Monday, 14 April 2014

Airships Dirigibles Blimps Zeppelins

Airship technology is another of those doomed innovations with a glowing future that stubbornly fails to materialise. Immensely popular between the wars when no vision of the future was complete without airships in command of the skies. The airship had proved itself as a leisurely form of international travel although a distressing tendency to premature landfalls or self-immolation rapidly undermined public confidence. In times of conflict it was only effective as an agent of death and destruction in the unlikely event that your opponents lacked a more agile and speedy defence capacity. So the great dream of fleets of floating hotels silently crossing the oceans died a death. The rapid advance of jet engine technology was the final blow as the aviation industry increasingly became addicted to speed. 

But for a few decades the airship wobbled along on the fringe of viability and enthusiasts continued to develop ever more extravagant plans, quick to capture the public imagination but wildly impractical. Heroic visualisations of gargantuan machines graced the covers of many a magazine with an engineering obsessed readership of impressionable adolescents. For postcard publishers even an embarrassingly incompetent drawing of an airship could be grafted on to refresh a stale and outdated image. As late as 1944 the Goodyear Aircraft Corporation was waxing lyrical about the prospects of the “coming superliner of the skies” and posing the question, “Is this the Luxury Liner of the Future?”

Friday, 4 April 2014

Postcard of the Day No. 65, M & OLRR Station, Marcellus NY

This is the postcard where nobody wanted to be left out – travellers and employees alike made certain that their likenesses would be recorded for posterity. The workers swarmed over the one and only locomotive (a Baldwin-built 2-4-0) with studied nonchalance. The Marcellus and Otisco Lake Railroad was a short branch line that connected with the New York Central at Martisco (an invented conflation of Marcellus and Otisco), a few miles to the north. Passenger services commenced in 1905 but lasted less than a decade, being abandoned in 1914. Freight service continued until final closure in 1959. Marcellus was, and remains a small town of exceptionally neat and tidy appearance in rural New York state, south west of the city of Syracuse. It gave its name to the Marcellus Formation, an extensive range of shale and the largest source of natural gas in the US. Massive amounts of gas are being extracted by fracking although, happily for the residents of Marcellus, most of it takes place far away in Pennsylvania, Ohio and West Virginia. Below are two more cards of transport curiosities with proud operators posed in attendance. A streetcar in San Antonio TX and an electric-powered US Mail Car in Sacramento CA. 

Monday, 31 March 2014

Cherry Blossom Time

In Japan the weather service issues daily bulletins on the northwards advance of the Cherry Blossom Front from island to island and city to city, and we mark the occasion with these postcards. For many Japanese the Cherry Blossom Front has a talismanic significance not only for the splendour and brevity of display but also for the metaphoric value as a reminder of the transience of physical beauty and human existence. The suburban street scene above is especially atmospheric, a silent tramcar rolls through a tunnel of cherry blossom while a furtive human presence is half concealed in the shadows. 

Tuesday, 25 March 2014

Some BBC book designs

A small but choice selection of vintage BBC cover designs preceded by a typically irreverent visual pun from the 1970s drawn by the wonderful Peter Brookes for the Sunday Times Magazine in which the broadcaster is re-imagined as a boxed detergent. The BBC talks pamphlets are the work of wood-cut masters, Eric Ravilious (1934) and Blair Hughes-Stanton (1951). Britain’s finest Modernist graphic designer, E McKnight Kauffer at his most dynamic designed the covers of the first two BBC handbooks from 1928 and 1929. The 1952 cover was designed by the illustrator, Cecil Keeling

Sunday, 23 March 2014

Industrial Grime in the Sunshine State

The British consumer is a compliant creature, always ready to pay up for the latest techno-gadgetry or dutifully embark on long-haul holiday flights to exotic destinations. Florida is one such popular choice - about one million UK citizens visit the state every year of whom two-thirds arrive in Orlando, the theme park capital of the world. For most the purpose of the trip is to haul the family around Walt Disney World, SeaWorld Orlando, Universal Studios Florida, the Orlando Odditorium – Ripley’s Believe It or Not followed by a shopping spree at the Florida Mall and a day at the beach if time permits. The visit will pass in a blur of hyper-consumption and fast food outlets. The rationale is to protect the family from any stigma that might attach to the less advantaged for whom such a trip would be unaffordable. An average visitor will discover nothing about Florida’s social or physical topography unless they have the misfortune to be a victim of crime or to fall foul of the law. 

This would not be my choice but if I was compelled by circumstances (such as a lucky raffle win with no cash alternative) to travel to Florida I would explore the industrial Florida to be seen in these postcards. Other than agribusiness the principal industries are electronics, food processing and chemicals. I’m confident I could quickly locate the least salubrious industrial suburbs and if I can’t be found there I shall be in Polk Street in Tampa observing the mile-long freight trains that nose their way through the traffic in the downtown district, as seen on YouTube. At the end of Polk Street it’s a left turn for the Tampa Museum of Art but I might just go to Clearwater for more of the same. The day’s soundtrack will be Ry Cooder’s Going to Tampa from the Election Special album. 

Friday, 21 March 2014

Boardwalk Dominion

The profusion of written signage in the urban landscape is routinely denounced by commentators on the built environment. I’m not so convinced – perhaps it’s a result of a degenerate sensibility formed in the decade of Pop Art but the way that buildings, people and advertising signage jostle together seems endlessly fascinating to me. The defenders of a pristine and unsullied cityscape may have a point where architectural excellence is concerned although for many years the Duomo in Milan was wrapped in advertising for Alitalia without any lasting damage (other than to Alitalia which had to be rescued from bankruptcy in 2013). But in those locations where architectural heritage is in short supply, inventive signage can often be an enhancement. What I enjoy is what results when undiluted commercial vulgarity saturates the environment to the point where visual coherence is fragmented and lost in a centrifuge of conflicting messages while the daily commonplace of urban life continues in a bizarre counterpoint. The best place to see this happening is the United States although I suspect that India runs it a close second. 

Atlantic City seems to be one of those places where capitalism and criminality engage in an eternal courtship ritual. The frontier between the two constantly shifts and blurs while the gambling industry makes enormous profits for some and creates enormous headaches for law enforcement and guardians of civic values. Like most seaside resorts the city must cope with persistent urban decay while changes in public taste threaten to entice visitors elsewhere. Louis Malle’s eponymous movie of 1980 painted a melancholy picture of a city in terminal decline. Casino gambling and business and political conventions have kept the place afloat since then but competition from rival cities leaves no room for complacency. The latest engine of regeneration is the association with the Prohibition-era HBO drama series, Boardwalk Empire, that has inspired more than a few nostalgia-led period attractions, re-packaging the past for contemporary consumption. 

Some of these postcards pre-date the era of Prohibition when organized crime became embedded in the city while those that include advertising for brands of beer can be dated after 1933. Advertising signage is omnipresent, even on the beach there’s no escape. The pleasures of a seaside vacation shown here are relatively innocent – a leisurely promenade in a rolling chair, decorous dancing in modesty-preserving costumes, diving elks and dance marathons at the Million Dollar Pier or just taking the bracing sea air with hats firmly in place. Every space for advertising has been seized and colonised, most notably by Sherwin-Williams whose gigantic upturned tin of paint is about to overwhelm the unwary occupants of the rolling chairs that trundle past on the Boardwalk. Visual impudence on a grand scale. Cover the Earth is no idle threat. 

Wednesday, 19 March 2014

The Glamorous World of Postage Metering

These Pitney Bowes ads from 1947-49 present us with a brave attempt to market a useful but unattractive device to the business executive. They offer vignettes of office life in a combination of hard-boiled prose and lively caricature as a succession of opinionated, indolent, slovenly and recalcitrant employees stand in the way of progress. The anonymous salesman is the unsung hero, combining flattery, guile and gentle persuasion in a wise-cracking office environment similar to the one Howard Hawks created in 1940 for His Girl Friday. What went largely unsaid was the human cost of office automation – it is even suggested that relieving staff of such mundane tasks would free them up for more valuable work. Not what they teach in business school.