Let’s Start Talking About Postcards and Research Topics

Hello, all! This will be the first of many posts on the subject of my research project for my Public History Master’s program. I’m going to make every effort to demonstrate to you just how interesting everything I’m studying is.

Roughly, I am going to be studying tourism to Western Canada (particularly the Rockies) post-Confederation to the 1920s or 1930s. Yes, that was very vague. You see, I picked up this topic just at the end of August, though I was doing related but more specialized research for Fort Edmonton Park as a part of my costumed interpretation on 1920s street. Particularly, I was looking at automotive tourism in the 1910s and 1920s from Edmonton to Jasper. Early “auto-camping” is sure to be a subject that I will pick up on this blog – and in potential research – later on.

Anyway, before I began attending Carleton University this year, I studied history at the University of Alberta. There, I did an undergraduate thesis on the subject of the history of American Civil War medicine. I can literally talk your ear off for over an hour about early uses and perceptions of anaesthesia, miasma theory, germ theory, and so on. Just try me. More on that in a later post.

However, while I find the history of medicine one of the most fascinating things ever, I wanted to do a more Canadian topic for my Master’s, especially as I would be working with some awesome Canadianists at the heart of our nation’s capital.

Over the course of my undergraduate degree, I became fascinated by photography. I’ve always focused my research upon the “Long Nineteenth Century” (ranging from the French Revolution to the first First World War, because centuries are arbitrary dates and I don’t like putting things in abstract or arbitrary boxes), and now the 1920s have grown on me. (Being paid to drive in motorcars from the late 1920s for a chunk of the summer will do that to you – photographs to come.)

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(Automotive tourists in Banff, shown in a personalized postcard from 1922, courtesy of Peel’s Prairie Provinces.)

Thus, while Civil War amputations may have little to do with early tourism in the Rockies over a generation later, I think that one of the elements that draws these two topics together is the visual culture of both. I will likely later post images from the Civil War – early medical imaging whose poses are based off of portrait photography! – but for the moment, I will be focussing on postcards.

For the purposes of my OGS and SSHRC proposals, which require very specific research goals, I will be examining representations of First Nations people on these postcards, especially in the light of the comments made by the senders. The neat thing about postcards is that sometimes we have a literal written interpretation of the viewer/purchaser/sender written right on it, which can tell us plenty of things about how tourists saw the region and the people therein.

The following postcard really epitomizes this kind of practice, though of course I have other examples. The following doesn’t come from Peel’s Prairie Provinces like the one above. (Though they have 14,000+ postcards recently digitized in this free online database!) In fact, it belongs to the family of one of my classmates who eagerly told me about it when we were discussing our potential research topics. She recently scanned these images for me, and I am forever in her debt.

On the front of the postcard we can see some “Blood Indians on Horse Back”. Some wear plains-style war bonnets, which (later?) become associated with “Indian” stereotypes even in Eastern tribes where there was no such tradition. You can also see some native riders in more “European” style clothing on the right, with their hats clearly visible. This image was copyrighted in 1910, so we know that this photo can’t have been taken after that date.

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So far, very little distinguishes this postcard to me from any other dozen images of similar subjects from this time period. First Nations people in “traditional regalia”, preparing for “war parties”, etc., were very popular images in photography in the final decades of the 19th century onward. What I find most fascinating is the message on the reverse, sent to my friend’s great-grandmother in 1912:Image“These are a few of the people we have to associate with out here. J.W.S.”

I interpreted this message humorously, and I find it and many other such postcards very fascinating. Did the purchaser of this card ever actually meet any “Blood Indians”, or was the extent of their contact the viewing and sending of this postcard? Are they playing into the expectations of their friends and family back home, because of course one can still regularly expect to see such people riding across the Western plains?

I will be examining these types of questions, among many others. In the meantime, you’ll probably find me waist-deep in primary and secondary literature. It’s a good thing I’ve recently stocked up my freezer, because aside from trips to the University for class and the occasional social event, and trips to the national archive, how frequently will I pop my head up above my pile of books?

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