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Using Postcards for Local History Research

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 104755
Smith's Infirmary Hospital, Staten Island. Image ID: 104755

 

Postcards are a fantastic visual resource for a place’s past that are often underutilized by scholars. They offer rich evidence of culture and architecture as a visual record of the past.

 836707
Colonial Hall, Jamaica, Queens. Image ID: 836707

Postcards offer an alternative to travel, like a National Geographic subscription, via vicarious sightseeing and proxy experience, and a convenient and satisfactory memorandum to friends at home. The popularity of postcards has waxed and waned since their introduction in the late 19th Century. The 1893 Chicago World’s Fair souvenirs really popularized them, leading to the “golden age of postcards” from circa 1900 to 1918, the end of World War I. For this period, there is better pictorial documentation in postcards of American life and culture than most other sources. The cards showcase changes in printing technology, postal regulations, and travel interests. For more about postcard history see The Picture Postcard and Its Origins and Picture Postcards of the Golden Age.

Botanical Garden Museum
Botanical Garden Museum, Bronx Park, New York. Image ID: 836805

Postcards give glimpses of innumerable places and fundamentally represent popular culture. The more common the postcard, the more popular it was as a tourist destination. e.g. Niagara Falls, Washington DC, and Yellowstone Park.  

There is vast scholarly potential of library postcard collections. For motivation, see the University of Maryland site “Research using Primary Sources.” Postcards provide important visual information about so many elements of society that no other objects do. They can provide the best set of available images for examples of architecture, types of buildings, historic events, and certain places. Postcards are important for researching social history as well, as they often provide authentic insights into daily activities and appearances of neighborhoods, and show material culture “in the vernacular” as few other objects can.

Wharves from Brooklyn Bridge
The wharves from Brooklyn Bridge, 1912. Image ID: 836209

As the world relies more and more on visual materials to convey information, researchers must mine available sources in their studies of history. Images for years were “omitted from academic journals as mere expensive and frivolous adjuncts to text”(1) and are now included as meaningful evidence.

Postcards celebrate both the ordinary and the spectacular. During the late nineteenth and early twentieth century, they were one of the earliest commercial uses of photography and often served as advertisements for businesses and products such as restaurants. We will likely mine resources such as Instagram for this in the future.  

Chinatown
Chinatown, 1910. Image ID: 836337

Sometimes, a postcard is the only example of a place in a certain era in color. Or they may document the work of early noted photographers—most printed postcards are made from the works of professional, not amateur, photographers, resulting in excellent production values. Some publishers sent photographers out around the country while others employed local residents to create the photographs. Local business owners often commissioned postcards of streets and buildings in their communities.

Postcards offer interpretations of what features of a city or town are distinctive or valuable by noting benchmarks of civic achievement such as train stations, public buildings, parks, libraries, theaters, and “Main” Streets. Construction of these places in turn reflects local resources and aesthetics. They can also document unique natural phenomena and superlatives such as tallest, deepest, etc. Additionally, they are documents of regional and time specific clothing. Postcards appealed to both visiting tourists and to local residents who frequently sent cards to people who may never visit. Messages on the back may provide additional data to what is pictured on the front: “Slept in this hotel for a night for $4”, etc.

Postcards contain markers of popular taste and attitudes and can offer a way to compare cities to other cities. They are a broad visual record of a place and are especially useful to researchers when they can compare dozens or hundreds of samples to each other. They augment other visual records available.

Where to research

Midland Beach, Staten Island
Jolly Campers, Beach Park, Midland Beach, Staten Island, N.Y. Image ID: 104492

To conduct research using postcard collections at the New York Public Library, you can use the Milstein Division of United States History, Local History and Genealogy or Mid-Manhattan Library’s Picture Collection. Other library divisions also maintain postcard collections.

Rockaway Beach
Boulevard at Arverne, Rockaway Beach, Queens, 1907. Image ID: 836927

The Milstein Division’s postcard collection is largely not digitized and emphasizes sites within New York City, though there are postcards from all U.S. states. Since these postcards are not included the library’s online catalog, please email us to see if we have cards for a location you are researching.  The New York City collection is strong with images of hotels, parks, bridges, museums, public squares, street views, theaters, transportation, and specific buildings. One collection that is digitized is the Staten Island Postcard Collection. The U.S. States collections contain images from cities throughout the United States, with strengths in Washington D.C., Maryland, Massachusetts, California, Connecticut, and New Jersey.

City Hall, Borough Bronx,
City Hall, Borough Bronx. Image ID: 836409

The Picture Collection at the Mid-Manhattan Library has a large collection of approximately 50,000 circulating and reference postcards. Many of the Picture Collection’s postcards are available online in the NYPL Digital Collections. You can also email the Picture Collection with specific requests.

Another collection: Institute of American Deltiology (IAD) is a non-profit established in Pennsylvania in 1993 by Donald Brown. The Institute was established to act as library, gallery and research center for the study of postcards and North American history and culture. The Institute is currently located in Myerstown, Pennsylvania. Purpose includes role and significance of picture postcards as a document for the study and interpretation of local history.

18th Regiment Armory, Brooklyn
18th Regiment Armory, Brooklyn. Image ID: 836053

Recommended use of postcard collections

Fraunce's Tavern
Fraunce's Tavern, Manhattan, 1906. Image ID: 836619
  • Identification of physical features of buildings or geologic formations.
  • Find visual evidence of the built environment.
  • Confirmation of cultural, historical, and literary associations of particular sites via inscriptions or captions.
  • Identify social and cultural expectations of an era or place.
  • Find the ephemeral evidence of a sight: e.g. signage, advertisements, evolution of renovations, reconstruction, Wall hangings, lighting fixtures, furnishings, awnings, window displays, plaques, posted menus, marquees, seasonal displays, letterings, streetscapes, street vendors, traffic signals, streetlights, bike infrastructure, foliage, native plants, sculptural elements such as flagpoles, park design, outbuildings, benches.
  • Reveal details that have been altered or destroyed over time.

Case Studies of research using postcards

Staten Island Ferry
Staten Island Municipal Ferry Boat. Image ID: 104685

Postcards in the Library: Invaluable Visual Resources is a series of academic essays which discuss the variety of benefits of using these ephemeral artifacts. The editors argue “Postcards, as the essays in this volume demonstrate, constitute an important body of visual information that can support scholarly research.” Examples from these essays:

  • Critical analyses of tourism
  • Anecdotal research from the messages on the postcards
  • Museum experiences
  • Local history analyses
  • Stereotypes in popular culture
  • Propaganda in popular culture
  • Leisure activities
  • Political campaigns

 

From journal articles

“Bill’s Place, Pennsylvania.” The American Philatelist, September 2015.
In depth study of a roadside business along Lincoln Highway in the Blue Ridge Mountains with a stunning view and a small post office. Postcards, which many were sent from the onsite post office, allowed for a detailed reconstruction of the local history of the area and the operations of the business on site.

Queensborough
Queens Borough Bridge, 1912. Image ID: 836093

“On Postcards Used to Track Environmental History.” Environmental History, April 2008.
Using postcard photos of the same location over time, environmental scientists can study the presence of various types of vegetation and other natural phenomena. Case study includes one of ivy and creeper vegetation growth at Oxford colleges.

“Wishing They Were There: Old Postcards and Library History.” Libraries & the Cultural Record, v. 43, 2008.
A comparison of libraries of the early 20th century throughout the United States. Offers points of view on architectural influences and functions of the buildings as libraries changed the ways they are used.

Pratt Library
Pratt Institute Free Library, Brooklyn, 1907. Image ID: 836431

Challenges and problems

Identification of postcards’ time and place of place of production can be impossible or difficult. They are produced in a decentralized, unregulated manner, unlike postage stamps.

You must be critical of their authenticity, accuracy, and interpretation, since all of these elements can be altered and interpreted widely. Judge postcards as you would judge other documentary evidence: in context, question if it is altered. Many publishers add and delete features like foliage and flagpoles.

Tompkinsville, Staten Island
Public Swimming Pool, Tompkinsville, Staten Island. Image ID: 104902

Many places are not well represented in postcards if not perceived as a tourist destination. They also capture some eras better than others.

Searching visually is important for visual collections, and many postcard collections—including the NYPL’s—are not fully digitized.

Despite challenges, local history researchers should strongly consider using postcard collections in their research because of the rich evidence they contain.

Comments

Patron-generated content represents the views and interpretations of the patron, not necessarily those of The New York Public Library. For more information see NYPL's Website Terms and Conditions.

Great post Carmen! So

Great post Carmen! So interesting to think about different ways postcards can be used in research. I am not sure if it is still on display, but Zoe Leonard: "You see I am here after all" (https://www.google.com/search?q=Zoe+Leonard:+You+see+I+am+here+after+all) at Dia Beacon was a breathtaking reimagining of a breathtaking postcard view of Niagara Falls... the same view repeated thousands of times. I think it might have been what inspired me to collect postcards of Lake Erie (mostly from ebay) for decoration at my wedding. Lake Erie represented a place that my husband and I shared geographically despite being from different states along its shore. In collecting postcards of Lake Erie I enjoyed seeing it depicted as a boating mecca and luxurious vacation destination, and gradually as a conduit for industry and commerce. Seeing that shift in postcards reflects what we know about the development patterns in that area and the rise of the "rust belt".

Zoe Leonard @ NYPL

Unfortunately the exhibition isn't still on display, but NYPL has the book in the collection. See here, http://catalog.nypl.org/record=b18149441~S1.

fantastic, thank you!

fantastic, thank you!

Who owns postcards?

At a local historical society archive where I volunteer, the question has arisen as to whom the postcards in our archives belong. This has come up because we have been asked to provide local pictures for promotional publication by a company. If we have a 'deed of gift' then we assume that we do own the postcards outright and can use them as deemed appropriate. But what happens if they are just 'handed' to us with no provenance or documentation? Do we then also own them free and clear or does the giver (or even the publisher/printer) still have a say in how they are used? Any opinion would be appreciated.

Who Owns Old Postcards? (I do not have a homepage)

I am the granddaughter of a photographer who was working in a small Illinois town at the turn of the century, 1898-1915 by my guess. I may be the granddaughter with the biggest collection, partly because my mom valued them and had room to store them, and partly because I watch for them. Ebay has been a good source, plus in books, or at garage sales, etc. Grandpa (R. E. Lincoln of Plano, Illinois) died in 1935. There were originally 8 children (all now deceased) and 21 cousins (about 14 are left I think). I consider that we all own them from one view...but we are to share them. I don't know how others feel. (The only cousin who has claimed Gpa's photos is a professional teacher of photography. He had some of the cute kitten pictures that he was willing to sell, and willing to change the size of to suit the customer. He put them online at the time. And clearly marked them as HIS copyright. While I did sort of flinch, I decided I would not have advertised them as a "business" without declaring them as mine, either. He at least stopped some people from copying them because someone living claimed them. Most of the postcards genealogists want to use are old enough that it seems that they should be out of copyright. But I really don't know all the rules or how to interpret them. We did an Arcadia book on our town with a Reference Librarian as a member of the team. She was careful to attribute all pictures to the owners of that picture. (Which certainly did not mean they owned all copies of it.) Those that had been given to the library for its collection, she attributed the Library to be the owner. I assume, from her style of working, that she feels strongly that she did it the right way. (There were many photos in the book that were not from my Grandfather but if the librarian said we had permission, I am sure we did. Did the person who gave that permission "own" the photo? A big question.) This rambles on to get in all the angles...but I hope it eventually brings possibilities to your question. Kristy

Postcards for Genealogy

Hi there, Fantastic article and some great sources. I've been working on a project for about a year now called PostcardTree. It aims to provide a research platforms for Genealogists using postcards! Just wanted to let you know - planning to launch mid-2016. Many thanks, Neil

It's a great idea you shared.

It's a great idea you shared. That raises the deals of postcards and increase the curiosity into readers knowing about places that they would see. I think when we see data on paper it impact on us more than a digital view. When we thought about history of some place then views related with tradition comes in mind so a postcard would be a great source for sharing information about history.

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