Spreading the word of suffrage, with just a one-cent stamp
Brighton resident Carol N. Crossed's new coffee-table book "Vintage Tweets" displays postcards from the women's suffrage movement — for and against
People these days tend to think of postcards, if they think of them at all, mostly as “wish-you-were-here” vacation souvenirs, largely eclipsed in the era of electronic communication and social media.
But go back in time, into the late 19th and early 20th century, and the postcard enjoyed a much larger prominence and relevance, serving as a nimble, inexpensive avenue for communication, art appreciation and the sharing of information, ideals — and propaganda. In that sense, they could be considered analogous to today’s social media, the Instagram or Twitter of 1900.
That parallel isn’t lost on Carol N. Crossed of Brighton, who compiled her massive collection of postcards from the suffrage movement into a new, coffee-table style art book, released in conjunction with the opening of the National Woman Suffrage Centennial at a book signing in Seneca Falls — and published in time for the Aug. 18 centennial of the 19th Amendment to the Constitution in 1920 that assured women nationwide the right to vote. The title? “Vintage Tweets: Suffrage Era Postcards.”
The book, which is available at the Memorial Art Gallery in Rochester — includes postcards with a wide variety of themes, styles, subject matter and points of view, both from those in favor of and opposed — sometimes violently so — to women’s suffrage. They range in style from ornate to crude, in approach from earnest to satirical; and include everything from dignified portraits of such pivotal figures in the movement as Susan B. Anthony and English suffrage advocate Sylvia Parkhurst to opponents’ whimsical illustrations depicting dominated husbands overwhelmed by domestic duties.
There are multiple expressions of a single statement: “Woman — she needs no eulogy; she speaks for herself.” There are selections focusing on issues that went hand in hand with the suffrage movement: abolition, temperance (one striking if macabre image shows a skeleton lifting a glass with the caption “Have a smile with me”) and clothing reform, as women pushed for trousers to become acceptable wear, particularly as the bicycle gave them greater mobility and independence. There are images not only from America, but produced in England, Germany, Italy, Ireland, and more. And there are photographic accounts of major suffragist gatherings, that give a real picture — literally — of the support the movement enjoyed, such as an image from a 1913 suffrage march in Washington.
“They tell the real story,” Crossed said. “No matter what the media would say about how many people were in a parade, now you could show the real images of the movement."
Crossed has collected postcards since the 1980s, becoming particularly interested in the vintage cards after her family purchased a Victorian home in Cape May, New Jersey, designated a National Landmark City of Historic Places. Then, after she became involved in the purchase and restoration of Susan B. Anthony’s birthplace in Adams, Massachusetts, the particular interest in suffrage postcards was born. She notes in the “acknowledgements” section of the book that Adams resident Robin Loughman’s diligently uncovering suffrage ephemera like the cards played a role in that home’s development into the Susan B. Anthony Birthplace Museum — and noted, thanks to Loughman, her suffrage postcard collection grew to over 650 pieces.
As collectors of just about anything know, the hunt can take plenty of time, dedication and doggedness. “My husband would tell you — he has a lot of patience,” Crossed said. “I would go through a lot of boxes of junk at antique shows and flea markets” in the hopes of finding a vintage card.
Postcards were just the right medium for the burgeoning suffrage movement — and for its foes — Crossed noted. She writes in the book’s introduction that the postcard’s heyday was advanced by the convergence of the paper manufacturing, print and transportation (railroad) industries, and they provided a rapid — and cheap — way to communicate and share information. As she writes: “Anyone who could afford a one cent stamp could be an activist.”
She writes that the postcard fulfilled the movement’s demands for “communication both to the public and in the private sphere”: “The movement of women intent on getting the vote was literally an accelerated level of mobile technology, a communications revolution, unlike anything experienced before the Civil War.”
And, of course, that “mobile technology” could also be harnessed by the movement’s foes. One page in “Vintage Tweets” displays two cards published by historian and lithographic illustrator Bernhardt Wall depicting an identical image of a young girl in red approaching an apprehensive looking boy in a derby hat. The wording, however, is very different. One included the heading “VOTES FOR WOMEN” and read, “You’ve called us the better half long enough, now make good your bluff.” The other has the same heading with the “WO” in “WOMEN” struck through, and reads “We’ve troubles of our own, Leave well enough alone.”
The amount of anti-suffrage postcards Crossed came across was one of the main surprises she found, but she notes it stands to reason: “A postcard lends itself to mockery and sarcasm, in a very quipping fashion — postcards are like a tweet today. You could say something to someone on a little ‘tweet’ — something that you wouldn’t get away with saying to their face.”
“Vintage Tweets” was designed by Kathryn D'Amanda with MillRace Design Associates in Rochester and printed by Mercury Print Productions in Rochester. It is available at the Memorial Art Gallery, where a selection of the postcards is on display in the MAG’s Cameros Gallery, as well as through Amazon. It is also available at the Susan B. Anthony Birthplace Museum in Adams, Massachusetts (www.susanbanthonybirthplace.org), with all proceeds going to the museum.