Postcards From a Golden Era

Seasick, 1912

Vintage scenic postcards, with their sentimental potential for nostalgia through the evocation of locality and family in days gone by, are eminently collectible. There is a lively global market in these and other types, such as the humorous, the saucy or the themed postcard, and a host of specialist websites dealing in them today.

The nostalgia is two-fold, reflecting the dual nature of the picture postcard as both photographic record and written communication. The pictures show us the costumes, the buildings and the artefacts of the world as it was around 100 years ago or more. The communication (where legible) is, generally speaking, mundane and ordinary; but where family ancestors are involved, it opens a particularly fascinating window on to where they travelled, their preferences, interests and inclinations, and some of their day-to-day concerns.

These things I discovered when chance put into my hands a family collection of used and unused postcards, some with pictures and some without, dating back to 1880. The collection includes a particularly fine set of picture postcards, by photographer Irving Underhill (1872—1960), of views and buildings of New York City in the golden era of the picture postcard — by common convention the years between 1907, which saw the introduction of the “divided back” postcard with space for both writing and address on the same side, and 1915.

Sky Line, New York City, 1912

This period was a window of free-market and technological opportunity for the printed postcard industry. The two functions of the picture postcard — conveying something by visual means (a photographic record or a cultural/humorous message), and making fast communication possible at a cheap price, had come together with the abolition of the state’s postcard printing monopoly in 1898 and significant advances in lithographic printing processes to ride on the crest of the wave of a burgeoning popular obsession.

Konstanz, Germany (undated)

Many cards were printed in Germany and imported: “the lithography processes there were so advanced that cards were spectacular. Postcard sending and collecting became a mania, and this collecting frenzy was only slowed by World War I, which cut off the supply of the quality-produced cards from Germany. Every home had its postcard albums, and communication by postcard was the norm.”1

The rather jaded routines we have sometimes been through — the race against time trying to make sure that the postcard we send home while on vacation arrives before we ourselves get back, and the nagging resentment at obligation — had not yet taken hold. When the postcards were used for writing rather than bought as souvenirs, the conventional sentiments expressed were not the much caricatured and unrealistic “Wish you were here,” but rather simple messages of reassurance to loved ones, such as “I am well” or “I finally arrived safely.”

It would not last. Although war was the immediate cause of change, the technology to perform these functions in different ways, more efficiently and in more personalized forms, was already catching up: the telephone, which had been introduced in the late 1870s, was spearheading a shift from written to verbal communication for routine matters. The advent of the Brownie box camera, in 1900, would eventually lead to mass-market DIY souvenir photography. Today we have digital cameras, which can be plugged into any computer after taking the pictures, which can then be e-mailed to the other side of the world in minutes or seconds. Instant digital picture messaging by cell-phone is also with us, even if still in its early days.

None of the above have extinguished the postcard, but they have required it to adapt and create niches for itself: for example, for those in a hurry, or not equipped with any camera, or whose eye is simply engaged by a card, there are beautiful scenic postcards available, often taken by professional photographers; for those cases where photography is not permitted, such as museums and galleries, there are exquisitely produced artistic postcards.

In the 1880s, however, the plain postcard without a picture played a vital role in day-to-day communication. The example below, posted August 4th, 1880 from Hanau in Germany, was sent by a merchant in Norway to one of my great-grandfathers, apparently seeking news of a shipment of Canary Islands almonds. The plain postcard such as this truly served for practical communication, a cheap and effective alternative to the already well-established telegraph service (which dated from around 1844), at a time when telephone service was in its infancy and not generally widespread, and was also very expensive. It was pre-printed with the correct postage, so all that was required was to write the message on the back and the name and address on the front, and there were several postal deliveries each day. It was the equivalent of today’s e-mail or plain text message.

Plain Postcard sent from Hanau, Germany to Porto, Portugal, August 4, 1880

Another great-grandfather, who was a Methodist minister in Portugal, travelled widely to church conferences and meetings. In 1901 he found himself in the US for the Jubilee of the American YMCA, which had been founded in Boston 50 years earlier by intrepid mariner Thomas Valentine Sullivan. Here he received routine news from home by postcard: since it was the custom for cards to be stamped at both the sending and the receiving ends, the example shown here tells us the date it was posted (Porto Central, June 2nd) and the date it was received at Boston (Back Bay Station, June 14).

Plain postcard sent from Porto to Boston, June 2, 1901

It was in all likelihood also during his time attending the Jubilee that my great-grandfather would have visited Mount Tom in Holyoke, Mass., where the YMCA had a camp or cottage. Here he acquired a souvenir card of the Mt. Tom Railroad2, which had been inaugurated in 1897 and on which people rode up in trolley cars to the resort, to view the Connecticut River Valley.

Souvenir Card – Front

Souvenir cards like this were a variety of the Private Mailing Card, a type of postcard which can be dated to the period beginning 1898, when the US Postal Service’s monopoly on the printing of postcards was broken by an Act of Congress. In 1901 the description was abbreviated to “Post Card” (two words) but, as with the original plain cards, only the address was allowed on the stamp side, and space was left around the image for any message from the sender.

Souvenir Card — Reverse

Even though souvenir cards could be and were written on and mailed, it seems to me that their primary function was to serve as a photographic memento — of a town or museum visited, of a work of art or a feat of engineering, or of a pretty or distinctive scene — as the postcards produced by museums and art exhibits still do today. Many cards were therefore purchased not to be used, and that is why there are probably at least as many unused postcards in the collections as there are used ones: they are generally in better condition, because they have not been stamped, defaced and crumpled in the mail, but have been stored away, often in elaborately-designed postcard albums which the golden era collectors prized for this very purpose.

The postcards in the Irving Underhill collection, which are all unused, fit into this category. They were almost certainly purchased as a souvenir of a later visit to New York, perhaps around 1915. A good example of such a card is this 1912 print of Wall Street, published by “The American Art Publishers Company” of H. Finkelstein & Son (this card, like many others, bears just the plain mark on the reverse “H. F. & Son,” with a brief description of Wall Street).

Irving Underhill’s Wall Street, 1912

Other cards were published by the “Success Postcard Company,” but many of these are from a later period. After the US entered World War I, cards printed in Germany were no longer imported. The industry in Germany collapsed, and never recovered. From 1915 onwards postcards were supplied mostly by printers in the United States, who sought to save ink by not printing to the edge of the card and leaving a white border around the image. For collectors, this makes it possible to date postcards which are later than 1915, but still from the pre-Depression era, with at least some degree of accuracy, as they often carry no indication of printing date. Here is a typical example of the “white border” type:

Irving Underhill — Pennsylvania Railroad Station, New York City

I have created a web-based gallery of most of these Irving Underhill postcards, including the white-bordered ones, to enable readers of this article to view them online. The gallery page contains a two-page index of thumbnails: clicking on the individual thumbnail will bring up a larger scan of each postcard, underneath which are to be found navigation buttons to take you either to the next or previous picture, or back to the index. Take a trip through cyberspace to quieter times and, as the saying goes: Enjoy!

Legend has it that in 1875 he went back to Norway to choose a bride, found her, was married within a fortnight. The couple returned to live the rest of their lives in Portugal. Descendants of this fortunate union’s five daughters are spread far and wide, but particularly in Norway, Portugal, Germany, England and the United States, in places as disparate as Florida, Maine, New York, Colorado and lately Philadelphia. The firm he co-founded, Wiese & Krohn of Oporto, still bears his name, and produces port wine to this day.

The Portuguese ancestor mentioned here, Rev. Alfredo H. da Silva, was a much-revered superintendent of the Methodist church in Portugal. He lived from 1872 to 1950.

Richard Wall Archives