Thursday, July 4, 2019

Greetings on the Fourth of July

Not so very long ago it was the custom for people to send greeting cards — usually postcards — to family and friends on Independence Day.   These had a variety of themes, from highly patriotic, often involving the image of Uncle Sam, to political themes, and humor.   Many of them came from the workshop of Fred C. Lounsbury (1857-1917) and his Crescent Embossing Company of Plainfield, New Jersey.  Shown here are a sampling of ten Lounsbury July 4 postcards.

Although Lounsbury’s name appears on many of the cards issued from Crescent Embossing, he was not an artist but an entrepreneur and advertising specialist who directed the output of his firm that produced calendars, labels, advertising items and, beginning by 1907, topical postcards.  Several of my favorites have unintended humorous aspects.  Note the one at right.  Uncle Sam, draped in a flag, seems likely to have his pants singed or worse from the firecrackers exploding at his right leg.  

I also find humor in the card of Uncle Sam gazing from a window at a group of boys firing off a cannon.  Sam undoubted is proud of the youths, terming them “free and independent.”  He seems unaware that the cannon is not aimed in the air but level with the ground.  What are they aiming at?  Maybe the Trump White House.

Several Lounsbury cards for the Fourth contain memorials to famous Revolutionary War battles.  Uncle Sam is absent here in favor of cameos of George Washington and General John Sullivan (no relation) celebrating the victory at Trenton over the British redcoats and the Hessian mercenaries in December, 1775, Washington’s first major victory.

Another in the battle series hailed the victory at Yorktown in October 1781, the last battle of the war for independence.  Lord Cornwallis, the defeated general is depicted, looking foppish in his heavily braided uniform.  No mention is made of the French marines and French fleet that made the victory possible.

The card at left celebrates a later conflict, the Spanish-American War.  Here Uncle Sam is showing off Independence Day fireworks, surrounded by five children.  Four of them represents one of the territories wrested from Spanish rule:  Philippines, Cuba, Guam and Puerto Rico; the fifth, Hawaii.  All but Cuba would become possessions of the U.S.   The Philippines would eventually be given its independence.

The Lounsbury cards could also carry a political message.  The proprietor seems to have been a fan of President Theodore Roosevelt, showing him in his “Rough Rider” outfit from the Spanish-American War.  Driving a stars and stripes race car, Teddy assures a terrified Uncle Sam that:  “Don’t be afraid Uncle - We’ll get there all right.”  No idea is given, however, of the destination.

Another political card is also subject to interpretation.  It shows a fat bellied, cigar smoking Uncle Sam looking more like a genial robber baron than a symbol of American democracy.  He is contemplating two top-hatted, cigar smoking animals, identified as “Billy Possum” and “Jimmy Possum.”  They are presented as “The Nation’s Choice.”  The allusion is to the Presidential election of 1908 that pitted Republican William Howard Taft (“Billy”) against Democrat William Jennings Bryan (“Jimmie”).  The card seems to equate the two, although their views differed sharply.  Taft won with 51% of the vote.

The final set of Fourth of July cards are meant to be humorous.  The artist on all of them may be Charles Bunnell (1897-1968), an American painter and printmaker known for his ability to adapt to all popular styles from abstracts to realism and in this case, apparently cartooning.   Bunnell, who must have been in his teens when these were drawn, has fashioned all these cards in a manner reminiscent of the Hearst papers cartoon, “The Yellow Kid,” drawn by Richard Outcault [See my post on Outcault June 13, 2009.]   The first has an odd-looking George Washington lighting a fire cracker under a British general.

The next British general to be caught unawares by Washington was General Howe, the commander of His Majesty’s troops in the American colonies during much of the Revolutionary War.  The artist has him snoozing as all around him are explosive materials that are lighted and will soon blow him away.  

A rather different looking George Washington, standing on the crown of King George III, is purportedly reading from the Constitution [read “Declaration” ] of Independence to a highly distressed monarch who is strapped to a giant rocket.  A small boy with a lighted taper is remarking to Washington, “Say when boss!”  Note particularly the small hatchet in Washington’s belt, a reference to the cherry tree fable.

Although sending postcards at the holiday has gone out of style, the importance of the holiday is undiminished as a reminder of the many blessings of liberty we enjoy in the United States.  Fred Lounsbury understood that more than a hundred years ago and, as one writer has put it “...He truly excelled when it came to the Fourth of July.”  

Note:  Factual material about Fred Lounsbury and some images were taken from an article entitled “Lounsbury’s 4th of July Postcard Sets” by Fred Nuhn that appeared in the Antique Shoppe newspaper, dated July 2005.

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