By Paul Vanderwood
Professor of History San Diego State University
May, 1911. Revolution in Tijuana. Thousands of San Diegans flock to the border in touring cars and buggies, on horseback and mules, even bicycles, to ogle at the spectacle. Along with them go the photographers; they’ve got money more than rebellion on their minds, for new techniques will now allow them to quickly and easily turn their photos into profitable picture postcards which can be sold to a public eager for souvenirs of the event.1
This was the heyday of the picture postcard — a fad, if you like — which blossomed for a decade or so and then faded away into the photo journalism of World War I. Why the picture postcard should flourish at this time is not entirely clear. It probably had something to do with technological advances that permitted the inexpensive mass production of postcards, and other improvements in cameras, film and photographic paper which allowed ordinary people to become “photographers.” How they enjoyed having a picture snapped of themselves in a special setting, developed into a postcard on stock made just for that purpose and mailed for only a penny to family or friends back home. As bourgeois manners and tastes heightened at the turn of the century, many an American living room featured a picture postcard album, not only of personal photos but of exotic faraway places. It was one way in which people traveled in those days.2
Actually, there was nothing all that new about the picture postcard itself. It had surfaced about 1870 in Europe displaying royalty in formal poses and quickly spread to the United States: cards of hotels and resorts where people vacationed; holiday greeting cards, patriotic themes with flags waving and guns bristling, and even scenes of the Franco-Prussian War. They were in the main beautifully made cards, printed and reproduced by German masters; today they are the core of some of the most valuable picture postcard collections.3
Collections. People not only mailed photo cards, but they collected them. Many cards contained no messages and were not even posted. Senders simply slipped a batch, maybe a dozen or more, into an envelope and mailed them as a remembrance to some favorite. Great Britain’s Queen Victoria was an avid collector. So was Werner von Boltenstern, a Los Angeles photographer, picture postcard producer and collector, who has deposited an estimated three million of his cards with Loyola-Marymount University in his hometown.4 Of course, the collections of most people were much more modest; they collected mainly so that they would have a photo record of the events they were living — a record they could pass on to the future. Today these collections have become the source of intense competition among a new breed of hobbyists who range from the slightly curious to the aggressive entrepreneur. Postcard fairs, where cards are sold and traded, are a colorful circus — its performers lively, cunning, frustrating, beguiling. San Diego normally has its biggest fair in early February.5
Historians have just begun to tap the treasure trove of the picture postcard. It has been some time since they have hit such a rich vein. The pictures, often taken spontaneously, like an amateur’s snapshot, provide detail and a point-of-view not often available in other research materials. Architectural historians see shapes and angles they had never before associated with a style of building. Military historians study weapons they never knew existed; updates from earlier times, or forerunners of modern equipment. The pictures are often overlaid with a title meant to sell more cards; such titles represented the temper of their times. “The Results of Watchful Waiting Columbus” printed across a row of coffins of American soldiers killed in Pancho Villa’s 1916 raid on Columbus, New Mexico, criticized Woodrow Wilson’s policies toward Mexico.6 Another handwritten across cartoon characters drawn by the author said: “The border raid that called out the militia was American made and sounds mighty fishie. No bandits now in sight, why should we fear; there is no one to fight, but still we are HERE.”7 That’s a strong statement, accusing Americans of complicity in the Columbus raid. Historians have yet to follow up that lead, and even if it was not true, it represents how the soldiers, or at least some of them, conceived of the raid, and it thereby becomes an important facet of the event.
Yes, the militiamen felt duped and wanted to go home. One wrote a poem printed as a picture postcard: “I’ve done my bit on the border. . . I’ve had my fill of the border, of Greasers and Bordermen. . . I’ve dug in the blasted trenches, the (110°) air was a hundred hells — I’ve charged in the jungle cactus, to the music of rebel yells. . .”8 They had come to the border, many as volunteers, to avenge the attack on Columbus. They were set to storm the Halls of Montezuma, and titles on postcards said so: “Awaiting the Order (in El Paso) to go over (the border.)”9 But instead they got harsh training and routine duty in an inhospitable environment foreign to their northern and midwestern tastes. More than 100,000 men had been mobilized and sent to the border, up to then the largest mobilization in the nation’s history. Once there they made busy work and trained, exercised and simply sat around.10 It’s all there on the picture postcards, front and back.
It is not only the pictures and their titles which serve the historian, but the messages themselves — short, powerful, often poignant. Here is documentation in its more fertile form: from a U.S. soldier on the border, “All these greaser bandits ought to go to the same place [their graves].” No sympathies for the Mexican revolutionaries on that one. Or another, “This one [photo] taken during one of the ‘Spicks’ favorite squalls.” Occasionally, a Mexican received a backsided compliment: “This is the Gick that knows how to fight.” Other soldiers echoed the long-lamented plight of military men; “We got paid the 21st and I am broke today the 22nd.” Or they penned painful personal problems: “Dear Helen, I am hoping that you will not take that letter of mine too seriously, for I do not want to hurt your feelings in any way.” A few touched on delicate realities — deserters, fighting for the Mexicans, to make money: “When an American soldier deserts and goes over to Mexico and handles one (a machine gun) there, they usually pay him $6 to $10 a day.”11 U.S. militiamen camped at that time on the border earned only $15 a month. No historian has yet written about these deserters and their ploy; it is an entirely new nugget of information found on the back of a picture postcard.
As scholars have begun to recognize the potential of picture postcards as a valuable resource for their research, public repositories have started to solicit cards and to organize them. The cards are coming out of shoeboxes and are being arranged (although no one has yet devised a logical way to organize them for research) in file cabinets. The San Diego Historical society houses a small but growing collection. It is increasing in a meaningful way, both in quantity and quality, because one of the nation’s best-known and most able postcard collectors happens to be a native San Diegan, who uses his academic training in modern American literature to deal in rare manuscripts and books in New York City. His name is Andreas (Andy) Brown; his hobby is picture postcards. He has millions of them, and handsome books featuring the more original of his cards have been published to good reviews in New York and Paris. And Andy Brown has not forgotten his hometown; he is persistently on the prowl for postcard images of San Diego and environs. His critical eye sharpened by experience culls out the best of them at a “proper price.” Demand of late has inflated photo postcard prices. Most sell for a few dollars, but rarer, quality ones range into the hundreds. While he constantly enhances his personal collection, Brown periodically (and fairly regularly) donates “a batch of new finds” to the historical society. His latest largesse, a part of which appears at the end of this essay, involves some 50 cards in mint condition concerning the spread of the Mexican Revolution to Tijuana in 1911.12
The Mexican Revolution erupted in November, 1910, in the Valley of Papigochic, which lies up against the Sierra Madre in the northern state of Chihuahua. Not only did it start there, but it persisted there long enough for other Mexicans in different parts of the county to decide that they really could topple the dictatorship of Porfirio Díaz. Within six months they did so. Díaz sailed into exile and Francisco Madero, an idealist and hacendado who had issued the original call to revolt, took over the presidency. Madero, the man, was a complex personality which historians have yet to decipher. He urged democracy, or at least a form of republicanism, but practiced nepotism. He and his family held considerable business interests, and while he remembered the poor in speeches, he inaugurated little redistribution of wealth, land or otherwise.
Various factions, political, economic and social, had joined his rebellion hoping to forward their disparate aims when it triumphed. One of the groups included radical leftists who demanded deep revolutionary change for Mexico. For more than a decade before Madero’s revolt, they had from exile in the United States advocated the overthrow of Díaz and generalized improvements for the Mexican masses. They were, however, unable to ignite a revolution of their own. So they had joined Madero and hoped to radicalize his movement. It did not work. In fact, as the fighting progressed, many of them opted for Madero’s mild brand of reform.13
But not all radicals surrendered their cause to Madero. Reinforced by American leftists, including Wobblies, members of the anarchistic Industrial Workers of the World, and some Socialists (other socialists opposed intervention), and urged on by oratorical firebrands like “Splendid Emma” Goldman, the Liberals determined to attack Baja California. By May the target was Tijuana and on the 8th some 200 strong, almost all of them North Americans, they attacked, led by a Welsh freelance soldier, Ceryl Ap Rhys Pryce, who had formerly served British imperialism in both India and South Africa. Within two days the rebels overwhelmed and scattered the federal garrison, which had been outnumbered by better than two-to-one.14
With their anarchist flag advocating “Land and Liberty” fluttering over the local post office (next door to a large curio shop that vended picture postcards), the odd assortment of ideologues and adventurers milled around town awaiting orders to move ahead. Such orders never came. The movement’s overall leadership located in Los Angeles was in disarray, extremely indecisive, and reluctant to further finance the military operation, so that on June 1, Pryce unexpectedly quit the venture and left for the United States, carrying with him, it seems, a considerable portion of his army’s bankroll.15 His replacement in Tijuana was “General” Jack Mosby, a deserter from the U.S. Marine Corps, who had earlier been a gunrunner (it is not clear for which side, but perhaps both) during the Cuban war for independence against Spain.
In order to legitimize their invasion of Mexico and in an attempt to attract Mexican recruits, the radicals tried to institute a few social reforms. They banned all liquor but beer and wine, established an eight-hour working day for laborers, set a minimum wage for $1.50 an hour for Mexican railroad workers building the San Diego and Arizona line in the district, vowed to expropriate Baja’s large land holdings, including some held by Californians, and espoused individual freedom and social equality. Meanwhile, rumors of more ambitious aims abounded; the Leftists planned to establish a Republic of Baja California tailored to their principles. Or Baja might be annexed to the United States. It could be the history of the Texas annexation all over again.16
“We have got a Utopia down here,” crowed one Wobbly quoted .in his union newspaper, The Industrial Worker. “We do not work and we do not get pulled for vags [vagrants] either. We drill about half an hour daily so that we will be able to plug the federals full of holes when they have recovered enough to show up again.”17 The Wobblies talked a good game, but they did not seem to believe it. Even promises of land and a stipend failed to draw many others to the movement.
The insurgents financed their stay in Tijuana in a variety of ways. Looting local shops and commerce was common. And as the San Diego and Arizona Railroad normally made two runs a day from San Diego through Tijuana and on to the line’s most forward construction camp south of the village, trains became fair game for the rebels. They made certain arrangements with railroad authorities — for instance, not to cut their telephone lines — as long as a portion of the food and fuel supplies headed for the front camp remained in Tijuana. There were also attempts to extort money from wealthy San Diegans such as John D. Spreckels, who had a large financial stake in the railroad and other interests in Baja, but these threats seem to have been successfully resisted. The rebels hesitated to push their case too far, for U.S. military authorities threatened to intervene with armed force if necessary to protect American holdings. But there was another source of substantial income for the revolutionaries: tourism. No doubt Tijuana was astir in June, 1911, as it had never been before, and San Diegans flocked to the scene. They and their money were made welcome.18
During the battle of May 8-9, San Diegans, dressed in their finery, had clumped themselves around the U.S. customshouse on the border to watch Tijuana burn. Through a variety of telescopes and spyglasses they watched first the bull ring and then other buildings go up in flames. Literally, when the smoke cleared, they rushed downtown to assess the damage, and, according to eyewitnesses, to join the looting of local businesses. The Liberals made a ritual of robbing the capitalist stores, but the San Diegans who participated pretended no such ideology.19
After the initial outburst of mayhem, Pryce reestablished order and set some ground rules; visitors would pay a 25-cent admission fee to view the hamlet. The gambling casinos were open — mainly faro and poker but winners must surrender twenty-five percent of their earnings to the rebel coffers. Few arguments ensued, except those with the U.S. customs officials who debated with buyers the importation value of goods purchased in Tijuana’s shops. Bargains or not, the town was relieved of much of its merchandise.20
Photographers came along with the others, and they were soon producing thousands of postcards depicting the moment. Sales of cards boomed from the curio shops in Tijuana to the newsstands in San Diego. None of the photographers seems to have been present during the fighting itself, although they did not lag far behind it. So there are no war action cards, but plenty of the aftermath. They arrived in time to photograph the corpses of men killed in the fight, and judging by the proliferation of these images, this genre proved to be among their best-sellers. They also captured the racial composition of the insurgents, their dress and weapons. This was a motley crew. Their appearance certainly is not military; they seem to be individualists, unsmiling, perhaps determined or even forlorn. One cannot tell what was in their minds, but they hardly seemed spirited or confident when they posed for their pictures. But then they had been badly bruised in their first encounter with the Mexican federals, and maybe they knew that a counter-attack was imminent. For sure, news that their rebellion had spread to other parts of Mexico had not come. Instead, there were reports of rifts within their own ranks and among the intellectual leadership back up north in Los Angeles.
Why the Liberal revolution did not spread is subject to much conjecture. After all, it even failed to attract Mexican railroad workers employed by the S.D. & A. right around Tijuana. Pryce tried to lure the laborers to his cause with promises of less work and more pay. (He apparently made no ideological appeals, only pragmatic ones.) But the workers failed to budge, and there were not very many other common Mexicans in the region (pop. about 500) who might have been prospects for rebellion.21
The northern tip of Baja California was simply too far removed from the focus of the Mexican Revolution to attract much attention in other parts of the republic. Besides, the movement was led by gringos, some of whom had annexationist ideas, and at a time when nationalist sentiments had started to build elsewhere in the country. In fact, none of the radical leftist centers in Mexico for example, Chihuahua and Veracruz — captured the enthusiastic attention of ordinary Mexicans. It has been argued that the Liberals were too radical for the masses; that most Mexican rebels preferred a limited revolution — the type espoused by Francisco Madero. However, in the light of recent scholarship, this probably is not so. The Mexican Revolution did not burst upon the nation in full maturity; it took time for the aspirations of common people to heighten. Within the next few years, say by 1913 or 1914, the masses had their leaders and their demands, and some of each were not so very foreign to the general program of the Liberals. But by then, or soon afterwards, social and economic middle sectors of the revolutionary forces began to control the rebellion and to bend it to their interests. Precisely how they did so is not yet completely known, but then that is another story which goes beyond the outburst of commitment and rebellion that occurred at the western extremity of the international boundary, at San Diego and in Tijuana, in earlier days of the great struggle.22
1. The writer of this essay has recently co-authored a book, Border Fury: A Picture Postcard Record of the Mexican Revolution and U.S. War Preparedness Along the Border, 1910-1917, with his friend and history colleague, Frank N. Samponaro of the University of Texas of the Permian Basin, Odessa. The University of New Mexico Press will publish the book early this year. Some of the material which appears in this article was researched for that book. The best books which treat the picture postcard are: Frank Staff, The Picture Postcard and its Origins (New York: Frederick A. Praeger, 1966) and Dorothy B. Ryan, Picture Postcards in the United States, 1893-1918 (New York: Clarkson N. Potter, 1981). A book which treats the picture postcard with imagination and originality, and features beautiful reproductions, is: Hal Morgan and Andreas Brown, Prairie Fires and Half Moons, The American Photographic Postcard: 1900-1920 (Boston: David R. Godine, 1981).
2. For technological improvements in photo postcard productions see: Morgan and Brown, Prairie Fire, p. xiii-xiv, and Beaumont Hall, The History of Photography from 1839 to the Present Day (New York: Museum of Modern Art, 1964), p. 88. For origins and sociology of the picture postcard see: Staff, Postcard. . . Origins, passim, and Ryan, Postcards. . . United States, passim.
3. There are significant postcard collections in the special collections of many university libraries; in state historical societies and local libraries. The New York Public Library recently announced the acquisition of 100,000 postcards. Formidable collections are also in the hands of private parties, such as Andreas Brown of New York City, John O. Hardman of Warren, Ohio, Carter Rila of Gaithersberg, Md., and Sam Stark of Pebble Beach, California. The collectors are associated through various newsletters, the best-known being, Burr’s News, a weekly out of Lansing, Iowa, and The Postcard Collector, published monthly at lola, Wis.
4. The author consulted this collection.
5. The author has attended these fairs from San Diego to London.
6. From the collection of John O. Hardman, Warren, Ohio.
7. From the Jodie P. Harris Postcard Collection, Archives of the Big Bend, Sull Ross State University, Alpine, Texas.
8. From the collection of Andreas Brown, New York City.
9. From the collection of Carter Rila, Gaithersberg, Md.
10. Although there is no one book on the mobilization per se, it is covered from a variety of perspectives by authors who treat the Pershing expedition to capture Pancho Villa, Woodrow Wilson’s Mexican diplomacy and border troubles in general during the period. For Pershing one might start with a good, popular rendition: Herbert Mulloy Mason, Jr., The Great Pursuit (New York: Random House, 1970). Mark T. Gilderhus has written an intelligent book on Wilson’s Mexican diplomacy: Diplomacy and Revolution: U.S. — Mexican Relations under Wilson and Carranza (Tucson: University of Arizona Press, 1977), and border issues are smartly treated in: Don M. Coerver and Linda B. Hall, Texas and the Mexican Revolution: A Study in State and National Border Policy, 1910-1920 (San Antonio: Trinity University Press, 1984). Eyewitness accounts of the event include: Roger Batchelder, Watching and Waiting on the Border (Boston: Houghton Mifflin Company, 1917); Tracey Hammond Lewis, Along the Rio Grande (New York: Lewis Publishing Company, p. 96), and Floyd P. Gibbons, How the Laconia Sank: the Militia Mobilization on the Mexican Border (Chicago: Daughaday and Company, 1917).
11. These quotations are taken from cards in the collections of Brown, Hardman, Rila and the Walter H. Home Collection, Southwest Room, El Paso Public Library.
12. Brown was interviewed about his collecting and collection in 1986 at the archives of the San Diego History Center.
13. The author has written extensively on the Mexican Revolution. For example, see his: Disorder and Progress: Bandits, Police and Mexican Development (Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 1981). He is currently researching a book concerning the people of the Valley of Papigochic. The standard work on the radical leftist invasion of Baja California is: Lowell L. Blaisdell, The Desert Revolution: Baja California, 1911 (Madison: University of Wisconsin press, 1962). It could use some updating and revision, although since Blaisdell’s book serious research on the topic has been limited. The lack of Mexican presence in the movement is insightfully considered by Richard Griswold del Castillo in his “The Discredited Revolution: The Magonista Capture of Tijuana in 1911,” The Journal of San Diego History, Vol. 26, No. 4 (1980): 256-272. A lively reminiscence is provided by Paul T. May 9. His statement is found at the San Diego History Center, Archive, Folder 611, Tijuana #1.
14. Blaisdell, Desert Revolution, p. 118-120.
15. Ibid., for Pryce, ch. VII; for Mosby, pp. 110, 152, 176-181.
16. Ibid., pp. 119-120, 124-125, 130
17. The Industrial Worker, June 8, 1911, in Hyman Weintraub, “The I.W.W. in Southern California, 1905-1931” (MA thesis, UCLA, 1947), p. 52.
18. Best account of the railroad trapped in the revolution is in Robert M. Hanft, San Diego & Arizona: The Impossible Railroad (Glendale, Ca.: Trans-Anglo Books, 1984).
19. Blaisdell, Desert Revolution, pp. 120-121, 130.
20. Ibid., p. 130.
21. Griswold, “Discredited Revolution,” passim. He finds that a lack of pragmatic leadership, rather than their radical ideology, cost the movement’s Mexican leaders, seated in Los Angeles, a victory in Baja California. Or, at least it made their recruitment of Mexicans to their cause much more difficult. Their principal mistake was to turn the invasion over to gringos.
22. For recent stimulating interpretations of the Revolution see: Friedrich Katz, The Secret War in Mexico, Europe, the United States and the Mexican Revolution (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1981); Alien Knight, 2 vols., The Mexican Revolution (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1986); Francois-Xavier Guerra, 2 vols., Le Mexique: De la Ancien Regime à la revoluion (Paris: Publications de la Sorbonne, 1985); Ramon Eduardo Ruiz, The Great Rebellion: Mexico 1905-1924 (New York: W.W. Norton, 1980), and John M. Hart, Revolutionary Mexico: The Coming and Progress of the Mexican Revolution (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1987).
23. Philip S. Foner, History of the Labor Movement in the United States: Volume IV: The Industrial Workers of the World, 1905-1917 7 vols. (New York: International Publishers, 1965), Vol. 4, p. 195.