Postcards and United States Cities

By Robert Bogdan

Although picture postcards can provide an extensive resource of visual information about urban American they are seldom mined by serious researchers. Postcards’ reputation as repetitive, poor-quality, commercial images that only capture structures and landscapes that attract tourists work against their use. The reputation is not totally wrong, as most postcards fit that description, but there is more to picture postcards than that.

Commercially manufactured picture postcards became widely available in the United States at the start of the 20th century. They exploded as a means of communication and as collectibles around 1907. Prior to this explosion in popularity, people who sent postcards through the mail were not allowed to include messages on the address side.  New postal regulations resulted in changes to both their use and design. Cards produced after 1907 had ‘split backs,’ a vertical line that separated the address side into two parts; the right side for the address and left for the message.  Postcard mania describes the enthusiasm that accompanied these 3 ½ by 5 ½ items for more than a decade. The fervor declined gradually after World War I but picture postcards remained popular after the Second World War as well; you can find them today on racks in various stores, especially those that cater to tourists. There are millions of different urban postcard views covering more than one hundred years of American history.

There are two types of picture postcards: cards printed mechanically, similar in nature to how magazine or newspapers illustrations are produced, and photo postcards, those printed directly from negatives onto postcard photographic paper. The first kind, printed cards, are usually derived from photographic images (there are some produced from artists’ drawings and other non-photographic processes) but the photographs are transposed by various processes (halftone was the most common at the height of postcard popularity) onto printing plates. Machines printed these images onto postcards.

Palace of Manufactures, St. Louis World’s Fair, 1904, Prints and Photographs Division, Library of Congress.

Printed cards are by far the most common picture postcard of urban life.  Large companies produced huge runs of these postcards because there were many people in and around cities to buy them. Tourists bought them to send to friends and family as a means to broadcast their travels while residents bought them as a substitute for letter writing as well as to add to their collections. They were cheap. These mass-produced images both captured and created urban icons; the buildings and locations they captured came to define the urban landscape. At first glance these images might seem useless to the serious researcher — simply visual documentation of the city — but they can be analyzed in terms of creation of city iconology.

The Montgomery Ward & Co. building, Chicago, One of the largest commercial buildings in the world, 1905, Prints and Photographs Division, Library of Congress.

Not all the mass-produced picture postcards were of ionic buildings and locations. One exception were cards advertising commercial establishments such as restaurants. These provide an inventory of particular segments of urban life and a sense of what life in the city was like. Although much less common, there were mass produced postcards of ethnic ghettos. Rather than being ethnographic, they were negative commentaries on crowded conditions and ethnic lifestyles. They were not consumed by immigrants–rather, tourists and residents bought them because they reinforced negative stereotypes of immigrant groups.  These immigrant cards offer little in documenting daily life in cities.

On the other hand, some photo postcards provide urban historians with greater insight into the life of city residents. There were four types of photo postcards. The first were those taken by large companies that produced them in bulk. They were more expensive and of higher quality than printed cards. The subject matter was identical to those found on the printed cards but the depictions provide greater detail and clarity.

The pictures on the other three types were taken and printed by local photographers. Some local photographers had substantial businesses. Although they offer more variety in what they captured than printed cards and mass-produced photo cards, most contain the same subject matter.

There were also postcards produced by local photographers that covered particular sections of a city.  These were typically produced in much smaller lots then printed cards and are relatively rare. In addition, some local studio photographers also printed their studio portraits on postcard stock. Entertainment centers such as Coney Island in New York City featured photo studios on the boardwalk where visitors could have their pictures taken in front of artist-painted backdrops featuring seascapes and other scenes that embellished the locality.

New Jewish market on the East Side, New York, between 1901 and 1907, Prints and Photographs Division, Library of Congress.

Snapshot amateurs produced the final type of locally produced photo postcards.  During the postcard era, cameras were made for amateurs that produced negatives of postcard size. The film could be sent to Kodak or brought to local photo shops and be printed on postcard stock.  Although some were printed in multiple copies to share with relatives and friends these snapshot postcards are often one of a kind. Along with studio portraits, they form the vernacular of the postcard genre.

And what about the handwritten messages on urban postcards? Be they printed or real photo cards, the postcard format encouraged messages to accompany the image. Although the majority of urban postcards do not have messages relevant to understand the writer’s relation to the image, those that do provide insight about how the citizenry thought about the city and the postcard depictions

Street scene at Venice, Cal, between 1890-1910, Prints and Photographs Division, Library of Congress.

While printed postcards and mass-produced photo cards are easy to find in the postcard marketplace and are relatively inexpensive, real photo postcards produced by locals are prized among collectors and most often traded among collectors or sold by dealers to advanced collectors outside normal sales venues. Particular urban areas have avid collectors of postcards of their cities.  Accessing their collections, however, requires you to establish a personal contact with them. Postcard clubs, postcard shows, and even dedicated internet searches serves as a means to contact such collectors. Dedicated collectors occasionally donate their collections to local historical societies, libraries, and other archives. Those interested in studying urban postcards might start by searching those venues.

Good hunting!

Robert Bogdan holds a PhD in Sociology and is a Distinguished Professor of Social Science, Emeritus, Syracuse University.  He is the author of Freak Show (University of Chicago Press) and co-author of Real Photo Postcard Guide and three other books about photo postcards.

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