Friday, January 17, 2014

Picture Post Card Collections

by Nancy McCammon-Hansen

Randy Harter will be at the History Center on January 25 to share parts of his postcard collection and autograph copies of his book about Fort Wayne post cards. Randy Elliott, our exhibitor, shared with me some boxes of postcards from the History Center’s archives so we thought it would be fun to share a few scans of those and to tell you more about the history of postcards. Walter Font, our curator, loaned me his book “A History of Postcards” by Martin Willoughby so information in this post comes primarily come from that work.

Picture postcards are only about 120 years old, so in historical terms they are a relatively new phenomenon. I collect post cards of places where we visit because the quality of the post card photograph is usually excellent and sometimes there are shots that I could not possibly get with my Nikons. But at one time, buying and sending a post card from a vacation spot was just one small piece of post card history, “a time when sending postcards was so popular, indeed on the verge of an international addiction, that the seaside-holiday variety was just the tip of the iceberg…..The postal authorities who produced the first rather drab, plain ‘postal’ or ‘correspondence-cards’ doubtless could not have foreseen the extent to which their basic ideas would be grasped and developed—evolving, within a couple of decades, into items that would be recognized and used by everyone the world over.”

West Berry Street from Fulton
The first “official” postcards went on sale in 1860. Not particularly popular at first, people soon realized that they were cheaper to mail than a letter, using less paper and postage (and if you don’t like to write—less words!). Businesses capitalized on postcards for advertising purposes and were among the first to utilize photos on postcards.

Centlivre Brewing Company

In the 1890s, the “Greetings from….” postcards made their appearance. At the turn of the century, the “golden age” of the postcard began. You no longer needed a reason to send a postcard as the artwork could be the reason, which people who hate to write letters probably really appreciated!
Then collecting began. Postcards, as Harter will tell you, have the benefit of being a collection you can acquire “en masse” because they don’t take up much room. 

According to Willoughby, “…it is difficult to discern whether postcard collecting was a result of the increase in the use of postcards or whether the increase in their use came about because people started collecting them. The extremely large quantities in use were proof of how popular they had become…” Postcards were a cost cutting device, cheaper than stationery and envelopes, cheaper to mail by half that of a letter and some postcards even came with the postage pre-printed, which made mailing them even easier over letters. And postcards were efficient—there’s only so much room on them and what we would now text message or tweet, people would put on postcards and send. Plus, mail between towns close to one another sometimes occurred within two or three hours of mailing your card. The increased use of telephones changed the appeal, but in the early 1900s the telephone was not as common as it is today. Thus the “golden age” of the picture postcard was almost two decades in length.

Barr Street Market in its hey day.

Inside of the market.

Another view of the market
World War I saw fewer “frivolous” art pieces and more patriotic works on postcards and many artists became better known as their works were mailed across the country. By the end of the war, picture postcards began a decline. The country was in a more serious mood and postal rates had risen. The 1920s saw the advent of Art Deco graphics and some new postcards featuring motion picture stars. But the Depression came along and the era of massive postcard mailing and collecting sharply declined.

In the late 1960s, collecting picked up as persons seeking to preserve history saw the appeal of large collections which took up little space and were representative of a piece of Americana that was unique. In the 1970s and 80s, postcard publishing saw a resurgence as an art form and you often see postcards for sale today in shops, such as the History Center’s gift shop. 

“However, it is fairly certain we will never again reach the stage where, as in those few years either side of 1900, the craze for sending postcards took over the world.”

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