Little Italy in 1920 in six painterly postcards

While looking through the website of the Museum of the City of New York last week, my eyes fixated on what I thought must be a painting: a colorful, somber scene in Little Italy in 1920—the men mostly standing against a brick storefront while women and children sifted through a basket of fresh loaves of bread on the curb.

Which of New York’s many Little Italy neighborhoods is it? Based on one of the postcard captions that mentions Mulberry Bend, this is the Little Italy of Mott and Mulberry Streets. Manhattan had others, one on Bleecker Street and another in East Harlem, which was once the the borough’s biggest Italian enclave.

But is this image, part of a collection of several separate images of life among the vendors and residents of Little Italy, actually a painting? If it is, it’s part of an unusually beautiful postcard series produced by the penny postcard company Raphael Tuck & Sons.

Rather than colorize and reprint photos, perhaps the company commissioned an artist to illustrate these scenes. It might have been worth the effort considering how popular postcards were in the early decades of the 20th century. The new medium allowed people to see brilliant images of other parts of the world in much higher quality than newspaper photos.

“The postcard was to communications at the beginning of the 20th century what the internet is to this one; it was a relatively new idea taking hold like wildfire that revolutionized communication,” states the introduction to the book New York’s Financial District in Vintage Postcards.

Raphael Tuck & Sons was one of the leading postcard publishers, capturing images of New York City’s prettiest streets, tourist attractions, and ethnic neighborhoods. (The MCNY collection includes a Raphael Tuck postcard of Chinatown in 1908, among other sites.)

“Raphael Tuck & Sons is generally acknowledged as the greatest picture postcard publisher in the world,” states J.D. Weeks in the introduction to Raphael Tuck US Postcard List. “From the time they produced their first set of twelve postcards in 1899 until they ceased operations in 1962, their postcards have been among the most highly prized to collect.”

The company doesn’t exist anymore, but their postcards live on in archives like that of the MCNY. I’m not sure if these images are colorized photos or paintings they commissioned, but they are lovely and evocative—scenes of an immigrant neighborhood that’s almost entirely vanished.

[All postcards from the Collections Portal of the Museum of the City of New York. First image: X2011.34.2163; second image: X2011.34.2161; third image: X2011.34.2164; fourth image: X2011.34.2162; fifth image: X2011.34.2160; sixth image: X2011.34.2165]

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20 Responses to “Little Italy in 1920 in six painterly postcards”

  1. boxwoodbooks Says:

    do you know who the artist(s) was?

  2. Mark Says:

    They certainly look like colourized photos.

  3. Shayne Davidson Says:

    The photos are wonderful! They might not be colorized but photographs originally taken in color, likely autochromes.

  4. Little Italy in 1920 in six painterly postcards - The New York Beacon Says:

    […] Source: Little Italy in 1920 in six painterly postcards […]

  5. Benjamin P. Feldman Says:

    I thought this paean to Raphael Tuck & Co would interest you!

  6. Kiwiwriter Says:

    I wish my grandfather could see these….he didn’t live in Little Italy, but he was a native Manhattanite.

    He was attending Fordham University at the time.

  7. fotoflowsolutions Says:

    Interesting to see these immigrant scenes so bright, sunny, and colorful, so used to seeing dreary and dark portrayals of those neighborhoods. Even the clothes are colorful. Makes me think they are illustrations as opposed to photos which would have probably more realistically shown them as darker scenes.

    • ephemeralnewyork Says:

      A great point, and that might be why they struck me so deeply. Instead of dark photos that suggest something gritty and hard, these postcards give us people in full color, as they looked if I passed them on the street.

  8. Bob Says:

    From the back side of this series, these cards are apparently Oilettes, “a trade name used by Raphael Tuck & Sons for postcards reproduced from original painting.”

  9. roppedisano Says:

    Many of the images started out as photos by the Detroit Publishing Co,https://www.loc.gov/collections/detroit-publishing-company/?fa=subject:new+york%7Clocation:mulberry+street

    • ephemeralnewyork Says:

      Thanks for this link; the Detroit Publishing Co produced many postcards like these. I love the original images, even in black and white.

  10. countrypaul Says:

    Just saw tis post. What beautiful work! Thank you – and happiest holidays to you and all the ENY readers and contributors!

  11. CLAIRE NORMAN Says:

    > WordPress.com

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