Sous-Lieutenant Georges Guynemer.
One of a series of WWI postcards published in1916 to honor French aviators.  Second Lieutenant Georges Guynemer achieved national fame and honor with 53 victories before his death in aerial combat in 1917.  

2. Upper right, "Nos 75" [Our 75]: The French recoilless 75 mm artillery piece was revolutionary in its incorporation of a pneumatic mechanism to absorb recoil. The reduced movement of the cannon after firing and a unique screw breech mechanism made the gun capable of firing of 15 to 20 rounds per minute and the 75 proved to be a formidable weapon. At the First Battle of the Marne in 1914, the French 75 artillery crews were dubbed "black butchers" by the Germans. After the Americans entered the war they too adopted the gun, and it continued to be used into WWII and beyond. The French people came to honor the 75 as a symbol of victory, and its image was often reproduced on patriotic postcards. Our younger friends today may know the French 75 as a cocktail,** named in honor of this powerful weapon. 

Le 75. Circa 1915 postcard of the 75 in action with insets of two of its primary designer/inventors, Joseph-Albert Deport and Etienne Sainte-Claire Deville.

Gloire au 75. Circa 1915 postcard. Partout ou il passé les Lauriers ont pousse.[Wherever it goes the Laurels have grown.]

3. Lower left "LesMunitions" [Our Munitions]: While the title of the image is "Our Munitions," the illustration honors the French women, known as munitionettes, who worked in the munitions factories during WWI while their husbands were away at the front. Before the war the women of France were generally relegated to domestic work in their own homes or the houses of the more affluent. Jobs outside of the house were primarily in the textile industry or in agriculture. As the men were called up for the war, women were brought into factories to produce weapons, ammunition, and military kit and equipment. By the end of the war nearly a million French women were employed in the factories working at dangerous and demanding jobs as well as struggling for equal rights and equal pay and continuing to take care of their families.

French Women making munitions for the trenches. Circa 1917 postcard produced for English-speaking market.

4. Lower right, "L'Emprunt" [The Loan]: As was the case in other countries, France raised funds for the war effort through a series of national defense loans. Despite their increasing impoverishment, the French citizens continued to subscribe to these bonds as a patriotic duty. This illustration shows a woman and child buying war bonds. The boy is carrying his "tire lire" [money box]; his toy sword and soldier's helmet may represent a father who is away at the front. The fashionably dressed woman and child with their small dog appear to represent the upper classes, who could be better able to contribute to the war effort.

L'Emprunt des "Derniéres Cartouches." The postcard version of a 1915 L'Emprunt poster: "The Loan of the Last Cartridges, French People, Again an Effort!"  The card urges participation in the purchase of war loan subscriptions. A grandfather and young girl are seen providing the embattled poilu [see below for "poilu"] with ammunition as a visual representation of funds from home providing supplies to the front. At the time this poster/postcard was printed the feeling was that the war was almost over and this was a "last push, thus the last cartridges," but the war's end still very far in the future.

5. Center, "Nos Poilus" [The Poilus, literally, "the hairy ones" or “the unshaven"]: The French infantrymen of WWI were affectionately given the name "Poilu" in reference to their commonly worn beards and large mustaches and to their rustic, agrarian backgrounds. The term may date back to Napoleonic era soldiers when whiskers were a mark of virility. In 1914, the men of France were suddenly conscripted from the vineyards and farm fields and thrust into the slaughterhouse that was WWI. They became skilled and courageous soldiers in the trenches of the Western Front, but poor leadership in the early years and the superior firepower of the German army soon decimated their ranks. At the Battle of Verdun, which raged for almost the entire year of 1916, their losses were approximately 500,000. Seventy percent of the French infantrymen became casualties by war's end, with well over a million dead and wounded.

 "La Grande Guerre 1914-15 en Champagne" [The Great War 1914-15, in the Champagne region of France]. This card was part of a series which were printed and published by Phototype Baudiniere in a suburb of Paris, from photographs taken at the front. The caption indicates that these poilu are in a "listening-post" trench only 15 meters from the German line. The man at the upper right holds an early French "ball" hand grenade, and the fellow in the foreground has a round for a small mortar known as a "crapouilaud," a variant of the word "crapouillot," meaning "little toad." These small mortars set at an angle had the appearance of a toad with an open mouth.

French infantryman Georges Delbez, poses for his photograph in postcard dated December 18, 1914, which he sent to his wife Jeanne in a commune north of Paris. He is wearing the early French uniform of red trousers and a dark blue long coat, which was changed to a dusty, horizon-blue uniform in 1915. George and our postcard writer Albert, above, likely had much in common. In Georges' message to Jeanette, he called her his "little wolf" and he sent, "many kisses to my beloved." Georges told Jeanne that it was "going well in the trenches"––but, from later postcard that Jeanne wrote to a friend, we know that Georges did not return home.

The first postcard above, Albert's, offered honor and admiration for five different support roles in the anticipated victory for France and the Allies. It was an optimistic viewpoint in a war that had been raging for three years and would continue to destroy lives and landscapes for another year and a half.

Thousands of postcards like these exist in collections all over the world. Unfortunately, in most cases they have floated free from ties to specific personal histories. Many wartime postcards were written hastily, censored for content, and sometimes mailed in envelopes along with a longer letter. Thus, many details of names, dates, and places are now missing.

We don't know what became of Albert and his "mince chérie," nor how many hands this card passed through to arrive at this blog entry; however, such handwritten messages, and the cards that were chosen to carry them, give us small openings through which we can almost touch the lives of ordinary people caught up in the "War to End All Wars."


* Many thanks to Cathy Lara for wonderful translations. You can reach Cathy at:

** French 75 Cocktail:

Your local library and the internet fairly bristle with books, images, film and journal accounts about WWI. You will encounter men, women, and children whose trials, tragedies, and triumphs make most of our lives look very safe, comfortable, and rich.

I particularly recommend:

Barbusse, Henri. Under Fire. Translated by Robin Buss and Jay Winter. London: Penguin Books, 2003. First published in French as Le Feu, 1916.

Barthas, Louis. Poilu: The World War I Notebook of Corporal Louis Barthas, Barrelmaker, 1914-1918. Translated by Edward M. Strauss, New Haven, Yale University Press, 2014.

Hanna, Martha. Your Death Would be Mine: Paul and Marie Pireaud in the Great War, Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2006.

Jünger, Ernst, Storm of Steel, New York: Penguin Group, 2004. In Stahlgewittern first published in German in 1920.

Wharton, Edith. Fighting France: From Dunkerque to Belfort, Editor, Alice Kelly, Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press, 2016.

I also invite you to take a look at my website: and my new book, Snapshots and Short Notes: Images and Messages of Early Twentieth-Century Photo Postcards, Published by the University of North Texas.

Wednesday, May 20, 2020

Snapshots and Short Notes: Images and Messages of Early Twentieth-Century Postcards

Available from University of North Texas Press, June, 2020 (800) 826-8911
304 pages, illus., hardback $45.

   Snapshots and Short Notes examines the photographic postcards exchanged during the first half of the twentieth century as illustrated, first-hand accounts of American life. Almost immediately after the introduction of the generic postcard at the turn of the century, innovations in small, accessible cameras added black and white photographs to the cards. The resulting combination of image and text emerged as a communication device tantamount to social media today.

   Postcard messages and photographs tell the stories of ordinary lives during a time of far-reaching technological, demographic, and social changes: a family’s new combine harvester that could cut 40 acres a day; a young woman trying to find work in a man’s world; the sight of an airplane in flight. However, postcards also chronicled and shared hardship and tragedy—the glaring reality of homesteading on the High Plains, natural disasters, preparations for war, and the struggles for racial and gender equality.

   With a meticulous eye for detail, painstaking research, and astute commentary, Wilson surveys more than 160 photographic postcards, reproduced in full color, that provide insights into every aspect of life in a time not far removed from our own.

Saturday, May 16, 2020

Captain Thomas Leonard

Originally published on Blogger 2/9/2012 
A revised and expanded version of this story appears in 
Snapshots and Short Notes, Kenneth Wilson, Univ. of North Texas Press, 2020.

Some of the research on this card had already been done for me by Chris Warner, of Kansas who was the previous owner of this real photo postcard.  The image is of a handsome couple in front of their house on the fourth of July, 1911.   As you can see the old Civil War veteran is wearing his Grand Army of the Republic ribbon and his hat with the GAR emblem sits on his knee.  His wife stands beside him and the house is decorated with flags and banners.

The card was dated July 4, 1911, and has a message that reads, "We wish you a happy birthday and many returns of July 4th," and is signed, "Mr. & Mrs. Leonard."  The card was addressed to Miss Mattie J. Lang, Austin, Minnesota.

A later note is also written on the back, and it reads, "Mr. & Mrs. Leonard were next door neighbors in Austin to Grandma and Grandpa Lang, Aunt Mattie and Aunt Minnie Lang." 

With a manifying glass or the magic of the computer, you can make out the details of the ribbon that Mr. Leonard is wearing.  Here is a blow-up of that part of the photo:

The ribbon reads, "McIntyre Post 66, Austin, Minnesota," and above that is the symbol of the Grand Army of the Republic medal.

Captain Leonard was born in 1842, and died in 1916, five years after the above photo was taken.  He is buried in the Oakwood Cemetery in Austin, Minnesota, and there is a picture of his grave monument at

Thomas Leonard enlisted in Vermont in 1861, as a private, into F Company, 3rd Infantry (Vermont) and was mustered out in 1865.  He was promoted to Sargent (date unknown), to 2nd. Lieutenant in 1864, 1st Lieutenant and later Captain in 1865.  

Leonard apparently saw considerable action during the war, because he is listed as having been wounded on July 10, 1863, at Funkstown, MD, and again at the Battle of the Wilderness on May 6, 1864, and yet again only six days later at Spotsylvania Court House, Virginia, on May 12 1864.

The following three paragraphs, compliments of Wikipedia, give some brief details of these three Civil War engagements:

The Battle of Funkstown took place near Funkstown, Maryland, on July 10, 1863, during the Gettysburg Campaign. Union forces of the Army of the Potomac attacked the rear guard of the Confederate Army of Northern Virginia during its retreat from Pennsylvania following the Battle of Gettysburg.  Maj. Gen. J.E.B. Stuart’s cavalry, posted at Funkstown, posed a serious risk to the Union army and Stuart was determined to wage a spirited defense to ensure Lee time to complete fortifications protecting his army and his avenue of retreat.  Gen. John Buford’s Union cavalry division encountered Stuart’s crescent-shaped, three-mile-long battle line.  By early evening, the Union Army began withdrawing and Stuart had kept the Federals at bay for yet another day.  The day-long battle resulted in 479 casualties. 

The Battle of the Wilderness, fought May 5–7, 1864, was the first battle of Lt. Gen. Ulysses S. Grant's 1864 Virginia Overland Campaign against Gen. Robert E. Lee and the Confederate Army of Northern Virginia. Both armies suffered heavy casualties.

The Battle of Spotsylvania Court House, was the second major battle in Lt. Gen. Ulysses S. Grant's 1864 Overland Campaign.  Following the bloody but inconclusive Battle of the Wilderness, Grant's army disengaged from Confederate General Robert E. Lee's army and moved to the southeast, attempting to lure Lee into battle under more favorable conditions. Elements of Lee's army beat the Union army to the critical crossroads of Spotsylvania Court House and began entrenching. Fighting occurred on and off from May 8 through May 21, 1864, as Grant tried various schemes to break the Confederate line. In the end, the battle was tactically inconclusive, but with almost 32,000 casualties on both sides, it was the costliest battle of the Overland campaign.

Captain Leonard must have had some harrowing stories to tell, and, while those details have been lost to us, this wonderful real photo postcard and the notes on the back of it, connect us to his life in a very real way.

If you know any more about Captain Leonard's history or that of his neighbors, the Lang family, please add your comments to the blog or email me.

In war, there are no unwounded soldiers.  ~José Narosky

Tuesday, May 5, 2020

Baby and the Hula

originally posted 12/4/2013 
A revised and expanded version of this story appears in 
Snapshots and Short Notes, Kenneth Wilson, Univ. of North Texas Press, 2020.

Those who dance are considered insane by those who cannot hear the music.
–– George Carlin

I recently came across this 1927 tourist postcard of a young Hawaiian girl dancing the hula.  The penciled note on the back said, “Elizabeth Beamer who danced the Hula at the Volcano House, Hilo, Hawaii, May 2, 1927.”  The message was brief, but in combination with the striking pose of the young girl it was more than sufficient to warrant adding this card to my collection of real photo postcards with hand-written narratives.  

Elizabeth Beamer, Volcano House, Hilo, Hawaii, 1927

I sent a scan of this postcard to my friend Charlie Dahlberg, who grew up in Hilo, Hawaii, and whose family had a long-standing connection to the art of the hula.  I thought that someone in his family might have heard of this this young entertainer. I received a return email almost immediately – the young girl in the photo was his mother! 

This extraordinary coincidence took Charlie and I by surprise.  We were both amazed that I happened upon a real photo postcard of his mother dancing the hula as a child entertainer and chanced to share it with him.

Before we get to the story of Charlie's mother and the hula, I should share a little background about Charlie. 

My friend Robert and I first met Charlie during a two-week dory trip through the Grand Canyon in 2004.  After our first campsite supper, we noticed Charlie sitting by himself reading a beat-up copy of Atlantic Monthly.  That set him apart right away – I mean, who reads the Atlantic Monthly while on a trip through the Grand Canyon?  Robert struck up a conversation with Charlie about politics, and as the trip progressed we realized that he was well read, well traveled and quite knowledgeable on many subjects.  He was also a welcome participant in all the trip activities and both he and Robert could out-hike most of the younger members of our group. We also took note of the fact that Charlie could swim with the agility of a fish and never missed an opportunity to bathe or swim in the river no matter how cold or rough the water.
In the years since the Grand Canyon trip, Charlie has become one of the regulars in our casual group of river runners, joining us at least once a year for canoe or kayak trips on the Green River in Utah or the Lower Canyons of the Rio Grande.  He tends to be quiet and reserved but if prompted he is willing to share his views and his personal history. Charlie graduated from the Air Force Academy in the 1960s, flew light aircraft as a Forward Air Controller during the Vietnam War, and later worked in the field of information technology. Now that he is retired, he and his wife travel frequently and spend a portion of each year with his family in Hawaii.

In contrast to his breadth of general knowledge, Charlie often entertains his fellow river travelers with a new series of shamelessly bad “… walks into a bar” jokes while we eat our freeze-dried lasagna or mac and cheese. I was initially impressed with his extensive catalog of unfortunate puns until I realized he was memorizing a new group of them just before each trip!  To his credit, Charlie also tells us stories about growing up in Hawaii, and these are considerably more entertaining than his jokes.

Charlie’s father, Bill, was a Texan who met and married a young Hawaiian woman just before WWII. (Yes, the young lady in the photo had grown up.) After the war, Bill settled into life with his wife’s large extended Hawaiian family.

One of the pleasures of river trips is sitting around a campfire and talking without the presence of electronic devices or television. As one might imagine, the topics on our “travels with Charlie” varied from deep philosophical questions to crude humor, but somewhere in that mix one subject that came up a few times was the hula.  

No, we weren’t dancing by light of the fire, (well, maybe once, but that’s another story) but Charlie told us that mother’s family had a long tradition of participation and innovation in the traditional Hawaiian hula.   At least as far back as his maternal great grandmother, the family has produced many Kumu (hula masters) and today several family members have their own halau (hula group or school).  In 2011, the family’s Beamer-Solomon Halau o Po’ohala group presented a hula drama at the Peter Norton Symphony Space in New York City.

 The Beamer-Solomon Halau o Po’hala perform “Eia Ka Hula: Behold the Hula” in New York City

Charlie’s mother, Helen Elizabeth Kawohikukapulani Desha Beamer, known as “Baby” to the family, was born and grew up in Hilo, Hawaii, and learned to sing and dance at an early age.  In Our Hawaii, published in 1942, Erna Fergusson describes a visit to the Beamer house to interview Elizabeth’s mother about the history of the hula.  During the conversation Elizabeth returned home from her job at her father’s hardware store, and her mother asked her to dance for Miss Fergusson:

“Have you a minute?” asked Mrs. Beamer after introductions.

“Not a minute, not a second. Dad is waiting.”

But Mrs. Beamer was going on: “I wanted you to dance for Miss Fergusson.”

“Oh, well,” said the daughter, “if it is to dance…” 

She freed her feet from high-heeled slippers and flexed their muscles against the lauhala while her mother took a big calabash and sank onto the floor in a swift movement.  The daughter’s arms went out as she breathed a questioning phrase.  The mother answered with the same phrase as an affirmative, struck the calabash with her hand, and began to sing.

The hula was E Liliu e! (Oh, the Queen!) I had often seen it; Mrs. Beamer managed to give me it’s meaning.

“The Queen,” the chanter says, “is beautiful,” while the dancer’s hands outline the crown, and upturned eyes express reverence.  The dancer carries the rhythm of the voice and the calabash by the swinging of her hips, the turning of her torso, the dainty stepping of her feet.  But the effect is one of casualness.  As the song continues, the hands evoke the Queen’s specific charms.  Flashing eyes, the flush of her cheeks, with an upward gesture as a flush runs from throat to brow. “Shoulders graceful as a wave.” The hands sway outward from the shoulders as waves roll. Then they seem to caress a flowerlike skin, outlining the breasts, and the slim waist above the hips always rotating in an exquisitely feminine expression. “Her knees, beautiful as the mouth of a moi fish.” The knees show how graceful squatting and throwing out the knees can be.  The dance ends with the Queen’s tiny feet that walk like rippling water.

They ended together, laughing in a harmony far deeper than the synchronization of the mother’s instrument and voice with the girl’s dancing.  I begged for another one.

After being invited for lunch on Saturday, Miss Fergusson agreed to stay a few more days in Hilo, and she describes the greeting she received on Saturday after arriving at the Beamer house above the Wailuku River: 

As I entered, a maile wreath was laid on my shoulders and “Baby Beamer,” the pretty blonde dancer, greeted me with a kiss that should accompany a lei in Hawaii.  Everybody was whispering there was to be an announcement;  “Baby” was to marry an Army aviator. 

As Charlie tells the story, his mother first saw the only man she would ever love from her place behind the cash register at her father’s hardware store.  Bill had flown into Hilo to pick up flowers for an Officer’s Club function at Hickam field and was looking sharp in his Army Air Corps uniform. After a few months of courtship Baby and Bill were married, and this young haole from San Antonio, Texas was welcomed into his bride’s Hawaiian family.

Baby and Bill, Hilo, Hawaii 1940

As you may have realized, this part of the story took place in Hawaii only a short time before the devastating attack on Pearl Harbor in 1941.  Bill was stationed at Hickam field during the surprise attack by Japanese bombers. He and Baby were renting an apartment high up on the outside face of what is now the National Memorial Cemetery of the Pacific, known as the “Punchbowl Crater.” When they heard the roar of the airplane engines that Sunday morning, they hurried outside and could just make out the “rising sun” emblem on the aircraft fuselages.  Bill told Baby to go to her brother’s house, and he rushed to Hickam Field.  He was unable to get airborne but was on the tarmac firing his sidearm as the later waves of Japanese planes went over.  He and Baby did not see each other again for two weeks during which time she and other officer’s wives stayed at her brother’s house.  

Baby stayed in Hawaii during the war, and Bill returned there in 1945, after serving in the South Pacific, Europe, and a final assignment in Russia.  The couple raised four children, Pan (Charlie), Lee Boy, Sue Helen, and Jeanie Girl. Bill and Baby worked together in their own business enterprises in Hilo, first with an ice cream business named Blue Bonnet, in homage to Bill’s home state of Texas, and later in the export business.  

After Charlie’s email reply telling me the young girl in the 1927 photo was his mother, I mailed the original postcard to Charlie and in exchange he allowed me access to his family’s history and the amazing love story of Baby, Bill, and the hula. 

Charlie’s parents are both gone now, but after putting this short narrative together around the beautiful postcard image of Baby, I feel as if I know them a little and I can feel the strength of their family bonds. 

I also gained some understanding of the song and rhythm of life that is the hula.

Aloha oe.

Our Hawaii, Erna Fergusson, A. A. Knopf, New York, 1942

For another connection to Charlie and his Hawaiian family, see the blog entry of June, 2012, titled, "No Angel: A Seaside Mystery"

Neva LockettDecember 5, 2013 at 5:03 AM
Another wonderful Breadcrumbs story. Extraordinary, Ken. What a lovely world where such connections happen.

The Kailua KidMarch 11, 2015 at 1:52 PM
Please inform Charlie that I am in possession of a little more than a minute's worth of some pretty wonderful 16mm film, circa December 7, 1929. It depicts his mother, "Tiny", dancing the hula under the guidance of Aunty Harriet Magoon. Also trying to keep up with them is keiki Nona Beamer. The b/w 16mm film was taken by a tourist up at the Volcano House while in Hilo on a lay-over aboard Matson's SS Malolo while it was on her maiden "Round the Pacific" cruise.

I am producing a documentary about this specific cruise and the footage will be one of the highlights of the film. 

Rick Helin
aka KailuaKid

Kenneth Grey Wilson March 29, 2015 at 8:21 PM
Thanks so much! Sorry for the delay in getting back to you. Is there a way Charlie could see the clip? If not, we will try to follow your progress, and look forward to seeing the film! You mentioned his mother "Tiny" is that an error or is it a name attached to the clip? All I know is "Baby" but I'm sure Charlie will reply to this. Thanks again!! Ken

Charlie DahlbergMarch 30, 2015 at 7:11 AM
Please keep me posted. I, as well as the entire Ohana, will be interested in your film. Perhaps I could offer some insight: I never heard my mother referred to as "Tiny", and Harriett was her step-sister.