HISTORY IN POSTCARDS:

“SMALL TOWN VIEWS”

By Nancy Burgess

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The picture postcard, or “view card” is yesterday’s version of today’s “twitter.” Officially authorized by Congress in 1898, the postcard became the major medium for people to communicate in the late 19th and early 20th centuries.

Around that time, mail was delivered twice a day in most cities, delivery of rural mail was relatively quick and reliable, trolleys were more prevalent than cars, and a telephone, if you had one, was only for emergencies. Postcards were an inexpensive and easy way to communicate, especially in the years before telegrams, telephones and e-mail. This article presents a brief history of the postcard and an overview of Prescott’s history through postcard images commonly known as “small town views.”

Today, the collection of postcards is the third most popular collecting hobby in the world, surpassed only by the collection of coins and stamps. Postcard collectors traditionally identify the age of the postcard by studying the details, or “identity points” and then determining the era of publication, such as the Pioneer Era, 1893-1898; the Private Mailing Card Era, 1898-1901 (referred to as PMCs); the Art Nouveau Era, 1898-1910; the Undivided Back Era, 1901-1907; the Divided Back Era, 1907-1915; the White Border Era, 1915-1930; the Art Deco Era, 1910-early 1930s; the Linen Era, 1930-1945 and the Photochrome Era (“Modern Chromes”), 1939 to the present. The Real Photo Postcard, known by collectors as an “RPPC” spans nearly all of these eras, beginning in about 1900 up to the present.

Real Photo Postcards usually show the manufacturer of the photo paper in the stamp box (the box in the upper right-hand corner where the stamp is placed for mailing) such as Agfa, AZO (no, that doesn’t stand for Arizona), Kodak, and Velox, among others. This is one way to help identify RPPCs, although their appearance and finish are usually clear giveaways that they are “real” photographs printed from a negative in a darkroom. The advent of the internet and sites such as e-Bay have made the searching for, buying and selling of postcards much faster and simpler. Today, collectible postcards are again flying through the mail, although they are usually encased in a plastic sleeve and are sent in a “Priority Mail” envelope.

The postcard was adopted by the United States government in the 1860s as an open, non-personalized, non-letter format means of inexpensive communication. The first prepaid government issued postcards appeared in the U.S. in 1873 and were originally designed strictly for advertising use. It was not until May 1893 at Chicago’s Columbian Exposition that the first souvenir postcards came upon the scene. These chromolithographed images were printed on the backs of U. S. postal “penny” cards and could be mailed at the two cent letter rate. The government made a penny on the sale of each one. They were packaged in sets of 10 or 12 and were enormously popular, partly due to the fact that they were in color. Many were taken home and saved and were never mailed. These people were the first “postcard collectors”. These Columbian Exposition postcards are relatively scarce and are often titled as a “Souvenir Card” or “Mail Card.”

As the concept of the souvenir postcard caught on, photographers from all over the World sent their images to large companies that specialized in printing postcards. Postcards printed before World War I are, for the most part, the most collectible and were designed with illustrations, etchings and real photographs. Some were drawn or painted by hand or decorated with beading, glitter, silk thread, feathers, ribbons or other embellishments.

Prior to World War I, millions of color lithograph postcards were printed in Germany, which was the master of the art of postcard printing, sometimes using up to 40 colors in the printing process where the standard in the industry was 20 colors. These cards were manufactured during what is called the “golden age” of postcards. After World War I, most postcards distributed in the U. S. were printed in the U.S. and the quality of the printing and the paper was not nearly what it had been in Germany. These postcards fit into the “White Border Era,” 1915-1930 and are often reprints of earlier German-produced cards.

At the same time, communities were realizing that postcards were a cheap and easy way to advertise their attractions and scenery. Although many of these cards were printed from hand colored black and white images, black and white were also popular and were cheaper to produce.

Many small, local companies, such as Heil’s, Timerhoff’s, The Owl and Brisley’s drug stores in Prescott, also had postcards printed with local or regional advertising or subjects, which they sold in their retail stores. A “spinner” style postcard rack on the counter in the J. S. Acker and Co. store in 1916 shows local views, including Washington School. Real photo postcards were usually printed in the photographer’s own darkroom in limited quantities. Some photographers made a remarkable living taking photographs for postcards. Only rarely, however, does the photographer’s name appear on early postcards.

The standard postal card, with the image on one side and perhaps a small blank strip at the bottom of the image for a message, and the address on the opposite side, was standard until 1907, when the divided back postcard became the standard. One exception to this is the official, U. S. Government postal card, which still today has undivided back, but since there is no image on the reverse of the card, the entire back is available for a message. The divided back allowed for much more room for the sender to enquire about the recipient’s health, report on the sender’s whereabouts or write about the weather, three of the most popular topics addressed on postcards. Other messages could be strictly for advertising, communicating a fact or making arrangements. In some cases, the messages on postcards are far more interesting historically than the image on the other side. Official figures from the U. S. Post Office for the fiscal year ending June 30, 1908 calculated that 677,777,798 postcards were mailed in this country in that 12 month period. The postage required to send a postcard through the U. S. Mail varied from one cent (the “penny postcard”) to two cents, then three cents. Privately printed postcards (non-government issued) required the two cent letter rate postage in the early days of the postcard. Today, it costs 28 cents to mail a postcard. Postcard packets and booklets, of course, required more postage.

To this day, the functional and desirable characteristics of the postcard as a souvenir have been its major attraction and selling point. Both the image on the postcard and the message, taken together, can increase the value of the information and the meaning of the postcard to the recipient or the collector. Today, the most popular and sought after images are of small town views and real photo postcards of all topics and eras. The message on an undated, early birds-eye-view of Prescott reads “If I have an opportunity to get any more of Prescott and vicinity I will send you one from time to time if you are making a collection”.

An Overview of Prescott’s Territorial History Through Postcard Images: Small Town Views

The photographic and physical history of small towns can often be reconstructed almost exclusively through postcards. Some time ago, the Town of Wickenburg’s history museum lost most of its photograph collection to a fire. Since then, a volunteer has been recreating that collection through postcards. Although not all of the local images were produced as postcards, many of the best photographs produced by professional or semi-professional photographers were printed as postcards, either through a major publishing company or locally. Postcards have provided a way for a small town to recapture its history through the postcards sent mainly by tourists to friends and relatives.

Since the turn of the 20th century, postcard collectors have sought out the beautiful scenes of Arizona, but only recently have collectors sought out postcards as a historic record offering a treasure trove of images and comments. The first scenic views of Arizona were published starting about 1900 by commercial publishers in the eastern United States. The cards were often lovely, hand colored views of the Grand Canyon and other now well-known scenes. Also, at about the same time, local photographers began producing more specialized postcards that focused on the important buildings, events and places of their communities.

Itinerant photographers would travel through communities and neighborhoods or set up an outdoor studio, taking portraits of the family on the front porch, the children in a wagon or on a pony or the cowboy on his horse. Many of these images were printed as real photo postcards and delivered to the subjects of the photograph on the same or the next day. Often, these images are one-of-a-kind and can be found in family photo albums and boxes of old photos. These postcards provide an uninterrupted history of Arizona from about 1900 to 1930, when interest waned, although the real photo postcard continued to be produced for decades.

However, it is not only the image that is interesting to collectors and historians, it is also the message, the stamp box and the information printed by the publisher about the image and the printing technique used for the postcard. If the card was used and mailed, the stamp and the postmark and the name of the addressee and the writer, if present are also of interest. Taken together, all of these small pieces of information can tell a story about a time and a place. Here, the emphasis for this article is on Territorial (before 1912) images and messages.

Image 1—A real photo postcard mailed on July 27, 1905 with an Ashfork & Los Angeles RPO (Railroad Post Office) postmark shows a man standing behind a burro with two children seated on the burro. The message reads “Our Friend the Burro. Dear Mother: Have been looking for a letter. Why don’t you write? Yours, Callie, Kaster, Arizona 7/27/05.” Kaster was a station on the Atchison, Topeka and Santa Fe Railroad, 12 miles south of Kingman in Mohave County. The card was sent to Mrs. Pauline Groomer, Walnut, Kansas. This is an interesting postcard with a lot of collectability: a RPPC, a two cent George Washington stamp, a cute image, and an RPO postmark plus a “receiving” postmark for Walnut, Kansas showing the card was received on July 31, only four days after it was mailed. Obviously, from these details, it can be inferred that the writer, Callie, and, perhaps, her family, were traveling on the railroad.

Image 2—On the reverse of this Brisley Drug Company card, mailed in Prescott in June 1908, the sender wrote “Dear Mama, Just a card to let you know how we all are. This a.m. rode about 6 miles – Madge and I. Just save up your nickels for I must have a riding pony. This afternoon we paid 8 calls. Isn’t that great after a ride? Tomorrow, Sat., we go on a 2 day horseback trip so I will write Sun. when I return. Got Pa’s, yours, Mr. Switzer’s and Mrs. Clark’s letters this a.m. Good Bye, Grace. P. S. You can’t imagine how well I look, that weight 120-1/2 is correct for it was on the scales at the store.” This woman managed to get a lot of message on approximately 1/3 of this divided back card, and provides quite a bit of information for those interested in what a day might be like in the life of a young woman in Prescott in 1908. Her comment about her weight brings up the possibility that she might be in Prescott for her health, perhaps as a respiratory patient.

Image 3—A typical RPPC “small town view” has been labeled and dated on the front by the sender. Since many RPPC do not have any information provided by the photographer, having a writer label and date the card is an invaluable part of the information the card provides. This image might never be identified as Prescott if someone who would be knowledgeable enough to recognize it never had the opportunity to see it. This card also has a great message to “Mom,” although it was apparently never mailed. “Prescott, Ariz. Dec. 13-05. Dear Mom, This is one of the cards I found this evening which I think [is] just a little better than anything of the kind I have found out here. The other two I will send along in a few days. Prescott don’t look so wild and wooly as you pictured it, I’ll wager. The pin hole [the writer has made a small hole through the card] is right on the Linn Hotel. The Court house is just a little to left in the center of the park. Frank.” The message, combined with the label and the date, plus a careful examination of the image, gives a great deal of information. One of the important pieces of information is that, by December, 1905, almost all of the buildings around the Plaza were complete. Since completion dates for some of those buildings are difficult to pin down, this helps to narrow the window of construction time around the Plaza after the Fire of 1900.

Image 4—This RPPC of West Gurley Street is identified as “Prescott in 1886” and the date of the photograph appears to be accurate based on the buildings, signs and freight wagons on the street. However, it was not mailed until February 20, 1906, a full twenty years after the photograph was taken. It can be assumed that a photographer had access to older negatives and printed this card at a later date, as real photo postcards were not made before the turn of the century (1900). The writer of the card is the person who labeled and dated the card as the handwriting is the same as the message and the address on the reverse of the card. It was mailed from Prescott.

Image 5—The Yavapai County Courthouse long has been one of Prescott’s iconic images. This is a RPPC of the “pink brick” Courthouse on the Plaza, which was torn down in 1914 in order to build the current Courthouse. Only the small strip on the bottom of the card was available for a message as the obverse was for the address only under the Postal rules of 1905, when this postcard was mailed from Prescott.

Image 6—This Prescott Chamber of Commerce postcard promotes the benefits of Prescott, with the “Finest Climate on Earth,” a population of 5,000, modern utilities, good water and 15.6 inches of rainfall per annum!

Image 7—This is a very nice unused, hand colored advertising postcard for the Head Hotel on North Cortez Street in Prescott. Although the hand coloring, which was literally painting on the surface of the black and white original photograph with artists’ oils or watercolors, is often pretty accurate, if the photographer did not note the colors for the artist, the artist could use his or her “artistic license” and use any colors the artist desired. This card may have been free to guests at the hotel to send to their friends and families. Since it is a divided back card, it is post 1907 but the photograph would have been taken slightly earlier, as the advertisement states “newly built and newly furnished.” The Head Hotel was built in 1906.

Image 8—A vignette image of Gurly (sic) Street mailed from Prescott on July 9, 1906. This is a Brisley Drug Company card. The message from Archibald reads in part, “Hello Marie, Have you any cards from this part of this earth? I s’pose you want representation from as many places as possible.” The card was sent to Kansas City, Kansas. There are a couple of touring cars on the street, but otherwise things look pretty quiet.

Image 9—Both the presence of the military and health care were very important to the viability of Prescott in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. This is a Heil Drug Company postcard, photo by Prescott photographer Erwin Baer, of “Whipple Barracks, Prescott, Ariz.” about 1910. Several of these buildings are still standing and in use, although the buildings in the center left have been demolished. There are many postcards throughout the various time periods of Ft. Whipple. The campus, now the Bob Stump Memorial Veterans Affairs Medical Center, is listed in the National Register of Historic Places at the National level of significance.

Image 10—This is an unusual hand colored view of Mercy Hospital on Grove Avenue taken from around what is now Summit Street and Western Avenue, with Thumb Butte in the background. Although it is postmarked 1916, this is an earlier image, probably about 1910.

Image 11—This shows Prescott’s “First Pioneers’ Schoolhouse”, located on what is now the grounds of Prescott Mile High Middle School. The immense historic Fremont Cottonwood tree shown in the photograph is still there. This is a post-1907 Brisley Drug Company card. It was never mailed.

Image 12—This 1911 image of Park Avenue is uncommon for the time period as not many postcards were produced of residential neighborhoods. Notice the large pine tree in the middle of the street. The Amy Hill House, shown on the left, is still there and is listed in the National Register. This is a Corbin and Bork drugstore card.

Image 13— Is a small town view of Prescott’s famous North Montezuma Street, “Whiskey Row”, about 1902. Notice all of the canvas awnings. This is a well-known image, and the original photograph is at the Arizona State Archives.

About Your Postcards

 

Each postcard tells a part or all of a small story. If you are lucky enough to have a collection of postcards, especially those from the late 19th and early 20th centuries, treasure them. They should be stored in the same way as photographs – in archival sleeves and/or boxes. If they are in albums, leaves of acid-free paper between each set of pages will help to protect them. If they are not dated, perhaps you can use some of the clues in the beginning of this article to help you date and identify any other significant pieces of information your postcards may be able to impart (look for those railroad postmarks, Fred Harvey scenes, military images, Native American people and famous people).

If, at some point, you do not want to keep your postcards, be sure to offer them to a museum or archive for their collection of Statewide, regional or local images. Those small town views are invaluable to archivists, historians and writers.

Bibliography

Allmen, Diane, Official Price Guide, Postcards, 1st Edition, House of Collectibles, New York, NY: 1990.

Fulton, Richard W., Arizona Postcard Checklist, Fulton, Richard W., Fairfax, VA: 1992.

Graye, Michelle B., Greetings From Tucson: A Postcard History of the Old Pueblo, Michelle B. Graye: 2004.

Mashburn, J. L., The Postcard Price Guide, 4th Edition, Colonial House, Enka, NC: 2001.

Thompson, Gerald, “Greetings From Arizona: Postcards of the Grand Canyon State,” Journal of Arizona History, n.d.

Note: All postcards in this article are from the personal collection of the author and are copyright-free.