The late 19th and early 20th century was the golden era of postcard production. It was also an era of rapidly expanding European and American influence. Starting in 1895, when the development of the printing trades allowed for the economical manufacture of mass-produced "view-cards," images of distant cultures and "exotic" lands were posted around the globe. The views that came out of Africa, the Americas, Oceania and Asia during this period provided detailed documentation of far-off places and peoples, but they also painted a romanticized and often misleading picture.
A new book, just out from Smithsonian Institution Press, draws on anthropological and historical sources to examine the postcard's parallel roles as souvenir, collectible and popular art form. Delivering Views: Distant Cultures in Early Postcards, edited by Christraud M. Geary and Virginia-Lee Webb, addresses the differences between original photographs and their postcard equivalents and discusses common practices — such as artificial settings, colorization, and costumes and props — that helped perpetuate certain stereotypes. The c. 1900 photograph of a South African "Zulu Warrior," for instance, was staged to produce an exaggerated view of the subject. In contrast, the formal studio portrait of the Senegalese trader taken by postcard photographer François-Edmond Fortier, c. 1905, presents a more authentic and dignified image. "As popular and ever-present artifacts," says Geary, "postcards have helped create standard views of the world and have been integrated into communication, commemoration and history."