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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 Miller, Picture Postcards in the United States, 1893-1918 (New
York: Clarkson Potter, 1975), 22. 6Miller and Miller, Picture Postcards in the United States, 16 (1st quotation); Tom Jones to Robert Runyon, June 7, 1910, Mar, 6, 1911;
invoices from Dec. 17, 1910, to Nov. 11, 1911, Runyon Collection. 7Jones to Runyon, Mar, 11, 1911 (1st quotation), Runyon Collection; Melado Land Co. to Robert Runyon, July 9 and Dec. 27, 1911 (2nd
quotation), ibid.; Gulf Coast Magazine to Runyon, Oct. 11, 1911, ibid.
In January 1912, Runyon made his new career official by resigning as manager for Gulf Coast and beginning to operate out of a house, selling postcards and processing film. He and Amelia Leonor Medrano Longoria, sister-in-law of a soon-to-be Mexican Constitutionalist commander serving under Gen. Lucio Blanco, were married in 1913. As predicted by Tom Jones, the heightening of tensions along the Texas-Mexican border gave Runyon an opportunity to expand his business. His ties to Blanco permitted him to get exclusive pictures of events on the Mexican side of the border and in northern Mexico. He sold them to newspapers and later to the increasing number of U.S. troops at Fort Brown. His photographs of the August 30, 1913, land reform ceremony at Los Borregos hacienda near Matamoros further elevated his reputation as a photographer of record, while increased U.S. interest in events along the border allowed Runyon to continue to profit from the war pictures and his contacts among the Constitutionalists. He was so successful in attracting subjects and making sales of personal postcards of soldiers and scenes at Fort Brown in 1914 and 1915 that by 1916 he required the help of his wife to produce enough cards to satisfy the market.8
Demobilization along the border and the advent of World War I dried up the local military demand for postcards and Runyon decided to augment his income by opening a portrait photography studio in 1917. He quickly gained a reputation as the best in Brownsville, and was designated the official photographer for Brownsville High School, a post he held from 1918 to 1926. Along the way he photographed and marketed to newspapers images of important local events, such as the 1920 visit of President-elect Warren Harding to Brownsville, and continued his association with land developers. The land boom of the 1920s produced an even more varied set of opportunities for the sale of the kind of photographs Runyon, by this time, was well known for supplying, frequently in the form of postcards and view folders. In 1926, the Al Parker Securities Company of La Feria, Texas, purchased one hundred folders at a price they considered too high (nine dollars) in order to "determine whether or not they can be used satisfactorily in our business." In 1927 Orval Hall, Land and Securities of Tyler, Texas, and Peter W. Heintz, Real Estate and Insurance of Blue Island, Illinois, both inquired about Runyon's souvenir folders of the Rio Grande Valley.9
These popular view folders were the result of a long and successful business relationship between Runyon and the Curt Teich Company, one of the largest and most prominent suppliers of color postcards in the United States in the twentieth century. In 1913, Runyon's records show that he ordered 44,898 cards from Teich. These included 1,116 of the Brownsville post office and customhouse, 4,594 of the International Bridge across the Rio Grande, 16,841 of war-related subjects, 12,223 of Mexican bullfights, and 14,718 with no subject specified.10
In 1914, Runyon ordered a total of 59,553 cards from Teich. With the exception of 5,040 of a Texas longhorn, all bear either Runyon negative numbers or instructions to include copyright Robert Runyon on the image. Military subjects account for 2,248 cards. Mexican scenes that would have appeal for the troops were the most numerous in this year (35,141). The remaining 17,234 images were of Brownsville and the Lower Rio Grande Valley, including 4,954 of the International Bridge, 1,025 of the pier at Point Isabel, 1,025 of "Las Palmas" palm grove, 2,916 of the Cameron County courthouse, 1,015 of Elizabeth Street in Brownsville, 1,022 of the Point Isabel lighthouse, 1,154 of a scene on the Rio Grande at Brownsville, 1,143 of the Brownsville market square, and 2,980 of the San Carlos Hotel in Brownsville.11
The Runyon collection contains no records of any business transaction with Teich for the years between 1915 and 1921. Delbert Runyon, the photographer's son, suggests that these records may have been lost. The records resume on September 12, 1922, with an invoice for ten thousand view folders of "Souvenir of Brownsville, Texas, and Mata-moros, Mexico" acknowledging instructions that it be marked "copyrighted by Robert Runyon." On the same date, confirmation of Runyon's order for thirteen subjects (ten reprints and three new images) in the amount of five thousand each demonstrates the continued commercial success of Runyon's work and his satisfactory relationship with Teich. Of these, three reprints are Mexican scenes and seven portray Brownsville scenes and buildings. Two of the three new images are of the Plaza de Armas in Matamoros. The third portrays a high school building in Brownsville. The addition of this fine looking school to the already available images of two large banks, the main business district, city parks, and a new county courthouse suggest Runyon's inclination toward promoting the area as an attractive place to work and raise a family.12
8Tyler, at al. (eds.) The New Handbook. V, 718 Frank N. Samponaro and Paul J. Vanderwood, War Scare on the Rio Grande: Robert Runyon's Photographs of the Border Conflict, 1913-1916 (Austin; Texas State Historical Association, 1992), 8-9.
9Samponaro and Vanderwood, War Scare on the Rio Grand, 10; Al Parker Securities to Runyon, Dec. 9, 1926, Runyon Collection; Orval
Hall to Runyon, Feb. 21, 1927, ibid.; Peter W. Heintz to Runyon. Apr. 18, 1927, ibid.
10Teich to Runyon (invoices), 1913, Runyon Collection.
11 Teich to Runyon (invoices), 1914, ibid.
12Delbert Runyon to Linda Peterson, Nov. 20, 1997 (original in possession of author); Teich to Runyon (invoices), 1922 (quotation), Runyon Collection.
Continued large orders in 1923 (two views of the Plaza de Armas at ten thousand each) and 1924 (thirty-five thousand cards, mainly of Matamoros) indicate the continuation of this successful collaboration between Teich and Runyon. In 1926, competition and declining profitability caused Runyon to close his photography studio and open a curio shop catering to tourists in Matamoros. Confirmation of an order of ten thousand view folders entitled "Souvenir Folder of the Lower Rio Grande Valley, Texas," with his instructions to include "copyright Robert Runyon," indicates his continued interest in regional promotion and the existence of a market for this product. Consistent with Runyon's change in occupation from studio photographer to curio shop owner, the remaining orders from Teich in the years 1928 to 1940 are exclusively Mexican and other tourist scenes. Even allowing for a gap in the records from 1930 to 1935, the amount is considerable: 108,000 in 1928, 96,000 in 1929, 12,600 in 1936, 48,000 in 1938, and 72,000 in 1940, for a total of 336,600 cards.13
Several letters from Teich in 1926 and 1928 show the publisher's support for Runyon's role as a jobber by referring inquiries about his images directly to him. In 1936, a rare copy of two-way correspondence that includes a letter from Teich and Runyon's response indicates that while no longer engaged in the business of photography, Runyon was still taking pictures and remained concerned about both accuracy and copyright protection of his work. Teich expressed the wish to reproduce Runyon's image of the Traveler's Hotel in Brownsville that two of their other jobbers had requested. They noted that Runyon had not used the subject for many years and requested a copyright release in writing. Runyon replied immediately, pointing out that recent remodeling of the hotel building made the photo in question inaccurate. He said that he intended to make a new photograph of the subject, which he would job and retail as previously, and took the opportunity
to inform you that you have published some of my cards and sold them to jobbers here in the Valley, arid left off my copyright notice without my permission, which I hope you will discontinue.
No further records of this dispute exist in the archives, but it is indicative of Runyon's long-standing concern with copyright protection. He was not alone among photographers in recognizing copyright infringement as a danger to his livelihood. As early as 1896, eminent pioneer photographer and publisher of Western images W. H. Jackson had ex-pressed concern that "the hard-working photographer lacked adequate copyright protection; his own pictures could be sold right under his nose without so much as a thank you."14
Between 1910 and 1926 Runyon applied for and was granted copyright to eighty-eight of his postcard images. He appears to have been quite successful in guarding this right, and his instructions to include copyright notices on the postcards sometimes resulted in enhanced sales from customers who saw it and applied directly to him for the purchase of existing images or to request new ones by him. Indeed, it was this notice that had prompted the requests for view folders by land developers in the 1920s as previously mentioned. On February 12, 1937, an attorney from Harlingen, Texas, requested an enlargement that he had seen in Runyon's studio of a copyrighted Runyon postcard of animals feeding on a Rio Grande Valley farm. He said that it was one of the finest pictures he ever saw and asked that the photographer either make a print himself or grant permission for someone else to do it. Runyon granted copyright permission, according to the attorney's letter confirming this, and offered to supply an enlargement himself if he could find one.15
On November 2, 1928, Runyon stated in a letter that he was "no longer in the photographic business" but would still make prints from his negatives for a fee. This he did, along with marketing his images in postcard format, even as he went on to other lines of endeavor. As late as 1965, he was still receiving requests, but the seekers had a different goal in mind. These potential customers were either looking for images from their own pasts, or researching railroad and military history. In all documented cases Runyon granted their requests.16
13Teich to Runyon (invoices), 1923-1926 (quotation, Aug. 16, 1926), Runyon Collection; Teich to Runyon (invoices), 1928-1929, 1936, 1938, 1940, ibid.
14Teich to Runyon, Sept. 25, 1936, Runyon Collection; Runyon to Teich, Sept. 28, 1936 (1st quotation), ibid.; William Henry Jackson,
Time Exposure: The Autobiography of William Henry Jackson (1940; reprint. New York: Cooper Square Publishers, 1970), 320 (2nd quotation).
15Copyright acknowledgement cards, Runyon Collection; Rarnon L. Longoria to Runyon, Feb. 12, 14, 1937, ibid. 16Runyon to Homer S. Smith, Nov. 2, 1928, (quotation), Runyon Collection; Runyon to Smith regarding yearbook photograph of Smith's
sister, Nov. 2, 1928, ibid.; Louis R. Koeppe to Runyon. Nov. 2, 1966, ibid.
Runyon officially ended his career as a photographer in 1940 and turned to politics. He lost a campaign for mayor of Brownsville in 1937, partly due to his successful copyright infringement suit against the Chamber of Commerce. He was appointed city manager instead, serving from 1937 to 1940. During this time he totally revamped the city budget, an extraordinary accomplishment he described in a lengthy published report. He was elected mayor in 1941 and served one term. Although he returned to business briefly as owner and publisher of the Brownsville News in the late 1940s, Runyon's main occupation for the remainder of his life was as a botanist and politician, working to preserve and promote the native plant life of the Valley. By the time of his death in 1968, Runyon enjoyed an international reputation as an expert on cacti and a proponent of conservation and urban planning in the American Southwest. His herbarium is now at the University of Texas, and many plants were named after him, including one genus.17
In 1986 Runyon's family donated his collection of photographs, negatives, postcards, instructional pamphlets on photography and botany, and business files to the Center for American History at the University of Texas at Austin. This archival legacy of Robert Runyon's life and work is a rich source of information for anyone concerned with the history of photographic postcards in the United States, the use of photographs in historical research, and the development of the Lower Rio Grande Valley in the early years of the twentieth century. A joint project of the Center for American History and the University of Texas General Libraries, funded by the Library of Congress/Ameritech National Digital Library, will soon make the photographic component of this resource available on the internet as part of the Library of Congress's American Memory site (http://www.loc.gov/) and by linkage to the UT General Libraries UT Library Online (http://www.lib.utexas.edu/). The Center for American History's web page will also contain a link to "The South Texas Border, l900-1920: Photographs from the Robert Runyon Collection."
17Robert Runyon, Copy of a Report Made by Robert Runyon to the Citizens of Brownsville: at a public meeting in the Cameron County Courthouse, 1940 (Brownsville, Tex., 1940); Delbert Runyon to Linda Peterson, Nov. 25, 1997 (original in possession of author).