You might say the American postcard became a bit of an obsession in the early 1900s.
Thanks to the U.S. government’s permission, an image could for the first time take up the entire front side of the 1-cent postcard, though the address had to be written on the right side of the back of the postcard while the left side was reserved for writing messages.
Postcards from this period are highly desired collectibles. Anne Mason, special projects coordinator for the Heritage Alliance of Northeast Tennessee & Southwest Virginia, recently dusted off some of the organization’s prized possessions at the historic Duncan House in Jonesborough.
“They’ve been in our archives since the 1970s, and we’ve found that they not only were for all holidays — they also were used for gossip -— as a means of being a pen pal,” Mason said as she carefully removed some of the treasures from boxes and files while wearing white gloves. “We also found that holidays were becoming much more commercialized during this time.”
Most of the items in her possession date from 1900 through 1939.
“Some you can read; others are a bit dated,” she said.
One of Mason’s favorites is a postcard mailed from Limestone in 1916. The writing is now illegible, but the colorful front is enough to make just about anyone want to take a closer look.
“Let’s take a trip,” the card reads at the top. In the middle the words “Limestone” are spelled out in large letters. Underneath, it reads, “... to have a good time.”
To the left, three women gather near a sign. Their looks could be described as playful. The sign reads, “No Speed Limit.”
Surely that brought on a blush back in the day.
The first decade of the 20th century is considered the “Golden Age” of picture postcards. Although some with pictures of locations within America were printed in the United States, the majority sold at the time actually were printed in Germany.
At the height of the country-wide postcard mania, however, the advent of World War I caused a crash in the hobby. The start of the war in Europe caused the supply of postcards from Germany to end.
Eventually, the telephone replaced the postcard as a fast, reliable means of keeping in touch.
Perhaps the one major exception to a general decline in postcards’ production and demand was in the “real photo” postcards. Unlike the more colorful printed versions, photo cards were produced in black and white, at least when the trend first began in 1906.
That’s when the Eastman Kodak Co. started producing various models of Kodak “postcard” cameras that had postcard-size negatives. The resulting postcards had very clear images, which added to their popularity.
Mason said postcard manufacturers spent much more time and care in their production than is seen today. She also revealed several cards that were not attached to a particular holiday or tourist site. Instead they we’re used as a means of merely staying in touch — something comparable to a text message today.
“One says only, ‘Happy Memories,’ she said. “It looks to me like a little gossip on this one. Another simply says, ‘Good Morning.’ It’s from Pennsylvania to this area. It was sent in 1913.
“You come across some really, really different ones,” Mason said. “One has a cat in a tuxedo smoking a cigar and says, ‘Where is my Valentine?’ You also have some very beautiful, elaborate cards. And this is a time in history where you start seeing them used to advertise. One, sent in 1910 and post dated Bluff City, shows a woman browsing through linen in a store with the caption, ‘Won’t you come to my yard and pay for me?’ ”
Many postcards feature local structures, such as the 1907 Sulphur Springs High School and a black-and-white photo of the Jonesborough Courthouse circa 1907.
Mason said the Heritage Alliance is always interested in obtaining more postcards. Unfortunately, there are not always a lot of opportunities to display them as there are the larger documents, which are a little easier to handle.
“It’s neat to get little pieces of history like this where people are sharing,” she said. “It could be something as little as, ‘I bought some eggs today.’ ”
To donate to the Heritage Alliance of Northeast Tennessee & Southwest Virginia or to make an appointment to view the postcards, call 753-9580.