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Wish You Were Here

May 2024
3min read

Home, Mother, and the Flag; humor, pathos, and bathos; the lost look of Main Street fifty years ago, in the heyday of the horse and trolley—the old picture post card preserves it all

In the hierarchy of art collectors there are definite social strata as sacred as those of any ant colony. At the top, perhaps, belong the collectors of Chinese jades and oil paintings. Then come the fanciers of antique furniture. Dead Sea scrolls, and Baccarat paper-weights. At the bottom of this social register languish the accumulators of cigar bands and the picture post-card collectors. But if he is close to the lowest rung of the acquisitive society, unrecognized by the museums and Duvecns, the post-card collector is nevertheless a kind of historian and, even if accidentally, serves a useful purpose.

The debut of the picture post card in the United States occurred at the Columbian Exposition of 1893. With its advent began a hobby and a collecting spree that whirled unabated until shortly after the First World War. Then suddenly the post-card album, a book second in importance only to the family Bible, vanished from atop the player piano.

At first, postal regulations permitted only the name and address of the recipient on the face of the card, so that of necessity messages defaced the illustrated side. In 1907, however, a key date to collectors, the Post Office Department relented: The faces of cards could be split down the middle to provide for address and message. This epochal decision saved the picture, unless, of course, you chose to mark X over some hotel window and label it “our room,” or, “the body was found here.” After 1907, therefore, the industry was off and running, and so was the hobby. While there were both artistic and trashy cards, sheer bulk was the general criterion of the collector even when he was a specialist, devoted, say, only to cats, Santa Claus, or the Yerkes Observatory. (The writer once chanced upon a large album containing only views of prisons and cemeteries.) Ordinarily, though, not a traveler stirred from his bailiwick without being charred with the stern responsibility of mailing post cards of his travels to his album-keeping friends. This each person did gladly, for he knew the bread he cast upon the mail-box waters would return to him sevenfold. In turn the post-card publishers endeavored not only to sell cards embracing a variety of subjects but also to provide for the public a printed post card of charm and originality, often superbly colored, even embossed.

Indeed, post cards were much more than a means of communication: for more than twenty-five years they trace history, a kind of homely view of life in the United States, and in much of the civilized world. Often when no one else did, they recorded the landscape; it was a rare village green or country trolley-crossing that did not have its card. They celebrated Home, Mother, and the Flag: they helped out in courtship (“To the Candy Kid,” or “Greetings to my Sweet Fluffy Ruffles”); they would Save Your Boy from the Saloon. They covered births, anniversaries, holidays (including Ground Hog Day;, presidential candidates, burning issues like Prohibition and woman suffrage, heroes, smashing girls, fashions, sports, freaks ! Frank Fithen the Armless Automobile Speed King), advertising, war (in its thcn-minor-league status;, tragedies like the sinking of the Maine and the San Francisco earthquake, visiting royalty, celebrities of all kinds. Then there were cowboys, Indians, actors, actresses, expositions, fairs, parades, tender sentiments, anti-Semitica, erotica, jingoism, humor, pathos, and bathos. This is to say nothing of endless view cards depicting Old Faithful, Main Street everywhere, the Flat Iron Building, the fireproof steamer Hustace B. Proxmire , Lookout Mountain, the Hoosac Tunnel, and Lake Okoboji by moonlight.

To supply the insatiable demand, publishers sprang up like wildflowcrs. Frequently they had their pictures printed in Germany and Austria, where lithographic techniques were superior and painstaking workmanship very cheap. One of the more famous names in the postcard trade was the Detroit Publishing Company, with almost 16,000 different views taken for it by photographers who traveled all over the country. Many of the company’s cards are models of color, composition, and meticulous detail. Edward H. Mitchell was the largest western company, and other large manufacturers included L. J. Koehler (publisher of “Hold-to-thc-Light” cards,., Winsch. Art Publishing, and Rotograph. Bamforth and Company and Raphael Tuck and Sons, the leading English firms, exported many delightful cards made expressly for the American market. The German publisher Stengel and the Italian firm of Sborgi set the picture post-card standard for reproductions of fine art.

Like so many other simpler things, the early post card fell victim, after the First World War, to the new era of sophistication and mass production. That album seemed, suddenly, so old-fashioned. And nowadays, a few decades later, you can get a card, if you want to save writing a letter, that looks like—and indeed may be—a perfect color photograph. Yet something, somehow, is lacking: craftsmanship, perhaps, or a sense of the past, the warm moment of charm or surprise that one might, only a few decades ago, bestow on another for the price of the card and a penny stamp.

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