Imagine waving to a friend as she leaves on vacation, then not knowing if she had arrived safely at her destination for many days, even weeks, after the fact. You rush to the mailbox day after day, waiting for word. Then, finally, there it is: a postcard!
You squint to decipher your friend’s handwriting, especially where the ink is smudged. She got to Florida safe and sound. She saw flamingos–or is that flamenco? The weather has been beautiful. That’s all she had room to write, so you’ll have to wait until she gets back to find out all the details. The aerial photo of the beach she visited looks nice, anyway.
In 2018, it’s unthinkable to be so out of the loop. Now we expect instant information in the form of text, photos and videos delivered right to our hands. It wasn’t so long ago, however, that travel meant being out of touch. From the latter half of the nineteenth century until the advent of the Internet, one vital link was the humble postcard. This once-ubiquitous part of vacations is swiftly becoming obsolete. There is a wealth of history to be found in postcards, however, and their variety, small size, and relative affordability make them fun for collectors.
Above: A view of the Barstow Street Bridge in Eau Claire from 1908.
Some collectors concentrate on cards from their home state, or cards showing a certain animal, vehicle, landmark, business, or historical figure. Whatever you’re interested in, there are bound to be postcards showing relevant pictures. Bridges? Boats? Llama farms? Lumber mills? Diners? Dancers? Haunted houses? Hot air balloons? There’s a postcard of that.
Other hobbyists collect cards showing holiday greetings, which were very popular in the early twentieth century. Mailboxes were filled with cards for New Year’s, Thanksgiving, Christmas, Valentine’s Day, and even less glamorous holidays such as Groundhog’s Day. Any excuse to drop a few lines to a friend was a good excuse.
My own collection is eclectic to the extreme. I have cards that are over a century old, as well as ones printed just last year. I have plenty from the Chippewa Valley, but I also have them from New Zealand, Egypt, China and Peru. (If I can’t afford world travel, at least I can hold in my hands a tiny slice of that far-off place!)
Above: Views of Hong Kong Harbor (1923) and Hammerfest, Norway (1910)
I have cards from family members and total strangers. Some novelty cards are made of wood or metal, are cut into odd shapes, or have bits of fabric attached. I even have one from Utah’s Great Salt Lake with a tiny packet of salt affixed to the card! I prefer “topographic” cards–the ones showing views of towns, parks, and other locations–but I also can’t resist the appeal of a yellowed card with “Happy New Year 1909” emblazoned on it.
Unlike baseball cards, on which a single nick or crease can dramatically reduce the value, postcards can actually be even more coveted depending on the stamps, writing, and postal markings. Each card is like a miniature time capsule. Even when I don’t know the person who sent it, or the person who received it, I enjoy imagining what they might have been like, why they traveled to the places they did, and how their lives unfolded.
Above: The front and back of a postcard sent from Eau Claire to Nobleton, Wisconson, in July 1907. The photo shows the road along Little Niagara, and the message on the back reads, in part: “We are having a jolly time here, and I know you must be. Have you caught any fish yet? We have got ours on ice.”
Above: The front and back of a postcard sent from Eau Claire to Wayzata, Minnesota, in November 1939. The photo shows the original Eau Claire Public Library building, which is now part of City Hall. The message on the back reads: “Dear Sis, Everything Jake [“excellent” or “fine” in the slang of the time]. Eau Clair [sic] 11:45 lunch & on our way. Lovely going.”
Postcards can be found in many places. Thrift stores sometimes have a few mixed in with their greeting cards and stationery. Garage sales, estate sales, flea markets, antique stores, and online auction sites can also be the source of treasures. The price range at antique stores can vary widely, from less than a dollar to ten dollars or more per card. Cards of local interest tend to cost more, so you would typically find better prices on cards from Chicago in Eau Claire than in Chicago itself.
Plastic shoeboxes are my storage method of choice for my collection, with tabbed index cards to separate categories. Hobby stores sell plastic sleeves to protect individual cards, although you may need to buy more than one size to accommodate different dimensions of cards. I have found that cards printed before 1970 tend to be smaller than more modern ones. If your collection isn’t very large, another option is to store the cards in albums. Some fit in photo albums, while you may need to get special pages from hobby stores for larger cards.
Whether you collect a specific topic or a little of everything, whether your cards are a century old or fresh off the printing press, whether you keep them in a fancy album or an old shoebox, there is something magical about these little bits of history.
Above: A view of Eau Claire from 1944 showing the YMCA, City Hall and public library. The current site of the public library would be behind the red brick building on the left.
All images in this article were scanned from the author’s own collection.
Want to see more historical postcards from our area? Check out these titles at the library:
- Postcards From the Past: Then & Now Pictures of Chippewa Falls, Wisconsin by David Tank
- Postcards From the Past: Then & Now Pictures of Dunn County, Wisconsin by David Tank
- Postcards From the Past: Then & Now Pictures of Eau Claire, Wisconsin by David Tank
- Postcards From the Past: Then & Now Pictures of Menomonie, Wisconsin by David Tank