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2013 Funded Research Projects

Commemorating the 1893 Chicago World’s Fair:
The Columbian Exposition and the First Souvenir Postal Cards

by Nhora Lucía Serrano, Ph.D.
Assistant Professor of Comparative Literature
Department of Comparative World Literature and Classics
California State University, Long Beach

In 1893 the World’s Columbian Exposition was held in Chicago, Illinois to celebrate the 400th anniversary of Columbus’s 1492 historic transcontinental voyage. On an international front, the Chicago World’s Fair was part of the era of public exhibition and display.  With impressive predecessors such as the 1851 Great Exhibition at the Crystal Palace in London and the 1889 Parisian Exposition Universelle that bestowed the Eiffel Tower to the world, it is no surprise that industrialization was the guiding economic lens for the Chicago’s World Fair.

Like its predecessors, the Chicago World’s Fair was a social event in which a new technological invention made its début, the 264--feet Ferris wheel. However, it is the fair’s other significant technological contribution, the first--ever souvenir picture postcard, which best exemplifies remembrance and the (im)personal experience in the age of industrialization.

Diminutive in size, approximately 4” x 6”, the Columbian Exposition postcards were artistic conceptions of the fair buildings produced by Charles W. Goldsmith. Not sold outside of the 600--acre public fair areas, these souvenir postcards served as visual keepsakes of a public spectacle as well as mass—produced commodities of communication and nationalist persona. On the one hand, after the events of the 1871 Great Chicago Fire, the Columbian Exposition rehabilitated the Midwestern city’s image on the world stage, and ushered in American industrial optimism. On the other hand, it reflected the Gilded Age of rapid industrial growth, influx of European immigration, class tension, and cultural miscommunication. In sum, the Columbian Exposition postcards replicated this era of repairing façades and gilding social problems. They were reproducible and ornamental images of a populist agenda meant for public consumption. From this perspective, the 1893 postcards are precursors of today’s popular media.

According to Jacques Derrida in The Postcard, postal communication is a series of transmissions between a sender and a receiver in which meaning is mediated, detoured and deferred by language. In this Derridean light, the Columbian Exposition postcards along with the sixteen commemorative  stamps (depicting Columbus, Queen Isabella, and the ‘natives’ amongst the many representations) are a curious homage to 1492 Columbine exchange because they are decorative testaments to the problematic discourse of cultural trade and barter in the ages of discovery and industrialization.


Indians at the Post Office
by Meghan A. Navarro
California State University, East Bay, 2010
Master of Arts, Anthropology

Indians at the Post Office: New Deal Era Murals and Their Legacy of American Indian Representation »

The title of my project is “Indians at the Post Office.“ The project focuses on murals painted in or for installation United States Post Offices in the between 1937 and 1943 through a 48 states competition offered through the Treasury Department. The particular murals I would be focusing on are those that depict American Indians across the United States.  My web-based and archival research will explore several themes, including Indian life, culture and history as depicted by American Indian and non-Indian artists, as well as American Indians in movies and mythology. My analysis will focus on the history of each mural’s post office location, the past and present American Indian inhabitants of the area, the historical reality of events being depicted, and a background of each muralist. I will spend time in the National Archives, which hold the papers of several of the muralists, such as Boris Deutsch and Olin Dows, as well the National Gallery of Art, now home to several mural archives, including the Clarendon Post Office in Arlington, Virginia, and the Environmental Protection Agency’s Ariel Rios building.

Research has not yet been done into the representations of a minority group in New Deal-era U.S. Post Office murals, and it is a timely and critical area of scholarship. As many historical post offices are threatened with private sale and/or demolition, this research attempts to emphasize the importance of the Post Office buildings themselves as sites of local history and the homes of treasures of a particular period in public art. Additionally, it considers the impact of representations of American Indians in government-sponsored murals housed in the buildings of a Federal service. Furthermore, study of these murals opens up the possibility of collaboration with other scholars of the New Deal and its legacy who are explicitly interested in examples of government-sponsored public art and architecture of this time period.

This research will form the text content of an online virtual exhibition to be staged in collaboration with the National Museum of the American Indian, the National Postal Museum and the USPS that will launch in October 2013 and will be ongoing, with continuous updates to content. Additionally, my research will be organized and written into an article which explores the connections between local histories, American Indian histories, and public art, highlighting the impact of the presence of these murals in post offices and the legacy they represent. This article will be suitable for publication in philatelic journals, Smithsonian publications, and will be submitted for publication in the peer-reviewed journal, American Indian Quarterly.