This is a blog about music, photography, history, and culture.
These are photographs from my collection that tell a story about lost time and forgotten music.

Mike Brubaker
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A Pair of Kings

11 September 2021

They were once the most recognizable men in the world.
A trimmed beard and a upturned mustache representing
the two great world powers of their time.



Everyone knew who they were
because their faces appeared on items
people handled every day:
coins, stamps, tins of tobacco,
boxes of tea, and postcards.


They were kings,
royal sovereigns, heads of states,
and indeed, emperors too,
commanding their nation's vast colonial empires.

They were born to a life
of immense wealth and supreme privilege,

yet obliged to follow the ancestral rules
of their realm and of their class.


Any personal ambitions they may have held
were rigidly constrained by the enormous responsibilities
embodied in the imperial crown
that their people bestowed on them.


Their subjects saw them as figureheads of a nation,
and this role came with a wide variety of costumes.

Today I present a series of postcards
of a  pair of  kings,
Edward and Wilhelm. 


My first royal postcard is a photo of His Majesty King Edward VII, (1841 – 1910), produced by the Rotary Photo Co. Ltd. of London. It's an unusual portrait of King Edward as he is dressed in a simple wool suit with a cane and a homburg hat, a hat style he popularized in the 1890s. One might easily mistake him for a businessman, a doctor, or an academic. In January 1901 Edward succeeded his mother, Queen Victoria, after her death ended a reign of nearly 64 years. 

The publisher of this unposted card, the Rotary Photographic Co., was founded in 1898 as a subsidiary of a German printing company, the Neue Photographische Gesellschaft, which developed an economical bromide process for reproducing photos onto calendars, brochures, and postcards on massive kilometer-long rolls of special photo paper. The British Royal Family became a popular feature for the company which produced a wide range of novelty real photo postcards featuring royalty, politicians, and theatrical celebrities. Unfortunately the craze for postcards began to decline in 1910 and with the outbreak of war in 1914, the company's fortune declined. Its assets were liquidated in 1916.

 * * *



My second king is Kaiser Wilhelm II, (1859 – 1941), pictured here wearing a formal dinner jacket instead of a military uniform. Wilhelm assumed the title of Kaiser and King of Prussia in June 1888 after the death of his father, Prince Frederick William of Prussia, who tragically reigned for only 99 days before succumbing to throat cancer. Frederick's wife and Wilhelm's mother was Victoria, Princess Royal, the eldest child of Queen Victoria. So Wilhelm was Edward's nephew and he grew up very close to the British Royal Family. Both Wilhelm and Edward were at Queen Victoria's bedside when she died in 1901.

Kaiser Wilhelm II, age 12
seated, C. Brasch, Berlin
Source: Wikimedia

Sadly, as a result of a traumatic breech birth, Wilhelm's left arm was about six inches (15 cm) shorter than his right. The photograph above was taken when he was a boy, age 12, and shows the withered effect of his left hand and arm. He managed to conceal this difference in later photos by always holding something in his left hand. The gloves seen here became his standard prop, sometimes changed to a cane or a sword hilt.  

The card was posted on 23 August 1910 to Peter Bruckwoldt, a Matrosen Artilleristen - a navy artilleryman in Cuxhaven in lower Saxony, situated on the North Sea at the mouth of the Elbe River. This colorized photo of Kaiser Wilhelm was printed by the Neue Photographische Gesellschaft of Berlin, the same firm which owned the Rotary Photographic Co. in London.


Both kings posed for many formal photographs, but Kaiser Wilhelm was almost always dressed in a military uniform. His green quasi-formal attire, perhaps for a state dinner, is about as close to casual as he ever appeared in public. In my efforts to find other images of Wilhelm in civilian garb, I came across this next image that is nearly identical as my postcard. The main differences is that his jacket is now red and the chair has changed. This image is described as produced by the same Neue Photographische Gesellschaft Co. in 1906. The similarities are so close that I could believe they were both taken on the same day. Color photography was still in an experimental stage in the 1900s, so I believe both postcards were originally sepia-tone photos that were colorized by the NPG company's new printing technology.

Kaiser Wilhelm II,
postcard produced by
der Neuen Photographischen Gesellschaft Steglitz, 1906
Source: Wikimedia

* * *

The next image of King Edward has him dressed in a more kingly manner, but oddly in another country's military uniform. The postcard has a caption in French: Édouard VII, Roi D'Angleterre, but his uniform is Austrian. The three stars on the collar, the cuff braid, and toggle buttons are distinctive marks of a hussar in the Austrian-Hungarian empire. I found another version of this photo that was colorized and the tunic is a light Austrian blue. 

In May 1904, King Edward was awarded a title of Feldmarschall by the Austrian Emperor Franz-Joseph, so this French half-tone postcard probably dates from that year. The back of the card has an elaborate message in French that, I believe, makes no mention about the King on the front.


* * *

Likewise Wilhelm as was often required to don the military uniform of another country. Besides his numerous German honors, he accepted medals and ranks from 26 foreign countries, including Korea, Siam, Venezuela, and Hawaii. In this postcard the caption identifies him as just Unser Kaiser als „Spanischer General” – Our Emperor as Spanish General. The photography studio, T. H. Voigt of Hamburg and Frankfurt am Main, is imprinted in smaller type with the year 1906. It's possible that Wilhelm is wearing the uniform of the Royal Spanish Dragoon Regiment "Numancia" which awarded him the title of Ehrenoberst or Colonel of Honor. 

The postcard is also marked as printed by Photochemie of Berlin. Though it was never mailed, it's worth pointing out that in 1906 a postcard needed to be labeled as such in 14 European languages. The printing process also added a side note of something called Papier Radium Brom. I believe that the paper is, supposedly, coated with Radium Bromide, a radioactive salt first discovered by Pierre and Marie Curie in 1898. This material was produced when they separated radium from uranium ore. Though it is extremely toxic and can explode under certain conditions, it marked an important step in developing radiochemistry and radiotherapy. However once the public showed an interest in this new "magical" science, the term "radium" was applied to all kinds of chemical processes like photo paper, in order to market a modern novelty.   

* * *

Kings commanded navies as well as armies and King Edward's valet probably kept a closet devoted to just naval uniforms. In this postcard he wears one of his commodore outfits and the photo is captioned simply as Edward VII. But the reason I bought it was because of the writer's extraordinary handwriting.

The back of the card is printed with just one label: Levelező-Lap and Czim, the Hungarian words for postcard and addressee. In fact the postmark is from Budapest and dated 901 Mar 2 in the Hungarian manner of year/month/day and leaving off the superfluous numeral 1. It has two more postmarks dated 4 March 1901 in Paris, and 5 March 1901 in Hyères, France on the Mediterranean coast. But the language of the writer is not Hungarian nor French. Can you figure it out?

This spiky cursive handwriting is in English.

Have you got already
the photo of the English
King?     Josephine Lucky(?)

I can't decipher the writer's last name
or the addressee except that the address
was sent through (Nice) France to Hyères.

What makes this card doubly special
is that when it was posted in Hungary on March 2, 1901
Edward has only been king since January 22
on the death of Queen Victoria.
His coronation was not until 9 August 1902.
This was likely a Hungarian postcard
hastily published to profit on
a likeness of the new English king.

* * *

The Kaiser had a closet of naval gear too, and here Wilhelm is posed on the deck of his imperial yacht, the SMY Hohenzollern II, dressed in a full length coat with white trousers, shoes, and hat. His yacht, which is a gross understatement common with monarchs, was launched and completed in 1892. The ship was 120 m (390 ft) long, with a beam of 14 m (46 ft) and draft of 5.6 m (18 ft). From 1893 to 1914 Kaiser Wilhelm made many trips on this yacht and altogether spent over four-years time on board her. Ironically in June 1914, the Kaiser's last state banquet before the war was on the Hohenzollern II at the Kiel regatta where he entertained officers of the British fleet whose ships had been invited to attend.
Imperial Yacht of Kaiser Wilhelm II
Hohenzollern II in Venice, Italy. Photochrom print, 1890s
Source: Wikipedia


King Edward's royal yacht was the HMY Victoria and Albert. It was launched in 1899, but not completed until the summer of 1901 after Queen Victoria's death. It was a bit longer than the Kaiser's yacht at 128 m (420 ft) length overall, a beam of 15.2 m (50 ft), and a draft of 5.5 m (18 ft). King Edward used it for the first time in August 1901 when he sailed to Germany to attend the funeral of his older sister, Victoria, who was Empress Frederick, the mother of Kaiser Wilhelm II. Considering the date on Edward's postcard in his commodore's uniform, it seems likely that the photo was taken when he was just Albert, Prince of Wales.

HMY Victoria and Albert (1899)
Source: Wikimedia

Collecting postcards of royalty was a popular pastime in the era of King Edward and Kaiser Wilhelm and it's amazing to see the number and variety of their portrait photos. This was, of course, in addition to their formal painted portraits and frequent photos in newspapers. Both men had grown up being in the public eye and clearly were comfortable in front of a camera. Countless images of both men show them at parades, regattas, banquets, hunts, spas, and other events where they are always dressed in splendid uniforms. 

Organizing the royal wardrobes was a major duty of any king's valet, but these few photos only suggest how large a task that must have been. Imagine learning the complex arrangement of ornaments, medals, and hats for each uniform. A Spanish sash was not suitable for a state dinner in Russia. An Austrian tunic made in 1880 might be a tight fit in 1905. No king ever  wasted time trying on clothes off the rack. It was always bespoke tailoring for a monarch. 

My own interest in royal postcards focuses on the ones that date from before World War 1. They represent so many elements of society, culture, and class that changed as a result of this terrible conflict. For example, here is a postcard of the four monarchs of the Central Powers in 1914-18.

Leaders of the Central Powers in 1915 (left to right)
Kaiser Wilhelm II of Germany;
Kaiser and King Franz Joseph of Austria-Hungary;
Sultan Mehmed V of the Ottoman Empire;
Tsar Ferdinand I of Bulgaria
Source: Wikipedia

Most of the Entente Powers such as Serbia, Belgium, Russia, Italy, and Great Britain were monarchies too. All of the monarchs and emperors on both sides held a range of autocratic power that was not always constrained by constitutions or legislatures. True democracies like France and the United States  were the exceptions. When the war ended in 1918, the age-old dynasties of Russia, Germany,  and Austria-Hungary all collapsed and were replaced by new republics with different political rules. The age of kings seemed finished.  

When we look at the rich accoutrements on Edward's and Wilhelm's uniforms, see the opulence on display in their royal households and imperial yachts, we are seeing images of two men magnified by history and time. Uncle Edward and his nephew Wilhelm were not self-made men who worked in order to achieve their position. We don't see the laborers who built their palaces and managed their hunting estates. There are no photos of servants mending Wilhelm's shoes or altering Edward's trousers. It was only by their family's royal fortune that they became sovereigns.

Today the world has evolved so that most democratic nations change leadership on a regular basis. However some countries are ruled by kings with a lifetime appointment and hereditary family power. And unfortunately some people in the world remain under the tyrannical domination of one man. The times may have changed but emperors still survive dressed in new clothes. 


This is my contribution to Sepia Saturday
where a every hand is a winner.


Barbara Rogers said...

Another great post of postcards! This was especially interesting with all the regalia in which the men dressed to meet the requirements of their stations in their particular country's government. It makes me wonder how long they reigned, and after Victoria, it certainly wasn't for long. I'm about to learn more about the History of the English Speaking Peoples by reading Churchill's 4 volumes. See you next year...

DawnTreader said...

Impressive collection!

Molly's Canopy said...

I'm always amazed by your post card/photo collection! And what caught my eye this week was the radium bromide post card. Have you had it checked by Geiger counter to see if it's still emitting anything? I took a safety training once and the instructor had a stack of Fiestaware dishes sitting on the desk at one of our sessions. Sure enough, they created quite a clicking sound when tested with the Geiger counter -- and the next day I brought in Fiestaware dishes from my cupboard (which I had been eating off of) that did the same!

Kathy said...

I don’t know how you deciphered the writing on that postcard!
Great collection and so many interesting uniforms.


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