Whiling Away the Time

“A golden era, when a gracious summer colony existed alongside a still-vital farming and fishing community.”
Isabel Carmichael and Richard Barons Richard Lewin

“East Hampton”

Richard Barons and Isabel Carmichael

Arcadia, $24.99

Is history soft, malleable, open to interpretation? Or is it stiffly a matter of facts, immutable, regardless of the “perspective” (that overused word, at once inclusive and diminishing) of the beholder?

Call it a stretch, but the estimable chroniclers of American life at Arcadia Publishing have weighed in, in a way, with a new entry in the Postcard History Series that is uncharacteristically hard — not paper — backed. Frisbee it onto the coffee table with a bang or spread its pages there to show off a few of the cheery black-and-whites of better days: It’ll stay open. 

The book, titled simply “East Hampton,” even comes with attractive marbled endpapers, the splash of mauvish color somehow adding to the sense of an idyllic time preserved in amber. 

What’s preserved is what East Hampton Village Mayor Paul F. Rickenbach Jr., himself a collector of postcards of the place, calls in his lucid foreword “a golden era, when a gracious summer colony existed alongside a still-vital farming and fishing community.” He goes on to point out that many of the vistas depicted from early in the 20th century remain remarkably unchanged.

The postcards come from the collection of the East Hampton Historical Society, culled by Richard Barons, described somewhat uncharitably on the back of the book as a “staff member” (he’s the society’s executive director), and Isabel Carmichael, who, as his assistant, is indeed such a one. 

“What is important to realize,” they write, “is that when postcards first became popular just after the turn of the 20th century, they were really just an inexpensive way of communicating via the postal service. For a penny, a person could send a note to a friend in nearby Sag Harbor and be assured that if sent in the morning it would arrive in the afternoon. One of the cards in the collection actually reads, ‘I’m bringing a rhubarb pie to dinner tonight.’ ”

The format is the familiar one for these books — rectangular images, usually two to a page, with captions — and so too are the photos of mansions and tree-lined streets. As the authors acknowledge, visitors to the village writing to their friends “invariably referenced the beautiful trees and the old houses.” (One view of a deserted Main Street, broad as ever and flanked by elms but very much dirt, was signed off with “Whiling away the time in East Hampton.”)

But there are surprises. The frequency with which such vintage photos reveal what George Washington called “a blasted plain” for a landscape, perhaps with a single, monumental structure rising like a mountain within it, is striking. We’re not talking the clear-cutting of wood for construction; anywhere close to the ocean there simply were no trees. The authors put a fine point on it: One postcard of a nearly void Lily Pond Lane “clearly shows that in 1917 the majestic trees now lining the lane had been planted only a few years earlier.”

Not only the village is featured, however. The book is divided into sections like “Wainscott, Georgica, and Springs” and “Montauk,” the latter pointing to one difficulty of such an enterprise, as it leads off with a passage that can send flagging the spirits of a reader at all familiar with the East End, but which might make perfect sense for someone else: “Montauk is often called ‘The End,’ and it is the easternmost point in New York State.” 

Elsewhere, happily, Mr. Barons and Ms. Carmichael show their historical chops, as in “Hotels, Restaurants, and Leisure,” where one postcard of a “rare peek at the Maidstone Inn’s lobby” shows a “combination of Colonial Revival and American wicker.” With some enthusiasm we are urged to “notice the wrought-iron Arts and Crafts lamps, the Colonial sawbuck table, and the crossed swords over the mantel.”

Back to reality, in their introduction the authors cannot refrain from commenting on the East Hampton of today, “bulging with new shingle-covered mansions,” restaurants reserved weeks ahead for a summer Saturday night, celebrity sightings, and so on. On the other hand, they point out, “an enormous amount of East Hampton has kept its architectural heritage, and with more than 40 percent of its land preserved, it is still a place that values its history and offers a rich life.”

Fair enough.

On the left in a postcard mailed in 1909 is the front of the old Gardiner-Brown House, built in 1747 on East Hampton’s Main Street. The enclosed entrance porch was added about 1800. East Hampton Historical Society