A desirable image is one that celebrates and enlarges the present while making connections with past and future.
—Kevin Lynch, What Time Is This Place? (1976)
The past is never dead. It’s not even past.
—William Faulkner, Requiem for a Nun (1950)
Every landscape tells a story.
—Christopher Salter (2006)
Postcards from the Río Bravo Border engages the relationship among photographic image, past place, and landscape. Photographs are part of what is called “visual culture,” a term that emerged first in the art world of the 1970s and that is now understood as an umbrella expression for imagery in general and its relationship to cultures. Visual culture through photographs is central to the particular goals of this story. Visual culture is examined in its association with travel and tourism as cultural processes because the tourist was the primary audience for the picture postcard, the principal visual medium explored in this project. Further, the work investigates representations of border places in the past and the production of images by period photographers because towns were the subjects of the postcard photographs. Critically, the story is told by reading the landscape of postcard imagery to construct a visual narrative about Río Bravo border towns between 1900s and 1950s.
Postcards that connect picture and place are called “view cards.” The popularity of postcards in the early decades of the twentieth century revolutionized our relationship to places. The availability of popular imagery including view postcards fundamentally transformed American engagement with place. Imagery elevated place beyond direct experience and the written word. Travelers—both armchair and tourist alike—could now consume place through imagery, and the simple postcard view was a critical entree in that process.
“Place” is a term that might seem innocent to the lay reader. Places are, however, complex human creations, and how pictures of place have influenced the geographical imagination is an emerging field in cultural geography. Critical to this project is an understanding of how picture postcards shaped place. It is argued that picture postcards became part of the script of a visitor experience, most especially places that lacked attention through traditional travel books, the historic and popular means that communicated about nineteenth- and twentieth-century travel. Picture postcards were not the places themselves; rather, they were representations of a place: the scene of the seen. Postcards, therefore, both represented and narrated place for visitors. They were collected to remember place, yet they could stimulate a desire to visit place. Further, postcards of a place analyzed systematically create an understanding of place that may be unique as a form of visual culture. For example, postcards can be used to compare changes in a place through rephotography, which illustrates the place at two different times, or they can be arranged serially for a particular place to visualize change through time.
Landscape, like place, can appear to be a naïve term suggesting an area or field of view. It is most certainly that, but theoretically it can be examined as a socially constructed space that includes many visible and invisible clues to a culture’s preference for making place. In this way, landscapes can be read like a text, and in this project landscape is both the view in a postcard image and the unraveling of that view to make it understandable as a product of people, place, and time.
Photography as part of visual culture is considered modern. As a technical achievement, photographic reproduction generates credibility by the fact of capturing a person or place, fixing it for posterity. Today, it strains us to imagine that this is somehow novel, yet until the early nineteenth century representing something visually was chiefly the domain of the arts, and the arts were largely linked to affluence, especially powerful individuals and institutions. By the early twentieth century, photographic representation became accessible. This “massification,” or the ease with which image reproduction circulated, changed our relationship with image. No longer the province of elites, images became widely produced and reproduced.
Scholarly exploration of visual culture through tourism has chiefly ignored historical reflection in favor of contemporary experience. Classic sociological treatises such as Dean MacCannell’s study of tourist behavior or John Urry’s investigation of the tourist gaze have been almost exclusively contemporary analyses. While it is asserted that photography in the nineteenth century structured the tourist gaze, it is admitted that much speculation about the relationship between tourism and photography has yielded little empirical investigation into their connections. Even more rare is any serious attempt to interpret the relationship among image, tourism, and places in the past. Postcards from the Río Bravo Border is foremost an exploration of that relationship, one pivoted on the photographic postcard and the tourist visitor experience to Río Bravo Mexican border towns between the 1900s and the 1950s. That first half of the twentieth century was when Mexican border towns emerged as popular destinations for American visitors.
Anatomy of the Tourist Path: Merging Postcard Image and Place
Capturing postcard images of border towns required some knowledge of places within and around those towns to be photographed. To be sure, this production was a selective process because not all places in a town were of interest to a photographer, and certainly, the universe of places to see was limited and appreciated as well by the visitor who was the consumer-purchaser of the postcard. As a result, what gets shown in postcard views very quickly becomes a narrow range of places, some perhaps well-known even to first-time visitors because the site has notoriety from previous circulated images. Other locations are hardly recognized or known about in advance, and a very few places visited may well be quite exotic to even the most seasoned traveler.
In 1957, cultural landscape historian John Brinckerhoff Jackson published an essay about a fictitious encounter that a visitor might have with an American town. Jackson called that experience “the stranger’s path.” The path was the street-level route into the American downtown, a space that was increasingly alien to travelers during the so-called urban removal period of that era, when middle-class populations were fleeing to suburbs away from city centers, which were becoming abandoned and leveled, creating a patchwork of empty lots in our urban cores. The process also described Jackson’s discoveries on entering many an American small town, places that were coming to a similar phase of abandonment as generations once resident in those emptied communities relocated to the cities. According to Jackson, these paths, once well-worn corridors of access and egress to Americans of an earlier generation, had become lonely and forgotten with the construction of interstate highways and the growing popularity of bypass travel. They were, therefore, strange in a way that suggested the unfamiliar, the uneasy, and the derelict, landscapes out of step with the expanding suburbanization that became rampant during the 1960s–1970s. The stranger’s path was populated with broken sidewalks, potholed streets, pawnshops, single room occupant hotels, tacky motels and roadside eateries, and abandonment. Yet Jackson found this landscape alluring and full of lessons about how American places came to be, how they survived, changed, and adapted and the particular populations of the urban and small-town scene. Jackson’s stranger’s path is a metaphor for the path journeyed by visitors to the Río Bravo border towns.
Visitors to Mexican border towns during the 1900s–1950s experienced their own strange paths, routes through towns that may have seemed exotic to many. In fact, the stranger’s path, or tourist route, was a very calculated and highly orchestrated promenade meant to expose visitors to specific sites in border communities with nary a single detour. This framework was likely the result of the photographer entrepreneur’s awareness of selected locations that had become popular with visitors. Deviation from this programmed experience was not impossible, but more often the postcard views themselves helped navigate the route, acting as signposts of the sites that were most popular.
In many, perhaps most, instances it was likely that the route was relived through the sequence of postcards accumulated and not mailed during the visit. This may in part explain why so many postcards found in private collections today are not messaged or posted. Like guidebooks that were templates to the tourist experience of place, postcards typically structured the tourist path, reinforcing the established sites to be seen in a place. In this way, visitor encounters with Mexican border towns followed a common thread known by traveler tourists around the world for generations.
The peculiar anatomy of the Mexican border cities shaped the stranger’s path and also the kinds of views of places represented in postcards. Mexican border towns in large part are truncated on their northern reaches by the international boundary, creating a need to formally enter the town from the neighboring U.S. town. This situation creates both a gateway landscape and a crossing experience. Postcard photographers were keenly aware of this condition. All border crossings were, therefore, dramatic entry points represented by forms of transport across the boundary including infrastructures like bridges and gateway facilities that monitored and controlled access to the border town visited and beyond. In fact, essentially every border town was a doorway to the interior of Mexico, and visitor entry was sometimes transitory if the destination was a location far beyond the border. In this way, every gateway acted as an entrêpot, a point of passage to a hinterland that extended well south of the international boundary at a specific border town. Regardless, the gateway and crossing were the first exposure of travelers-visitors to the Mexico of their imagination. The gateway landscape, therefore, is the first station of the stranger’s path, a threshold that becomes cemented in the mind of the visitor through the anxiety of the experience but also through the memory of the postcards that represent the place.
Once visitors cross successfully through a gateway they are typically dumped onto a single street that launches them along the path. These main streets are usually linear alignments that run perpendicular to the international boundary and act like a spine to the anatomy of a town. In some places this is a set of zigzag streets or even a curving path away from the gateway toward the center of the border town. Unlike a spine that suggests rigid linearity, the string, as this other main street has been called, can be a circuitous route, creating heightened anxiety for visitors who expect the border town to unfold easily for them after navigating the crossing. These street landscapes, or streetscapes, are often the principal retail strips of the border towns lined with curio shops, eateries, bars, and other attractions appealing to tourist visitors. Whether spine or string, these spaces were a second station or arrangement on the path, and postcard photographers documented the blocks of businesses, the activities and traffic—pedestrian and automotive—along and sometimes in the streets, thereby capturing the commercial vitality that marked every border town. For some visitors, these streets were the extent of their interaction with the town, wanting only to shop, eat, drink, and return to the safety of the U.S. side of the boundary.
The plaza has been called the heart and soul of any Mexican town. It is a rectangular space typically created with the founding of a community, and border towns, like towns across Mexico, each feature a plaza and sometimes several plazas. The plaza or plazas are usually the destination of the spine or string street described above. In some towns, the plaza is offset from this main street, and at other times the plaza actually sits as a buffer between the gateway and the spine. This space is a pedestrian oasis typically studded with plants and trees, walk paths, benches, a fountain, and a bandstand. Here visitors can mingle with local residents who use the plaza as a physical respite in their daily activities or a gathering spot for special events. Plazas conventionally boast the town’s largest public buildings, especially the church and municipal palace, and collectively they showcase the architectural splendor of a community. The plaza is a prime location for postcard photographers, and virtually every town is represented by postcard views of its plaza. It is, therefore, the third station of the path and in some ways the most popular and actively sought center of the town for visitor and resident alike.
Beyond the central space of the plaza, border town visitors were drawn to a number of sites that I call “attractions” because each has a particular function and/or attraction that a visitor moves into and out of, and typically the space accommodated larger crowds than a single point like a business establishment. An attraction can be many different kinds of public or private spaces but for the purposes of this project include markets and arenas. All border towns had public markets and bullfighting arenas, and these spaces in some towns were major tourist attractions. They were typically situated away from the gateway, main street, and plaza, but visitors, with local assistance, could find their way to those locations, and they became sites captured visually by postcard photographers. Attractions thus became a fourth type of station for visitors, expanding the lure of the border town beyond the commonly recognized loci described above.
Another category of spaces captured by postcard photographers is businesses and landmarks. These were specific locations in the building fabric of the border town, for example, a bar, curio store, or public building. Unlike plazas or attractions, businesses were common along streets and side streets in a town, multiple in number, and frequented by visitors as part of their wanderings along the path. These sites, not surprisingly, were also fodder for postcard photographers, and typically were the primary dispensing locations for postcard sales. Specific buildings and spaces, however, were popular landmarks to the tourist, and visualized by postcard photographers. Businesses and landmarks were critical stops, de rigueur pauses along the tourist path.
The Río Bravo border towns, like all places in Mexico, contain aspects of everyday life alluring to visitors and therefore postcard photographers. Domestic scenes varied by particular location but could include almost anything off the tourist path. Residences, street vendors, washerwomen, special celebrations, peculiarities—any event or circumstance that marked everyday life of the river border town seemed fair game for photographers. These scenic detours were quite exotic to most visitors, and postcard photographers found them potentially endearing images that made for the perfect curious postcard mirroring border town life.
Postcards from the Río Bravo Border is organized in three parts: “Places and Postcards,” “Postcard Views,” and “Sight into Site.” The chapters in these sections present the story of how the Mexican border towns of the Río Bravo visually came to represent Mexico for thousands of visitors. Early chapters contextualize the border towns and postcards while later chapters assess the border town landscapes as visual culture.
Chapters 1 and 2 introduce the border towns and postcards. Chapter 1 contextualizes the historical geography of Río Bravo towns, setting a framework to understand how places came to be and how they expanded geographically through phases of growth spurred by social and economic events of the 1900s through 1950s. Places strategic to the tourist experience are mapped and described for each town, and selected panoramic postcard images illustrate views of each town at two separate time periods to suggest how postcards came to represent places. Chapter 2 moves the story to an explanation of postcards as forms of visual culture and postcard photography, especially individual photographers and postcard companies that produced images of the Río Bravo border towns. This chapter also discusses how Mexican places have been visually represented in the past and how those representations compare to postcard views. Postcards of Mexico are shown to be a continuum of earlier forms of popular imagery, socially constructed and framed to tell a particular story about people and place.
Chapters 3–6 are assembled to follow a common template for the stations of the path encountered by tourist visitors and captured visually by postcard photographers. In each chapter, a short introductory essay frames the views being presented, drawing on historical materials to create a context for seeing the postcard views. The postcard images are then paired to a description that distills the essence of that representation as part of the larger fabric of the theme. What unfolds is less a treatise in dense prose about each station of the path than a visual exploration of place as revealed by postcard views. In addition to paired text and image, I use vignettes to elaborate particular themes that are part of the stations of the path being shown. These vignettes are intended to vary the overall narrative using selected towns to illustrate a theme. In this way, a reader can select and engage from within the chapters particular arrangements or places of interest or to move out of sequence as one’s attention is drawn to one or another theme or town. I hope that in this manner, the work becomes valuable to readers who desire the complete story as well as those who might be interested only in pieces of the whole.
Chapters 7 and 8 are organized as essays with gallery images to illustrate the examples of businesses, landmarks, and everyday life for the river border towns. An introductory essay briefly explains the themes, which are followed by a portfolio of images drawn from the border towns of the study and linked to extended captions. The presentation is thus thematic and graphic without restriction to any particular town.
Chapter 9 summarizes the findings from this project and distills larger conclusions about the relationship between visual culture and place. The lessons learned in this exploration can expand our ways of seeing places in the past, creating applications that enhance understanding of landscapes beyond the Río Bravo border towns.
The path is the thread that joins place and postcard imagery in this project. Thematically, the stations of the path—including gateways, streets, plazas, and attractions, along with businesses, landmarks, and everyday life—are swatches of fabric that sewn together create a quilt of visual representation of Río Bravo border towns. I term these swatches “viewscapes,” combining the postcard photographer’s view of place with the geographer’s habit of using landscape as a medium to understand how places are made. Viewscapes enable us to both visualize and interpret locations along the path followed by so many visitors to these towns. In this way, I seek to engage the reader to become that tourist visitor, seeing the pieces of the mosaic that constitute the Río Bravo Mexican border town through time.
Chapter 3, titled “Gateways,” introduces viewscapes of the crossing spaces that were the first places visitors encountered in their journey along the path through a Río Bravo Mexican border town. In the first half of the twentieth century, crossings from the United States to Mexico took place by boat, railroad, mule car, streetcar, auto, and, of course, by foot. This chapter draws examples from the towns to examine the variation in transport forms and landscapes created by and for these modes of conveyance and revealed by postcard images. Two vignettes then detail how specific border towns were especially promoted based on the nature of their gateways. Matamoros, before railroad and auto bridges joined it to Brownsville, was unusual because of the peculiar nature of getting from the American shore via watercraft and then changing to mule cars—later streetcars—on the Mexican shore for the long ride into the center of town. This gateway was very popular to postcard photographers who seemed fascinated with this dual transport experience where visitors moved by boat and mule car or streetcar to the central plaza of the town. A second vignette spotlights Nuevo Laredo’s important gateway function through the sequence of bridges erected across the Rio Grande/Río Bravo. Both rail and auto bridges were built and rebuilt over the first five decades of the twentieth century. Destructive floods along the river interrupted and inundated Nuevo Laredo as well as other towns. Later, when Nuevo Laredo–Laredo became the border portal for the Pan American Highway—the first paved road connecting the United States and the interior of Mexico—bridges there were celebrated for their arching function, which linked hinterlands far beyond the international boundary. Postcard photographers capitalized on the importance of these changing connections where simple access was elevated to visual icon and reproduced many times for a consuming public.
In Chapter 4, “Streets,” the reader is introduced to the linear spaces of the path that point the visitor to the center of the Río Bravo border town experience. These arteries connect the gateway to the commercial, social, and entertainment activities strung along the main streets of the border towns like pearls on a necklace. The chapter first describes the variety of street forms for the Río Bravo towns, then illustrates some of that diversity with postcard images. Two vignettes again expand the view of these spaces for particular towns. Calle Zaragoza is the main street of Piedras Negras opposite Eagle Pass, Texas. It is positioned beyond the town’s main plaza, which greets a visitor after exiting the gateway. Calle Zaragoza is crowded with the principal businesses of the town, and it continues on to become the major highway out of town. That situation made it the most attractive street in Piedras Negras. Bustling with people and activity, Calle Zaragoza proved a strategic viewscape, ripe for the eye of the postcard photographer. Avenida Guerrero, Nuevo Laredo’s commercial spine, is explored in a second vignette. More than any other Río Bravo border town main street, Guerrero is the prototypical retail strip. Unlike Calle Zaragoza in Piedras Negras, Avenida Guerrero explodes from its entry gate without interruption. It has been the main street of the town since Nuevo Laredo’s founding in the middle nineteenth century. Its centrality in the landscape anatomy of the border town is reinforced by its function as the principal highway that leads south to the interior of Mexico, a route that became institutionalized with the opening of the Pan American Highway in 1939. Along Guerrero are Nuevo Laredo’s main plazas, positioned like alternate spaces on a checkerboard. Commercial businesses are posted along the street between these public squares like chess pieces lined up ready for play. The primacy of this street was an allure to postcard photographers over many generations, and it is no exaggeration to suggest that Avenida Guerrero is the iconic Mexican border town main street. Consequently, it may also be one of the best-recognized border town stations of the path.
Chapter 5 showcases “Plazas,” perhaps the most central and focused station along the path and a fundamental fix for postcard photographers. These social hubs graced every Río Bravo border town. In the larger towns, multiple plazas were part of the townscape. In other towns, a single plaza mayor or plaza principal (main or principal plaza) was the social nexus. This chapter presents an overview about border town plazas drawing examples from all towns to suggest the variety of views and activities that were snapped through the shutter of the postcard photographer’s camera. Two vignettes are used to elaborate particular plazas. Reynosa’s Plaza Hidalgo became the subject of the postcard photographer’s lens from the 1920s through the 1950s. Situated at the end of a string street linked to the crossing, the plaza was the central focus of the town’s commercial and social activities. Plaza Hidalgo in Reynosa became a postcard fix during Prohibition as thousands of Texans and others were lured to its bars and entertainment outlets. During the 1940s, its church, retail businesses, hotels, and curio stores made the space a celebrated venue for locals and outsiders alike. As a consequence, it was repeatedly featured in postcard images of Reynosa, disproportionate to other stations of the path in the town. High image density enables a reconstructed serial view of this space that is unusual among all border towns. Villa Acuña’s Plaza Benjamín Canales is the chapter’s second vignette. Unlike Reynosa’s Plaza Hidalgo, Villa Acuña’s social center is slightly off the path, behind the main commercial streets of the town. The social space is several blocks from Acuña’s entertainment spine along Calle Hidalgo. Nevertheless, postcard photographers feature the plaza in selected images, if not to the same degree that they documented Reynosa’s plaza. Views of the church, principal public buildings, and the peaceful nature of the square present Villa Acuña’s plaza as a local space, known by tourists and occasionally visited, but chiefly a quiet place oriented to residents because it was away from the action of the town’s main drag. Categorically, it is a station on the path, but practically, it illustrates how postcard photographers diverted from that path to feature a space they recognized as fundamental to the identity of the town regardless its location.
Chapter 6, “Attractions,” visits other private and public spaces in the Río Bravo border towns. Train and bus stations, aduanas, or customs houses, and other spaces that might attract a congregation of patrons were recognized gathering sites. This chapter highlights two such locations: markets, or mercados, and bullrings—so called plazas de toros. Markets were large public spaces where goods of every imaginable type could be vended and attracted resident and visitor alike. Bullrings were, like plazas, common to every border town. As seasonal entertainment spaces, they attracted both residents and visitors. These spaces are described in general for all Río Bravo border towns and then inspected through case study vignettes. The Mercado in Matamoros is explored as the first vignette for the chapter. Located several blocks from the main plaza yet centrally positioned in the town, the market became a popular station stop along the tourist path and thereby a subject for postcard photographers. The market transformed over the period from 1900 to 1950, first serving exclusively locals and later tourists as well as residents. The market physically transformed over the years, but the indoor-outdoor nature of the space made for intimate interiors as well as aisle street-like views. That quality especially made it viable for postcard photographers who made fewer images of other border town markets that were essentially enclosed structures. Perhaps the most famous bullring of the Río Bravo border towns was La Macarena in Villa Acuña, the chapter’s second vignette. Called a “West Texas custom,” visiting the town’s plaza de toros was more than sporting entertainment: it was a packaged experience that could include a meal and drinks at La Macarena Café adjoining the bullring. Situated only a few short blocks from the gateway and but one block off Villa Acuña’s main street, Calle Hidalgo, La Macarena was a recognized station of the path, and a venue for many forms of entertainment beyond its famous blood sport. Not surprising, postcard photographers had a ringside seat for events and celebrations at La Macarena, and its legendary status was no doubt enshrined, in part, through postcards.
Chapter 7 examines through essay and portfolio “Businesses and Landmarks” that captivated postcard photographers and thus were part of the visitor path. These include bars, restaurants, curio stores, public and private buildings, and even cemeteries. Each of these locations was a specific and precise stop but generically important as a type of space. Unlike attractions that were large gathering sites and few in number, businesses were numerous and spread across the urban fabric, while landmarks were architecturally unique yet common to each town. They merit attention because all were the repeated subject of the postcard photographer’s fancy, and all types were arguably critical to any visitor’s experience. Every border town had bars and restaurants, the mainstays of any tourist locale. Particular establishments, nevertheless, gained notoriety and therefore became captured in postcards for visitors. Postcards showing the exteriors and interiors of these businesses were a form of advertising, creating familiarity in the minds of present and future patrons. Curio stores were another staple of the Río Bravo border town visitor experience, and every town included this type of retail. These businesses became especially popular after Prohibition and the Mexican national government’s ban on casino gambling in the late 1930s. Examples are drawn from several towns to suggest the kinds of views common to the postcard image. Chapter 7 also includes selected examples of specialized places like historic landmarks, customs houses, radio broadcast facilities that patronized American audiences, and cemeteries, the latter especially attractive because of their distinctive architecture.
“Everyday Life” through essay and gallery images is the subject of Chapter 8. Scenes of local living were selectively attractive detours to tourist visitors and postcard photographers. Street scenes of domesticity were invariably subject to visitor curiosity, and this chapter illustrates selected examples of domestic life in the Río Bravo border towns captured by postcard photographers. Daily labor, shopkeepers, residential types, work spaces, entertainment venues, public spaces, schools, families, the home, and celebrations are examples of everyday life captured in postcards. Vendors, for example, have been part of the urban scene for as long as there have been towns. Along the Río Bravo, a particular form of street peddler—the barrilero, or water cart vendor—was a fixture of every town before permanent water delivery systems were common. During the early decades of the twentieth century, barrileros, so-called because of the barrels that held the water that was captured at river’s edge and mounted to simple mule- or horse-drawn carts, roamed the residential and business streets dispensing their essential commodity. To visitors and postcard photographers alike this exotic form of water delivery had nearly disappeared from the American urban scene by the 1900s, as water delivery systems became public and standardized. The prosaic that was readily visible in the Mexican border environment made for popular imagery.
Finally, Chapter 9 summarizes the findings for the book and draws conclusions about the relationship between postcard image and place engagement in the Río Bravo border towns.