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Discover Mid-America — November 2006

Postcards: Not necessarily private, but they were ‘personal’

by Ken Weyand


The collection of Larry Schmidt at this year's collctibles show at Crown Center in Kansas City.

Do you suffer from cartophilia? That’s what postcard collecting was called during the “postcard craze” at the turn of the twentieth century.

Frank Staff, in his book The Picture Postcard and Its Origins, reports that in 1899 a Cartophilic Congress was held in Prague, and several other international conventions of picture postcards took place in other European cities. The years between 1898 and 1918 have been called the “golden age” of postcards. Billions were produced worldwide, with millions of people taking up the hobby of collecting.

Many art forms came together to develop the postcard — trade cards, “carte-de-visite” photographs, pictorial writing paper and envelopes, and the “penny post,” which made postcards practical.

Not surprisingly, the postcard “was not invented,” said Staff. “It evolved, and with its creation the writing habits of the civilized world completely changed.”

A new communication tool

Postcards were introduced in Europe in 1870. Many people hesitated to use them because they feared having their correspondence read in transit. Others considered the halfpenny postage insulting, making such communication not worth sending.

But the majority of the world loved the postcard. It revolutionized correspondence, making the formal letter nearly obsolete. It turned millions of people into on-the-spot reporters as they scribbled penciled notes on their travels and dashed off postcards to their friends and relatives.

As the use of postcards grew, post offices became overwhelmed with the volume. Size restrictions were imposed, and for a time the use of separate stamps was prohibited with the postage imprinted on the card. These imprinted cards, introduced in 1873, can still be found at postcard collector shows labeled as “postals.”

The first commercial picture postcards in the U.S. were introduced in 1893 at the Columbian Exposition in Chicago. The early cards were heavier than the ones manufactured today, and featured black and white scenes. They were produced by lithographers in major U.S. cities and in Europe, particularly Germany, which was the world leader in quality lithography at the time. The early cards were illustrated, many with a small message panel on the same side. The other side was entirely plain, and reserved for the stamp and address.


Often an image of an automobile on a postcard will help one to determine the date of the card.

“Divided back” cards, with the address area sharing space with the writer’s message, appeared in 1907. This arrangement has remained the postcard format of choice ever since.

Few collectibles are as widespread and available to collectors as postcards. Although traditional collectors continue to haunt antique shops and flea markets, many prefer to develop their collections through online sources, including clubs that provide online “swap meets” with other enthusiasts. Others begin with inherited collections, adding to them over time.

In her book, A Beginner’s Guide to Collecting Antique Postcards, Anne Douglas cautions beginning collectors to avoid ordering cards from Internet sources.

“It is advisable to closely examine a card for creases, tears, smudges, etc. before making a purchase,” she writes. Douglas also advises beginning collectors to focus on particular types of cards since other collectors prefer to collect cards of specific types or time periods. Focusing on card categories makes it easier to shop for cards from other collectors, and to sell duplicates or entire collections.

Douglas also advises buying cards with legible postmarks and examining cards carefully for overall condition. After many years, she says, all cards age and show fading, smudging or discoloration. The thickness and design of the card is important. Thicker cards tend to be older. Douglas says it is important to read the small print on cards, which sometimes reveals the date of manufacture.

She recommends that postcards be stored in acid-free, archival quality storage materials, away from light. Plastic storage boxes shouldn’t be used for long periods of time, and photo albums, particularly the pulp-paper style, should be avoided since they contain damaging acids. Mylar or polyester sleeves are recommended, because they offer protection and allow the cards to be viewed and handled without subjecting them to smudges and oily skin.

Postcards as historic documents

You don’t have to be a historian to collect postcards. But a collection of postcards can bring history to your fingertips. Although many collectors focus on specific cities or regions, or specific categories such as advertising, animals, political campaigns, sports subjects, etc., others hone in on antique cards in various categories, with each card a window into the lives, customs and fashions of times past.

For the past ten years, Crown Center in Kansas City has presented its annual “Things People Collect” exhibit for two months each summer. This year, the free exhibit, held from May 6 to June 25, included 120 collections, ranging from single shoes found beside the road to jewelry shaped like hands. Included in the exhibit were two postcard collectors.

Larry Schmidt, from Leawood, KS, has concentrated his collecting efforts on Electric Park, one of Kansas City’s major amusement parks of the early 1900s. The park was illuminated at night by more than 100,000 incandescent light bulbs, which gave the park its name. Electric Park was “the place” to go during its heyday and the subject of many postcards.

Schmidt said the park was owned by the Joseph L. Heim family, who also owned other businesses in Kansas City in the 1900s.

“The original Electric Park was located at Montgall and Rochester in the East Bottoms, below Scarritt Point,” Schmidt said. “It was a fun spot in the early 1900s with picnic tables, band concerts, swimming, boating, fantastic rides, dancing, food and fireworks. There was also a light opera theater that seated 2,800.


Don Harmon was born into a railroad family. His father worked for Santa Fe for 43 years. Don worked for the railroad for 40 years.

Starting in his teenage years, Harmon began collecting picture postcards, first specializing in Topeka, KS and then in the Santa Fe Railway.

In 1999, Harmon published Postcard History of Topeka. This summer he released Postcard History of the Early Santa Fe Railway. The book contains 654 black and white and color postcard images, many of depots and other facilities that have long since been demolished.

“It is my belief that future generations will have no idea of the how the railroad originated and how it was developed,” Harmon wrote in the book’s Forward. “It is my feeling that I can help preserve a portion of history.”

To get specific information about depot and station locations, Harmon used a 1915 guide from the railroad. A 16-page section includes postcards depicting Fred Harvey hotels and restaurants along the Santa Fe line, including the Fred Harvey Dining Room at Union Station in Kansas City along with the last Fred Harvey dining room to be built at Union Station in Los Angeles.

More that just documenting history, Harmon’s book reveals the local pride communities had in their railroad facilities and touches upon the romance and excitement rail traffic gave to the public from the late 19th to middle 20th century.

Postcard History of the Early Santa Fe Railway retails for $49.95 plus shipping and handling. Order from Harmon Publishing Company, PO Box 14806, Shawnee Mission, KS 66285-4806 or call 913-268-6149.

“It was moved to 46th and Paseo, and reopened in May 1907. It operated until May 25, 1925, when it was destroyed by fire. The property was sold for $94,500 in July 1945 for a housing development.”

Schmidt said he has been researching and collecting Electric Park information for the past ten years.

“I recall my parents talking about how much they enjoyed Electric Park,” Schmidt said, “and how they could ride the streetcar for five cents a ride and enjoy the park atmosphere.”

Jeff C. Smith, who works at the Hallmark Archives and Design Collections, displayed several Hall Brothers postcards from the company’s collection. Smith said the cards displayed at the Crown Center exhibit were only a small part of the total collection.

“Hallmark Cards, Inc. got its start as a two-man operation called Hall Brothers,” Smith said. “Joyce Hall began selling packets of assorted postcards to retailers in small towns across Missouri, Kansas, Iowa, Nebraska and Arkansas. His first year in business, 1910, he charged one dollar per pack plus eight cents for postage. He mailed new postcards to his retailers once a month. Joyce asked his brother, Rollie, to join him in Kansas City in 1911. Rollie rode the rails two and three weeks per month selling their postcard packs.”

Postcard sales began to decline as people were more interested in the quality and privacy a greeting card tucked into an envelope would afford, said Smith. The Hall Brothers began printing their own greeting cards in 1915 and phased out the postcards that had given them their start.

Smith added that over the past 20 years Hallmark has acquired more than 200 Hall Brothers cards. “Joyce may have sold more cards, but we can’t be certain without the logo on the back,” he added. “Most of the Hall Brothers postcards we have feature Kansas City scenes.”

Family history told in postcards

My mother was a packrat. Born in the late 1800s into a family of modest means, she and her friends communicated by word of mouth or handwritten notes in an era before cell phones and email. For much of her life even the telephone was primitive, and on the farm her calls were shared by party-line listeners. She placed a high value on notes and letters she received — cherishing and preserving them as if she felt they still contained the spirit of the writer.

When she became a Chautauqua performer in the 1920s, she traveled all over the U.S. and Canada, sending postcards almost daily to her parents in the Midwest. Like her, they saved them all. In later years, postcards from friends and relatives reporting from far-away vacation trips began filling boxes. Other postcards, dutifully purchased on road trips, found their way to her collection, including cards advertising the Maple Lodge Tourist Cabins in Wahoo, Nebraska, LeBaron’s Coffee Shop at Idaho Falls, Idaho, the Alamo Plaza Courts in Nashville, Tennessee and similar tourism wonders.

When I was away, I dutifully sent cards to my parents. Of course, they were saved. One, mailed from the Netherlands in 1953 on a trip with the director of my boys’ choir, I wished my mother “Hartelyk Gifeliciteerd,” or Happy Birthday. Another, mailed from Lebanon, Kansas on a peach-picking expedition to Colorado, announced that I had reached the geographical center of the U.S.


Hall Brothers postcards from the Hallmark Collection at the Crown Center exhibit.

The rest of my family shared the packrat gene. One of my aunts saved family correspondence, including a “chain letter” that was sent from sibling to sibling when my dad’s parents died, with most of the eight orphans farmed out to various relatives. By the time my dad became a teenager, the family chain letter was discontinued. But the family continued to correspond, often with postcards.

My Uncle Charlie sent an unusual postcard to my dad in 1909, when my dad was living with an uncle on his farm. The card featured a colorized photograph of a farm boy leading two burros. My uncle always teased my dad about being the “farmer” of the family. Another card, printed about seven years later, features an unusual black & white photo of some students at the Normal School in Kirksville, MO, now Truman State University. My dad was one of the students. The writer was inquiring about the condition of the farm’s chickens and the state of their garden.

When I cleaned out my parent’s house several years ago, there were stacks and bundles of correspondence, many with postcards and family photos. Some envelopes even contained money. In many ways the old letters and postcards are a curse. They’ve resulted in boxes of nostalgic paper that creates storage problems and makes moving a nightmare. Much of it has little value, I know. But some of it offers a rare look into the lives, customs, morals and thoughts of long-dead ancestors.

Some of my aunts and uncles traveled to Europe in the early 1900s. For several years, one of my uncles and his family lived in Paris where he worked with the YMCA, and later Nash-Kelvinator in London. There were many cards with European scenes mailed back to my parents and other relatives — most of them saved.

In 1918, a soldier who was a schoolmate of my mother’s sent a card from London while he was stationed there during WW I, and she was a student at Illinois College in Jacksonville. The card shows London Bridge with mostly horse-drawn traffic. Of interest is the “Soldier’s Mail” notation, and lack of a stamp. Also on the card was an official imprint marking the postcard “A.E.F. Passed As Censored.” (What would today’s ACLU think of such an invasion of privacy?)


Postcard shows:
Many antique and collectible shows include postcards. Here are some upcoming notable shows, which feature them:

Nov 3-4, 2006. Countryside, IL. Greater Chicago Postcard Show. Engineer's Hall (Local 150 IUOE), 6200 Joliet Rd. (across from Holiday Inn-William Tell), 630-964-5240

Nov. 26, 2006. Highland, IN. Calumet Stamp-Coin-Postcard Show. Highland Lincoln Center, 2450 Lincoln St. 219-924-4836

Jan. 19-20, 2007. Golden, CO. 12th Denver Postcard Sow. Jefferson County Fairgrounds Exhibit Hall, Golden. Dede Horan 303-667-6212 or email DeverPostcardShow@msn.com

Feb 9-10, 2007. Springfield, MO. Springfield Antique Postcard and Paper Show & Sale. Lamplighter Inn-North, 2820 N. Glenstone (I-44 at Glenstone Exit 80A, next to Cracker Barrel), 417-451-3463

Feb 16-17, 2007. Plano, TX. Spring Dallas Metro Postcard Show & Sale. Southfork Hotel (formerly Fred Harvey Hotel), Hwy 75, 1600 North Central Expressway Exit 29 (east), 417-451-3463

Feb 23-24, 2007. Austin, TX. Capitol of Texas Postcard Show & Sale. Woodward Inn and Conference Center (formerly Holiday Inn - South) 3401 S. Interstate 35, at Woodward St., 417-451-3463

March 9-10, 2007: Hannibal, MO Antique Postcard & Paper Americana Show & Sale, Hannibal Inn & Conference Center, 4141 Market St., Junction Hwy 61 & Market, email: postcards@courthousesquare.net

March 9-11, 2007. Columbus, OH. Franklin County Veterans Memorial. 300 W. Broad St., Sponsor: Columbus Philatelic Club, PO Box 20582, Columbus, OH 43220-0582

April 13-15, 2007. Hilliard, OH. Columbus Philatelic Society Show. Makoy Center, 5462 Center St., email: wbeau@compuserve.com

April 29, 2007. Hays, KS. 17th Annual Stamp, Coin and Collectible Show. Holiday Inn, 785-625-3066

May 4-5, 2007. Golden, CO. 13th Denver Postcard Show. Jefferson County Fairgrounds Exhibit Hall, Golden. Dede Horan: 303-667-6212, email: DenverPostcardShow@msn.com

May 4-5, 2007. Countryside, IL. Greater Chicago Postcard Show. Engineer’s Hall, 6200 Joliet Rd. 630-964-5240 or email Chicagoshow@aolcom.


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