Thursday, February 14, 2013

Vintage Postcards and Photos Reveal Provincetown's Rich History and Culture

Before the days of modern refrigeration our early fishermen preserved their catch by salting the fish and drying it on outdoor racks called "flakes." Here we see codfish drying on flakes that stretch from one end of the wharf to the other, and there were dozens of these wharves along the harbor. The wharves not only served the boats leaving shore to catch or trap the fish; they also provided a landing where the fishermen could unload the boats, as well as acres upon acres of space for the fish flakes, where the cleaned catch could be salted and laid out to dry over a period of time. See my post about fish flakes and trap boats on August 18th, 2012, for more about catching and curing the fish in those days.
From its appearance, we can also gather a number of clues about the time period of this old photo post card, even though this particular card was never mailed, and thus had no postmark to provide a date for this scene.
The small amount of blank space on the right-hand edge of this card is all the space that was allowed for writing a message on the card during the era in which it was produced. It was just enough space to write a brief salutation or message to the recipient, literally just a few words, or for the signature of the sender. By law, no message or greeting was allowed to be written on the back of the card in this day. The back sides of post cards were not divided into separate sections for the address and a message until 1907, and writing a message on the backs of cards before that time was prohibited by postal laws, so the undivided back of this post card tells us it was printed before 1907.
Provincetown volunteer fireman
John D. Hilliard, 1876
Some post cards give clues to the date or other information within the image itself, such as an early Commercial Street scene showing a number of Model A Fords in the road, These cars were built from 1928 through 1931, so they would have been seen in photos after those dates, of course, but could not have appeared earlier. Period clothing worn by people in the images can help establish a rough date, as can specific events depicted in photos, such as President and Mrs. Taft walking up the gangway on Steamboat Wharf. We know that they were here for the dedication of the Pilgrim Monument on August 5th, 1910.
Many post cards have been made using paintings, etchings and other images by Provincetown artists, and we can sometimes find dates for these works of art through auction listings and other records kept by sources such as the Provincetown Art Association and Museum. There is a remarkable collection of artifacts and human knowledge to be found at the Pilgrim Monument and Provincetown Museum, where staff members like Curator of Education Laurel Guadazno are walking encyclopedias of the town's history.
Family photos will often have handwritten notes on the back, or depict events that can be traced to a specific date, or are found in a box with other mementos from a specific time period. The image above came from a cabinet photo published by Nickerson Photography Studio in Provincetown. A note on the back, written in pencil,  reads "John D. Hilliard 1876." The photo shows the Provincetown volunteer fireman posed in full dress, including hat and horn. According to Simeon L. Deyo's book History of Barnstable County, Massachusetts, 1620 - 1890, around this time Hilliard was running a store selling general merchandise. The store, along with a wholesale fish business, had been started by Stephen Hilliard in 1836, the year John D. had been born. Hilliard's wharf was erected in 1840, when John was a small child. It was near the spot where Lands End Hardware stands today, and it evolved into the town's main lumber wharf by the late 1800s.
There were a number of Hilliards in town during that period, and numerous Hilliards had run these businesses for more than fifty years, at times with other business partners. And although I've read Deyo's account of all of the incarnations of these various businesses and partnerships about a dozen times, it still isn't clear to me how, or if, all of these Hilliards may have been related. I'm still hoping to find more information from another source or two.
I have a collection of a few thousand photo and post card images relating to the history, artwork, culture and inhabitants of PTown over the years, and I'll be posting many of them here at one point or another. I hope you'll enjoy them, and sorting through Provincetown's rich history, as much as I do.

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