- Snapshots and Short Notes: Images and Messages of Early Twentieth-Century Photo Postcards by Kenneth Wilson
The postcard has gone the way of the elevator operator and the straight razor, replaced by smartphones and YouTube. But there was a time when postcards were a vital component of our long-distance communication, like the telegraph and the letter. Thank goodness for Kenneth Wilson, who reminds us of the time when it was unthinkable to take a vacation without sending postcards to loved ones at home.
This history of the humble postcard covers its so-called golden age from the late nineteenth century through World War I. This little piece of cardstock was transformed in that time from a cheap form of communication into a visual record of the life and times of a nation. The earliest versions had no illustrations and had to be mailed in an envelope. In 1898, the postal service began allowing small cards to be mailed without an envelope, which was revolutionary. The next advance came in 1905 with technology that allowed for the mass reproduction of photographs, resulting in the photo postcard. The author defines "real photo" postcards (11), crucial to understanding the rest of the book, as portraying life in the real world rather than through an artist's interpretation. Furthermore, real photo postcards represented a significant advance over the poor half-tone images produced in newspapers, making the little postcard a competitor with newspapers as a visual record of major events like the San Francisco earthquake of 1906. Everything was fair game for postcard treatment. Soldiers took them to war in 1917 and, with the explosion of American tourism after World War II, postcards became a global phenomenon. Racks of postcards appeared in virtually every airport and train station around the world.
Although the book is a selective history, covering only the period from 1900 to 1919, its twenty chapters provide depth about such topics as the degree of artistic imagination and commercial calculation that underlay picture postcards, making them miniature canvases for many aspiring artists. Their wide subject matter included veterans' reunions, historic landmarks, holiday celebrations, natural disasters, train wrecks and other tragedies, as well as the more familiar "wish you were here" images and [End Page 477] photographs of airplanes, automobiles, and giant dynamos. In addition, readers will find serious subjects like the Underground Railroad, racist humor, and the Ku Klux Klan.
Most if not all of the postcards included are from the author's collection. Wilson does the reader a service by showing not just the card's picture but also the message on the back, which provides historical context for the image and a window into the mind of the sender. This makes the postcard a personalized record that is both brief and unsanitized for public consumption. Although the book is primarily a sample of Americana, cultural history, and the visual arts, as many as forty pages include content related to Texas.
There have been other histories of the postcard, but this book's combination of text, visual images, and beautiful design make it among the best for a non-technical audience, even though its title sounds more like a graduate thesis than a book with mass appeal. One can hope that Wilson will do a sequel, taking postcard history from World War I through the 1960s, when Americans collected postcards for the visual image without any intention of mailing them.