A French Oasis in Early Pennsylvania

 

Deep in the Pennsylvania wilderness, travelers at the end of the 18th century might stumble upon something extraordinary: a perfect little French town, complete with shops, a distillery, and a theater. What looked like ordinary log cabins on the outside had plastered walls, carpets, and other luxuries. A few years later, however, it was all gone. Today, only one building remains.

 

This fairytale French oasis in the Pennsylvania countryside was Azilum (sometimes spelled Azylum). As the French Revolution got into full swing in the 1790s, many royalists and aristocrats fled the country in fear for their lives. Slave uprisings in French-owned Saint-Domingue sent other French refugees north.

 

azilum ASeveral influential Philadelphians sympathized with the French, and also saw a way to make a substantial profit off the exiled aristocrats. Stephen Girard, Robert Morris, and John Nicholson, among others, purchased 1600 acres of land in the northeastern part of the state, near the Susquehanna river; 300 of the acres were set aside for a town. There was a 2-acre market square, and 413 private lots, each about a half-acre square. Approximately 30 log cabins were built to welcome refugees who began arriving in the fall of 1793; other buildings housed a blacksmith shop, distillery, and theater. Crops and fruit trees were planted, and cattle and sheep brought to the colony.

 

The crown jewel of the colony was La Grande Maison, a two-story building 84 feet long and 60 feet wide. Legend persists that it was built in the hopes that Marie Antoinette and her children would be able to escape the Reign of Terror and settle there. This, of course, did not happen, though the building did house dignitaries who visited, including Louis Phillipe, who reigned as the last king of France from 1830 to 1848.)

 

The Philadelphian investors promoted their French oasis aggressively; agents met ships docking at the harbor to scout out French aristocrats who had money and a need to settle. The investors had bought the wilderness land at about $0.15 per acre; the French aristocrats bought it for 6 francs, a profit for the Americans of about 500%.

 

azilum CThe French families who came to Azilum did their best to recreate the life they had left, despite the difficulties of living so far from other communities. The interiors of the log cabins were plastered and covered in wallpaper, expensive rugs laid on the floors, and elegant drapes hung from the windows. Some families had even managed to bring expensive furniture to the New World. Glass panes were set into the windows, instead of cheaper options like greased paper or flaked mica. Dances and parties were constant pastimes, and the aristocrats hired landscapers to maintain their lawns in the French fashion. Visitors to the colony were amazed at the sheer luxury on display in the Pennsylvania wilderness.

 

This enchanted life was doomed from the start. The nearest town with supplies to be purchased was 75 miles away. Extreme weather made travel next to impossible in winter. Then Morris and Nicholson declared bankruptcy toward the end of the 18th century, and French investors were no longer willing to bankroll a home in America for the refugees. Finally, in the first years of the 1800s, Napoleon declared that all exiles could return; Azilum rejoiced at the news, and celebrated with a feast. As many families as could make the journey returned to France.Some colonists stayed and assimilated into American culture in other towns. Surnames like LaPorte, Homet, LeFevre, and Brevost may indicate descendants of these families.

 

The LaPorte house, which was held by the family until the mid-1800s, and then by a trust until it passed into government hands for preservation, is the only remaining original house at Azilum (though other buildings have been reconstructed.) It serves as a museum, housing many artifacts from the original settlers. This single building and its contents are all that remain of the tiny piece of French life in early America. The site of Azilum is marked and visible from the highway; it remains a popular subject for postcards.

The Strange Short-Lived Fad of Leather Postcards

 

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Postcards became extremely popular around the beginning of the 20th century, and manufacturers frequently added features to attract buyers. Postcards were embossed, gilded, embroidered, and made of different materials. For a brief time, leather postcards were all the rage.

 

While not rare enough to be particularly valuable, most people have never seen one of these leather postcards. Many were comedic or intended to convey romantic sentiments. Like most postcards, they were pre-printed with a spot for the address and a stamp.

 

s-l1600 (16)Leather postcards were only popular for a few years between 1905 and 1910 before falling out of favor. For one thing, the post office hated the postcards, due to their thickness, which caused problems with the mail sorting machines. (There was also some confusion as to the cost of mailing early postcards, and leather postcards only added to the confusion.) The cards were usually made of deer hide, and the design added by burning the leather (occasionally, the design was inked on.) Some even came with pre-cut holes so the postcards could be sewn together for pillow covers or other mementos. A trade magazine noted in 1906 that the demand for leather postcards had boosted the leather market.

 

However, the fad was short-lived, and paper postcards reigned supreme again for the rest of the 20th century, due to the ease and cheapness of production and mailing.

The 1907 Jamestown Exposition

In 1607, Jamestown was founded in Virginia. And three hundred years later, the U.S. wanted to commemorate the famous event. Event planners thought it impossible to set up the exposition at the original site of Jamestown; the area was abandoned and not geographically convenient for large volumes of visitors. Because of this, the site of Norfolk was eventually decided on. Norfolk, Virginia sits close enough to Jamestown and is today a large, thriving city.

Event planners set the location of the exposition at Sewell’s Point, a beautiful location but a difficult one to construct on because of its isolation. They had to build roads just to get to the site! This foreshadowed a number of different preparation issues. Most difficult of all, Fitzhugh Lee, the Governor of Virginia and president of the Norfolk City Council, died in 1905 while working on the project.

The Exposition opened on April 26, 1907, exactly three hundred years after colonists first landed in Virginia. Similar to other World Fairs in the past, the Jamestown Exposition had a rough start. On opening day, only one fifth of the lights were able to turn on, and multiple buildings and sites were not completed. Constructors even failed to finish two buildings by the exposition’s end. But President Theodore Roosevelt himself personally opened the exposition!

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A difficult start didn’t have to forebode a bad exposition – though setbacks did continue. Attendance never achieved projected numbers after the opening day, and the fair did not make enough to pay back a million dollar loan.

But the show did have its successes. One of the most popular was the recreation of the Battle of Hampton Roads, a battle between the warships USS Monitor and CSS Virginia. This epic battle between ships was one of the changing points for Virginia in the 17th century; the exposition built a whole building around the model. Military prowess was a common theme for the exposition, which some visitors protested.

Overall, the exposition was not a big success. It lost several million dollars thanks to a much lower attendance than expected. Too much ambition and poor planning ended up being the exposition’s downfall.

However, some great postcards came out of it! If you’re interested in vintage Jamestown Exposition postcards, you can find them here.

The Power of Pineapples

Ah, the humble pineapple — a wonderful tropical fruit that’s tasty in fruit salads and smoothies. But when it comes to pineapple, there’s more than meets the eye. There’s history and meaning behind it that you might not expect.

The fruit comes from South America. Christopher Columbus, who encountered the pineapple on the journey to the New World, brought the fruit back to Spain. The voyagers named it piña because it looked like a pine cone.

Show your friendly personality with this lovely pineapple charm: currently 25% off on our eBay page!

Show your friendly personality with this lovely pineapple charm: currently 25% off on our eBay page!

In the Caribbean, a pineapple placed by a village entrance represented hospitality. Seeing a pineapple at an entrance meant you were welcome to come in.

Captains used to put pineapples (symbols of their exotic travels) out on railings when they returned home as a sign that they were currently at home.

European hothouses grew pineapples for those who had developed a taste for them. Emperor Charles V of Spain wasn’t a fan of the fruit, but the public had different tastes, and the 18th century saw pineapples become a popular delicacy.

Vintage Jiffy-Jell advertisement using the tradition of a pineapple as a centerpiece.

Vintage Jiffy-Jell advertisement using the traditional pineapple centerpiece.

Colonial America families put pineapples out on the table when visitors came. Guest rooms often had pineapples carved into the bedposts, once again as signs of hospitality.

It’s not uncommon to see pineapples used in architecture and decoration from way back when. As a welcoming symbol, the pineapple is also said to mean good luck & prosperity in a home.

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Of course, one can’t talk about pineapples without mentioning Hawaii. It was only in the year 1901 that the pineapple became a recognizable Hawaiian symbol; that was the year that Jim Dole founded his Hawaiian Pineapple Company. Thanks to his expert hand at business, twenty years later the pineapple became Hawaii’s biggest industry. And until recently, Hawaii was the biggest canner of pineapples in the world.

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Vintage Hawaii pineapple harvesting postcard.

When it comes to current fashion, pineapples are having their moment in the sun. The summer may almost be over, but hospitality and friendliness are always in style.

Sources:

Florida Libraries

Symbolism

Prohibition Postcards

Both sides of prohibition, whether pro- or anti-, were well represented on postcards. Many of these vintage postcards can be found today as great pieces of history.

By the 1890’s, saloons were just about everywhere in the United States. And some at the time saw drinking as an immoral practice that caused men to spend all their money at saloons instead of necessities for their wife and children. This view of alcohol as a ruiner of families led to the Temperance Movement, in which primarily women and religious leaders sought to reduce drinking.

Nationwide prohibition began in the U.S. in 1920.

Vintage postcards make for remarkable examples in both sides of the prohibition arguments.

The family issue was brought up on many pro-prohibition postcards. Saloons were cast with a light of immorality, and some postcards held persuasive arguments against them. One such vintage postcard says, “A Saloon can no more be run without using up boys than a flouring-mill without wheat, or a saw-mill without logs. The only question is, whose boys – your boy or mine – our boys, or our neighbors’?”CIMG1360

On the flip side, other prohibition cards made light of the situation with humorous scenes reminiscing about the good ol’ days of legal alcohol.

Camels made for a popular theme on prohibition cards. As one prohibition card says, “A camel can go without a drink for eight days – But who the devil wants to be a camel?”prohibition002

And some anti-prohibition cards made their own arguments about the economic benefits of bars.

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The man on the card dreams of all the jobs that salons create.

 

United States prohibition ended in 1933, thirteen years after its beginning.

Prohibition postcards make for great collectors items. If you’re interested in the camel postcards, head here to see if we have them on auction!

 

Sources:

Postcardiva for postcards & info

Antique Trader for extensive history

The Tales Behind World War I Postcards

A number of vintage postcards from the era of WWI give us insight into the thoughts of the people living through the war. Some are insightful and some are a little ridiculous, showing the rumors surrounding battle.

One of the more science fiction-y postcards emerged from the invention of tanks. Before many had even seen the things, artists drew what they thought the tanks actually looked like, making for amusing illustrations.

The drawings were probably influenced by this gem from The Times: “the gratifying fact seems to be, that our inventors have not hesitated boldly to tread unbeaten paths…unearthly monsters eased in steel, spitting fire, and crawling laboriously but unceaselessly over trenches, barbed wire, and shell craters, which, had they been conceived by imaginative novelists, would have been regarded fantastical.”

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Notice the pincers on the front.

Another WWI postcard shows an account of a popular legend, which tells the story of St. George and an army of medieval English bowmen appearing in the sky during battle and shooting spectral arrows at the Germans. In later stories the bowmen became angels, and people often heard through the grapevine about soldiers seeing angels on the field “with their own eyes”.

This inspired this postcard, featuring art by W. H. Margetson:

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“The Angels of Mons”

Another war story surrounded by rumor involved zeppelins. Rumors in the British Isles claimed that there was a secret German base nearby that flew over towns at night. While this rumor was dismissed, another zeppelin event did occur that later showed up on a postcard. Zeppelin SL20 was seen in the sky and pilots climbed their planes into the sky to shoot it down. Soon, the zeppelin caught fire and fell to the ground.

An unknown artist depicted the event, showing the moment when the flaming mass fell out of the sky, surrounded by spotlights and glimpses of surrounding planes. The moment is frozen on this postcard:

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These are just a few of the postcards that give glimpses into the tales surrounding WWI. There are many more out there to keep your eyes open for!

Have you ever ran into vintage postcards that give great snapshots of moments in history? Let us know in the comments!