"The Devil" will smile from the Fall River Collection--Historic Postcards, c. 1880-1970
“The Devil” will smile from the Fall River Public Library Historic Postcards, c. 1880-1970 Collection

This eerie optical illusion postcard (left) comes from the Fall River Public Library’s Historic Postcards, c. 1880-1970 collection.  It advertises a production of Ferenc (Franz) Molnar’s play, The Devil.  With Halloween coming up, I think it deserves A Closer Look.

The title leads us to see the devil first: his nearly-crossed eyes, his black moustache, his Chiclet-like teeth and his black coat.  He has an unusual hairline and the collar of his coat (or cape) hides his ears.  From a distance, he appears to have rather sinister furrows and wrinkles on his face.

A great feature of Digital Commonwealth is the magnifying glass icon, which enlarges the image without affecting the resolution.  When we click that on this image, the devil recedes.  Instead we see two well-dressed women meeting in front of a theater.  Their black skirts make up the devil’s coat; their hand muffs his mustache and their hats and feathers his pupils and eyebrows.  His nose is a view of another female theatergoer walking away from us.

Interestingly, when the play was first staged in America in 1908, there were two dueling productions, each claiming to be the “sole authorized” version of the play.  The reverse of this postcard indicates it is promoting the Henry W. Savage production.  According to a 2009 lecture at the Library of Congress by Marlis Schweizer, Savage hired people to picket in front of his rival’s production wearing sandwich boards that said, “Thou shall not steal.”  Was Savage making a sly reference to the twin productions in this postcard?  I like to think so, but you may have a different take on it.

Reverse of above
Reverse of above

If you have a favorite photo as deserving of A Closer Look as this eerie postcard, please let us know.  Send your Closer Look or a link to your photo to outreach@digitalcommonwealth.org.

The handwritten caption on this photo states, “Taken Ropepull day Sept. 18, 1895″.  I don’t know if these mostly cheerful, mostly young men are rope pullers (tug of warriors?) or spectators.  The University of Massachusetts at Amherst simply calls it, “Rope pull, undated”.

I was originally looking at the many photos of rope pulls/tugs of war (tug of wars?) in the Digital Commonwealth collection.  UMass/ Amherst, Springfield College and Clark University all contributed photos.  Concentrating on the variety at UMass/Amherst, you’ll find photos showing teams already in the campus pond, digging in on the shore and gathered triumphantly wreathed in the hard-won rope.   But then I saw this one:

 Rope pull, undated from University of Massachusetts/Amherst
Rope pull, undated from University of Massachusetts/Amherst Photograph Collection

It shows us a near pyramid of men in a field.  Take a closer look. They are sitting on hay bales.  There is nothing other than the caption to indicate this is a team (or teams) of rope pullers or spectators.  What it does show is hats, hats and more hats.  There are top hats, stove pipe hats, bowlers, scally caps and hats I don’t even have names for.  About the only style I can’t find is the currently ubiquitous baseball cap.  The man without a hat is the exception.  A couple of especially dandy students even have walking sticks.

In the third row, far left, a young man holds a small flag with the number 97 on it.  I like to think he, if not most of this crowd, was from the Class of 1897.  One person who was not is in the second row, about 5 in from the right, wearing a Lord Fauntleroy collar.  I doubt he was on the rope pull that day.  Some college fashion, however, is timeless.  Look closely at the front, far right side.  You’ll see a few students in school sweatshirts.  Back in the day, of course, UMass was Massachusetts Agricultural College, hence the MAC shirts.

So, if your favorite college student is constantly outfitted in baseball cap and sweatshirt, he (or she) is simply following a long tradition.  Take a photo of him and his friends – hay bales optional.  In 100 years, it may deserve a closer look.

If you have a favorite photo as deserving of A Closer Look as this merry bunch, please let us know.  Send your Closer Look or a link to your photo to outreach@digitalcommonwealth.org.

La Baleine d'Ostande from the New Bedford Public Library Photograph Collection La Baleine d'Ostende
La Baleine d’Ostende photo from the New Bedford Public Library Photograph Collection
Some images beg for a closer look.  At first glance, this is a sad scene of a beached whale being inspected by curious onlookers.  However, the caption reads, “La Baleine d’Ostende/Visitee par l’Elephant, la Giraffe les Osages et les Chinois.”  Elephant?  Giraffe? What exactly is going on here?

Why did an elephant, a giraffe, six Native American Osages and four Chinese people visit a beached whale in Ostend, Holland? (As it was then; now it’s Belgium.)  And what of all those men (no women) in cutaway coats and top hats parading out of the whale’s mouth?   In fact, we are dealing with early fake news.  Oh, the whale did wash ashore in Ostend in 1827.  H. W. Dewhurst gives an account of the whale’s arrival and its skeleton’s subsequent travels on exhibition in his 1834 book, The natural history of the order Cetacea.  It’s the whale’s visitors who are “alternative facts”.

Early 19th century Europe had a fascination with the exotic: people, places, animals.  Giraffes and their keepers toured Europe at this time.  Six Osages traveled to France in 1827.  The Chinese people in this photo are elsewhere identified as Jesuit missionaries.  The Jesuits had a history of traveling between China and Europe.   But none of them showed up to visit the whale at Ostend.  They are here because the lithographer, Pierre Langlume, also had a taste for the exotic and brought them together in his print.

La Baleine d'Ostende print
La Baleine d’Ostende print from the New Bedford Public Library’s Prints and Drawings Collection

The unsurprising thing about this image is that it is from the New Bedford Public Library collection.  New Bedford’s history with whaling makes this a natural item of interest.  The surprising thing is that the library also owns a lithograph of the image and the photo may not be of that lithograph, but of another printing.  Compare the two images for minor differences.

Finally, I leave it to you to tell me about the man on top of the whale within a circular enclosure.  He has doffed his hat and is waving a flag.  I can’t help but see a clown in a one-ring circus, but your view may differ.

Have you found or posted an image on Digital Commonwealth that deserves a closer look?  Tell us which one and why or direct us to it by emailing outreach@digitalcommonwealth.org.