Monday, March 23, 2009

Postcards...the Forgotten Storyteller

I became interested in historic postcards while in graduate school at Appalachian State University. While working on a mock National Register of Historic Places nomination form, a public history professor that I had mentioned what wonderful information can sometimes be gleaned from old postcards. I had not really considered postcards as another possible primary source until then.

Although postcards are still sold today, due to the march of time and development of new technologies, they have lost the popularity that they once held. Largely gone is the time when people used postcards when they wanted others to see what they were seeing and read a description of that they were experiencing. Today it just seems easier and more impressive to photograph, email the photograph, and call that someone all at the same time with a cell phone. Technology is amazing! (But that's another upcoming post).

A diverse set of subjects are covered on historic postcards, and sometimes they are the only surviving images that are available to the historian of a structure, or a monument, or a landscape, or even a person. Other images may survive, but are either privately held or are in some other way inaccessible.

The images on postcards can tell a story on their own. For instance, the postcard above is of the Stonewall Jackson House in Lexington, Virginia. With a little research one can get a quick exact location (8 East Washington Street). Also, if a date wasn't available, (it is for this one) the historian can sometimes set a date range from what is visible in the picture. Again, from this specific picture...there are no automobiles, but there is a horse and carriage on the left edge, and what looks to be a carriage behind the fence near the right edge. There also looks to be telephone or electric poles and wires near the left edge. By taking in all of that information, one can infer that this image was probably taken at or near the turn of the 20th century. Details and clues come alive in postcards if one looks close enough. In this postcard there is a man leaning out the top left window of the Jackson House. In addition, it is quite apparent from this photograph that the rear and foundation of the house is stone, while the front is brick.

Postcards not only inform the historian by what is pictured on the front, but interesting information can sometimes also be found on the back. If the postcard was sent through the mail, there is most often a legible date mark to help narrow down the age of the postcard and possibly the image on the front. For example, the postcard pictured above is post marked "Feb. 14, 1908, 3 AM, Shipman, VA." Now, that is pretty precise information. Other interesting information such as who sent the postcard and who it was addressed to is often available as well. Even better is when some tidbit of news or a description of some sort is included. Unfortunately this one doesn't have much...and in this case it is on the front, not the back. It appears to say, "What's become of W.S. Snorred under hope not," "Friday 4 PM 14th 1908." What all this means?...I haven't a clue. But, it is interesting nonetheless. It is addressed to, "Ms. Will H. Shoults, Box 297, Antrim, N.H." (no zip code...maybe they weren't used yet...something else to learn about).

The next time you find yourself in an antique shop ask if they have old postcards, and if they do, take a minute to look through them. They might just hold the key to some historic puzzle.

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