The Postcard War

Taissumani: 2007-04-20

By Kenn Harper

The battle between Robert Peary and Frederick Cook over who was the first to reach the North Pole was a battle for the hearts and minds of Americans.

An expansionist America was flexing its muscles in the world, and in 1909, not one but two Americans claimed to have won the prize that explorers had sought for over two centuries. Each claimed that he had reached the geographical top of the world.

Cook claimed to be first. Although he generously suggested that there was glory enough for two, he knew very well that there would be little glory for a second-place rival.

Peary knew this too, and knew that for his claim to be first to be recognized, he must successfully disparage and discredit the work of Cook. In fact, he must destroy him.

The battle was fought in the newspapers of America. But it was also fought in postcards of the time. Postcards were a relatively new phenomenon and were often used in their early days to promote various causes.

One set, the Kawin series of 50 cards, is hard to find complete today. The cards, all in black and white, are either photographs or artists' conceptions. Each has a border of snow, and a walrus in the lower left corner. The Chicago publishers of this series refused to take sides in the controversy. The last two cards in the series show the explorers battling it out at the pole, and finally an unidentifiable explorer "hoisting the stars and stripes at the North Pole."

Inuit Child First, Indigenous Services Canada

Some publishers wanted it both ways. M. T. Sheahan of Boston simultaneously published a card of Peary and another of Cook, each labeled "Discoverer of the North Pole."

But most cards were decidedly partisan. Hampton's Magazine, which serialized Peary's story, also published a set of 13 cards promoting Peary's claim.

Today these cards are all collectors' items. But in 1909, although some were used for pure entertainment, others were tools in a vicious war between the supporters of two men, one, the establishment's man, Peary; the other, the upstart, Cook, who had dared to challenge him and claim geography's greatest prize.

Taissumani recounts a specific event of historic interest. Kenn Harper is a historian, writer and linguist who lives in Iqaluit. Feedback? Send your comments and questions to [email protected].

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