We went to a local auction a few Sundays ago. It was a raucous affair. The cavernous warehouse building was stuffed to the brim with people and noise and frenetic energy and stuff. Lots and lots of stuff. Three auctioneers worked different parts of the floor simultaneously. The box lots were auctioned in the back of the hall, the glassware, jewelry, and miscellaneous collectibles in the middle, and the front was reserved for the better quality items, enumerated with a special catalog. It was fantastic mayhem: at one point, they began auctioning off the very pieces of furniture we were sitting on.
As is often the case at auctions, people were there for the long haul — claiming prime chair locations and hunkering down with empty cardboard boxes and coolers full of food. We were ready for the event but not really ready for the day. Although we had arrived soon after the preview began at 9:00 a.m., I’d only brought a peanut butter sandwich and a full go-cup of coffee. It wasn’t going to be enough, as I would soon realize.
We quickly split up. I gravitated, as I always seem to do, to the old books, and actually found a lot of 19th-century imprints that I ended up buying for the Library Company. David found some things as well, and we settled in for the morning. As the auction progressed, I paced back and forth between the “high end” area, and the middle area where my books were. By noon, David needed a break and went back home for a bit. With some 50 lots of random vintage postcards ahead, he felt like this would be a good time to make a break for it. I stayed behind to place a few nominal bids in his absence and was grateful when he returned with a power bar to get me through.
Lulled into something approaching a hypnotic state (the patter of the auctioneers can do that to you), I was only half attuned to the images of various postcards as they flashed across a projection screen: a lot of patriotic postcards; a lot of Santa Claus postcards; a lot of World War I-themed postcards; a lot of postcards featuring scenic views of Western Pennsylvania; a lot of Atlantic City postcards; and so on. Ho hum. I didn’t even bother looking through these stacks during the preview. Eventually there came a lot of turn-of-the-century comic postcards. I’ve seen kajillions of these over the years — the corny, the cartoony, the no-so-subtly bawdy — that my brain yawned. And then, something on the screen caught my eye, and probably appeared for no longer than a second. The auctioneer noticed my hand shoot up, announcing “New bidder!” And my hand stayed up, and up, until I won the lot at forty bucks.
This is what so excited me, bidder #220:
I came across a version of this postcard when I was working on my book on pawnbroking and very much wanted it for the chapter on anti-Semitism. But apparently it is quite rare and, given the theme, quite desirable. So I’ve never been able to afford it. Until now.
Produced by F.W. Dunbar in 1906, it shows “Our Flag,” a flag emblazoned with motifs referencing many of the familiar anti-Semitic stereotypes. The pawnbroker’s three balls anchor the corners, and a line of used clothes hang from the top border, which is also studded with diamonds cut like the Star of David. A stereotypical Jewish face — big nose, crazy hair, steely eyes, and large ears — is in the center, riding atop a peddler’s cart. Large hands (symbolizing greediness) protrude from the face like wings. And flanking this figure are two scenes referring to Jews’ supposed use of arson as a business strategy, to collect insurance money. (I have heard this called “Jewish lightning” and have seen 19th-century caricatures refer to Jews as the “Smokesteins” and “Burnupskys.”) “Our Friend” is a burning building while “Our Enemy” is the fire department.
However ugly an image it is, it is nevertheless an important (and quite representative) depiction of anti-Semitism from a century ago. Many of the stereotypes that go along with images like “Our Flag” remain entrenched in our culture today.