Smithsonian: Behind The Scenes

Wish You Were Here!

Spring breaks are coming and many of us are planning, or at least hoping for, summer vacations. It used to be postcards were almost synonymous with trips away from home. They were an easy way to let friends and family know you wished they were there with you, and also served as inexpensive souvenirs.

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On November 12, 1905, The Washington Post reported that half of the mail in Brooklyn that summer was comprised of postcards; about 40,000 a week from Coney Island alone. Although still popular now, postcards were extremely popular before WWI. Additionally, the telephone became a more common method of communication. However, the decline in the postcards general popularity, it did not seem to affect the real photo postcard.

Within the collecting history of postcards there are many ways to build collections. The lighthouse postcards in the Archive Center are an example of collecting by subject. My favorites, though, are the real photo cards. There are some 3000 in the Photographic History Collection. They are actual photographs that were printed on photo stock that came with the postcard information on the back. Before 1907, only the address could appear on the back of the card. Then the divided back was instituted. The stamp boxes are often used for dating the postcards, so that's why you'll see that information in the on-line gallery of images.

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Unlike the familiar destination postcards, the images on real photo postcards are often snapshots. Not only do you get the whimsical, curious, interesting, historical, and even mundane images of the snapshot, but often there is a little story or hint of a story. The handwritten texts, address, stamps and postmarks offer historians visual and written insights into the daily lives and social structures of the senders and keepers of the postcards. For instance, the Photographic History Collection has a group of cards kept by a college age woman in Bedford, Mass.. Through her postcards, we learn that the post ran twice a day, and that the telephone was not very reliable.

For the history of photography, we learn about the many ways the photograph is created and used. Amateurs printed their own postcards with their own images. Local photographers made postcards for the local general store. Itinerant photographers made their way to rural schools. Studios were set up at vacation spots to create inexpensive souvenirs. And the list of producers and users goes on.

There are vast postcard collections at the Smithsonian Institution that reflect the postcard's former glory. There are about 25,000 postcards at the National Postal Museum. Eight or more separate postcard collections can be found in the Archives Center at the National Museum of American History.

With so many printed and published, they are still accessible at flea markets, antique stories and on-line auctions. They are an easy way to begin collecting photography and connecting with the past.

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