Postcard Used By Mark Twain?

The collecting of postcards has been a lifelong pursuit. All postcard collectors seem to have a repertoire of anecdotal stories regarding their pursuit of the hobby - some funny and some serious. I am no different and often tell the story of the time I "think" I found a postcard "used" by Mark Twain in Vienna, Austria in 1898. I say "think" and "used" because it was never signed nor mailed but circumstantial evidence and research points to a possible Mark Twain connection.

Mark Twain is, of course, buried in Woodlawn Cemetery in Elmira, New York and close enough to Up The Woods to be a postcard collecting interest. A brief timeline of Twain's life is first required to understand the context of why I think I may have a postcard in Twain's handwriting.

Twain had come east from California in the mid-1800's. In 1867 he met Olivia Langdon of Elmira, daughter of Jervis Langdon, a prosperous businessman and one of Elmira's leading citizens. Twain's courtship of Olivia took three years but eventually won over the young lady who accepted his marriage proposal much to the initial dismay of her father. As a hardnosed businessman the elder Langdon thought writing newspaper columns, essays and occasional books didn't offer a very stable income. Following their marriage the young couple lived in Buffalo, NY where Twain worked as a newspaper editor. As his writing progressed Mark and Olivia moved to Hartford, Connecticut to get closer to the New York publishing market. Olivia was in poor health all of her life and in 1904 suffered a heart attack that ultimately led to her death two years later. Although she died while traveling in Europe her remains were returned to Elmira and buried in the Langston family plot at Woodlawn. Thus, it was his wife's burial at Woodlawn that upon his death in 1910 also brought Mark Twain to Woodlawn rather than to Missouri, California or Connecticut, all locales associated with his development and career as a writer.

In the 35 odd years of the marriage, Twain achieved literary fame but often found himself in poor financial straits. Poor investments and loss of personal monies especially in publishing U.S. Grant's memoir in 1884-1885 resulted in a personal bankruptcy. Money seemed to have ebbed and flowed throughout his career and was often so scarce that Olivia and Mark frequently shuttered their home in Hartford in summer months and re-located to Olivia's sister's farm Quarry Hill in Elmira. Here Twain enjoyed the summer weather and the opportunity to write without interruption while living off the charity of the Langston family. The end of the summer would see the Twains move back to Hartford.

Tragedy struck in 1896 when Twain's daughter Suzy died of an epileptic seizure while bathing. The family was plunged into a period of grief that coupled with a seeming sudden loss of literary stature in the United States turned Twain's attention to Europe. The publication of A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur's Court and The Prince and the Pauper were more favorable received in Europe than at home. While Twain was still in demand at home as a speaker and magazine article writer, Europe beckoned with new opportunities to recover some of his financial losses. Between 1896 and his death in 1910 Twain spent considerable time in European cities where he moved freely through the ranks of nobility and royalty and with many professionals in varying occupations. One of these visits was a twenty month stay in Vienna from September 1897 to May 1899 that leads directly to my postcard story.

Back in the 1980's I was attending the Monumental Postcard Club Show in Baltimore, Maryland and towards it closing while waiting for a friend I was killing off a few minutes and my last few dollars thumbing through a fifty cent box of postcard odds and ends looking for anything that would strike my fancy. It was here that I discovered the following postcard and with my interest i Mark Twain already established I thought it to be a nice acquisition and doubly pleased that it cost but 50 cents. Upon getting home and studying the postcard in more detail I began building excitement that I may have found something a bit more special than I had thought at first glance. Could I have possibly purchased a postcard once in the possession of Mark Twain himself?

Mark Twain Postcard

The image side of the postcard shows a head and shoulders view of Twain accompanied by a facsimile signature. The left edge of the postcard contain's the publisher/printer's name (Dgobert Wlashim) and Wien (Vienna). The artist is identified as Henryk Rauchinger and the drawing is dated July 4, 1898. The message with an arrow drawn to the name shows some knowledge of the German language but is rough enough to suggest that it wasn't written by a German or Austrian fluent in the language. The intent of the message also isn't entirely clear. The message writer thanks someone for the gift of an album of other examples of artwork by the artist or is a briefly scribbled reminder note to furnish a gift for the album presumably the woman whose name and street address appears on the reverse side of the postcard. The writing on both sides is by the same hand and shows many similarities to Twain's penmanship. At the time that I found this card I made little progress in verifying my hunch that this postcard indeed belonged to Twain.

It was the coming of computers and more specifically GOOGLE that has now made my hunch more plausible. Details surrounding the origin of the postcard are now known to me. A young Polish investor named Jan Szezepanik had invented a new photographic device for transferring design and photo images onto tapestry that promised to revolutionize the weaving industry. As with most inventions venture capital was necessary to progress and a wealthy Viennese backer had brought the young inventor to Vienna and provided him with a fully equipped laboratory to continue his experiments. Twain found out about the invention and worked hard in another of his financial schemes ultimately doomed to failure to secure American marketing rights for the invention. At this time Vienna was hosting a Jubilee Exposition that showcased industrial progress and the Austrian capitalist seized upon a publicity stunt to have the new invention use a portrait of Twain to create a tapestry for exhibition at the fair. The tapestry was subsequently paired with a second one featuring a portrait of the Austrian Emperor Franz Josef I.

Henryk Rauchinger, the artist identified on the postcard, was commissioned to render the drawing that was initially to be used as a frontispiece in a new German edition of Tom Sawyer Abroad. Twain participated in several daily sittings for the artist and became so enamored of the portrait that he commissioned Dagobert Wlashim, a local printer, to produce the image on postcards. An unknown number were ultimately provided gratis to Twain by Wlashim in return for the latter having exclusive distribution rights for sale of the postcard throughout Austria-Hungary.

A sidebar to Henryk Rauchinger's life is that he was by birth both Polish and Jewish. Rauchinger was to live and work as a portrait painter in Vienna for another 40+ years following his Twain portrait. In 1942 during World War II the occupying Nazi forces took Rauchinger from his home. Unable to be accounted for in 1945 at the end of the war it is assumed that the painter perished in a concentration camp. Rauchinger would have been at least 84 at the time of his death.

Twain's stay in Vienna was widely publicized. He was the first American man of letters to be afforded such welcome and recognition in Europe. In fact, he was almost a guest of the state. While in Vienna Twain continued to write magazine articles and essays for the American market while maintaining an almost weekly schedule of appearances where he entertained much to the delight of the audience before retiring to his hotel suite often with a stipend check in hand.

It is also documented that Twain had some familiarity with the German language but neither wrote nor spoke it fluently. In fact, he had published an essay years earlier called The Awful German Language that he was fond of dusting off as the occasion demanded. And, upon arriving in Vienna he had also delivered a speech in which he mocked his difficulties with the language titled The Horrors of the German Language.

Is it possible then that at some social function Fraulein Irene (last name on card not clearly written) had presented Twain with a small album or collection of Henryk Rauchinger's work and Twain scribbled off a note on one of his postcards reminding himself that a small gift was in order or possibly scribbled off the card to be given to Irene? It would be a nice token of the visit for an admirer who had come to meet and hear the famous Mark Twain.

The evidence is circumstantial but a possible explanation either way, and certainly the handwriting and ink leads credence to the possibility that it was indeed used by Mark Twain. Beyond that I've never made any effort to have my theory validated or disproved. The story and its possibilities are worth far more than the 50 cents paid for the postcard originally, and while its fun to speculate that it may indeed be the genuine article, not knowing perhaps adds a bit of its own excitement and glamor to the story. Someday I may learn it was much ado about nothing or that I have a collectible worth a nice sum of money. For now, it's part of my collection along with scores of other Mark Twain postcards that are definitely the more common 50 cent variety.