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Well-wishes and Caricatures

Jul 12, 2016

It's that time of year again! Every summer interns from around the country join us in our work on the TR Digital Library. We often ask them to share their experiences in the blog. Rachel Manuszak reflects on the Fritz R. Gordner Collection.

When I applied for the Theodore Roosevelt Center’s digital cataloging internship, I admittedly knew only a little about Theodore Roosevelt—either as a leader or a personality. In preparation, I did a good deal of research about this man I knew was a towering figure of American history. What I found was an enigma—a man who was many things to many people, but was always singularly himself.

It is this enigmatic and yet every-man I see reflected in the postcards of the Fritz R. Gordner Collection. The collection boasts almost one hundred postcards depicting Theodore Roosevelt at various points of his career (as Governor of New York, as a Rough Rider, and throughout his Presidency) and in his varied roles (father, soldier, frontiersman, leader, patriot). The postcards vary in form and function, as well. Many are blank, most of those with messages are personal in nature, and a few contain messages about TR and American politics of the day. Some are more ornate and detailed printings, while others are simple, stamped depictions with very little text.

This collection communicates a great deal about the perception of Theodore Roosevelt and the use of his image as a cultural marker even in his own time. The twenty or so postcards I helped to catalog were largely silly, even caricatures. So, when I surveyed the larger collection I was delighted to find that these cards are as varied as TR himself. It can be helpful to talk about them in two categories—the messages written of (or absent from) them and the images on the postcards.

More than half are blank—perhaps bought and kept as keepsakes. (This is particularly true of commemorative images.) Of those with messages, half are personal—largely well-wishes, travelling updates, and family news. The most interesting, though, are the portion that seems to be sent precisely because the image of TR is emblazoned on the front or his words are collected there. Most of these are addressed and sent without an additional message, seemingly for the sake of the picture alone. Others are purely political. One postcard insists, “The Country Needs a Good Man Like Roosevelt for President,” while the sender, Will, trusts “George will see his way clear to vote for Roosevelt.”

The Country Needs

Another captures popular devotion to Theodore Roosevelt. The card reprints a quotation from Theodore Roosevelt's essay, "What We Can Expect of the American Boy," which appeared in St. Nicholas Magazine (May 1900). The sender, Ida, supposes "D. D." is "reading all the president's [sic] messages" and so sends him this one.

The American Boy

My favorite postcard of the collection announces the engagement of Alice Roosevelt and Nicholas Longworth, while the sender asks Agnes Miller, “Haven't received my invitation yet. Have you?”

Alice and Nick

The images in the collection, though, probably best depict Theodore Roosevelt in the popular imagination of his day. Commemorative postcards show Theodore Roosevelt as the latest in a distinguished parade of Governors or Presidents and as the latest in a distinguished march of history. Others depict a lot of cowboy hats and large teeth—but always with an extended hand. This TR is never laughing at you, or himself. Many are portraits or photographs of the Roosevelt family, or of TR surrounded by his sons. A handful capture quotations from addresses and articles, exhorting the American populace to hard work and personal excellence—“don't foul and don't shirk, but hit the line hard." Only one seems truly to mock TR, with a cartoon image of a naked Theodore Roosevelt, a native structure, and the Egyptian Pyramids imposed inside the coastline of the African continent. TR's famous "Deelighted" sprouts from his toes. 

Deelighted

As this collection reflects, I am not the first person unable to “pin down” Theodore Roosevelt, nor am I the first person to discover a fascination with him. Hopefully, thanks to Fritz. R. Gordner and the TR Center, I won’t be the last!

Posted by Rachel Manuszak on Jul 12, 2016 in Digital Library  |  Permalink  |  Comments (1)  |  Share this post

Rick Marschall said,

The last post card you share in no way, truly or otherwise, mocks TR. A strange character introduced itself in 1908 -- The Billiken, a bizarre good-luck totem antedating the similar Kewpie dolls. Its origin is strangely elusive (who, what, when, where? no attributable creator) but for a few years America was awash in Billiken dolls, statuettes, cartoons, Tin Pan Alley song themes, a national obsession. Odd. Sort of like the Trolls and My Little Ponies and (dare I say) Pokemons of recent vintage. However the Billikens' lifespan was shorter; its popularity emigrated to Japan, where dolls and statuettes survived longer. Basically the Billiken, as a totem, was supposed to bring good luck. And better luck to anyone who gave one away (brilliant marketing, that). Among the permutations was a combination Teddy-Billiken doll. (Also, because of the, um, shape of the Billiken, and Taft's first name, dolls morphing the totem and William Howard Taft were more popular.) This card surely was issued in 1909 when TR went to Africa, and the "good hope" superstition of the Billiken is an easy reference for the artist to make (the Legend reads, "Cape of Good Hope") and -- in a bizarre visual contortion -- I think the card is meant to honor TR for all these reasons... and even the sun beaming down on all, is the face of TR. The strangest aspect, to me, is why Roosevelt's moustache was not drawn. Perhaps the cartoonist thought it would kill the resemblance to the Billiken (who was presumed to be a child)... ?

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