Postcards, Photographs, Edgewater

Vol. XII No. 1 - SPRING 2001

By: LeRoy Blommaert

Today we send postcards when we are on vacation, maybe. We rarely send them on any other occasion or for any other reason. For ordinary communication, we pick up the phone or maybe send an email. And for special occasions, we send greeting cards.

It was not always that way. There was a time in America when postcards were everywhere, when far, far more postcards were sent than letters, when you could buy postcards as easily as you can buy greeting cards today, if not more so, and when people sent them for any and all reasons, from the serious to the mundane. It was the “golden age” of postcards, from about 1907 to about 1915. During this period sending, and collecting, postcards became a fad, a short-lived one, as all fads are, but one that had the unintended consequence of producing a vast archive of images of life at the time. Nothing produced before or since equals this treasure chest of images.

Several factors contributed to the popularity of the postcard. Two of them were government initiatives. The first was free rural home delivery. In 1898 the Post Office agreed to provide free home delivery to farmers who petitioned their congressmen for the service. Prior to this time, Americans who lived on farms or in towns of less than 10,000 had to pick up their mail at the nearest post office. This usually meant a buggy ride once a week to the nearest town to pick up and send mail. Free home delivery to the 75% of Americans who lived on farms and in towns of less than 10,000 population was not instantaneous but by 1906 most of the rural delivery routes had been established. The change revolutionized mail communication.

The second was a change in the way postcards could be used. Prior to 1907 it was against U.S. postal regulations to write any message on the back of the card; the entire back was reserved for the address. Any message had to be written on the front or image side. Needless to say, this requirement restricted the use of postcards for written communication. Post card manufacturers usually provided some white space for messages with the image but it wasn’t much. Beginning in 1907, the postal service authorized the divided back postcard. The left half could be used for the message; and the right half was reserved for the address. Now the entire front of the card could be the image. The quality and variety of images dramatically improved, as manufacturers competed with each other by introducing better and better products. Postcard usage dramatically increased. There was money to be made and an industry was born.

Then as now sending a postcard was easy. No need to compose several paragraphs or pages; only a few lines would be needed. In fact, there was room for only a few lines, so one didn’t have to fear disapproval for writing so little. Sending a postcard was cheap too. Then a postcard cost a penny; whereas a letter cost two cents. So a postcard cost half as much to send.

There were two other factors that contributed to the fad, and also explained why postcards are rarely used today. The first is that in 1907 the options for personal communication were limited: the personal visit, the letter, and the postcard. Then the telephone was in its infancy and expensive, and few Americans had them. (Most Americans outside of the major cities didn’t even have electricity!) The second is that postcards represented a way for Americans to see and enjoy images beyond what they themselves could see in their daily lives. Sometimes these were exotic images of faraway places, the American West, Niagara Falls, Europe, the Orient; other times they might be images of a friend or relative’s home or home town.

Today we are bombarded with photographic images on TV, in magazines, and in our daily newspaper. In 1907 there was no TV of course, but magazines were not as widely disseminated, and most did not carry photographic images reproduced as half tones; neither did most newspapers except in the major cities. The process had not been perfected and made economically practical. Most images were line drawings. Postcard images were basically of two types: views and everything else, such as beautiful women, dogs, cats, santas, children, and Halloween.. In today’s collecting parlance, this later category is often called “topicals”. Then, as now, view postcards were the most popular.

View postcards then were of two types: printed and real photo. Both started out as a photograph. In the case of the printed view card, the photograph was reproduced as a half tone, then color tinted in most cases, and then printed on giant printing machines. In some cases the photograph was enhanced with unwanted details eliminated. During the golden age most color tinting and printing of American view cards were done in Europe, primarily Germany. Printed view cards were produced in great quantity and depicted what would sell in great quantity. In towns and cities the images were of the major buildings, the court house, city hall, railroad stations, hotels, department stores, and of the parks and monuments and main streets.

The other type, called real photo postcards, were exactly that, real photographs developed using special postcard-size photographic paper, which the Kodak company had produced just for this purpose and which its competitors soon followed in offering. Fortunately for us today, the postcard fad coincided with technological advances in the production of photographic developing paper, which made it possible for both amateur and professional photographers to develop photographs under artificial lighting.

Some real photo postcards were taken by amateur photographers; however, most were taken by professional photographers. In many cases photo postcards represented a sideline to the main business of portrait photography; however, that was not always so. Some photographers did real photo postcards full time as their main business and a few created companies that employed others in the enterprise. Real photo postcards were generally produced one at a time, usually from a larger size glass plate. They were more expensive than printed cards, but since they could be produced in small quantities, the photographer could afford to take photos of scenes that would not justify a printed card. As a result we are far richer in that a vast photograph archive exists of this very special period in American history when America was optimistic and moving from a rural, agricultural society to an urban industrial one. some of this archive resides in the collections of local and state historical societies, but more exist in private collections, and probably the most exist yet undiscovered and unappreciated in the attics and closets of private homes.

The production of real photographs during the golden age was not spread evenly throughout the country. Postcard photographers were most active in the Midwest and the East, less so in the West, and not very much in the South. Among America’s major cities, Chicago fortunately was by far the most photographed. Three companies produced most of the real photo postcards of Chicago: They were the Charles R. Childs, the M.L. Photo, and the A.J. Schumann companies. These companies photographed scenes outside of Chicago as well, particularly the Charles R. Childs company. In addition, several individual photographers produced real photo cards of Chicago. They included H.G. Bitters, H.B. Brooks, P.L. Huckins, Warren Scott (d/b/a Scott Studio), H.N. Beardsley, J.C. Ferrin, C.S. Springer, Frank Osborn, a person named Vargas, and R.E. Jackson. While Brooks and Huckins produced cards in many Chicago neighborhoods, the others confined their operations to certain neighborhoods (usually either on the north or south side), and in the case of Frank Osborn, to Riverview Park. Edgewater resident R.E. Jackson was the only one to confine his Chicago work to Edgewater.