New paperbacks revive dramatic postcard images such as ‘ship-rocked’ Princess May

Books, Insight, Maritime History and Museums — By on September 21, 2017 at 11:41 PM

Princess May aground in Alaska.

New paperbacks revive dramatic postcard images such as ‘ship-rocked’ Princess May

By James Brewer

One of the most remarkable shipwreck photographs of all times is back in the spotlight. It shows the steamship Princess May appearing to defy gravity, perched precariously on the rocks of Sentinel Island, off Juneau, capital of Alaska. The grounding in 1910 left the ship jutting almost assertively out of the water, and photographer William Howard Case (1868-1920) recorded for posterity the plight of this once-proud ‘lady.’

His superb image was quickly snapped and made into best-selling postcards. It features in a fascinating collection of postcard reproductions just published in London. The book is entitled Wreck and is one of several new volumes each with a different postcard theme, taken from the extensive collection of the art world denizen John Kasmin. The neatly produced books are based on a select few of the 45,000-plus cards from the first 25 years of the 20th century gathered in his travels.

Cover of ‘Wreck.’

Built in 1888, Princess May was part of the ocean-going fleet of Canadian Pacific named after princesses. This ship was in honour of May, Queen of the United Kingdom and the British Dominions and Empress of India. She was the wife of George V, and was born as Mary of Teck in the Kingdom of Württemberg.

The 1,717 gt Princess May was launched under the name Cass in Hebburn by Hawthorn Leslie for the Formosa Trading Company. By 1901, it was operating under the name Ha-Ting and became the first acquisition of the newly formed Canadian Pacific Railway Coast Service, for the route from Vancouver to Skagway.

For nine years, the Princess May successfully plied the 1,300 km route along the British Columbia coast to Alaska, then suffered the ignominious casualty on August 5, 1910. The ship had left Skagway under the command of a Capt MacLeod with 80 passengers, 68 crew, and a cargo including gold, and began to go through Lynn Canal (the deepest and longest fjord in North America) at 10 knots. In heavy fog, the vessel ran aground near the north end of Sentinel Island, the base for a lighthouse.

The tidal range was reported to be 16 ft. It was high tide and the momentum of the ship forced it to rear up onto the rocks, with the bow crazily finishing at an angle of 23 degrees.  Fortunately, Sentinel Island was a safe place to evacuate the passengers and crew – who were given tea by the lighthouse keepers while they waited to be taken back to the mainland – and disembark the gold shipment and mail.

Home wrecked by dynamite in Oklahoma.

Temporary slipways were built and rocks were blasted, and after several attempts, on September 3, 1910, salvors refloated the ship and towed it to port. For the salvor, a Capt Logan, this was his 32nd successfully operation. Cost of the salvage and repair was put at $115,000, a huge sum for those days. Repair afforded the opportunity to convert the Princess May from a coal burner to oil-fuelled.

Notwithstanding the internationally-renowned accident, the Princess May enjoyed another 20 years of life. In 1919 the ship was sold and put into the Caribbean trades; one account says that in the early 1930s it was deliberately sunk.

Wreck covers many types of calamities, and is published at a time when great natural destruction is in the news – hurricanes in the US and Caribbean, Mexican earthquake, floods in northern India and Bangladesh to name but the worst catastrophes. Most of the mishaps chronicled are on land, but there are some dreadful marine incidents, such as a German cruiser turned turtle in June 1919.

Automobile wreckage.

Introducing this book – the written copy is limited to the short foreword and the photo captions at the end – John Kasmin says that in the 1930s, long before television provided graphic accounts, people sent each other picture postcards of the awful accidents they had been fortunate enough to avoid.

Such is an undated card picturing two women and a baby looking forlornly from a window frame of their home wrecked by dynamite: ascribed to Truce, Oklahoma. There is no clue to what had happened: the card just has ‘Joseph & Mary & baby’ on the reverse.

Another undated American specimen is a rainy scene of an automobile crushed in an accident beside a rail line, of which Mr Kasmin says: “a favourite card – the tint, composition, expression on the face of the man on the right, with a fly button undone, the railroad track and the Gold Dust Twins [the trademark for Fairbank’s Gold Dust Washing Powder] busy on the billboards – and the straw hat among the wet wreckage.”

Merry-go-round fire near Paris.

Another touching picture shows a little girl standing on a makeshift ladder, propped against her home, clutching a doll. The wooden house dangerously leans sideways. The Mohawk River in New York state has flooded, striking at the foundation of the building as it swept all before it.

From France, Mr Kasmin has a 1930 card of “an unusual merry-go-round with aeroplanes to sit in. On fire in Clichy-sous-bois, a village of 1,500 inhabitants then, but now a suburb of Paris.”

Another image from France, of 1916, shows a locomotive derailed and propped against a passenger carriage at the Gare de Saint-Siméon, a now redundant station in the department of Seine-et-Marne. Mr Kasmin comments wryly: “A touching image – a Darby & Joan quarrel perhaps.”

There are a few other disturbing illustrations of trains which have overshot the buffers and wreaked havoc and death beyond their terminus.

Cover of ‘Scrub.’

One of the companion volumes, the postcard almanac Scrub, is an intimately-documented account of weekly, and often daily, laundry before the advent of piped water to many homes, and well before the washing machine. The relentless, backbreaking work that womenfolk, and sometimes men, had to endure tugs at the heart-strings. Little wonder that the drudgery could only be softened by community chatter.

Mr Kasmin notes in his brief Introduction that in the Catalan idiom ‘fer safareig’ means to gossip but literally translates as ‘to do the laundry’.

One of the scenes, on a card of 1916, shows washing in marshy land at Potęgowo near Danzig (now Gdańsk) on the Baltic Sea. The photo was taken by a German soldier. Potęgowo is a village in Słupsk county, 76 km west of Gdańsk. Until 1945 the village was part of Germany. The scene looks bleak and damp, and makes one wonder how the clothes ever got dry.

Washing clothes near the Baltic Sea.

A somewhat jollier scene comes in a French card of six ladies and a child scrubbing garments at their tubs in an indoor laundry. They just about manage to smile for the camera.

With their washboards by the river in Limoges, another group of French women are portrayed in 1904. “Plenty of fatigue and plenty of courage,” says the sender of the card to her parents.

Tiring laundry work at Limoges.

Things are cheerless for the men, too. From Canada comes a card with the legend: “Batchelors’ life in Rossland.” Sleeves rolled up, a disgruntled solitary man wrings out his shirts.  The scales on the table suggest he is a gold miner. The picture suggests that he may be doing the washing for some of his fellow prospectors, or that they are will come and finish the job themselves. Rossland is in the mountains of British Columbia, just north of the US border. A card with a photo from India shows a couple of men with “tongs for the pleats” and possibly their descendants are carrying out similar manual tasks to this day.

Another title in the postcard series is Meat: slaughterers, butchers and their trade (some of these images are unexpectedly graceful as the carcasses hang in rows from shop windows.

Size shows people of all dimensions and shapes, from giants to dwarves. Their depiction jars with our modern sensitivities but the subjects smile for the camera perhaps pleased to be chosen for the cutting-edge technology of the dawn of the 20th century.

Keeping France clean

In the collection Elders, faces of older people often show strength drawn from surviving a hard life. A Chippewa chief from Minnesota, supposedly 140 years old, retains a haughty and defiant gleam in his eyes. His features are heavy with furrows, like rivers of life, telling many a story. A peasant from Ukraine with his long prophet-like white beard appears less serene.

After ‘escaping’ an accountancy job in the UK by taking refuge in New Zealand (where he described his profession as poet), John Kasmin returned to England and started a career as an art dealer.  His friendship with the 5th Marquess of Dufferin and Ava (1938-88) was a turning point, as the aristocrat provided financial backing to open the Kasmin Gallery in 1963.  Forbes called it ‘London’s swingingest 60s art gallery’ and it promoted to the British public many American abstract artists, among them Frank Stella, Kenneth Noland, Morris Louis, Helen Frankenthaler, Barnett Newman, Ad Reinhardt, Anthony Caro, William Tucker, John Latham, Richard Smith, Bernard Cohen, Robin Denny, Howard Hodgkin and Gillian Ayres.

Bachelor Life.

Now, at the age of 82, Mr Kasmin has set up a publisher called Trivia Press, which he describes as a creative (ad)venture, to be a platform for his themed books each showcasing some 100 postcards.

Kasmin’s Postcards Series. Themed volumes:  Meat; Scrub; Elders; Size; and Wreck.   Published by Trivia Press. 100 postcards per volume. Paperback, approx. 128 pages per volume, £12.99 each.

In India: tongs for the pleats

ISBNs:  Meat (978-0-9954744-3-7); Scrub (978-0-9954744-5-1) Elders (978-0-9954744-6-8); Size (978-0-9954744-7-5); Wreck (978-0-9954744-4-4).

 https://www.instagram.com/kasminspostcards/ 

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