By Michaela Smith
Edward/Mae Having outlined the beginnings of this digital project, some background about Edward Forman is due. Edward Forman was an AEF (American Expeditionary Force) Infantryman deployed with the 29th Division 116th Infantry. Very little is known about Forman’s duties while he was deployed, even with access to his postcards, but this is likely due to censorship regulations surrounding mail leaving army bases during WWI. Unfortunately searching for more information on Forman and his duties didn’t yield any results. What is known, however, is that Forman was writing to Mae Kaiser his sweetheart at the time who lived in Brooklyn, New York. Forman would go on to marry Mae Kaiser after the war.¹
All of the data comes from Edward Forman’s postcard collection. This is worth noting because the original plan had been to potentially explore other scrapbooks in Villanova or Bryn Mawr’s digital collections. But this ended up not being the case as the information in Forman’s collection was more than enough for this digital project.
The postcards themselves are quite straightforward with the collection containing fifty postcards in total. There are thirty four with writing, sixteen without, and one blank postcard with a hand-drawn drawing. Out of the fifty postcards, all but one made the timeline below. The postcard that did not make the timeline was excluded because it had neither a date nor an approximate or definite location on it, and as a result, it couldn’t be placed on the timeline or the map.
There are also a few postcards from Washington, Alabama, and the Carolinas. Similarly, while most of the postcards are written from Ed to Mae and there are none written by Mae to Ed, there is one postcard that was written to Ed by a Tom E. Mannes. There was no further information that could be found on or about Mr. Mannes.
When it came to interpreting and understanding the French titles and etcetera on the postcards in the collection, Google Translate was used as the main source for translations. This proved to be a useful tool in that it translated the postcard titles and any other French on them without requiring much in-depth research. The other tools used in the creation of this project are outlined below.
Creating a timeline with Timeline JS was a fairly approachable task. Initially a timemap (map and timeline combined in one visual) was going to be created as a visual to highlight Forman’s travels via Timemapper. But after running into issues with getting the map portion to function properly, a last minute move to Timeline JS was made. To put together a timeline with Timeline JS, an excel sheet had to be created that listed the title, date, description, image link, credit for any images, and the headlining text for each entry on the timeline. Once this spreadsheet was uploaded to timeline JS, it was just a matter of working with the embedding code to get it to display properly on WordPress.
*Note: Postcards that did not have a date, but that had an identifiable location were given the dates associated with postcards from the same area so as to best cohesively show Ed’s travels. That said, there are eight postcards at the beginning of the timeline that do not have dates. These were included in the timeline because they are still relevant to Ed’s experience.
The one decision that really shaped the way this part of the project developed was the change from making a timemap and choosing to make a timeline and map separately. The timemap would have allowed for the map and timeline to be interacted with simultaneously and side by side in the same frame whereas they are now separate and the relationship between map and timeline isn’t as seamless as it could have been. As a result, the feeling of following Forman on his journey is lost.
Google My Map
Creating my map with Google My Maps was very straight forward and easy to do. After having decided that creating a timemap wouldn’t be a feasible option, Google My Maps was chosen as a map replacement. To create the points on the map the location was entered into a search bar on the map itself, and then once it was located, the points were entered in separately by hand. Once all the points were added and in the right places, all that was left was to customize the colors and style of the map and then, like with Timeline JS, embed it on the page.
*Note: All red markers indicate at least one postcard. If there are markers of any other color near a red marker they represent another postcard in the cluster. It is also best to zoom in to see the clusters clearly on the map.
One decision that might have changed the way the map works with the timeline is whether or not lines between each of the points had been included on the map as a way of illustrating where Forman had travelled and when. But because the exact movements of Forman’s unit couldn’t be discerned from the information available from Forman’s postcards to Mae, the decision was made to leave the lines out so as not to accidentally muddle the presentation of the data.
As for organizing the data, the decision was made to order the postcards chronologically on the timeline because it was the best (and only) real way to capture the extent and locations of Edward Forman’s journey as a whole. Also rather than imposing any questions on the data, the project tried to let the data guide the understanding of Forman’s travels rather than trying to search for any one specific answer.
Overall one of the biggest obstacles faced when trying to create this project was not issues with Timemapper/Timeline JS or any of the choices made regarding data presentation. It was figuring out how to make sure the project was viable. As it would turn out, the postcards themselves didn’t have any identifiable postmarks on them. They had postmarks on them, but they were either from New York or from a generic Army mailroom. Which created the issue of figuring out how to track Forman’s travels accurately. Because without verifiable postmarks on the postcards there was no real way to tell where Forman was when he was sending or receiving the occasional postcard. But then as the data was being compiled, two things became apparent.
First, it was noted that the front of many of the postcards had pictures of the locations where Forman was sending them from, and that this was often confirmed by many of his messages to Mae on the back. Sometimes, Forman’s messages on the back were the only way to get an approximate location and were relied on heavily in order to get the clearest picture possible. The next discovery was that many of the postcards were in clusters, potentially revealing how long Forman was in a certain area and where he was when he sent them. As a result, these observations were used in order to take on a slightly modified approach and produce the project as it is now.
The research methods for this project were fairly simple. The idea was straightforward in that the project sought to study the postcards and the idea of seeing where Forman went throughout his deployment in order to gain a stronger understanding of his WWI experience. In order to attempt to best explore those initial thoughts the following questions were generated:
- How often did Mr. Forman travel, and where did he travel? How close to one another were the locations?
- What was the experience abroad like?
As it turns out, the information gathered from Forman’s postcard collection wasn’t enough to answer both questions concretely. There was enough data to answer the first question above fairly well while the second question remained almost unanswerable. As a result, the data was left to speak for itself using the clusters and the front of the postcards to inform the understanding of Forman’s journey through out the War.
Based on the questions: how often did Mr. Forman travel, and where did he travel? How close to one another were the locations? The data combined between the map and the timeline allowed for an answer to be attempted.
As for how often Forman traveled during his time in Europe, it seems like it was a fairly frequent interval as one might expect when looking at the movements of an Army infantryman. Similarly, it looks like on a few occasions there were towns like Bourges, Le Mans, or Rennes where his regiment might have had longer stop overs. For example, based on some rough estimates based on the dates on the postcards, Forman spent about a month or so in Bourges, before moving on to the city of Le Havre.
Though this could also be due to the fact that it appears that Forman sent a few postcards at a time, or multiple a day, which could skew the data and indicate that he spent more time in one place than he actually had. It also became clear that Forman visited the following cities in Europe: Bourges, Dinard, France, Le Havre, Le Mans, Mont Saint Michel, Rennes, Saint Malo, and Tours. And that while he was in the states he visited: Anniston Alabama, Washington DC, Greenville SC, and Monroe NC.
Distance was a bit more difficult to measure by the postcards alone, but using the ruler tool on Google My Maps a rough estimate was made to determine that Forman traveled about 10,000 miles during his whole deployment. This is a very rough estimate that includes two trips (to and from) France and then about five hundred miles or so while he was in France. This is less than was originally anticipated for his time in Europe, but with everything being much closer together than is typical in the US, it makes sense that his mileage is lower. When looking at the map it is easy to see just how close French towns really are to one another.
It also became apparent that Forman might have made his way north towards the coast and then potentially back down again depending on the full length of his deployment and his true movements. It does seem possible considering that Le Havre is one of the main ports for ships entering and leaving France, and if he did end up making a few trips from the United States to France, as Forman’s postcards do suggest, it is possible that he was entering and leaving through the port at Le Havre.
After having spent a significant amount of time with Forman’s postcards, it also became apparent that for Forman and his sweetheart Mae postcards were likely one of the only and best ways to truly stay connected to one another. More specifically, during the War the censorship efforts of all parties involved was quite strong. In fact, on a few of Forman’s postcards there appears to be writing in pencil that is not Forman’s and looks to be approving the contents of the letters.
Another potential perk of using postcards versus writing letters or any other form of communication for Forman is that in choosing a postcard with something related to where he was staying, he could share that information with Mae without directly having to tell her so. And in not specifically mentioning where he was and what he was doing, Forman didn’t necessarily have to worry about anything being removed by those in charge of censorship since his messages themselves were free of any detail and often brief. The fact that Forman elected to write such short messages could be indicative of the level with which personal letters were censored, or simply suggest that Forman’s time abroad didn’t lend him much free time outside of the time he spent writing to Mae.
Lastly, it is hard to say whether or not Forman had ever anticipated these postcards to survive to this day or for Mae to save them in the first place. But because they did survive, they probably allowed Forman and possibly Mae to remember his WWI experience in quite a unique way. Particularly in that unlike a scrapbook, that can have headlines that remember more downtrodden times during the war, Forman was able to focus on what were likely very happy moments during the War. Because although the postcards don’t reveal anything groundbreaking about the War or his regiment, they remember a very personal aspect of Forman’s time abroad. Which is rather unusual considering many scrapbooks and other media remembering the War focus more on the war itself at large, rather than one particular moment.
Although the scope of this project is really quite small and gave only a glimpse into the life of a WWI soldier, it draws attention to the fact that these experiences still matter even after all these years. Small pieces of a US infantryman’s life hold the potential to teach historians and the public alike many new things. For example, Forman’s postcard collection sheds light on the fact that not every waking moment of a soldiers life was action oriented, along with the fact that they likely did find time to enjoy the cities they saw (particularly that late in the War. It was also somewhat surprising to see just how much one small collection of postcards could reveal when someone takes the time to sit down and apply them to a more visual approach.
Overall the project was successful in offering both a learning opportunity concerning digital tools, and what they can and cannot do. But it also was quite a satisfying, intriguing, and humbling experience to sit down with one small corner of history to see what it had to say.
¹ Falvey Memorial Library Digital Library. “Collection of postcards from Edward D. Forman.” http://digital.library.villanova.edu/Collection/vudl:336023.