Wednesday, Nov. 20 — Dear cousin,
“I’m having a nice time. There was a big fire here this forenoon and we went and saw it but I was afraid.”
From a postcard sent from Ionia to Webberville, July 4, 1910
Before there was Twitter, 100 years ago the nation was atwitter with another kind of communication that forced you to condense your thoughts into bite-sized piece nuggets of information. The penny postcard allowed more than 50 characters sending millions of cards each year via the U.S. Postal Service.
“It was the Twitter of that generation,” Valerie Marvin, president of the Historical Society of Greater Lansing said. “Not only were they small, limiting the writer to a brief message, but they were also the most public form of mail, as everyone who saw the postcard could read it.”
The Historical Society of Greater Lansing hosts four Lansing area collectors who will discuss collectible Lansing and MSU-area cards and the history of postcards 7 p.m., Thursday, Nov. 21 at the Turner Dodge House, 100 East North St., Lansing.
When postcards were first proposed in Germany as early as 1865, the whole idea of people writing private messages that everyone could read seemed radical and was quickly dropped. Today, those Germans would be apoplectic to see what is sent everyday on Facebook and Instagram. However the concept of sending of postcards with personal, periodic updates often with one-of-a-kind photographs certainly was the precursor to communication on the Web.
“Postcards were also the poor man’s letter — they were cheap, easy to send and disposable,” Marvin said. She pointed out that even though they were cheap and disposable people of the time treated them as pleasant memories and saved them.
“Some of our most treasured memories are remembered in an iconic postcard,” she said.
Postcard collecting is the No. 3 hobby in the U.S. trailing only stamp and money collecting.
The reasons for collecting postcards are as varied as the postcards that are collected. Name a category of postcards and someone collects it. Amusement cards, hometown main streets, railroads, holiday cards; especially Halloween and Christmas, Great Lakes boats — the list is as endless as a person’s interests.
Take for example Peggy Metzger of East Lansing who collects cards to keep what she calls “a piece of my childhood together through postcards.”
I wanted to capture my youth and my favorite memories of going on the bus with my mother to shop in downtown Lansing.”
She said postcards to her are like a “fly in amber.”
Metzger’s collection includes many downtown Lansing street scenes and postcards of the downtown department stores Arbaugh’s, Knapp’s and Penny’s.
“For me they caught Lansing in a certain place.”
Ray Walsh proprietor of Archives Book Shop and Curious Book Shop in East Lansing concurs with Metzger’s reasons for collecting.
“Postcards are nostalgic and allow us to recapture our youth along with capturing a past that is no longer there. Walsh also said some collectors (although rare) collect postcards for the messages especially quirky ones or ones that comment on a historical event like the Kennedy assassination.
He also said that since postcards are still affordable collecting postcards is easy to get into unless of course you are looking for rarer cards such as the GAR (Grand Army of the Republic) Parade in downtown Lansing which recently sold for $250 on E-bay. HSGL Board Member Jesse Lasorda who closely follows Lansing memorabilia said auto related cards, cards depicting African Americans, electric railroads and early aviation are going for close to $100 dollars.
Walsh said he has observed that postcard collecting is on the upswing with the added advantage that postcards don’t take up much space.
Lansing-area resident Fred Schworer can trace his local family roots back to the mid-1800s. He’s been collecting postcards for more than 30 years; his personal collection focuses mostly on what are called holiday cards.
“When I was a little boy sitting on my grandma’s lap listening to Santa Claus on the radio show she would show me these wonderful Santa cards,” he said. Today he estimates that he has 4,000 to 5,000 holiday postcards, mostly depicting Christmas themes. He said a lot of times people used postcards in place of Christmas cards to save money. Schworer said the most popular and expensive holiday cards are those representing Halloween scenes showing pumpkins, witches and black cats.
Harry Emmons, trustee of the Historical Society of Greater Lansing and avid postcard collector, said collecting postcards is a simple way to get pictures of the city — or in his case thousands of pictures of the city. Emmons especially likes collecting postcards that represent early automotive history in Lansing showing scenes from Oldsmobile, REO and Auto Body. He also collects MSU scenes and downtown Lansing postcards.
For Emmons, his Holy Grail card is one showing the Grand Rapids and Indiana Railroad Station in Lansing. For Stephen Terry of Williamston, it is a photo card of President Teddy Roosevelt, Oldsmobile CEO Ransom E. Olds and Jonathan L. Snyder, former president of the Michigan Agricultural College (which became Michigan State University) driving in a REO car to Lansing.
For Terry, collecting postcards relating to MSU was a natural outgrowth. He has more than 900 postcards in his MSU collection especially focuses on the architectural scenes represented by buildings that were once on campus. One of his most prized cards is that of a fire that destroyed the Engineering building in 1916. He said he traces some of his collecting spirit to his great grandfather who graduated from MAC in 1877. Terry and two other MSU postcard collectors have collaborated on a book showcasing historic postcards, which will be published in 2014.
Although historians, architects and preservationists use postcards to research “what was” many postcard collectors are attracted to the cards for the varying and unusual artwork and their ability to capture memories in a very small space.
A 1932 Lansing State Journal reported that two runaway boys from Flint were discovered in Detroit and sent home when they were “found sitting on a curb stone, writing postal cards to their Flint friends.
The Germans may had said nicht to postcards, but their Austrian neighbors embraced the idea four years later and in short order sent 3 million postcards over a three-month period. And still arguments against postcards continued including a potential loss of literacy. (Sound familiar?)
Postcards first were issued in this country in 1873 by the U.S. government, but it wasn’t until the World’s Columbian Exposition of 1893 that postcards in glorious color with one side being reserved for the address only were issued. Buying postcards as souvenirs was off and running.
In 1898, it took an act of Congress to allow private printers to publish their own postcards which were typically souvenir cards showing popular destination in the U.S. These cards, commonly called private mailing cards, had a shelf life lasting until 1901. Any messages had to be written on the front of the card around a small white border. The space restricted messages to what you might find in a tweet today.
The next phase of cards (1901-‘07) saw cards issued with undivided backs but U.S. Postal regulations still did not allow anything but an address to be written on the back. It wasn’t until 1907 that postcards were issued with divided backs and allowed both the address and a message to be written on the same side.
Messages of the time were mostly breezy telling about the weather, the sender’s health or descriptions of short trips, often indicating arrival times back home. In many cases postcards were delivered the same day they were sent so a traveler in Kalamazoo could alert a family member in Lansing to pick them up at the train station. Postcards of this era were mostly printed in Germany and the full-frame lithography was exquisite driving the postcard collecting mania. Side tables in homes all across America held postcard albums. Complete albums like this are rare and pricey items for modern day collectors.
The advent of WWI ended German dominance in postcard production and the newer U.S. cards were printed often in black and white with a white border around the image. The next significant era of collecting runs from 1930-‘45 and is characterized by a textured and very bright card. These cards, sometimes called photochromes, helped to popularize postcard mania even more. Probably the most notable of cards from that era were from the 1939 New York World’s Fair showing brightly colored Modernist buildings.
It wasn’t much of a leap that the issuance of postcards soon moved to more commercial advertising for restaurants and motels and often for funky roadside attractions like alligator farms, tarantula ranches and places named with the foggy promotional names common in Michigan such as Deer Acres, Mystery Spot, Castle Rock or Toonerville Trolley.
A typical card showing a single deer in a field sent from Sidnaw in the Upper Peninsula on Nov. 17, 1947 reads: “Second day of hunting & no bucks … got four inches of snow.”
Another category of postcard history stretches from the introduction of the Kodak 3-A Autograph Camera in 1903 to about 1930 and is called “real photo” for the obvious reason that these postcards were actual photographs often what might be called “selfies” in today’s nomenclature.
Postcards of this type were often one offs or one-of-a-kind, however it became popular in 1907 to have photo stores print multiple copies with postcard backs to send to friends. Postcards of this type are the rarest of the rare because of the limited number produced and they often provide unique views into contemporary society sometimes portraying disasters or something as pleasant as circus come to town.