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  • Wishing They Were There:Old Postcards and Library History
  • Bernadette A. Lear (bio)

This past winter my husband and I finally finished renovating our home. While we were fixing up our place, so many aspects of our life—intellectual, recreational, and social—were put aside. Then one day I wrestled out another dusty carton that had been relegated to the back of a closet.

There it is! My postcard collection!

As every researcher knows, putting something aside for a while and then returning to it with fresh eyes can reveal new possibilities. Years ago, when I was aggressively building the collection, it was simply a hobby. I worked in a public library, so it was fun to collect postcards that showed other libraries. Now that I have shifted to an academic job and research is an important aspect of my work, I see my postcards in a different light. It is clear that postcards can be helpful sources for library historians, keeping in mind the medium's inherent limitations. At the same time, the postcard fad of the early twentieth century serves as a sobering reminder that documentation of library history as well as practitioners' understanding of that history often have been leftto chance.

Postcards as Artifacts of American History and Culture

Although they are just beginning to be treated seriously by scholars, postcards are artifacts of several national phenomena, including changes in printing technology, postal regulations, forms of communication, popular culture, and travel. As historians Frank Staff, Dorothy Ryan, and others have explained, postcards were not "invented" but evolved over time.1 During the late nineteenth century, advances in photography, papermaking, typography, and printing lowered the cost of producing handsome illustrations. The results of this progress can be found in today's antique stores and flea markets in the form of local signage, [End Page 77] advertisements, yearbooks, maps, calendars, product packaging, trading cards, postcards, and other paper ephemera.2

At the 1876 Philadelphia Centennial Exposition, fairgoers could purchase a set of picture cards, each card showing a different scene of the Expo. These cards were intended as souvenirs, not to be mailed (they were completely blank on one side). At the 1893 World's Columbian Exposition, publishers added address lines to the reverse of the cards. As Dorothy Ryan explains, the beautifully illustrated postal cards "proved that postcards could be worth collecting in and for themselves" or sent as a convenient, satisfactory memento to family and friends at home. In the 1890s several "pioneers" began to produce picture postcards to be sold to tourists at popular resorts.3

Although postcards had been used for government and business correspondence as far back as the 1860s, postal regulations did not encourage the public to buy and send such items as novelties. Throughout most of the late nineteenth century, privately printed cards required a two-cent stamp, thus costing as much to mail as a first-class letter (or double the cost of mailing a plain, government-issued card). This changed in May 1898, when Congress passed an act that gave privately printed cards the same postal privileges as government cards—a one-cent stamp. The new law encouraged companies to test the waters, and the Albertype Company of New York, the American Souvenir Card Company, Arthur Livingston, E. C. Kropp, the Rost Printing and Publishing Company, and the Universal Postal Card Company all began producing postal "views" at this time. To meet customers' expectations for finely illustrated and colorful, yet inexpensive, cards, American publishers and wholesalers often partnered with German printers. For a few pennies one could buy and send gorgeous, beautifully printed images of Yellowstone National Park's geysers, Atlantic City's beaches, or New York's Broadway.4

From about 1905 to the beginning of World War I, collecting postcards was a national obsession. According to Ryan (quoting figures from the U.S. Post Office), Americans mailed more than six hundred million postcards in the 1907–8 fiscal year. Within a few years they were sending nearly a billion cards annually. Millions more cards likely were never mailed but were filed in personal collections or traded with the buyers' friends. To build their collections hobbyists haunted stores that...


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pp. 77-100
Launched on MUSE
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