September 23, 2011

Professor Paul Barclay Chronicles the Culture and Politics of East Asia through Postcards

Paul Barclay, left, associate professor of history, and Eric Luhrs, digital initiatives librarian, pose in Special Collections with the Warner family postcard collection.

Almost a decade ago, an unexpected gift led Paul Barclay, associate professor of history, to a line of research that would pioneer the field of colonial media studies. Now attracting international attention, his research—which is supported by the staff at Skillman Library—is revealing insights into the cultural and historical impacts of East Asian political propaganda.

It all began with an email from Dallas Finn, a historian living in Bethesda, Md., saying she had found a shoe box of postcards from Taiwan that had been collected by a friend who served there as U.S. consul from 1937 to 1941.

“What should I do with them?” she asked Barclay, whose name is listed on a Columbia University website in connection with a paper he delivered there regarding colonial Taiwan.  Barclay never used postcards in his scholarly work before, but agreed to take a look.

There were 340 collected during Japan’s colonization of Taiwan, and they featured ornate temples, men holding spears, water buffalos, scenic cliffs, families eating, and one of a young boy having a tooth extracted with a contraption made from a stick and string.  Some of the images are black and white and others are in muted color, but they all represent an important element of Japanese imperial propaganda.

“It’s an official portrait of how Japan imagined its colony” and packaged it to the world, says Barclay, who in May presented a paper titled “The Empires of Japan: Postcards as Sources of History” at a conference at Harvard. “The postcards represent an idealized image of tropical exoticism. A lot were sold to tourists.”

Mass production of postcards in East Asia began in 1904 with the release of sets commemorating the Russo-Japanese War, and more than 1.5 billion cards were mailed in Japan in 1913. The regime often used mass media to “stoke the flames of popular enthusiasm for Japan’s foreign adventures,” Barclay wrote, “and on this front, the picture postcard industry … [played] a significant if under-analyzed role in the packaging of an empire for audiences near and far.”

Despite postcards’ proliferation, however, they have mostly been relegated to the realm of art historians and admired for their aesthetics, until now.

After reviewing the boxes’ contents, Barclay took them to Skillman Library, where they were inventoried and archived in Mylar sleeves. Occasionally, a few students accessed them for research but few outside Barclay’s circle showed interest.

“Little did we know they would be the foundation for a major collection” that now has more than 5,000 items and is viewed by scholars from around the world, says Diane Shaw, special collections librarian and College archivist.

The most recent additions are of colonial Korea under Japanese rule, which Barclay purchased from a stamp and coin dealer in a basement market in Seoul with help from Seo-Hyun Park, assistant professor of government and law, who led a recent study abroad program to Northeast Asia. Funding for those 79 cards — which include images of workers and soldiers with fists in the air, smiling farmers and buildings in Pyongyang before the capital city was bombed — was made possible by Skillman Library Special Collections.

Digitization of the collection began several years ago with a chance meeting between Barclay and Eric Luhrs, who was hired in 2005 as a digital initiatives librarian.  The two men were brought together in the home of Dean of Libraries Neil McElroy, and Luhrs recalls Barclay saying, “So when are you going to get to those awesome postcards?” a few beats after being introduced.

“It was a Eureka moment,” says Luhrs. “I was new here, and I was looking for a small collection to put through a new system I had devised. I was certain this was perfect. This was Friday. I went to work on Saturday.”

The system Luhrs devised is a software program that allows detailed information to accompany the electronic material so it can be sorted and quantified in different ways.  For example, an image of a family eating a meal can be tagged as such and then compared to other postcards with the same descriptor.

“It allows me to give Paul an interface so he can make sense of the cards and describe in minute detail what’s going on,” Luhrs says.

It took about a year to digitize and label the first batch of postcards, and the collection went live in 2007.  Soon after, a New Jersey man saw the images online and loaned the College his large private collection of postcards from East Asia so they could be digitally scanned. Then a Taiwanese family, whose father had been a political fugitive under KMT rule in 1950s Taiwan, donated about 400 cards.

And then there’s the Lafayette student who discovered about 415 postcards in the attic of his Connecticut home.  He couldn’t read the scribbling on the back and brought them to Barclay to translate. Turns out Japanese families had sent them to loved ones who were POWs in the Philippines after World War II.  Unfortunately, they never reached their intended hands, and Barclay believes they were probably confiscated, as they bear the purple stamp of American bureaucratic censors.

In 2008, five years after receipt of the shoebox, Barclay tracked down Elizabeth and Anne Warner, whose parents, Gerald and Rella Warner, were the original owners of the postcards. Elizabeth had given Dallas Finn the postcards after Rella Warner died in 1999.

The Warners had met in Tokyo in 1936 when Gerald was with the U.S. embassy in Japan and Rella was on holiday, visiting her brother in the U.S. Foreign Service. They married soon after, moving to Taiwan in 1937 when Gerald was named consul.   Wherever they traveled, be it for business or sight-seeing, they bought picture postcards as souvenirs.

“Our parents took many black and white photos and assembled them along with postcards and other memorabilia into albums,” says Anne Warner, who lives in Cambridge, Mass.  “They’re colorful; they gave a lot of information. People didn’t have TV in those days. They spent more time amusing themselves with postcards.”

After being contacted by Barclay, Anne and Elizabeth donated to the College more than a dozen of their parents’ albums, which covered their years living in China, Japan, and Taiwan, along with thousands of negatives, slides, newspaper clippings, and other memorabilia. The sisters also passed along correspondence between their parents when they were separated by home leave and from when Gerald was under house arrest in Japan at the start of U.S. involvement in World War II.

It’s been more than 10 years since their parents died, and Anne says they are thrilled by all the attention their parents’ postcards and photographs have garnered.

“We always appreciated these items, but to have Paul be so enthusiastic and make such use of the record that my parents kept has been a gratifying experience,” she says.

The postcards have also provided a new direction of research for Barclay, who is now considered somewhat of a pioneer in the discipline.

“Having access and knowledge to this many kinds of images of the colony has opened a lot of doors for me,” Barclay says. “I’m working in the area of colonial media studies. It’s a relatively new field.”

And the collection is drawing international attention. The College is in negotiations with the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston to establish an international working group where scholars can share resources and examine images from different cultural perspectives.   In some ways, a body of postcards and photographs is like shards of pottery, Barclay says, that when reconstructed, sheds understanding and context on a culture’s past.

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  1. Enjoyed reading this, very good stuff, thank you . “It is well to remember that the entire universe, with one trifling exception, is composed of others.” by John Andrew Holmes.

    says Joe Walter
    January 17, 2012 at 3:36 pm
  2. Congratulations to all involved – all eminating from a humble postcard. So many people simply throw away this “old stuff” without making an effort to see if it might be of value.

    says Liz Pidgeon
    September 24, 2011 at 3:38 am
    • Thanks Liz. We were lucky to work with people enjoyed organizing their photos and souvenirs to share with family. The families that have worked with us have been more than generous. I’m glad you liked the article. Here’s the link to our website:

      says Paul Barclay
      October 1, 2011 at 4:44 pm

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