“In the Future” Postcards as Popular Urbanism

By Peter Soppelsa

This post focuses on a remarkable source for illustrating popular urbanism and urban imaginaries: European and American photomontage postcards from around 1900 to 1920 that visualize future cities. Cobbling together an online archive of over 400 future cities photomontages, I discovered an under-utilized body of evidence about popular urbanism. Visual and textual traces of the urban imaginaries of card makers and senders demands further study because they reveal a specific practice of placemaking through print culture. This archive suggests how urban historians can engage with media history, visual studies, and ephemeral sources. [1]

In previous publications I showed how popular visual printed goods, such as Albert Robida’s illustrated caricatures and contemporary trading cards, illuminate urban transportation infrastructures around 1900. My argument, briefly, was that illustrations of Paris’s imagined futures mattered in deciding what forms urban infrastructures took, shaping Métro planning and the end of horse-drawn transit. My sources included popular futuristic printed cards, circulated internationally, which gave material and visual shape to imagined futures—and advocated specific futures. Robida, for example, predicted that horse traction would be replaced by bicycles and cars, and illustrated Paris’s streetscape “ruined” by elevated railways. [2]

“In the Year 2000,” a French card series from 1900, consisted of trading cards promoting cigarettes and chocolate, later reproduced as postcards. They were intended for Paris’s 1900 Universal Exposition, the largest world’s fair to date at 50 million guests. Similar illustrated cards of the 2000s sold American, Belgian, Swiss, German, and Russian products. [3] The notion of envisioning the centennial future also traveled widely. Around 1900, identical illustrations grace several “In the Year 2000” card series from European chocolate companies (German Hildebrands, Belgian Senez-Sturbelle, and Swiss Sprüngli), and later reprinted in the American “100 Years Hence” series, selling coffee, cutlery, and other kitchen tools. [4] Two of these cards feature future cities: a locomotive-driven mobile city and a weather-proof city under a giant roof [Figures 1 and 2]. [5]

Figure 1
Figure 2

My earlier work on these illustrated cards brought me to the montage postcards that I focus on in this post. Postcard service began in the Hapsburg empire in 1869 and spread rapidly around the world, but remained especially popular in central Europe. Germany’s postal display at the 1900 Expo reported 680 million cards in 1898 amid an “ever-increasing number of picture post card collectors,” while French magazine L’Illustration hailed this “innovation imported from Germany.” The global postcard craze or “crisis,” as Monica Cure calls it, built on Walter Benjamin’s “mechanical reproducibility,” a growing promiscuous reproduction and circulation of cheap images. Montage cards show that makers copied images and ideas freely from other cards, blending photographs, collage, hand coloring, illustration, and captioning, plus chromolithography for duplication. [6]

Card copying reveals a transatlantic print culture of images and ideas that circulated among card producers, sellers, and consumers. These exchanges were boosted by the world’s fairs in their prime, from Chicago (1893) to Brussels (1910), mega events that popularized postcards, incited internationalism, and projected urban futures. [7] Their fairgrounds showcased future architecture and planning, through both displays and buildings that modeled future cities. This nexus of international print culture and urban futurism inspired central European montage cards.

Mostly titled “[City] in the Future,” early montages pictured the Hapsburg empire, the Kaiserreich, and Switzerland. While German-, Hungarian-, and Slavic-language cards were most prevalent, other cards depicted Belgium, France, Italy, Russia, and the United States. American importers with contacts in Berlin, Munich, Leipzig, and Prague, such as Boston’s Reichner Bros. and San Francisco’s Scheff Bros., distributed central European “In the Future” cards, which inspired local American imitators. [8] Cards were also captioned in two languages, printed in places other than the ones depicted, written in languages different from those printed, and mailed overseas. These practices confirm the card genre’s international and transatlantic range.

Card makers modified existing photo postcards of street scenes with collage, coloring, illustration, and captions. Their visual style predates Dada’s multimedia modernism by a decade or more, but shares the striking surreality of juxtaposed objects from different contexts, perspectives, and scales combined in mixed media. Postcards were crucial to the European avant-garde’s mastery of montage. Auction houses—Austrian Auktionshaus Markus Weissenböck and Czech Filatelie Klim—have sold around 200 unique “In the Future” cards since 2000, dated 1900–1925, heavily in the decade after 1903. The blog Forgotten Galicia collected several montages of both contemporary scenes and future cities by Prague’s Lederer and Popper (L&P)—only one prominent printer among many. Cards were printed locally by dozens of German and Hapsburg printers depicting their own cities. The quality of montage and printing varies widely. Who originated and who imitated? Was copying licit or illicit? [9]


Figure 3

To better understand these postcards, let us look more closely at some examples. A card printed by Fritz Schardt and mailed in 1907 depicts Nürnberg’s Marktplatz [Figure 3]. Some visual elements are stock: Wuppertal’s Schwebebahn hanging railway (in around 150 cards), the flag-waving aviator (20 cards), and, along the bottom, a widely copied sequence of seven characters (whole or part in around 180 cards). From right to left: (1) the waving woman in pink walking her bike, (2) the motorist beside her, (3) the tophatted cyclist, (4) the man falling forward, (5) the white-capped cyclist, (6) the pedestrian in the derby hat, (7) the cyclist beside him. Always along the bottom of cards, this sequence was easily clipped for collaging. In the sky, lovers kiss in a romantic parachuted “rendezvous” airship (50 cards), while a police airship hoists a suspect (30 cards). Except the falling man, accidents play little role here compared to most cards. [10]

Figure 4

A Ravensburg card sent in 1908 [figure 4] foregrounds other stock elements: the mustachioed man toppling the cameraman and tripod, right (50 cards), and the man falling on his back beside his hat, center (100 cards). Also featured are an elevated (or airborne?) railway, and a parachuted airship. [11] A Charleroi, Belgium card printed by T. Schüller in Brussels and sent to Paris in 1906 [figure 5] repeats the pattern: airship and funicular above, falling men below. It also copies a common image of a woman getting up from a bicycle crash, bottom center (50 cards). A Prudnik, Poland card stamped 1905 [Fig 6], uses many of the same elements differently. It also features a funicular and airship above, but the mustachioed man and cameraman are lower down, removing the tripod. [12] Many card artists rendered funicular cars by clipping the undercarriage off of a streetcar image. Similarly, one common airship image was a barrel on its side.

Soppelsa_Fig5_author collection
Figure 5

Certainly, these cards captivate eyes and imaginations, but also raise questions of method. Dating and documentation are difficult, as is sorting out originals from copies. Used cards have postmarks and recipients’ addresses, which provide metadata of date and place, but may be illegible and do not record when or where cards were printed. Some cards bear more data, such as printer name, location, series number, or date. Though archiving and metadata are incomplete, many cards show traces of when and where they were made and/or sent. Yet those who made them remain obscure. The strong culture of card copying made every card potential material for other cards. Major cities appear on several cards, and striking layouts stirred widespread imitation. Like illustrated cards, montage cards may have been reprinted in runs, by different printers, or in updated formats. The resulting blur of attribution, counting, and dating is transnational in scope.

Figure 6

These challenges are balanced by the cards’ generous methodological benefits. As a mixed medium, picture postcards combine images and text, and montages further recombine images. Futuristic postcards can reveal popular urbanism on both sides, front and back. [13] The fronts reflect the card makers’ worldviews; “In the Future” cards visualize the urban imaginaries of montage artists. The backs of used cards preserve senders’ written messages, which can reveal the urban imaginaries of card consumers. Senders also modified card fronts with illustration or text, blurring the lines between consumers and producers, text and image, front and back. On some standout cards, the sender’s message discusses the pictured urban future to provoke thought. One Atlantic City card asked, “How’s this for the future?” A Marklissa card written in English noted, “What do you think about Marklissa in the future? I think it will be very lively if it is anything like this.” One San Francisco card of “Market Street in fifty years,” bears the pensive message, “I wonder if we will live to see this state of affairs.” The sender of a 1906 “Future Paris” montage of the Place de la Bastille was more skeptical: “This future is still far off” (Ce future est encore loing). [14]

How do they imagine urban life? They seem to predict that urban growth, crowding, and density will scale up. Around 25 cards contain large buildings evoking skyscrapers—in all but three, New York’s iconic Flatiron Building. Moreover, they foresee a future of traffic, speed, and risk, similarly extending the Second Industrial Revolution’s accelerating mechanized mobilities. Two cards of Czech city Trutnov are captioned “in a Portent of Traffic” (im Zeichen des Verkehres). A Berlin card subtitled “Area at the new Cathedral” (Partie am neuen Dom) depicts the Schwebebahn to Beijing, and airships to the North Pole and Venus. A similar card of Berlin’s port pictures the Schwebebahn to Tokyo, boats to Hong Kong and the Sahara, and a balloon to Mars. Land, sea, air, and even space vehicles crowd these images, foretelling a future of long-distance motorized mobility, globalization, and accidents.

One consequence of this mobility would be increased migration, represented in these cards as a recurring character. One American and 15 European cards depict a smiling black man in a fancy suit with a top hat and cane. Often in front, in one image he faces the camera in his hat, while in another he holds out his hat as he walks or dances in profile. Though likely an American minstrel, these images also evoke the popular German-language persona of the black dandy or flaneur, who was an object of exoticist and racist fantasy, fascination, and fear. His image signaled the future of migration: the racial diversity, multiculturalism, migration, cultural globalization, and exported American popular culture of what contemporaries called the Weltstadt (world city). [15]

Today, over 400 city cards are archived online, half of them by auction houses. The rest are distributed among card collectors, history hobbyists, bloggers, press retrospectives, and a few formal archives. As ephemera, cards are scattered by consumers, now treasured, now lost, but often displayed on sales sites such as Akpool, CardCow, Darabanth, Delcampe, and Ebay, or image-sharing sites like Flickr and Pinterest. Hobbyists, vendors, and bloggers do not always share the data ethics of historians, librarians, or archivists; they often neglect card backs or metadata and they may crop card images. Each digital card image is a media artifact with its own history. Online, there are duplicate links and scans of cards that were previously reissued in print.

While the fragmentary forms of ephemera remain challenging, these cards offer up popular futures past for visual and conceptual analysis. Today, rising seas and thermometers make imagining the future urgently relevant. Online traffic in historical cards shows that 1900’s futures past are both hip and heuristic in our own new century, with its own new media. The central European pioneers of postcards and photomontages promoted the paper foundations of our global era of emails and Photoshop.[16] This card genre’s diversity, elasticity, and scale would have been invisible before web browsing, digital image sharing, and online commerce became popular. I could find and interpret these cards because the Internet connected me with auction houses, blogs, and sales websites linked to private collectors via home computers and scanners. Amid the clutter of ephemera, 21st century media helped me reconstruct 20th century media, and in so doing, helped me recover these often neglected views of the popular urban imagination.

Featured image (at top): Le Sortie de l’opéra en l’an 2000, Albert Robida, c. 1902, Prints and Photographs Division, Library of Congress 

2020 head shotPeter Soppelsa holds a Ph.D. in history from the University of Michigan and is currently an assistant professor in the Department of the History of Science, affiliated faculty in Environmental Studies, and the outgoing managing editor of Technology and Culture at the University of Oklahoma. His research sits at the intersection of the history of technology with urban and environmental studies. His first book project, The Fragility of Urban Modernity, is under revision for the University of Minnesota Press. It examines conflicts over infrastructure in Paris after Haussmann as responses to the complexity and fragility of networked infrastructures that are both sociotechnical and envirotechnical. His new book project, Losing the Global War on Rats, blends animal studies, environmental studies, and the history of public health to examine the global “War on Rats” during the third bubonic plague pandemic of 1894-1959.

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[1] Karen DeBres and Jacob Sowers, “The Emergence of Standardized, Idealized, and Placeless Landscapes in Midwestern Main Street Postcards,” The Professional Geographer, 61, no. 2 (2009): 216–30; Daniel D. Arreola and Nick Burkhart, “Photographic Postcards and Visual Urban Landscape,” Urban Geography 31, no. 7, (2010): 885–904; Nick Dunn, Paul Cureton, and Serena Pollastri, A Visual History of the Future. Foresight Future of Cities Project. London: Government Office for Science, 2014.

[2] Peter Soppelsa, “The End of Horse Transportation in Belle Epoque Paris,” Interdisciplinary Studies in Literature and Environment (ISLE) 24, no. 1 (Winter 2017): 113–29, https://doi.org/10.1093/isle/isw088; “Visualizing Viaducts in 1880s Paris,” History and Technology 27, no. 3 (Sep. 2011): 371–77, https://doi.org/10.1080/07341512.2011.604178.

[3] https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/Category:France_in_XXI_Century_(fiction); https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/Category:Moscow_in_XXIII_Century_(fiction); https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/Category:Germany_in_XXI_Century_(fiction). Isaac Asimov, Futuredays: A Nineteenth Century Vision of the Year 2000 (New York: Henry Holt & Co, 1986); Christophe Canto and Odile Faliu, The History of the Future: Images of the 21st Century (Flammarion, 1993), 42, 46, 158; Jean-Marc Côté, Steampunk Visions Postcard Book: A Delightful Assortment of 24 Postcards Depicting a Future That Never Was (Manic D Press, Inc., 2016). See also: https://www.flickr.com/photos/amphalon/sets/72157615623434624/; http://classes.bnf.fr/essentiels/albums/utopie/; http://expositions.bnf.fr/utopie/feuill/index.htm.

[4] German and Swiss cards in Hans-Tommy Laeng, Blicke in die Zukunft von anno dazumal (LIT Verlag Münster, 2017), 20–39. Belgian cards: http://www.worthpoint.com/worthopedia/c-1900-trade-card-in-the-year-2000-futuristic-1; http://www.worthpoint.com/worthopedia/c-1900-trade-card-one-hundred-years-hence; http://www.worthpoint.com/worthopedia/scarce-c-1900-trade-card-in-the-year-2000. American cards: William Frost Mobely, “One Hundred Years Hence.” The Ephemeral Journal 1 (1987): 37–39; Richard Sheaff, “One Hundred Years Hence.” The Advertising Trade Card Quarterly (1999): 8–24. Norman Rockwell Center, “Days of Future Past,” http://www.rockwell-center.org/essays-illustration/the-days-of-future-past/; “Predicting the Future 100 Years Hence”; http://www.worthpoint.com/worthopedia/100-years-hence-futuristic-series-coffee-adv-trade

[5] https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/Category:Germany_in_XXI_Century_(fiction)#/media/File:Germany_in_XXI_century._House.jpg; https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/Category:Germany_in_XXI_Century_(fiction)#/media/File:Germany_in_XXI_century._Stadt.jpg.

[6] Frank Staff, The Picture Postcard and Its Origins (New York: Praeger, 1966), Ch. 4, 44–52; Marian Klamkin, Picture Postcards (New York: Dodd Frank, 1974), 36; Louis Vollaire, “La carte postale n’est pas un gadget.” Communication et langages, no. 31 (1976): 87–104, esp. 88; Martin Willoughby, A History of Postcards: A Pictorial Record from the Turn of the Century to the Present Day (Studio Editions, 1992), 30; Monica Cure, Picturing the Postcard: A New Media Crisis at the Twentieth Century (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2018), 6–9; International Exposition Paris, 1900: Official-catalogue, exhibition of the German Empire (Berlin: Imperial Commission, 1900), 32 https://catalog.hathitrust.org/Record/002010575; Clément Chéroux, “The Small Change of Art,” in Urs Stahel, Clément Chéroux, and Ute Eskildsen, eds., The Stamp of Fantasy: The Visual Inventiveness of Photographic Postcards (Gottingen: Steidl, 2008), 195–205, L’Illustration quote on 197.

[7] Naomi Schor, “‘Cartes Postales’: Representing Paris 1900,” Critical Inquiry 18, no. 2 (Winter, 1992): 188–244; Rebecca J. DeRoo, “Colonial Collecting: French Women and Algerian Cartes Postales” in Colonialist Photography (Routledge, 2002), 159–71, footnote 1 on 169–70; Janet Ward, Weimar Surfaces: Urban Visual Culture in 1920s Germany (University of California Press, 2001), 22; Miriam Klamkin, Picture Postcards (Dodd, Mead 1974), 65.

[8] https://www.cardcow.com/510365/boston-future-massachusetts/; https://www.cardcow.com/746041/san-francisco-california-future-market-street/.

[9] https://www.wiener-werkstaette-postkarten.com/index.php; https://filatelie-klim.com/cz/salove-aukce-archiv; https://forgottengalicia.com/lederer-popper-montage-postcards-of-galicia-and-beyond/; https://ringhispil.wordpress.com/2018/09/01/the-future-predicted-in-whimsical-postcards-from-austria-hungary/. See also: The Stamp of Fantasy, 82–83 and Clément Chéroux, “The Small Change of Art”; Laeng, Blicke in die Zukunft von anno dazumal, 83–84; Jindřich Toman, The Modern Czech Book: Photo/Montage in Print (Kant, 2009), 56–62; Matthew Biro, The Dada Cyborg: Visions of the New Human in Weimar Berlin (University of Minnesota Press, 2009), Ch. 4.

[10] https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:AK-_N%C3%BCrnberg_in_der_Zukunft_-_1907.png


[12] https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Wizja_przysz%C5%82o%C5%9Bci_na_widok%C3%B3wce_z_Prudnika.jpg

[13] Schor, 193, 238–39. On reading postcards front and back, see: Wayne Martin Mellinger, “Postcards from the Edge of the Color Line: Images of African Americans in Popular Culture, 1893–1917,” Symbolic Interaction 15, no. 4 (Winter 1992): 413–33; David Prochaska, “Fantasia of the Photothèque: French Postcard Views of Colonial Senegal,” African Arts 24, no. 4 (Oct. 1991): 40–47, 98.
[14] Marklissa: https://greenerpasture.com/Ancestors/ShowPics/7507; Paris: https://grandparisfuturlab.org/2016/02/02/mardi-2-fevrier/1905-cartes-postales-paris-futur_page_3/. San Francisco: https://www.pinterest.com/pin/461478293039565559/.

[15] He appears in two Paris cards, and cards for Crailsheim, Dresden, Göttingen, Hamburg, Iglau/Jihlava, Lundenberg/Břeclav, Nový Bydžov, Riga, Römerstadt, Schluckenau/Šluknov, Schweidnitz, Steyr, and Würzberg. On African-Americans in central Europe, see: Astrid Kusser, Körper in Schieflage: Tanzen im Strudel des Black Atlantic um 1900 (Bielefeld: Transcript, 2013), 370–79; Moritz Ege and Andrew Wright Hurley, “Periodizing and Historicizing German Afro-Americanophilia: From Antebellum to Postwar (1850–1967)” PORTAL Journal of Multidisciplinary International Studies 12, no. 2 (July 2015), http://dx.doi.org/10.5130/portal.v12i2.4359; https://www.spiegel.de/fotostrecke/koloniale-bilderwelten-peitschen-pruegel-postkarten-fotostrecke-164777-14.html.

[16] See Cure, Picturing Postcards, on analogy between new media in 1900 and 2000.

One thought on ““In the Future” Postcards as Popular Urbanism

  1. If I may highlight an article I wrote in the Journal of Social History about US postage stamps and their visual representation of issues in American history, including some urban themes (“Postage and Power” 2015). Postage is a great source and the many records/documents at the US Smithsonian Postal Museum in DC rarely have been used in research. Since the mid-19th century, about 5,000 postage stamp designs have been developed for domestic circulation.


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