The Moveable Archive of the Sadly Neglected Postcard

By Anton Rosenthal

I first encountered the moveable archive of postcards by accident some 25 years ago during a research trip to Montevideo, Uruguay. I had been experiencing a sharp contrast between written accounts of the daily life of the city that I was reading in the national library and the national archives and the rhythms of the 21st century incarnation of the city in which I was residing for a year.

My attempts to ground my perspective spatially had largely failed until I ventured into a massive Sunday downtown flea market. There I chanced upon some old postcards, nearly abandoned to the city’s ever-present humidity, lying unprotected on a table in the street. These were images of the place I had been reading about: streetcars, plazas, parks, storefronts, workers, policemen, and sites of mass demonstrations in the first two decades of the 20th century. In short, they contained all the primary elements of urban modernity. They were tinted in vibrant colors and framed in ways that suggested a world so different from the noisy, gray city that I was standing in, almost like a dreamworld, and they were cheap. By the end of the morning I had acquired a handful of what I later came to realize were historical documents. They often included messages on them—not just penned by tourists but by residents of the city as well—who sent their missives across town and across the Atlantic Ocean. I soon discovered street markets in other neighborhoods as well as antique stores that I had previously ignored where more postcards could be had. These visits led to ongoing discussions with dealers about the world of Montevideo’s postcards, their publishers and photographers, and the ways in which they had organized the city visually, often in collectible numbered series that for me served as a mapping device that augmented the written accounts of newspapers and books. Within the year, I had acquired over 150 cards.

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My second encounter with the moveable archive came a few years later when I crossed paths with a postcard dealer from Kansas City who told me about an upcoming postcard show there. The timing was propitious—I was headed to Havana a week later and needed to find some visual sources for a necessarily low-tech lecture on the city’s modern history. Walking into the show I was awestruck. This was no flea market. In the main room of a suburban community center were table after table filled with boxed postcards, each box holding about 600 cards, organized by country, state, city or theme. The hall accommodated about 25 dealers, many of who had 10,000 or more cards on display for purchase. When I walked up to a table, a helpful dealer would ask, “What are you looking for?” and then direct me to any cards on Cuba. In only three hours, I had acquired 80 Havana cards from the early 1900s, appreciably improving my upcoming low-tech presentation.

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The Ideology of Postcards

Over time, and with the help of my wife who was trained in visual communication, I came to see a myriad of ways in which the postcard could be analyzed as a historical source and a cultural artifact. We collaborated on an article that examined the conventions of postcard photography and the ways in which postcards were embedded with ideology in the service of a nascent civic identity.[1] We were not alone in our efforts to bring the lowly postcard to the attention of scholars. In the intervening decades, a slowly developing interdisciplinary literature on how to analyze the postcard has come into being, exploring not only the images as texts but also their production and consumption. Back in 1988, historian Paul Vanderwood analyzed real photo postcards drawn from the Mexican national archive and several private collections for an article on the attitudes of invading American soldiers in Veracruz Mexico in 1914 and the responses of Mexicans.[2] In the same era, Malek Alloula, an Algerian poet and literary critic, revealed the stereotypes and fantasies behind French postcards of Algerian women, referring to them as “the comic strip of colonial morality.”[3] Historian David Prochaska examined the “scenes and types” genre of French postcards of Algeria, in the process showing that “[T]o photograph an Algerian and market the image expresses the otherness of Algeria, the differentness of the Algerians.”[4] In the current century, a host of insightful works employing the postcard as a historical source in a variety of contexts and from different disciplinary perspectives have been authored or edited by Luc Sante, John Mraz, Christraude M. Geary and Virginia-Lee Webb, David Prochaska and Jordana Mendelson, Fraya Frehse, and Krista A. Thompson. Additionally Rosamund Vaule and Robert Bogdan and Todd Weseloh published nicely illustrated books that describe the history and utility of the real photo postcard in the United States, a rarer genre that was produced directly on photographic stock and often shot by amateur photographers. Collectively these works provide intriguing models for analyzing the different types of postcards as rich documents of social history, especially as it applies to the city. There are also recent books that feature extensive reproductions from single private collections with brief commentaries.[5]

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This scholarship has made possible the use of postcards in the classroom. I began introducing the postcard into undergraduate lectures on Latin American cultural and urban history as my collection broadened and I became more familiar with individual photographers and publishers. Postcards also became a feature in my graduate seminars on urban history in which students combed county archives, local antique stores, and university library websites for examples to use in essays on the visual cityscape. I know anecdotally of other professors who have become collectors and introduced their students to postcards, but I cannot say how extensive this practice is. I have run into few historians at postcard shows.

It is clear to me that the vast majority of historians, even the subset interested in visual history, tend to neglect the postcard as a valuable historical document. In part, this may be a result of the way postcards are held, i.e. mostly in private collections and far less often in institutional settings which would bestow a certain legitimacy on them as documents. Comparatively few university libraries have postcard collections and even the few that do feature them vary greatly in the ways in which they care for them or make them known to potential patrons. Excited by a record in the catalog of a special collection in a U.S. research library that I traveled to a couple of decades ago, I dutifully filled out the forms necessary to request the cited postcards only to be given a shoebox holding a few dozen unprotected examples from various eras on different subjects with no descriptions of content or information as to provenance. Librarians who are trained in the Library of Congress subject cataloging are adrift when it comes to individual historical postcards whose meanings may change over time. Should a postcard be categorized by the largest item in its image (say, a hotel), the one framed most centrally (a streetcar), or the element that is most rare (a street vendor walking into the corner of the frame with his wares)? Or should it be filed under the key element in the message on the reverse of the image, perhaps a racist missive to the sender’s relatives, a diplomat’s lament to his superior about the obstacles to returning from the provinces to the capital, or simply an advertisement from a long defunct business enterprise? Which of these is worthy of digitizing?

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Unless the collection has been built up over time by an individual collector who has articulated the organizing themes behind the acquisitions, it would be difficult to make sense of most postcard “archives,” even those with a historical bent. What we have then are fluid, amorphous, moveable archives in the making, very few grounded in institutional homes. They appear in different cities and towns from week to week, their content changing with the flows of commerce, but accessible to individuals ready to engage in a different type of searching than ones that they are used to in archives of state records. Their caretakers are not librarians or archivists, but business people who sell and buy their stock (documents) through auctions, estate sales and individual collectors, some of whom were intent on amassing as many cards published on a small town (or farm implements or motorcycles or documenting a trip across Europe) during the Golden Age of postcards as they possibly could in a single lifetime. No wonder historians have been slow to appreciate the value of the postcard as a document and to systematically incorporate it into their narratives and analysis of social change or in their classrooms.

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Organizing the Documents

After all these years, I continue to be drawn to the moveable archive of the postcard show, attracted by its unofficial organization and its persistence in a time of otherwise short shelf lives, temporary fads, and almost instantly obsolete technologies. Postcard shows have an engaging human quality that comes from the subject matter of the cards themselves and from the people who are attracted to them as artifacts of a disappeared past. They lend themselves to discussions about their mysteries and their messages, and postcard dealers are the nodal points of those conversations. The dealers form a sort of phalanx of “curators” of this constantly recycling archive, organizing not only the shows but also categorizing their fluid stock according to changing trends of collecting. For dealers, a constant question is how to file a card in their display stock so that it can readily find a buyer. They must assess what element makes a particular card most attractive—the streetcar going out of the frame, the newsboy dashing across the street in the middle, the post office on the right or the particular city that it represents? What categories should their table feature: “death” or “macabre”; “occupations” or “social history”; “costumes” or “ethnic”; “misc. foreign” or “Bulgaria”? Here, shifting customs and personal knowledge rather than standardized rules dominate, and that means that each table must be approached as a new adventure with the dealer as a guide. More than this, dealers function as both small business people and preservationists, taking care of the cards between owners. They are also historical detectives, tracing down the context of real photo postcards that are short on printed descriptive data. Armed with high-resolution scanners, search engines, and each other, they work to ascribe the correct geographical and chronological context to the postcards, taking clues from store signs and other elements in the image or in the message and postmark.

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The people who join this itinerant fraternity of postcard dealers are a varied lot. The former careers of those I’ve met include banker, emergency room doctor, industrial chemist, state cartographer, civil servant, civilian research historian for the military, architect, product design engineer, salesman, house-flipper, and, not surprisingly, postal service employee. The dealers are mostly senior citizens, though some have offspring in the business, and there are some who constitute a younger generation. As a group they are necessarily well traveled, criss-crossing the country for shows and to purchase private collections. Many started as collectors, and some still engage in this activity with an eye to esoteric themes—one female dealer showed me one of the 3,000 cards she had collected of a single, young German female model from the silent film era.

Postcard shows take place all year long, usually on Fridays and Saturdays, often in small towns or the suburbs of metro areas. They can range from 15 to 70 dealers and admission is sometimes free but usually no more than a few dollars. A calendar of postcard shows is available at http://www.postal-history.com/showpage.html, and news about shows, dealers and postcard history can be found in Barr’s Post Card News, which is often distributed at the shows. The annual Wichita Postcard Club show even features a Sunday morning lecture on postcard history. Cards are also available in auctions or at fixed prices at various online sites such as delcampe.net, which currently has over 45 million items listed, some priced considerably higher than those at shows. As the dealers say, “happy hunting.”

Anton Rosenthal is associate professor of history at the University of Kansas.  His most recent articles are “The Streetcar and the Urban Imaginary of Latin America,” Journal of Urban History, January 2016, 42:1, 162-179 and “Sin Cities: From History to Sociology to Urban History, An Interdisciplinary Journey,” Journal of Urban History, 45:4, July 2019, 656-670.   His last contribution to The Metropole was “Representing the Street: Buenos Aires 1900 Through the Eyes of Travelers,”  June 6, 2018.​


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[1] Catherine Preston and Anton Rosenthal, “Correo Mítico: The Construction of a Civic Image in the Postcards of Montevideo, Uruguay, 1900-1930,” Studies in Latin American Popular Culture 15 (1996): 231-259.

[2] Paul J. Vanderwood, “The Picture Postcard as Historical Evidence: Veracruz, 1914,” The Americas 45, no. 2 (1988): 201-225.

[3] Malek Alloula, The Colonial Harem (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1986), 4.

[4] David Prochaska, “The Archive of Algérie Imaginaire,” History and Anthropology 4 (1990): 380.

[5] Laetitia Wolff, ed., Real Photo Postcards (New York: Princeton Architectural Press, 2005) and Lynda Klich and Benjamin Weiss, The Postcard Age : Selections from the Leonard A. Lauder Collection (Boston: MFA Publications, Museum of Fine Arts, 2012).

One thought on “The Moveable Archive of the Sadly Neglected Postcard

  1. This is a wonderful piece that features some of the many ways that postcards can be pedagogically useful. I especially enjoy Prof. Rosenthal’s appreciation for the “moveable archive” of postcard shows: the staggering amount and scope of rich research material on display there, mostly for small amounts of money.

    Many university and other research libraries have postcard collections–but they vary widely in size, organization, description, usage, and access mechanisms, and few places are able to prioritize them. My institution, the Newberry Library, holds one of the largest postcard collections in the country, and considers them one of our core collections: https://www.newberry.org/postcards.

    The sheer bulk of collections like this–hundreds of thousands or millions of individual items–can make them difficult to use and navigate, both for researchers and for staff. Digitization, collection-level and item-level description, and librarians and archivists knowledgeable about the collection are all parts of a strategy to make postcards useful from a variety of research angles.

    Our collections here continue to grow, with both individual collectors’ donations of cards focused on real-photo postcards from Mexico, on “tall-tale” postcards using trick photography, on small-town postcard publishers’ output, and on many additional subjects. Postcards hold endless potential for researchers from grade school to graduate school; we hope to continue to find additional ways to encourage their use at all of these levels.

    Will Hansen
    Director of Reader Services and Curator of Americana
    Newberry Library

    Like

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