“Ridgefield’s face is her fortune,” someone once wrote. While preserving that face has been the task of zoning, conservation, and historical officials, picturing it was largely the job of postcard publishers, whose hundreds of color and black-and-white images have recorded Ridgefield since the turn of the 20th Century.
Although the town’s population was only 2,600 in 1900 and 4,400 by 1950, more than 500 different postcard views of Ridgefield were commercially published in the first 50 years of the 20th Century. Much of this period was the golden age of the postcard, and much was also a golden age in the economy of the town. Ridgefield was also a popular destination for tourists seeking a picturesque country village or for wealthy New Yorkers looking for a weekend and summer retreat from the noise and bustle of the city. Postcards were ideal ways for both tourists and residents to show off where they visited or where they lived.
Picture postcards debuted in 1898 when Congress passed the Private Mailing Card Act. Before that, only plain, government-printed postcards could be mailed. With the 1898 act, private publishing companies could print pictures on cards and sell them. Purchasers could write a note, add a penny stamp, and pop the card in the mail.
“Private Mailing Cards” caught on quickly. When full-color cards were introduced in a few years, postcards became an incredible craze – millions were mailed each day.
Postcards were not only pretty, but also a form of communication. Most people did not have telephones in the early part of the century. Long before people said, “Give me a call,” they’d say, “Drop me a line.” The U.S. mail was the easiest way to keep in touch with family and friends who lived more than a few miles from your house. The postcard became an inexpensive and entertaining way to “drop a line.” And often it was fast; the message could travel hundreds of miles in a day – a card on page 37 went from Ridgefield to Ann Arbor, Mich., in 23 hours.
The earliest cards, up to about 1904, bore black-and-white images, often poorly printed. The picture of the First Congregational Church on page 2 may have been Ridgefield’s first such card. Around 1905, Americans discovered German lithography. Excellent German presses could inexpensively produce high quality color picture postcards.
When World War I broke out, the source of good color cards disappeared. Americans turned to a different technique that, while less high-tech, produced beautiful cards. Black-and-white images were finely printed, then colored by hand following instructions from the photographer. The chief producer of hand-colored cards was Albertype, whose Brooklyn, N.Y., factory employed hundreds of people – probably many of them starving artists – to watercolor their images. Millions of hand-colored Albertype cards were published between 1915 and 1940. More than 150 different scenes were of Ridgefield.
Less-expensive, black-and-white cards were also being sold. The quality of these varied – some were quite good and others looked like old newspaper pictures. Among the black-and-whites, however, were “real photo” cards that were literally mailable photographs. Local photographers could produce these for anyone, and as a result, many limited-edition cards were created. Few survive or can be identified, since most real-photo cards by local photographers had no printed identification. However, Underwood & Underwood, a New York City company famous for its stereograph images, mass-produced several dozen different real photo images of Ridgefield around 1910; all came with printed identifications.
Local merchants commissioned most postcards as items to sell in their stores. Obviously they wanted views that people would buy. Thus, these pictures had to show interesting scenes and popular places. They had to reflect what was best about the face of Ridgefield. Views in the center of town, estates, inns, and churches were among the most popular “sellers.” They depicted what Ridgefielders wanted to show off about themselves, and what visitors would find appropriate to reflect the town they visited.
Consequently, you won’t see ordinary houses, you won’t find farms, workshops, or people at work in the vast majority of old postcards. In fact, you rarely find people at all in postcards of Ridgefield – except as distant, unrecognizable individuals who happened to be in the scene when the photographer shot it.
Three pharmacies, all on Main Street in the village, accounted for almost all of the cards commissioned before 1940. The major local outlet was H.P. Bissell, which used half a dozen different publishers to print its cards, beginning around 1910. George Mignerey and the Smith family, also Main Street pharmacists, sold scores of additional cards. A few postcards were commissioned by Finch’s Cigar Store and Ridgefield Hardware as well as by several of the inns, such as Outpost. In Branchville, Mead’s store produced several views, most of them rare today.
In selecting cards for this book, I of course wanted the views that would reproduce well. But after that, I looked for pictures that best demonstrated how Ridgefield has changed – and how it has not changed – in the past century. Many images show what architectural historian Madeleine Corbin calls “Lost Ridgefield”: beautiful buildings that were destroyed by fire or by the changing times. Dozens of mansions were razed in the 1940s and 1950s because they were simply too expensive to maintain. Others succumbed to flames. And some simply were torn down to make way for housing developments.
Many postcards show buildings for which there are no other known surviving photographs. That’s both because postcards were more likely to be preserved by collectors, and because most postcards bear printed identifications. Countless old photographs of people and places have become meaningless today because no one thought to write identification on the back.
Although many images show what has since disappeared, many others demonstrate how well 21st Century Ridgefield has maintained its 19th Century appearance. This is especially true of Main Street and High Ridge, both now in historic districts.
© Copyright 2003 Jack Sanders, Ridgefield 1900-1950
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