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Saturday, 15 October 2011

Keeping posted

  On arriving in my Breton home for the weekend yesterday night, I was welcomed by a small package from Britain which had been waiting for me in the post-box. 
  Inside was, a small, slightly yellowed 1900s postcard, which is, to date, the earliest English artefact in my small collection of onion-seller-themed artifacts.

  I was especially delighted to happen upon this card the other day, as it offers quite an original perspective on its subject.
  Like most cards of this period, it doesn't bear any printed date, & as it never was written or sent, we don't even have the postmark to go by. However, the seated woman's straw boater & tailored clothes suggest the photograph was shot in the early 1900s.
  Untypically, the scene seems to have been captured at the back of the house rather than on the street side, which creates an unusually intimate atmosphere. 
  In contrast to more traditional representations, where both the onion seller & his customer are carefully positioned so that we may clearly see the conventionally benign expressions on their faces, here the lady of the house is turning away from us. But the amused twinkle in the eyes of the 2 other female figures, as well as the half-awkward, half-defiant attitude of the onion man suggest more ambiguous feelings than are customarily depicted on published photographs.
  In the thirties however, open allusions to the romantic/sensual thrill of excitment afforded by the visit of the onion-seller would become a recurring feature in the articles produced by female journalists writing in the ladies' pages of the popular press. As "Bea" Howe suggested in a column issued in the Daily Mirror on September 26, 1933, "onions bought from handsome, young, black-eyed cajolers taste different, surely?"


  Not the slightest hint of a racy innuendo is to be found in this carefully staged, neatly manicured scene showing Breton hawker, adroitly balancing his trademark onion-laden pole on his shoulder, against the backcloth of an idyllically picturesque English village street. The action is theatrically frozen at the key moment when the front door of a respectable-looking house is about to open.
  It is interesting to note that such a subject was deemed worthy of interest by the Keystone View Company, a Pennsylvannia-headquartered firm, the world's largest producer of stereoviews, which manufactured didactic photographic images used in schools all across the United-States.
 The back of the stereoscopic card was printed with educational notes providing basic information about the geographical & historical context of the scene.