The View From Up North: Americans experience Mexico, circa 1890-1945

In the years prior to World War II, most Americans had limited first-hand experience of their southern neighbor. Mexico primarily was known as a place for American financial investment and as a land of frequent political turmoil. These examples from the Archives Center’s collections illustrate some of the ways in which Americans learned about Mexico—without ever leaving home.

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Silver gelatin print by Katherine Joseph, 1941. Katherine Joseph Collection, 1930s-1940s.

Many Americans learned about Mexico’s long history and rich cultural heritage through published images. Aztec ruins, bullfighting, historic churches, colorful scenery, and peasant life were common images on postcards, stereograph cards, and photographs in magazines. This image of Mexican villagers preparing for Palm Sunday festivities was photographed by Katherine Joseph for Life magazine in 1941.

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Bull Fight Scenes, Mexico, 1903. Silver gelatin prints on album page. Van Tassell Photograph Albums, 1900-1956.

Some Americans experienced Mexico through the eyes of friends and neighbors who had been there. Postcards sent during a visit, snapshots, and photo albums all provided intriguing glimpses of Mexican history and culture. Mexican music and dance were enjoyed by many Americans, who found them exotic. Stage performances and feature films provided inspiration; beautifully-illustrated sheet music enabled people to play Mexican tunes in their homes.

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“The World’s Greatest Silver Mining City, Guanajuato, Mexico.” Stereograph by Keystone View Co., ca. 1900-1910. Division of Cultural History Lantern Slides and Stereographs, ca. 1887-1930.

Children’s toys and collectibles sometimes featured traditional Mexican clothing styles. This 1944 set of paper dolls was inspired by President Franklin D. Roosevelt’s “Good Neighbor” foreign policy, which improved relations with Mexico and ensured its support for the Allies in World War II. The cards showing Mexican vaqueros (cowboys)—both young and old—were included in late 19th century cigarette packages just as baseball cards are included with bubble gum today.

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Good Neighbor Paper Dolls doll house, 1944. Helen Popenoe Paper Dolls, 1942-1947.

Americans were able to experience Mexico first-hand by attending one of many world’s fairs held in the United States. At the fairs, ordinary Mexicans demonstrated their culture and customs while living in recreated “authentic” village exhibits. Other exhibits portrayed Mexico’s long and colorful history, with an emphasis on its Aztec and Mayan roots. An entire Mayan temple was recreated for Mexico’s pavilion at the 1934 Chicago “Century of Progress” exhibition.

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Orrin Bros. & Nichol’s Aztec Fair pamphlet. Warshaw Collection of Business Americana.

As automobile ownership spread in the 1920s and 1930s, Americans from across the country were able to afford to travel there—drawn by the country’s nearness, ease of entry, beautiful scenery, exotic culture, and multi-faceted history. Recognizing the economic importance of American tourism, both the Mexican government and private organizations actively promoted tourism during the 1930s and 1940s. The Direccion General de Turismo (Federal Tourist Bureau) was established and travel brochures and guides became widely available in the United States. As a result, the number of American visitors to Mexico increased almost three times between 1930 and 1950.

Craig Orr is an Aquistions Archivist at the Archives Center at the National Museum of American History. This post originally appeared on the Smithsonian Collections blog.

Posted at 3:35 pm EST in From the Collections