Wednesday, October 29, 2014

History of Postcards

Before there was photo-sharing via internet or smart phones, Flickr or Instagram, there were postcards. The Golden Age of postcards is said to have spanned 1905-1915, with a big boost after March 1, 1907, when the U.S. Postal Service established a new ruling allowing the back of a post card to be divided into two parts: half for the address (and a one cent stamp) and half for the message. This left the entire front for a photo.

Colorized postcard of Nason Street circa 1920s (after trolley line
was removed). Note two-way traffic and no trees.
There was an immense, fad-like interest in collecting these images, to that point that in the U.S. alone, a billion cards were being purchased each year. Many were not used for correspondence, but instead ended up blank-backed in postcard albums. A social visit to friends might include sitting in their parlour, leafing through their postcard album.

 The Maynard Historical Society has a collection of close to 500 postcards. Most are unstamped and blank-backed. Three types dominate the collection. Scenes postcards captured notable buildings and structures, such as the school on Nason Street. Event postcards stemmed from local professional photographers who would rush to celebratory or tragic events (such as the September 1916 fire that burned the school on Nason Street). Finally, people could dress up in their finest clothes and get a portrait taken at a photographer's studio, to be made into a postcard and mailed to distant family members and friends.

Many of these postcards were used in the creation of the photo-history book "Maynard: Postcard History Series" (2005), by Paul Boothroyd and Lewis Halprin.  

Nason Street at present (courtesy of Erik Hansen)
Note only one mill chimney still standing
Postcard photography was black-and-white, or sometimes in shades of tans and reddish browns referred to as sepia. Prior to color photography (not commercially available until the 1930s), sepia was used to give a less artificial hue to photographs, and as a bonus, was more resistant to the fading effects of exposure to light. One hundred years ago, printers would colorize B&W and sepia images to create color postcards. Today, digital camera programs can provide a retro-look conversion of color images to sepia or black-and-white. 

Photographs for scenes postcards were taken by professional photographers sent out on the road by printers, many of those being German companies with U.S. operations. The printers would then have a salesman call on local businesses, such as a pharmacy or dry goods store, to sell these local views postcards. The store could opt to have its name printed on the front or back of the card, as a form of advertising.

In this manner there are cards with imprints for local businesses such as W.B. Case Dry Goods and H.J. Dwinell, proprietor of Johnson Pharmacy. Other cards might feature the printer, for example: The Rotograph Co, New York/Germany. Or the photographer. Or have no maker's mark.    

 Arvid Blad - a Maynard photographer - specialized in portrait postcards. In an advertisement in Popular Mechanics magazine, Blad offered to print a dozen postcards from any photo for a price of 35 cents. In his studio, one of the popular background scenes he offered was a large crescent moon and stars on an otherwise black curtain. Bruce Lucier, owner of Marquee Photoworks, uses a crescent moon and starry backdrop in his portrait work as homage to Blad.

Blad also produced event postcards. His oeuvre includes the well known pictures of the April 16, 1911 railroad train derailment, with a crowd of very well dressed people viewing the train. As it turns out, it was Easter Sunday, and people were coming from church in their holiday finest. 

Postcards will be on display in an exhibit at the Maynard Public Library, November and December. Entitled "Maynard Then and Now," this show will have pairs of images: an enlarged reproduction of the original postcard and a photo of the same site now.

The exhibit is supported by a grant from the Maynard Cultural Council, a local agency which is supported by the Massachusetts Cultural Council, a state agency. Captions by Lee Caras, member of the Maynard Historical Commission. The reproductions and new photos are the work of professional photographer and photo restorer Erik Hansen, a photo archivist for the Maynard Historical Society and photo artist with a studio at ArtSpace.

Tuesday, October 14, 2014

Book Reading Tonight (Oct 14)

Front cover: Maynard Smoke Shop, 1910
Book reading, October 14, 2014
Maynard Public Library (Nason Street)
7-8 PM: reading, Q&A, book sales, signing and light refreshments

How it went: 60+ people attended. I read excerpts from each chapter for 30 minutes then followed with 15 min for Q&A, then book signing. 

128 pages. 54 illustrations 
Publisher: The History Press
ISBN: 978.1.62619.541.7
Retail price: $19.99 (e-book $9.99)

The book is available in Maynard at The Paper Store, as e-book at various venues, or directly from the author [contact info is].  I will be scheduling other appearances through December.

Maynard resident David A. Mark brings his years of experience as a writer to create this fact-populated collection of fifty short essays gathered into seven theme-linked chapters. The contents were originally published 2012-14 as Mark’s column in Maynard’s newspaper, the Beacon-Villager. Mark continues to write for the newspaper. His more recent columns are posted at

In this, his second book, the content is 100% history. Chapters again cover the 19th, 20th and 21st centuries, plus a focus on the unusual people and unusual businesses that prospered here. So, from the question as to why there was a mink ranch in Maynard, to whether Babe Ruth came a-drinking here when he lived in Sudbury, here is David Mark with his well-researched and entertaining answers to those questions.

Or as he puts it, "I will answer any question about the history of Maynard - pause - I won't guarantee the answer is true, but I will answer."  

Only in Maynard
Meet the Maynard Family
19th Century
20th Century
Unusual Businesses
Unusual People
21st Century

Wednesday, October 8, 2014

Fluctuating Birth Rate, 1880-2013

A column published earlier this year explored counting the dead in Maynard, or more specifically, counting the dead who were buried in Maynard's cemeteries. This column addresses those born here. Birth and death information in the chart was taken from Town of Maynard Annual Reports, 1880-2012, available at the Maynard Public Library. The population line, scale shown on the right side of the figure, comes from U.S. Census data.

At first glance, deaths look to be fairly constant at 50-100 per year, but in light of the fact that the population was increasing from 2,200 to 10,100 what the chart really shows is far, far fewer deaths per thousand over time. Not a surprise - cleaner water, safer food, modern medicine and a huge decline in tobacco use has dropped the death rate in the U.S. to under 8/1,000/year. Maynard's death rate now falls below the national average, suggesting either that the current population skews younger and/or healthier than the national average Or that older people are moving away to die elsewhere.

A sharp spike in deaths in 1918 was due to the influenza pandemic. Town records show that 35 deaths in the last quarter of 1918 alone were caused by the flu.

Much like deaths, births per thousand population have also decreased dramatically over time. One hundred years ago the national birth rate was on the order of 30/1,000/year, declining to the present day 14/1,000/year. As in many cultures, the desire to have many children decreased as the likelihood of infant and childhood death decreased, while at the same time the cost of raising a child to independent adulthood increased.

Births show three large, sustained peaks. The first two coincide with increases in population. By 1902 the moribund woolen mill (bankrupt in 1898) had been bought by the American Woolen Company, reopened, and started on a major expansion program. Young workers were being hired—mostly immigrant Finns, Poles, Italians and Russians - and the birthrate exploded accordingly. No surprise—there was an uptick in marriages which overlapped the first birth peak. From 1895-1902 the marriages average was 42/year, while from 1903-1917 the average was 100/year.

The second peak in births represents the post-WWII baby boom, and also the transition of Maynard from a factory town to a bedroom suburb for employees of new businesses on Route 128. New houses were being built, especially on the northwest side of town, and population was showing another growth spurt.

One mystery is why the birth rate dropped so dramatically after the 1960 peak. Looking back, this is the period when birth control pills became widely accepted, when birth control sales to unmarried women became legal (1972) and when abortion became legal (1973). Demographics also played a role. Locally, population growth had stalled, new housing had stalled, and what was left was a mature, post-child-birth population aging in place.

The third uptick in births, starting in 1983, is also a mystery. This birth boom was taking place against an unchanging total population and an absence of new home construction. There is a possibility that retired mill workers were either dying or moving away and being replaced by younger employees of Digital Equipment Corporation, as the 1980s were a fast-growth period for Digital.

Statewide, the current birth rate is about eleven births per thousand population per year. Maynard is averaging above that. One possible answer: Maynard's home-owning costs are 30 to 50 percent less than in the neighboring towns of Acton, Concord, Sudbury and Stow, so Maynard may be more attractive to young couples who are becoming first time home owners. Subjectively, this is borne out by all the strollers being pushed about the downtown sidewalks on good-weather weekends. 

Sunday, October 5, 2014

Peru: Five Photos

WOOD ROW BOAT ON LAKE TITICACA: Lake Titicaca, at the southern end of Peru, also reaching into Bolivia, is roughly 110 miles long and 50 miles wide. Altitude is 12,500 feet. The natives who live on the floating islands, at the north end of the lake, traditionally made boats out of the same totora reeds used to create the islands and their houses on the islands. But for at least 100 years, the natives also used wooden boats to get from island to island, and to mainland, and to fish or hunt. These boats can be poled or rowed in shallow water, or rigged with a sail, or as seen in this photo taken September 2014, equipped with a gas motor. Note the very crude oar.

Lake Titicaca wooden row boat (click on photo to enlarge)

BUTTERFLY: Photograph taken at Machu Picchu, elevation 8,000 feet. Species is Altinote negra demonica. In dry climates clusters of these are sometimes seen on the ground, drinking water from a puddle or seep. Bright colors are seen on some butterflies that are toxic/distasteful to birds and other predators. In North America, similar colors are seen on Monarch butterflies. Some non-toxic species have evolved similar appearance as protective mimicry. For Monarchs, the Viceroy butterfly.

Altinote negra demonica, looking somewhat frayed at the wingtips

ALPACA: There are four camelid species in South America. Listed from smallest to largest: Vicuna, Guanaco, Alpaca and Llama. All have two toes per foot. Hair from all four are used in weaving and knitting. Vicuna and guanaco are wild, but captured every few years for shearing. Domesticated alpaca derived from vicuna. Domesticated llama derived from guanaco. Llama hair is relatively coarse, and used for rugs. Vicuna hair is exceptionally fine, i.e., small diameter, making for very soft material such as scarves. For alpaca, young animals are thought to produce a better quality hair, so many stores advertise products as "baby alpaca."  

A very fluffy-looking alpaca at a camelid research facility south of Cuzco, Peru (vincuna in background)
COCHINEAL AS A TEXTILE DYE: Wingless (female) insects of this species live on cacti. In pre-Columbian times these insects were used to make a textile dye. After the Spanish conquests this became an export business to Europe. Today, carmine, extracted from cochineal, is still used in the cosmetic industry (lipstick) and in foods. Carmine is neither kosher nor halal (nor vegetarian). Photo taken at a demonstration of traditional dyeing and weaving, in the Sacred Valley, Peru.

Freshly crushed cochineal insects yield a red color - blending with other ingredients gives orange or purple
POTTERY: The Moche/Mochica culture existed roughly 100-800 AD along the northern coast of what is now modern Peru. This region had an extensive pottery expertise, seen as platters and bowls, and also as vessels which would have contained water or other fluids (corn beer?). Preferred clay/glaze colors were cream and red. The Larco Museum has tens of thousands of pieces in its collection.

Mochica vessels, showing couples involved in sexual activity (Museo Larco, Lima, Peru)

Wednesday, October 1, 2014

Birds of a (Foreign) Feather

Having just spent two weeks in Peru, my bird count life list has grown. Except I do not really have a life list. Some people do. For them, the practice of recording how many bird species they have observed (in a lifetime, a year, a day) helps motivate and organize outdoor excursions.

There are some basic rules for serious birders: dead does not count and not wild does not count - meaning not pets, zoos, aviaries, bird rehab centers, etc. But birders are willing to count birds heard but not seen as long as the sounds can be considered unique to that species. There are phone apps to assist with bird identifications, both visual and sound.  

Peru has approximately 1,850 species of birds, including 135 species of hummingbirds, some as large as crows. (Just kidding, the giant hummingbird (Patagona gigas) of the Andean mountains is a slender, drab-colored bird about the size of a cardinal, but at half the body weight.) In comparison, all of North America has about 800 bird species. For Peru, extreme biodiversity packs a lot into a country one-eighth the size of the United States.

Great blue heron; Assabet River, 2014
For Maynardites who have no intention of compiling a formal life list, it is still possible to create an "I've seen that" list that can easily exceed thirty bird species. Here are sixteen starters: pigeon, robin, sparrow, finch, blue jay, cardinal, seagull, goose, duck, starling, nuthatch, dove, vulture, hawk, heron and swallow.

A question here - why is birding such a popular hobby, yet few people brag about how many mammal species they've seen? Maybe it is because there are fewer mammal species worldwide, and close to half of those are rodents. An exception to the rule are the wealthy few who travel around the world to see rare and exotic mammal species. And shoot them. And bring back heads to mount on a wall.

A second list of sixteen Maynard-seen birds: crow, swan, turkey, eagle, osprey, nighthawk, bluebird, chickadee, catbird, mockingbird, red-winged blackbird, ruby-throated hummingbird, tufted titmouse, woodpecker, grackle and wren.

Getting beyond thirty or so requires either some homework or some travel. For example, non-birders can think "sparrow" and mean a small brown bird that is often seen in small flocks, whereas an experienced birder hopes to distinguish among ten sparrow species found in this area. Similarly, multiple species of warblers, hawks, gulls....

One interesting observation is that of wild birds commonly seen in Massachusetts, four are human-introduced, non-American species: rock pigeon, house sparrow, starling and mute swan. Pigeons were brought in as food animals in the early 1600s. House sparrows and starlings were brought over in the late 1800s under efforts of the American Acclimatization Society to introduce European plants and animals into North America for both economic and cultural reasons. The effort to introduce starlings was augmented by Eugene Schieffelin, an AAS member, who brought in more birds in 1890-91 as part of a plan to have in the U.S. all birds mentioned in Shakespeare's writings - some 49 species. Efforts to introduce nightingales and skylarks failed.

Easter Peeps at bird feeder (click on photo to enlarge)
Mute swans were first brought to the United States as living ornaments to ponds on private estates in wealthy counties outside New York City, circa 1890-1912. Escapees from those original introductions have resulted in a multi-state population in excess of 30,000 with a growth rate of 10-20% per year. Many states are enacting control programs, as these swans are disruptive of other waterfowl.     

The pigeons in Peruvian cities looked identical to ours. Rock pigeons - what we call pigeons - were originally native to the Mediterranean region, but as noted above, were introduced to North and South America in early colonial times as domesticated birds gone feral. Pigeons are at ease with city living, as buildings provide nesting sites roughly analogous to cliffs, while predators are scarce. However, in New York City and elsewhere, raccoons (nest robbers), peregrine falcons and red-tailed hawks are urbanizing, too.

P.S. Life is not easy for virtual pigeons, either. In the video game Grand Theft Auto IV, pigeons, or in city vernacular, "flying rats," are rewardable targets. Blast all 200 to get more game completion points and the use of an attack helicopter.