Saturday, April 21, 2012

Favorite Photos—Behind the Wheel of the Great Race

When I scanned these two vintage photos from my collection for my “Favorite Photo Friday” post, I thought they were just two amusing scenes of Victorians posing proudly in photographers’ studios behind the wheel of one of those those new-fangled horseless carriages.

That’s pretty much the story of these two ladies.  Don’t you love their elaborately flowered hats?  They are in front of a painted background, which is meant to give the impression that they are traveling down a country road, but in fact these ladies probably never actually had the opportunity to drive a car in their lifetimes.

Their photo is a small tintype, 2 ½ by 3 ½ inches in size that was enclosed in a paper folder with an oval opening.  Tintypes first became popular during the Civil War and continued into the 1900’s—usually, in the later years, sold as a souvenir of an outing to somewhere like Coney Island or the Boardwalk at Atlantic City.
 But this photo of two rather foreign-looking men in hats turned out to have a much more interesting story once I started looking at the clues within the photo.

First of all, this is a “real photo” postcard.  It was a process created by Kodak in the early 1900’s that allowed a photograph to be printed on a postcard backing.

These men are sitting in an impressive-looking automobile against a painted background which includes two signs saying “San Francisco 24 miles.”

If you turn the card over, you see that it was postmarked “San Francisco, Nov. 24, 3:30 p.m. 1908” and mailed to  Maria Bruner at 12 Denison , New London Connecticut.  The message part—written in a very pale and faded green pencil, cannot be deciphered but it’s clearly in Italian.  Also written on the back is the price I paid for the card: $7.50.

You can see that the driver’s steering wheel is on the right and that just below it is the name “ZUST.”

Since I know less than nothing about automobiles, I thought this might be part of an automotive brand name, but when I googled those four letters I learned a whole lot:  Zust was an Italian car manufacturing company operating from 1905 to 1917, and the most famous Zust car was the red 1906 Zust which took third place in the 1908 Race Around the World, also called The Great Race.

Now I never saw the 1965 comedy "The Great Race" starring Tony Curtis, Jack Lemmon and Natalie Wood, but I found the description of the Great Race of 1908 absolutely fascinating.  The plan was to drive from New York City, USA to Paris France with a 150-mile ship passage from Nome across the Bering Strait to East Cape, Siberia.  It began on Feb. 12, 1908 in Times Square. The six cars represented four nations:  Germany, France, Italy and the United States.  The Zust represented Italy.  The American Thomas Flyer car, in the lead, crossed the United States, arriving in San Francisco in 41 days, 8 hours and 15 minutes.

Only three of six competitors completed the race: and the Italian Zust came in third.  The Germans got to Paris four days ahead, but they were penalized a total of 30 days for not going to Alaska and for shipping their car part of the way by rail car, so the Americans, namely George Schuster, won by 26 days.  The Italians arrived in September 1908. (Throughout much of the race there were no roads, and  “Often,” according to Wikipedia, “the teams resorted to straddling the locomotive rails with their cars riding tie to tie on balloon tires for hundreds of miles when no roads could be found….The race was of international interest with daily front page coverage by the New York Times.”)

No wonder these two Italian men look so proud to be photographed sitting in an automobile which bears the name of the famous winning Italian car, the Zust.  This is clearly not the exact car that participated in the race, (photo below) but it seems to be an authentic model. This  souvenir real-photo postcard was mailed only two months after the Italian car arrived triumphantly in Paris, so this little postcard was no doubt a treasured souvenir of patriotic pride.

(P.S. I’m a day late in this “Friday” post because yesterday I drove back to Massachusetts after a week in New York hanging out with number-one granddaughter Amalía.  Good times!)

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