by Franchesica Kidd, graduate student of history
Sitting in the San Francisco Bay, the Rock was a prison that housed some of the United States’ most heinous criminals— Al Capone, “the Birdman” Robert Stroud, and the original George “Machine Gun” Kelly, just to name a few. But what happens when Alcatraz closes and becomes a popular tourist attraction to oddity seekers from around the world? What else, then to be printed on a postcard and sent to friends, family, and loved ones all over the United States. Between the 1920s and the 1970s and as Alcatraz was decommissioned as a federal prison and bloomed into a booming tourist industry, the Rock saw a change in the way that the postcard industry portrayed it via photos on the back of postcards. As time went on, Alcatraz was depicted more as a tourist hotspot than a warning place to stay out of. Photo postcards of Alcatraz shifted from black and white photos and printed photos toward lively colored photos that had the message “Wish You Were Here!” printed on them, suggesting a cultural shift in attitude toward this notorious prison (Cavendish, 2013).
So, what was Alcatraz? According to the Federal Bureau of Prisons (FBP), Alcatraz was actually first written about in 1775 and its name is derived from the Spanish word “Alcatraces”, and coming from a Spanish explorer in 1775, also known as Juan Manuel de Ayala. Ayala was reportedly the “first to sail into what is now known as San Francisco Bay,” and this name of Alcatraces was later Anglicized to Alcatraz. In the year 1850, President Millard Filmore issued an order that reserved Alcatraz island as a possible site for use as a reservation for the United States Military. This order was a result of the booming time of the California Gold Rush and the importance of protecting San Francisco and her Bay from the rapid boom of migrants to the area. Along with this order, the United States Army built a fort at the top of the island in the beginning of the 1850s, also planning to install “more than 100 cannons on the island, making Alcatraz the most heavily fortified military site on the West Coast.” Along with being a military fortification, Alcatraz was also home to the first operational lighthouse on the West Coast (Cavendish, 2013).
If you look closely at how Alcatraz was portrayed through the David P. Campbell collection of postcards, housed in the Cummings Center at the University of Akron, it is very noticeable to trace how the images of Alcatraz go along with what happened to the tourism industry between the 1920s and the 1970s, or the extent of the collection of Alcatraz prison postcards. The first cards of Alcatraz feature a small island in the San Francisco Bay without much of any context, aside from some of the messages that could be found on the back of the cards that discuss Al Capone being housed in there. These images started off being black-and-white aerial photos of the prison with captions “Alcatraz” or “the Rock”. The early postcards illustrate the curiosity with Alcatraz and how a small island could house such big-named criminals, being careful not to get too close to the prison and keeping a safe distance away from it, almost mirroring the curiosity and intrigue that perhaps some of the general public had about the prison and how it was operated.
To finish reading this analysis on Alcatraz, visit Student Project from the Archives this summer to find out more! Have you visited Alcatraz? What did you think of it? Is it worth the trip?
Cavendish, Richard. “Alcatraz Prison Closes.” History Today 63, no. 3 (March 2013): 11.