Notes From Home: In Praise of Vintage Postcards
“The world before us is a postcard, and I imagine the story we are writing on it.”
~ Mary E. Pearson
My grandmother Ida Oldenburg was someone who labeled things. She wrote names and dates on the backs of photos in her albums. The front pages of her favorite books contained the names of the people who had given them to her. And in the middle drawer of a marble-topped chest in her upstairs hallway, nestled between linen tablecloths and handmade cross-stitched aprons, was a box she titled postcards.
Inside was her collection of postcard “souvenir folders” – booklets of 16 cards, printed front to back, that folded up accordion-style into a mailable cover. The front cover displayed a photo wrapped around the address lines, often headlined in a lavish typeface, and included a square for the postage stamp in the upper right-hand corner. The photo-adorned back cover held the booklet together by cleverly folding into a small slot, forming the shape of an envelope.
Many of the folders contain mini-travelogues about the featured destination. Like pages from a modern guidebook or website, they weave a tale of the area’s history and attractions, punctuating their prose with such enticing words as “stupendous,” “scenic grandeur” and what seemed to be the most popular description of the time, “wonderland.” Each postcard is like a little work of art, printed in exquisite color with a brief caption describing the scene.
The age of my grandmother’s postcards is a bit of a mystery. Several have postmarks from the 1920s and are stamped with two-cent postage. Some were never addressed or mailed – perhaps they were gifts from a friend’s travels – making it difficult to figure out when they were printed. After doing a little research, I learned there are clues for determining a card’s age. According to the chicagopostcardmuseum.org, postcards typically fall into several categories:
- The divided back postcard, with a line down the middle to separate the message from the address, was first published in 1907. If a postcard has an undivided back, it is from 1907 or earlier.
- Many early postcards were printed in Germany. After 1915, cards started being produced in the United States. If a postcard says it was printed in Germany, it was produced before 1915.
- A white border around the picture indicates a card produced between 1915 and 1930.
- Postcards from 1930 to 1944 were printed on a linen texture paper. They featured brightly colored inks and sometimes included a border.
- The shiny postcards we send today were first produced in 1945. Known as Photochrome, they feature colored borders, partial borders and scalloped edges.
- Real Photo Postcards differ from Photochrome and are actual photographs printed on postcard paper, with vintage photos always in black-and-white.
The most intriguing folder in my grandmother’s postcard collection is a sepia-colored booklet called “Paris Serie 3.” Smaller than the others, it is bound like a book on the left-hand side and contains detachable black-and-white postcards, separated with thin brown tissue paper. Judging from the clothing and carriages in the photos, I’m guessing it dates to the early 1900s.
Several years ago, our daughter Emily framed a few of her great-grandmother’s postcard folders for her apartment. She kept the booklets intact, choosing to reveal front cover addresses and postage. I thought it was a wonderful idea for decorating a space and a meaningful gesture for honoring a family member she never had a chance to know.
My grandmother never traveled very far beyond her Minnesota roots. I remember hearing about a car trip to Mexico that she and my grandfather had once taken, but mostly I remember that she was quite content staying close to home. And yet she kept these postcards. I will never know what they meant to her; only that they were labeled and tucked safely away. I like to think they might have been a window to a world she never had the opportunity to know. Faraway places brought to life in vivid pictures and grand descriptions. Destinations she might have dreamed about or had wondered about…maybe even hoping that one day her granddaughter would have a chance to travel there.