It’s just a simple postcard.
708 E Union today is part of the parking lot next to the Knights of Columbus on Union at Boylston. The card was postmarked 1906 in Seattle and Yokohama, Japan.
There are just enough traces to glimpse the world that created it. Let’s follow them back.
Home and Harry
The house is gone. It was a large, seven-room house built in about 1901. It shared its parcel with two other rentals, probably all copies of each other. The house was only newsworthy in later years when its residents were arrested for drunk driving or were killed by cars when crossing the street.
Henry and Marie Gullixson earned mention of it for the first time on May 2, 1906 when their daughter Marion held her wedding in their home. Henry was a successful rug and oriental carpet salesman. He had his own store in San Francisco earlier in life, and in Seattle worked at Frederick & Nelson past the age of 80.
They shared the house with another daughter, Edna, who graduated from the University of Washington that spring. Their son Harry lived with them as well. He was recipient of the postcard in late April 1906.
We don’t have a photo of Harry, but there was a description in his May 1904 passport application: 5’10”, brown eyes, medium aquiline nose, large mouth, square chin, dark brown hair, smooth face, and fair and ruddy complexion.
The postcard arrived in Seattle on April 15, 1906 aboard the S.S. Minnesota. The ship was huge and new. It was the largest American merchant vessel at the time: 622 feet long and 75 feet wide. It was built for the Great Northern Steamship Company (an appendage of the Great Northern Railway) just a year earlier.
Sharing the cargo hold with the mail was another 5,000 tons of merchandise from China and Japan. The passenger quarters housed 122 passengers for the two week voyage.
Among them were the US and British ambassadors to Japan, a member of Japan’s House of Peers, and a contingent of Japanese electrical engineers led by the “father of electricity in Japan”, Ichisuke Fujioka.
The postcard was hastily written on the morning of March 30, 1906. The Minnesota was loading and preparing to depart later in the day. On it was scribbled,
Received last night magazines, [Saturday Evening] Posts and Colliers. For writing am very grateful and appreciate your generosity. The mail closes this a.m. so will not have time to write. Now for breakfast and Tokyo train. R.F.
Under the message and the postage cancellation stamp was a hand-colored print of a photograph of a geisha entering a rickshaw. It was part of a series of twelve cards of a day in the life of a geisha. I believe it was produced in 1904 or 1905. One near the end of the set was titled “While her maid makes ready her bed, O-koto-san indulges in a smoke, and thinks of her soldier lover.”
Her lover was represented in abstract in these two pieces of American art in 1904. After Russia took parts of China and Korea and looked ready to continue seizing territories on the Pacific, Japan threatened war.
It was preposterous. No Pacific Asian country had ever defeated a European power. But Japan finally declared war in 1904. The American public cheered headlines of success for the “little brown men,” and Japan shocked Russia with defeat in 1905.
Along the way about 100,000 soldiers died, split evenly on both sides.
To provision their soldiers, Japan purchased massive quantities of canned beef from American meat packers, including Armour & Company.
Armour & Company was Harry Gullixson’s employer from about 1902. He was a traveling agent for them and secured his passport in 1904 to work directly with the Japanese military.
Harry coordinated the sale of millions of rations. Prior to shipment to Japan through Seattle they were packed in Chicago. Worker conditions were desperate, described with embellishment in Upton Sinclair’s 1905 novel The Jungle. Sinclair researched the book in 1904 and met firsthand the large population of Slavic immigrants working at the meat packing plants.
Many of them, like Sinclair’s protagonist Jurgis Rudkus, fled their Russian-controlled lands to avoid conscription into its army for a looming war with Japan. It’s a cruel irony that they were still caught up in the machines of war, slaving to provide rations for Japan.
At first the postcard seems a benign note of thanks on a charming Japanese street scene. On closer inspection it captures global trade, journalistic pursuit of truth, and the sharing of ideas; and also has ties with racism, death, war, and exploitation of immigrants.
What else do you see? What connections does it make for you? Please share in the comments.
If you want more, there is an expanded version of this Re:Take at my site, ba-kground.com.