notes and documents - cah. height of postcard ... while pioneer view cards had been printed and sold...
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VOL. CII, No. 2 SOUTHWESTERN HISTORICAL QUARTERLY OCTOBER, 1998
Notes and Documents
From Commerce to History: Robert Runyon 's
Postcards of the Lower Rio Grande Valley
and Brownsville, 1910-1926
ROBERT RUNYON (1881-1968) is currently known to historians for his unique and extensive photographic record of the Mexican Revolution and the many bandit raids and other conflicts that occurred along the border between the United States and Mexico from 1913 to 1916. While these images are justly regarded as a major resource, it is likely that the average citizens of his region - and indeed the nation - were more familiar with the postcards he produced and sold to the resident, military, and tourist markets of Brownsville and Matamoros, and adjacent communities in Texas and Mexico. Many of these cards portrayed favorably the various agricultural, social, and commercial aspects of the area.
This article offers a detailed discussion of Runyon's postcards in the context of his business dealings and conditions as they existed in 1909, when he relocated to Brownsville, and subsequently in the Lower Rio Grande Valley of Texas. As such, it proposes another avenue for scholars to study both business history and popular culture at this critical period in the development of the Lower Rio Grande Valley.
Once a sparsely populated region of ranches and a single urban settlement focusing on the military post at Fort Brown, the Rio Grande Valley at the turn of the twentieth century was poised on the brink of an era of dramatic expansion and development. As a result of the completion of the St. Louis, Brownsville and Mexico Railway in 1904 and the introduction of widespread irrigation in 1912, the area began to experience unprecedented growth in population, commerce, and agriculture. During the 1920s, midwestern farmers were drawn to relocate there for the fertile and comparatively inexpensive land. The proximity of such towns as Brownsville to Mexico and the temperate climate attracted tourists as well. Brownsville became the center of trade and export for the Valley and northern Mexico. In 1931 the Brownsville Chamber of Commerce reported an increase in the town's population of 87 percent over ten years.1
In addition to these new residents, the reactivation in 1913 of Fort Brown for border patrol brought even more people whose families and friends were far away. All of these conditions created a need for quick but informative communication. Postcards were an ideal vehicle for the purpose, and Robert Runyon was there to provide them.
The height of postcard popularity, the first two decades of the twentieth century, was an era of general prosperity and optimism for the United States as a whole. While "pioneer view cards" had been printed and sold locally in the United States since the 1870s, they were not intended to be mailed, although some were. This situation changed in 1898 when Congress reduced the postage rate for cards from two cents to one cent. Kodak's introduction in 1902 of postcard-size photographic paper on which images could be printed directly from negatives significantly streamlined the process of producing local views. The backs of the cards were usually preprinted to facilitate their use for conveying messages. Photographers soon found that 'people would pay more for such cards, so while they did not warrant mass production by commercial publishers, they could still be made for a profit." Cards were produced to advertise cities as early as 1906, often with captions promoting the local environment as a superior place to live and work.2
1Milo Kearney and Anthony Kopp, Boom and Bust: The Historical Cycles of Matamoros and Brownsville (Austin, Tex.: Eakin Press, 1991), 222-225; Brownsville Chamber of Commerce, Points of Interest in and around Brownsville (n.p., 1931)
2Hal Morgan and Andreas Brown, Prairie Fires and Paper Moons: The American Photographic Postcard, 1900-1920 (Boston; David R.
Godine, 1981), xiii.
*Linda Peterson is Photography Services Coordinator at the Center for America History, University of Texas at Austin She wishes to thank Robert Runyon's son, Delbert Runyon for his generous assistance on this project.
The 350 photographic postcards (photographs printed on postcard stock) in the Robert Runyon Photograph Collection, 1910-1926, at the Dolph Briscoe Center for American History include approximately one hundred images of the border conflict and revolution in Mexico during the years 1913-1916. Along with other Runyon photographs, they formed the basis for Frank N. Samponaro and Paul J. Vanderwood's book, War Scare on the Rio Grande: Robert Runyon 's Photographs of the Border Conflict, 1913-1916 (Austin: Texas State Historical Association, 1992). Of the remainder, seventy-two cards portray the flora, fauna, architecture, industry, and social life of the Lower Rio Grande Valley; one souvenir view folder contains eighteen additional images of Brownsville.
A review of Runyon's business records shows that these cards and others like them not preserved in this repository were an important part of Runyon's commercial enterprise. He sold them at his curio shops in Matamoros and Brownsville and marketed them to other retailers in large quantities long after he stopped making new images and closed his photography studio in 1926. Most appear to have been intended as souvenirs, but some were used by land developers specifically to promote the region. These images proclaiming the agricultural and civic virtues of Brownsville and the Lower Rio Grande Valley present an excellent case study of the contemporary production and marketing of postcards, and of their current role as documents of local and regional history.3
Robert Runyon's success as a commercial photographer and purveyor of local photographic postcards, as well as the importance of his work in documenting the history of the Lower Rio Grande Valley and Brownsville, was the result in large part of a fortunate confluence of talent and circumstances. Born in 1881 in Catlettsburg, Kentucky, he left his native state in 1909, after the death of his wife, to begin a new career and life in Texas. Success in his first job as a clerk for the Gulf Coast News and Hotel Company in Houston led to a position as manager of their lunchroom and curio shop in the Brownsville Depot.4
Runyon arrived in Brownsville in April of 1909. The St. Louis, Brownsville and Mexico Railway had reached the town in 1904, opening the area for agricultural settlers from the North. The resulting prosperity spurred civic improvements and an atmosphere of boosterism in Brownsville that appealed to the young entrepreneur and provided an ideal situation for his commercial endeavors. Of particular importance was the construction of both railroad and car bridge links to Matamoros in 1910. Both the booming local economy and the influx of tourists guaranteed an abundance of customers for Runyon's merchandise and services. Mass production of postcards was also hitting its stride by 1910, and the United States Post Office reported an increase in the number of postcards mailed from 666,777 in 1908 to over 968,000 by 1913.5
An amateur photographer since 1907, Runyon began to use this skill to make money by selling his own postcards along with others at the shop as early as 1910. The enterprising shop manager was almost certainly aware that, as the Drygoods Economist had noted in 1906, "The line [of postal cards] is a good one for the retailer because of the small amount of space necessary for them and, further, because they bear a good profit." After engaging in an extensive correspondence and self-instruction program to learn about the postcard business, Runyon contacted Tom Jones Art Publishing Company of Cincinnati, Ohio, and began ordering postcards from his own negatives. As of March 6, 1911, he had a standing order of over ten thousand of these cards for his employer. From December 17, 1910, to November 11, 1911, Runyon's records show receipt of 37,500 postcards from Tom Jones.6
In March 1911 Tom Jones wrote to Runyon, "I should judge that things are getting pretty warm in your neighborhood. If the soldier boys get to Brownsville, you will surely need Souvener [sic] Cards and so forth. Get their money." This he would soon do, but with cards he printed himself and color cards of his images mass produced by Curt Teich and Company of Chicago, rather than those ordered from his first supplier. In the meantime, he began wholesaling his cards to outlets other than his employer. He also solicited assignments and orders from private clients, mainly land developers. On July 9, 1911, the Melado Land Company of Houston asked him to take pictures for them to use in their Rio Grande Valley Magazine. The officers of the company found his work much to their liking. They purchased nine of the twelve pictures he sent and inquired if he had more pictures of Valley crops, palm groves, Mexi-can scenes, and fruit trees. They later hired him to take pictures of every house and "everything that could be used in an advertising way" in their Monte Cristo development, as well as "a picture of some of the cabbages between Mission and Monte Cristo," In October of the same year, Gulf Coast Magazine of Corpus Christi responded to Runyon's sales pitch by suggesting that they swap advertising space for pictures.7
3Robert Runyon Photograph Collection (Center for American History, University of Texas at Austin; cited hereafter as Runyon Collection).
4Ron Tyler, et al. (eds.), The New Handbook of Texas (6 vols.; Austin; Texas State Historical Association, 1996), V, 718-7i19.
5Tyler, et al. (eds.), The New Handbook, I, 777; Dorothy and George Mille