Friday, January 14, 2011

A Picture is Worth a Thousand Words - Part II - Interview with Dr. Steven R. Boyd

Civil War "patriotic covers" - that is, envelopes printed with mono- or multi-color images of people, places, mythic and American iconography, and more - have long been treasured and collected by philatelists and people interested in Civil War ephemera or postal history.

Besides their practical use for the mail, the images were propaganda and intended to personalize, inspire, educate, amuse, anger, and elicit other emotions in wartime. More than 10,000 different covers were designed, published, and sold by printers - North and South.

Many of the images - of presidents Lincoln and Davis, of famous soldiers like Ellsworth, or of famous battles like Gettysburg - are readily familiar to us even today. However, some of the iconography or symbolism is lost on a modern audience, yet was readily perceived by Americans in the mid-19th century. Like any kind of art (and, indeed, that is what these covers - many of them simple and many more elegantly engraved and hand-colored, are), even seemingly understandable images may have had a deeper meaning.

Fortunately. Dr. Steven R. Boyd - a history professor at the University of Texas San Antonio - has written a book, Patriotic Envelopes of the Civil War: The Iconography of Union and Confederate Covers (LSU Press, 2010) - to help modern audiences make sense of the images.

The danger - such as it is - in a book like this is that it can try to be too much and end up being too little. For example, several good catalogs of patriotic covers already exist and - given the sheer number of covers that were produced - another catalog would be superfluous and necessarily incomplete. Likewise, a too-scholarly analysis might "scare off" collectors and Civil War enthusiasts who can learn more about items in their collection and/or 19th-century popular culture.

Fortunately, Dr. Boyd's book does not disappoint and different audiences will find something of value. Nearly 200 images of patriotic covers, currency, and tokens, in full color, are the hallmark of the book. Though I am not a serious collector, I am somewhat familiar with period covers and currency, and I happily saw some of my own covers in the book as well as found covers that I had never seen before, particularly covers specific to Union army corps, divisions, and even regiments. Readers will also learn about the printing companies who produced the envelopes.

Scholars of postal history (actually, an emerging professional discipline), 19th century art and popular culture, politics, sloganeering, propaganda, and other fields will appreciate Dr. Boyd's analysis of covers with Constitutional, presidential, African-American, female, flag, and other iconography. The analysis is expert but also readable and his speculation and conclusions are not overdrawn.

Highly recommended.

Dr. Boyd was kind enough to answer some questions about himself and the book:

JMS: Tell me a little about yourself, your education, and your career; why did you pursue history as a profession?

SRB: I am a professor of history at UTSA. My undergraduate degree was history at Claremont Men’s (now McKenna) College. I earned my M.A. and Ph.D. at the University of Wisconsin, Madison. I started college with an intention of going to law school. I switched career aspirations because of a teacher my sophomore year who I continue to think of as my mentor and model of the historian I aspire to become.

JMS: While there have been a few catalogs of patriotic covers published, your monograph is the first book-length scholarly study of their meaning; were you surprised this had not been attempted earlier?

SRB: Patriotic covers have been the subject of intense interest among philatelists but have been largely overlooked by historians. Aside from a handful of articles, mine is the first scholarly academic book length study of the subject. Partially that is a function of disciplinary differences. Philatelists tend to create catalogues or handbooks focused largely on their own collections. Academic historians on the other hand may have been deterred by concerns about being perceived as hobbyists rather than scholars or popularizers rather than serious academics. Only recently has postal history begun to emerge as an academic discipline with an annual scholarly conference at the Smithsonian Postal Museum and the more traditional hallmarks of academic respectability. Those developments and the fact that I am nearing the end of my career allow me more autonomy with respect to the topics I pursue in my research and writing.

(Note: You can learn more about the scholarly symposiums supported by the Smithsonian Postal Museum here).

JMS: Do you collect patriotic covers yourself or did you rely mostly on institutions with large collections? (or both?).

SRB: I do not collect patriotic covers per se, although I have a handful that I had acquired many decades ago and I did purchase some in the current market in order to have a color image for the book. Most of the images I use actually come from philatelic catalogues. The internet revolution made my book possible in the sense that patriotic covers I might not have ever seen are now archived on auction house web sites and available for viewing and (with permission) publication in a scholarly work like mine.

JMS: Your book is at just over 100 pages of actual text, which is (seemingly) short, yet it is packed with information and cogent analysis (and many more pages of supporting endnotes and bibliography). Do you see a market for or interest in shorter historical monographs; that is, longer than a journal article but shorter than the "usual" book-length work? Are they particularly suited for a university press?

SRB: My book is by many standards relatively brief. The major reason for that has to do with the process of publication. My initial plan, and that of the series editor, was to include a one third page image of each envelope I discuss on the page where my analysis occurred. Thus, if I am discussing the Lincoln as Alchemist envelope (as in your own collection), the image itself would be immediately above the text. When I submitted the final manuscript to the press, the editor in chief insisted that the images had to be accumulated in one grouping and embedded as such in the book. I resisted, but ultimately chose to go forward because LSU is a strong Civil War history press and I did not want to go through the lengthy process of submission, review and revision again. Had the images been separated and larger, the book would be likely twice its current length.

JMS: The inclusion of hundreds of patriotic covers reproduced in full color in the book is wonderful...was this important to you? Was there an agreement at the outset of how many covers you could include (or needed to include)? Was this a difficult part of the writing and production process?

SRB: The images were always an integral part of the book. To the extent the anecdotal evidence thus far says the book is being well received, it is because of the images. They were not a problem in terms of writing, but they did contribute to delays in production. I also assume that reviewers may complain about the size of the images – my remedy to that is to create a website ( which includes a gallery of all of the images in a much larger scale. The site is now functional and I try to mention it whenever I am promoting the book because the detail on line is so much better.

(Note: Indeed, Dr. Boyd's website is a terrific supplement to the book).

JMS: How did your research/graduate assistants help you with the book?

SRB: From the outset I have had some graduate research and technological assistance. Most of that was research assistance trying to identify printers, double checking basic data, and helping with the technological problems of the images.

JMS: Roman and Greek gods and - esp., - goddesses (and other female imagery) appear on patriotic covers and currency. For example, the goddess Ceres appears often on Confederate currency. Did Americans in the 1860s readily recognize these images by name and by their symbolism? Do you think this appreciation of mythic iconography has been lost overthe past century? If so, how and why?

SRB: I think that many Americans of the 1860s understood the imagery of the envelopes in the same way that 21st century Americans understand mythic images today. Few of us understand many of the goddesses of the nineteenth century, as for example Ceres, but we do understand relevant images – even historic ones such as the Bill of Rights, the Constitution, the tea party, or other icons. The images are different (and perhaps misunderstood) because the cultural references are different.

JMS: I've posted images of a few patriotic covers from my own collection (see previous post here); one of my special interests is patent (quack) medicines in the mid-19th-century and it seems that aspect of popular culture also found its way into patriotic covers. Sometimes, various themes are mixed: for instance, the "Lincoln as alchemist" cover crosses both the medicine theme and the Lincoln theme you cover extensively in your book. It seemsthat the designers of the covers had an appreciation for many aspects of popular culture (and a healthy sense of humor/irony). Any comment?

SRB: Although they constitute a small portion of the total number of images, Union covers in particular carry a great deal of humor. For example, there is a satiric drawing of Washerwoman Davis (he is feminized), images of African Americans in positions of power over Southerners, and some rather “earthy” descriptions of C.S.A. General Dyer Rhea that all illustrate aspects of nineteenth century humor. As you suggest, other aspects of the culture also emerge. My argument is that these covers are another angle into the popular culture of middle class America.

JMS: Do you have a favorite cover in your own collection or that youhave seen in another collection?

SRB: My favorite is probably the Jeff Davis "Going to Washington" cover that shows a rather oddly drawn image of Davis. If you turn the cover 90 degrees, Davis is transformed into a Jackass, returning from Washington.

JMS: Politics aside (but given your scholarly interests), have you seen an increase in Constitutional iconography in the popular culture in the past year or two with the rise of the "Tea Party" movement"? If so, is it of interest to you? Has anyone made a scholarly study of it yet?

SRB: The Tea Party certainly references aspects of the Revolution as part of their symbolism. There is also much commentary out there regarding the appropriateness of that iconography, although my own view is that the movement is far too current to be a subject of scholarly as opposed to contemporary political analysis. My rule of thumb is that if I can remember it as a part of my adult lifetime, it is to recent to be considered history or the focus of historical analysis.

JMS: Are you presently working on another book or project?

SRB: I am currently engaged in several related projects including an article for North and South magazine on the patriotics, a series of brief articles for Confederate Philatelist identifying previously unknown Confederate patriotic printers, and an essay on the significance of postage stamp design changes in nineteenth century America. Apart from these postal history projects, I am starting research on the state bills of rights in nineteenth century America, likely the last book I will do before I retire.

Many thanks to Dr. Boyd for participating in the interview and best wishes for continued success in his research, teaching, and writing!

Many thanks also to LSU Press for providing a review copy of the book!

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