Shortly before the Golden Age of Postcards exploded across the globe – between 1898 and 1918 – incipient technological advances in offset printing and photography made it possible for postcards with never-before-seen images to appear. Imagine the impact if a photo, not an engraving, of an important place on the other side of the planet came to your door and you could see it in unimaginable detail. Or the portrait of an important person you could never meet. That must have been exciting.
That also happened in Venezuela.
As I mentioned some time ago in ASOFILCA, by 1896 Venezuela had seen its first commercial postcards, but not only that. It also saw its first illustrated postcards. They did not yet carry a photo, but as I said in my presentation on Postal Stationery, that was the beginning of the end of the simple postal stationery that the Venezuelan State insisted on printing until 1912.
In order to print those first photos on the postcards, each country used the techniques they had at hand. In Venezuela, I found that they used a technique called Cyanotyping. And the latest usage I have found is dated November 1899.
Cyanotyping is a rather artisan technique, which did not facilitate the printing of copies so each piece is basically unique. It is based on the chrome-sensitive properties of some substances: some reacted to light, others did not, and that was what the process took advantage of. It doesn’t need a press or, for that matter, any complex tools.
Cyanotyping produces monochromatic impressions in a very deep blue known as Prussian blue. This technique was used for many years for printing plans known as “Blueprints”.
The people at Jaquard Products have a good explanation of how this is achieved, although it may seem very technical.
All ferric (iron III) salts become sensitive to light when combined with organic substances. Ferric ammonium citrate, which has the chemical formula (C6H8FeNO7), is one such substance. This light-sensitive compound is mixed with potassium ferricyanide and water to create the cyanotype sensitizer, and this mixture is used to coat a surface such as fabric or paper. Exposure to ultraviolet light breaks down the iron compound by oxidation, thereby releasing carbon in the form of carbonic acid and creating a new iron compound. The exposed print is then immersed in water, causing a reaction between the new iron compound (peroxide iron salt) and the potassium ferricyanide. A deep-blue compound, ferric ferrocyanide or iron (III) hexacyanoferrate (II), is formed within the substrate fiber. The more light the sensitized substrate is exposed to, the more of this blue is produced.Jaquard Products
If you have a little headache right now, I understand. Chemistry and I have always been… let’s say… unsolvable. The chemistry seems heavy to me. It’s never generated a reaction in me. In one sentence, there’s no chemistry between us.
After all those bad jokes, the truth is that it’s a very easy process that even today can be done at home with relative ease.
Returning to the point of this article, the cyanotypes in the Venezuelan Postal Stationery, were only created privately, probably for personal usage, so not commercially, and only in Puerto Cabello. And if they were commercial, it was only handmade, that is to say, a few pieces in a single location, as so far all the pieces I have been able to record -about a dozen- show landscapes of Puerto Cabello.
I haven’t been able to identify who the photographer was or the person who made these prints. I can’t say for sure that it was the same person.
I have to say I have a hunch, but I haven’t been able to check it out.
I was able to find out that between 1898 and the first years of the 20th century in Venezuela -that is to say, precisely during the years these Postal Stationery were printed- there was an American civil engineer and diplomat whose hobby was cyanotype. It is known that he made some prints from photos of the capital with this technique, but so far I have not been able to locate him in Puerto Cabello.
His name was Richard Bartleman. Here are some of his pictures.
As I said, I have not yet been able to physically locate him in Puerto Cabello. But so far, I have the impression that Mr. Bartleman was involved, directly or indirectly, in the use of cyanotyping in our Postal Stationery.
I said that each Postal Stationery was practically a unique piece because every photo was “printed” individually. However, I was able to locate two very, very similar pieces, but not the same. I leave it to the reader to locate the differences.
These printings can be found from the postal stationery TP9 to TP15.
Here is a visual record of the pieces I’ve been able to find so far. If you have other pieces, please send me a 300dpi scan of them so I can add them to this record. Thanks in advance!
It wasn’t all Cianotype!
I found other cards with photos on the back, all using other types of printing. I’m not sure which one, but it’s possible that it was phototyping, a method similar to cyanotype, with some advantages.
One thing I have noticed is that, unlike the cards made by cyanotype, the photos on these cards were printed separately, on a different paper, and then glued to the cards.
This can be seen from the color and type of paper (lighter and glossy), but is also noticeable when comparing the thickness of these pieces with the average for the type cards where they were applied. Or by looking with a magnifying glass at the layers that make up the illustrated card.
And that’s all for now. Until my next article!