by Cesar Trasobares
Miami was a postcard mecca even before the town was settled. As early as 1907 views of the Miami River and the Everglades began to form the mythical image of this bayside paradise. Pictures of regattas on the River, the "observatory" in the Glades, the natural rock bridge across Arch Creek and the Seminole Indians in colorful costume conveyed through correspondence around the country - and the world - a sense of Miami's pioneer elegance.
As in many resort cities, our early postcards were linked with tourism, the developing travel industry and with civic and commercial products. The Royal Hotel, for example, opened its doors in style by providing visitors color postcards with which to send home messages of their contentment.
Many of these early postcards were rotographed and lithographed in Europe and distributed by American firms. They celebraled our exotic vegetation with pictures of fruit trees such as coconut palms, papayas, bananas, oranges, mighty banyans, and peeling gumbo limbos; flowering trees such as the royal poinciana, golden shower, bougainvillea, hibiscus; and the bizarre, specifically the "sausage" tree grown at Charlie Black's place on Ingraham Highway, four miles south of Coconut Grove. There was even an early publicity effort by a local entrepreneurial boatman, Captain Charlie Thomson, who issued postcards of a 30,000 pound whale shark stranded in the Florida Keys which he had mounted and exhibited for an admission fee.
In early 1920s the two causeways linking the mainland to Miami Beach were completed. Pictures of the impressive "Skyscraper Hotels" downtown seen from the causeways' unique vantage points made for new postcard images. Another favorite view of downtown was Royal Palm Park where the big ships sailed out of Biscayne Bay and crowds gathered to listen to Ceasar La Monica's band concerts. It was likely at this spot, now known as Bayfront Park, that many first saw the magic of Miami long before it was called the Magic Cilty.
The messages on surviving postcards of that day provide special insight into the city's effect on its visitors: "This place has grown many fold since we were here before. We planned to come for three days and this is our second week," says one dated 1922. "We are well... no colds here. Hope you can visit soon," says another from 1924. "We've decided to stop here after visiting Cuba... We do like it so!" (1926) "I'm seriously considering moving here. There's lots to do. And I know I'd be very happy staying." (1928) "This is sure a beautiful place and we've had nice weather. Hope the snow isn't too deep up on Sherill Lane." (1928)
By the late 1930s views of many of the city's landmarks were available on postcards: the Royal Palm Yacht Basin, Bayfront Park and Yacht Basin, Flagler Street, the Deering Estate (not yet called Vizcaya), Elsers Recreation Peer (near Flagler Street), Biscayne Yacht Club, the Seminole Club. Pride in its growing residential development was illustraled by postcards that showed off Miami's most fashionable neighborhoods, such as Star and Palm Islands. Many of these postcards also record the birth of suburbia in South Florida.
Civic and promotional events made for entertaining postcard imagery. They captured "Miss Miami" and "Gar Jr. Racing at Regatta," "Pageant on Flagler Street," and the "Parade of Boats in Biscayne Bay." Hotels, naturally, offered another important source of images - the Royal Palm, Halcyon, Plaza, Gralynn, Southern, San Carlos and Fort Dallas were among the earliest. Nearby attractions such as Hialeah Park, the new Coral Gables, and the proliferating night clubs and cabanas of Miami Beach also featured prominently.
During the war years, postcards for stationed soldiers included the standard landmarks, cheesecake beauties by the Bay, on the seawall, at the parks, and views of air squadrons flying over downtown Miami. A particular postcard of a photo by G.W. Romer depicls 26 airplanes in formation over downtown and the Bay: "Army Pursuit Planes Over Miami." Another now-distrubing image shows three small airplanes with orange wings and green tails: "Friendly Wings Over Miami, U.S. Navy Bombers from Opalocka Station."
By the 1950s, Miami's postcard industry provided an important venue for resident and traveling photographers. The major photographic contribution was made by G. W. Romer, who spent 40 years documenting every aspect of Miami's development, from the Everglades to downtown Miami. Others included R.E. Simpson, Charles Thompson, Hamilton W Wright. Jr., Vern Williams, and the Harrison Photo Laboratories. Early publishers of area postcards, J. N. Cbamberlain, Pictorial Centre and Thomas R. West were later joined by J.B. Summers, the Eli Witt Cigar and Tobacco Company and CR Adamson, among others. Distribution firms used printers in New York and Philadelphia, and judging by tbe numerous surviving cards, these companies provided a full line of Miami views to fill the demand. The early Miami Postcard Company later faced competition from the Gulfstream Card & Distribulion Co., R.E. Simpson, Novelty-Craft Company and the Dade County News Dealer Supply Company, among others.
With the development of the "big letter" postcards, Miami's early involvement with the genre came full circle. Inside each letter of the city's name was depicted a view or landmark of the town. This provided an image with an impact much larger than its actual size. With their multiple visual overview of the city's attractions, the large letter postcards clearly conveyed the sender's message: "Greetings From Miami!"
Though the content of Miami postcards remained unchanged up through the 1950s, their graphic quality altered dramatically. The early, fanciful, handtinted color gave way to technicolor-like vibrancy as a result of new photographic and production techniques, specifically four-color printing. Like Miami the images and the postcards took on a sophisticated slickness. Glamorous hotels such as the Fountainebleu and emerging tourist attractions such as the Monkey Jungle and Parrot Jungle became standard subjects of the era. But the economics of the new printing processes made the medium available also to a variety of private interests that included restaurants and the cruise ship industry.
Miami today is no longer simply the tourist paradise whose postcards beckoned so appealingly for over 70 years. Nevertheless, having grown into a residential, commerical, and international business center, our lush vegetation, luminous horizons, abundant color, developing architecture, cultural enrichment and resort atmosphere still make Miami a perfect picture postcard town.
Cesar Trasobares is Executive Director of Art in Public Places and was formerly an administrator for Miami-Dade Community College.
The City Slant was published by Miami-dade Community College, Mitchell Wolfson Campus, New World Center and was edited by Laura Cerwinske.