by Judy Haught
I am a deltiologist. Now don’t go thinking I am some kind of fancy scientist because what I am is a collector of postcards and not just any postcards but postal greeting cards mailed during the years of 1905-1915. I got started in this somewhat obscure hobby in the late 1990s while browsing in an antique store. I found a treasure trove of old postcards with beautiful artwork on the front and brief personal messages on the back. They weren’t the photographic postcards I had come to expect but beautifully colored, embossed copies of paintings. Well having always loved greeting cards and being a bit nosy, I had to have them, and just like that a hobby was born. For the last twenty-five years, I have trolled antique stores for stashes of old postal greeting cards.
As it turns out, the history of antique postal greeting cards is really quite fascinating. Most of the really beautiful postcards from that era were imported from Germany. The German printers used lithography and superior ink. The American printers had not caught up with the technology. The cards became an astounding success. Americans mailed literally billions of postcards during the ten years between 1905 and 1915. In fact, postcards actually bailed out the U. S. Post Office, which was $17 million in the red in 1909. By 1911, the Post Office had a surplus of $200,000, due in no small part to the postcard craze.
Who were those people mailing all those postcards? Most of them were women and children from rural areas and towns of less than 10,000 inhabitants. It seems that even today, women and young people are the trendsetters, so it is no surprise that they became the postcard fanatics. The fact that postcards were inexpensive and cost only a penny to mail added to their appeal. In a way, postcards were the forerunner of today’s social media. Like a text message or a tweet, they contain short messages. After all, a postcard writer had half of the back of a card to make a point. Also, the pictures on the cards were meant to impress just like FaceBook posts that generally show people at their best. Another similarity is that postcards by their very nature were not private. Like messages on the internet, anyone could read them. An old joke told of a post master who had to retire from his job because he went blind from reading so many postcards.
This cultural phenomenon of post cards proliferated with the help of rural free delivery, which became widespread in the United States in 1902. Until then, many country dwellers suffered from isolation. With the advent of regular mail delivery, they could now receive news of the outside world in the form of magazines and newspapers. They also began receiving postcards. Imagine the thrill of receiving a little piece of art in the form of a postcard with a personal message from a friend or family member. Letters were still sent, but they weren’t colorful and convenient like postcards.
Even with all the advantages of postcards, they had their naysayers. John Walker Harrington, a writer for American Illustrated Magazine, called postcards “epistolary sloth” and called the craze “postal carditis.” He warned of encroaching immorality brought on by the sending of postcards. He said, “Unless such manifestations are checked, millions of persons of now normal lives and irreproachable habits will become victims of faddy degeneration of the brain.” It sounds like some of the complaints we hear about social media today.
Americans’ love of postcards began to wane in 1909 when the U. S. government created a tariff on postcards from Germany making them more expensive for American consumers. Then when World War I started, German printers were shut down. American printers did not have the expertise to create cards the caliber of the German ones, and paper and ink were scarce. Another cause of the postcard craze’s demise, was the advent of the telephone. As more people gained access to phones, they began to write fewer cards and letters.
Over the years, I have collected hundreds of postal greeting cards, many from Western Oklahoma. They are a small glimpse into life in this part of the world over a hundred years ago. Many of the cards talk about social gatherings. Parties and pie suppers are scheduled. The children discuss school and overnight visits. Many mention picking cotton and harvesting wheat. Some even complain of the wind. I guess some things never change.
Amongst my array of cards is a large collection of cards addressed to a young girl named Lecie Hutchinson of Elk City. The address in just Elk City, Oklahoma, no street or post office box. Lecie was born in 1896 and lived in Elk City with her parents and grandmother. Her postcards are obviously from friends and relatives, and they speak of school, parties, Christmas, and birthdays. Some even contain short little love poems from male admirers. All seem perfectly mundane except one from a cousin that says, “Wes is in jail. Don’t tell Grandpa.” We have to wonder who Wes was and why he was in jail and what Grandpa would do when he found out. One thing I noticed about the cards Lecie received was that the pictures tended to become a little racier as she grew older, certainly not by today’s standards but enough to raise eyebrows in 1910. For instance, some of them showed men and women kissing, and one even depicts two young women in bathing attire.
Lecie’s postcards are only half of a conversation. We don’t know what she wrote on the cards she sent, but I feel like I own a small slice of her childhood. I bought the cards at a booth in an antique mall, and I assume the vendor bought them at an estate sale. I cannot imagine selling a relative’s mail from her childhood, but apparently no one cared enough to save them. Some of the cards are missing the postage stamps. I suppose stamp collectors cared more about the one-cent stamps than the messages.
Lecie married George Calvert in 1916, and they lived most of their lives in Roger Mills County. They both died in 1971 and are buried at Hammon. I feel privileged to have shared a small part of her life.
Gifford, Daniel. American Holiday Postcards, 1905-1915: Imagery and Context. Jefferson, North
Carolina: McFarland and Company, Inc., 2013.
——– “Golden Age of Postcards.” The Saturday Evening Post. 12 Dec. 2016.
Pyne, Lydia. Postcards: The Rise and Fall of the World’s First Social Network. London: Reaktion