Preserving the Ephemeral

By Samuel Shapiro ’16, intern in Ephemera Acquisitions

This postcard, sent from a traveler to his brother in 1911, is an example of what I have collected as the Ephemera Acquisitions intern this summer.

This postcard, sent from a traveler to his brother in 1911, is an example of what I have collected as the Ephemera Acquisitions intern this summer.

“Turkey has its barber shops just as we do in this country,” Clarence P. Hedden must have learned, reading the back of a postcard he received in the fall of 1911. “The chairs, which are nothing more than ordinary arm chairs, are arranged in the open air, under a few shade trees. The customer sits quietly while the barber, with his red turban, runs a queer looking instrument over his face.” So ends the publisher’s description on the postcard entitled, “A Turkish Barber Shop, Constantinople, Turkey,” sent to Mr. Hedden by his brother Isaac on September 16th, 1911. Beneath this printed text, Isaac wrote his own message. He felt that he should “drop a card” since he hadn’t heard from home for quite a while. In his missive, he boasted of having earned $4.25 picking hops despite a great deal of rain, and he noted to his brother that “baby is getting such a big girl.”

Collecting postcards is the bulk of my project here at Dumbarton Oaks. As the first Ephemera Acquisitions intern, I am working to create a collection of historic postcards and other ephemera—those items not intended to last over time—to serve the intellectual interests and needs of the scholars at Dumbarton Oaks as well as the larger scholarly community and the public. For a postcard to be eligible for accession it must relate to one of Dumbarton Oaks’s three areas of study (Byzantine, Pre-Columbian, and Garden & Landscape Studies) and should date from the years 1890-1922. In addition to relating to the areas of study, these items are just as valuable for reflecting the material culture, travel culture, and cross-cultural interactions of the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. As such, in addition to making the fields of study accessible to scholars whose interests do not typically line up with those traditionally found at Dumbarton Oaks, the collection will stand as a gateway into D.O.’s fields of study for the public and those interested in popular forms of consumer culture.

Greater ease and affordability of cross-continental travel in the nineteenth century spurred middle class travel, increasing exposure to Byzantine and pre-Columbian sites and creating greater awareness of important garden and landscape sites. Born of this heightened travel, postcard culture stands today as a record of the experiences of those newly able to travel widely. Clarence’s brother Isaac may only have been checking in on his family, but the postcard he chose and the words he wrote tell us a lot about daily life and travel in early twentieth century not-yet-Istanbul, providing a unique view of life in the city nearly five centuries after its time as the center of Byzantine civilization.

Isaac’s postcard illustrates the uniform Turkish barbers wore in 1911, their approach to privacy, sanitation, and grooming, what kinds of work a foreigner could hope to find in Turkey, and how much one could expect to make doing it. Through a single postcard, historians can see this information both through the lens of intimately personal inscriptions and that of the impersonal, tourism-promoting advertisements that many postcard pictures are. Indeed, collecting postcards often instills a sense of nostalgia, for all this information and the gorgeous picture would today be a mere Snapchat captioned “what’s up?”

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