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.”
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.
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?”
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.
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!