Art of the Region — In the Palm of Your Hand


by Harold Clark

It is generally accepted that art is most appreciated when encountered in the hallowed hallways of the world’s awe-inspiring, cavernous museums, within the intimate spaces of local galleries, or nestled among the gardens and landscapes that embrace sculpture and architecture. These are the stages where creativity and history come alive, where the artist hopes to pique interest, evoke passion, incite wonder, and envelope the beholder with his or her personal mystique. Art in its myriad forms and permutations is expected to loom large in these spaces, then reach into the soul, and entrance.

Consider, then, the historical art form that can be measured in inches and held in the palm of one’s hand: the postcard. No less captivating than the grand landscapes or portraits but infinitely more transportable, the postcard, in its diminutive way, is its own aesthetic vehicle — a traveling museum of one. Hand-drawn, photographed, lithographed, woven, meticulously hand-colored, adorned with icons or logos or the charm of “Wish you were here!” endearment, the postcard is a show all its own. As such, Southampton, New York architect and inveterate local historian Eric Woodward is in possession of quite a show himself: a collection of approximately 40,000 of these individual works of art, each measuring five-and-a-half-inches wide by three-and-a-half inches high. To Mr. Woodward, they are living history. Each postcard he owns is itself intimate creativity, an evocative expression of who, what and where, and all designed to broadcast a simple yet poignant message: art and architecture, as life, captured in and around a particular place, at a specific time.

“Being an architect, I am drawn to interesting architectural topics,” Mr. Woodward explains. Indeed, an examination of a sampling of his collection reveals a preponderance of dwellings and edifices in myriad shape, manner and state of being. “Most depict wood-framed buildings,” he adds. Images range from boathouses and bandstands to pavilions and gazebos. Many thousands reflect the unique potpourri of architecture on the East End: modest clapboard homes of the early 20th century; shingle-style Cape Cod designs; simple, generic gabled farmhouses; village roadways; and, of course, commanding, stately mansions perched like great ships along the ocean and down long driveways in the Estate Sections of Southampton and East Hampton townships. While Mr. Woodward’s collection features myriad architecturally designed homes, curiously, the name of the individual architect or firm is never mentioned in the postcards of Southampton dwellings.

Whether as historical record or simple greeting through the mail, the postcard gained favor almost immediately upon its introduction. The idea truly came of age at the turn of the 19th and 20th centuries. According to Mr. Woodward, they gained ubiquity during the “postcard craze” that emerged in 1905 and lasted through 1914 and the start of World War I. “Many were printed in Germany; the war put an end to that,” he notes. Adorning the postcard face with photography or lithography and leaving just enough space on the reverse for a message, postcards also gained popularity due to their economy: first-class letters required a two-cent stamp, while postcards could be mailed for a penny. “Often they would be delivered the same day,” Mr. Woodward explains.

The first mass-produced postcards were lithographs, as the art gained prominence with the advent of the 20th century. Photography followed, in limited quantities (each card was actually developed in a darkroom), with images colored through a separate printing process. These ‘hand-tinted’ images were intriguing and gained tremendous popularity. With different printing, the same image took on unique hues and characteristics: a red door became auburn on one postcard, while dull greenery was vibrant in the next. “Culturally, postcards were the common-man’s art,” Mr. Woodward remarks. They were less viewed as artistic elements than vehicles that recorded history and ‘life verité.’ “These postcards became a cross-section of what the community was known for,” Mr. Woodward says. As such, postcards from the ‘craze’ era on the East End depicted scenes of village Main Streets, railroad stations, beach clubs and pavilions, and a panoply of homes, business and structures grand and conservative. Among the popular postcards of Southampton were many with images of Lake Agawam and its myriad activities. Images from East Hampton overwhelmingly reflect Home Sweet Home and the Montauk Lighthouse.

Mr. Woodward’s collection includes approximately 400 postcards of images of the Village of East Hampton, and another 600 of the greater township. At present he has 1,526 postcards featuring edifices and events in the Village of Southampton, North Sea and Shinnecock Hills, with another 1,000 encompassing Southampton town — extending from Remsenburg to Wainscott, the Riverhead border to Sag Harbor. He has hundreds more of scenes in Riverhead, Southold and Shelter Island towns.

The vast majority of postcards depicting homes and structures on the East End are taken at close proximity — ostensibly from the property itself. This got Mr. Woodward wondering: “Did the photographers always have access to these properties or permission to take these photographs?” he ponders. Permission or not, he is pleased with the fact that the photographers were able to gain access with such fascinating results.

“Postcards themselves are very concise,” he observes. “They usually paint a signature image — in a small, quick message.” Their immediacy and their intimacy intrigue Mr. Woodward, and have since he entered an antique store in the early 1980s upstate New York. “I saw a table full of postcards, and among them was a postcard of Southampton,” he recalls. He bought three or four. “When I had 200 or 300 of Southampton, I thought, ‘I have them all; there can’t possibly be any more.’” His first postcards were ‘pre-chromes’; chromes were introduced in the 1950s.

Today Mr. Woodward logs on to eBay frequently to scan the postcard offerings. He’ll pay anywhere from $5.00 to $10.00 for a vintage postcard of the East End. He keeps an eye peeled for postcards produced by Brooklyn’s photographer Hess. They typically feature large houses and estates. “The printing is very distinctive,” Mr. Woodward explains. “I’d bid pretty high for a postcard by Hess.

“Once in a while someone will call and say, ‘I have a postcard you might be interested in,’ but most of the time it turns out to be nothing,” Mr. Woodward says. “But occasionally, I find something.” Those occasions keep him responding to even some far-flung inquiries.

The Southampton Historical Society has been the beneficiary of Mr. Woodward’s collection. The Society featured the postcards in a recent exhibition, and has kept several hundred available in a database for visitors to explore. He has also delivered presentations on his collection for libraries in Southampton, Bridgehampton, and Sag Harbor.

Mr. Woodward often finds himself in awe of the level of artistry exhibited in the early postcards of the East End. “I’m a fairly good photographer, and I could not duplicate what they did,” he says. “They are very well composed.”

One of the most endearing subsections of Mr. Woodward’s collection is a group he refers to as “People and their houses.” It is, as its title implies, an intriguing assemblage of postcards featuring East Enders posing in front of their domiciles. Homes range from one- or two-room shacks in agricultural settings, to owners of large summer homes posing in their bespoke suits and Sunday best. “These photographers were often itinerant,” he explains. “If he was successful he’d talk these homeowners into taking their photograph.” Apparently they met with a great deal of success, and the number of these postcards is in the hundreds.

Mr. Woodward’s collection is not relegated to the East End; he has postcards from the far reaches of the globe. While they add dimension to the overall package, it’s the postcards from here at home that he most covets. “It’s really something I find completely interesting — as an architect and as someone interested in local history,” he says. “They’re really reflective of this area.” They are, he concludes, individual works of art. Every single one.

— Harold Clark

Harold Clark is a writer, editor and marketing communications professional residing in Southampton. He has written for magazines, newspapers and the Internet, and has worked with numerous businesses, organizations and nonprofits to assist in establishing and enhancing their brand image and promoting their endeavors.
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