From Commerce to History
Robert Runyon's Postcards of the Lower Rio Grande Valley and Brownsville 1910-1926
Demobilization along the border and the advent of World War I dried up the local military demand for postcards and Runyon decided to augment his income by opening a portrait photography studio in 1917. He quickly gained a reputation as the best in Brownsville, and was designated the official photographer for Brownsville High School, a post he held from 1918 to 1926. Along the way he photographed and marketed to newspapers images of important local events, such as the 1920 visit of President elect Warren Harding to Brownsville, and continued his association with land developers. The land boom of the 1920s produced an even more varied set of opportunities for the sale of the kind of photographs Runyon, by this time, was well known for supplying, frequently in the form of postcards and view folders.
These popular view folders were the result of a long and successful business relationship between Runyon and the Curt Teich Company, one of the largest and most prominent suppliers of color postcards in the United States in the twentieth century. In 1913, Runyon's records
Front cover of a style book containing sample postcards published by Curt Teich and Company. [Robert Runyon Photograph Collection; run_12734]
Souvenir View Folders containing a series of hand tinted or monotone photos
printed on an accordion fold insert. [Robert Runyon Photograph Collection]
show that he ordered 44,898 cards from Teich. These included 1,116 of the Brownsville post office and customhouse, 4,594 of the International Bridge across the Rio Grande, 16,841 of war related subjects, 12,223 of Mexican bullfights, and 14,718 with no subject specified. Between 1910 and 1926 Runyon applied for and was granted copyright to eighty eight of his postcard images. He appears to have been quite successful in guarding this right, and his instructions to include copyright notices on the postcards sometimes resulted in enhanced sales from customers who saw it and applied directly to him for the purchase of existing images or to request new ones by him.
Runyon officially ended his career as a photographer in 1940 and turned to politics. He lost a campaign for mayor of Brownsville in 1937, partly due to his successful copyright infringement
suit against the Chamber of Commerce. He was appointed city manager instead, serving from 1937 to 1940. During this time he totally revamped the city budget, an extraordinary accomplishment he described in a lengthy published report. He was elected mayor in 1941 and served one term. Although he returned to business briefly as owner and publisher of the Brownsville News in the late 1940s, Runyon's main occupation for the remainder of his life was as a botanist and politician, working to preserve and promote the native plant life of the Valley. By the time of his death in 1968, Runyon enjoyed an international reputation as an expert on cacti and a proponent of conservation and urban planning in the American Southwest. His herbarium is now at the University of Texas at Austin, and many plants were named after him, including one genus.