Postcards of Institutions

Comments by Lucy Gwin of Mouth Magazine.

Matthew Brady, the original photojournalist, exposed his glass-plate photographs at Civil War battlefields and developed them from a crude kit he devised. Brady then shipped his images back to sell at his Washington gallery, and made a fortune.

Postwar, a new occupation arose: the traveling professional photographer.

These independent young men roamed from one city to the next, selling city fathers and industrialists glamour shots of the city and its commercial-industrial landmarks.

Obvious targets for traveling photographers were institutions, usually the largest buildings for miles around. Photographers often represented them as Taj Mahals rather than prisons, emphasizing their massiveness, their stately authority, and their landscaped grounds. Institution superintendents bought the photos, and wished the whole world could admire their palaces.

Local printers turned institution photographs into photo postcards — sometimes hand-colored to add to the photo's romantic allure. During the late 19th and early 20th century postcards were the most popular form of long-distance communication. Photo postcards were a great sensation, and they came into being just as grand institutions began to stud the American countryside.

These postcards are a small sample of the collection of Prof. Robert Bogdan of Syracuse University, photographed by Patricia Deegan.

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