Identifying 1920s Peru in Pictures and Words

“Ships in the harbor”
“Ships in the harbor”
circa 1921-1928

The postcards offer a unique perspective of Peru developing into an economic center, ready for business and tourism, while still revealing cultural tradition. The typical features highlighting Peru’s modernization include the following: religious, business, and federal buildings; everyday subjects in the urban environment (streetscapes, markets, locals, etc.); and industry, particularly copper smelting, weaving, and exporting. Some features depicting natural and cultural heritage are the following: ancient Inca ruins; the natural environment, such as the ocean studded with ships and smelters nestled in the arid mountains; and animals, mostly llama packs roaming in the streets or mountains.

However, several representations are lacking that signify Peru. Food, such as regional cultural dishes and local produce, is absent. The local crafts and industries less affected by foreign enterprise are scarce, particularly Peruvian ceramics (a popular collector’s item). Although palm trees are found in the images of the city environment, native flora in its natural habitat outside the city is not represented. In regards to people and residences, the life outside the city in rural areas is shown marginally and reveals a barrenness untouched by the modern economic machinery of the day.

Brief descriptions written by the Hispanic Society of America are located on the postcards’ back and reference the landmarks, activities, and people seen in the images. Despite the short one-or-two-liner text, a stated preference for certain visual information can be gleaned, as well as a noticeable absence of other information. “Typical” scenes and homes “of the poorer class” are noted in the harbor city of Mollendo, while the modernized, European-style urban center of Tacna is praised as a “clean and thriving city”. This treatment suggests a bias or a Western way of conceptualizing the notion of progress. Indigenous groups make up a significant percent of the multi-ethnic nation, but they are grouped under “indian” in the postcards’ descriptions with no reference given to their ethnic identity. The lack of distinction for photographed individuals and the preference for modernized scenes dwarfs the portrayal of native Peruvian identity.