Thursday, March 22, 2012

Collecting and scrapbooking postcards from unknown places has always provided a sense of traveling beyond time and space. Landscapes on postcards develop the poetic imaginative spaces between writers and recipients, bringing us to the unexplored, and recreating sentiment towards home: Tourists are re-attracted to places they just visited through having images on postcards which they found on a street corner, at museums, or in hotels. Postcards share tourists’ reminiscences with faraway families and friends. Even though recipients have never been to the places on postcards, they feel as if they experienced them before, and are recalling intimate memories of childhood.

One day I came across a mountain of boxes full of vintage color lithograph postcards in Brooklyn Flea. Most of the postcards that had scenic nature landscapes and modern architectural subjects seemed to be printed in the late 19th century, and depicted locations all across the U.S. As I looked, I found one with the Columbia University Low Memorial Library. Having been issued by the American News Company, neither side of the postcard printed the publication year. Yet, it was obvious that the postcard was published at least before 1903; Alma Mater, which was unveiled and dedicated in that year, was not drawn in the picture. When was this picture printed? The peculiar feeling produced by the blank space on the vintage postcard without the present symbol of Columbia led me to ponder the way the Columbia landscape has been imagined in postcards in the past.

(Image taken from:

(Image taken from:

The U.S. government established postal services and regulated postage in 1861, and the expansion of information rapidly brought tourism as well as the communication system. The modernization of transportation at the end of 19th century increased domestic leisure travel among the American middle class. As we shall see below, prior to the time when postal services became widespread, many travel guides for American citizens published. Let me briefly introduce the city highlights described in some guide books for American travelers, which I found in the Building and Grounds Collection of the Rare Book Library.

Columbia College is situated at the foot of Park Place, near Broadway, with extensive grounds, beautifully ornamented with a large growth of forest trees. (...) The building is 200 feet long and 50 feet wide, with two projecting wings, one at each end, in which are accommodations for the families of the professors.

(Ruggles, Edward. 1846. A picture of New-York in 1846 : with a short account of places in its vicinity : designed as a guide to strangers to citizens and strangers. New York. )

Morningside Park, lately appropriated for its present purpose, is now being improved by the park commissioners. A retaining wall rests on the western ledge, which forms the roadway called Morningside Avenue. Hanging terraces and a terrace walk greatly enhance the beauty of these grounds. The East River, the suburban region of Long Island, and the wooded hills beyond, are visible from that portion of the park which soon is to be converted into a mall, and embellished with shade trees. At 111th Street, where now stands the Leake and Watts Orphan Asylun, an elaborate and costly Episcopal cathedral is to be erected.

(Ober, C. F., Alden, C.M.W. 1892. Manhattan: historic and artistic, a six day tour of New York City. Library of Congress.)

New York City was the major site for tourism and the marketing of imagery such as small photographs, and exhibition and souvenir cards during this period. Mainly, most of the Columbia postcards sketch the panoramic and aerial view of the Low Library from the Butler Library. When I look at the back side of the postcard that I bought in Brooklyn Flea, there are the words “Post Card” and “This side is for the addresses only”. Historically, American publishers were obliged to print and sell cards with the inscription which shows that it is authorized as Private Mailing Card until the U.S. Government allowed private publishers to print the words "Post Card" instead on the undivided back. As in earlier eras, writing messages was permitted only across the front over the photographs or artwork on the card. The postcards in this period were not regarded as personal and private messages or greetings on picture cards, but rather they intended to be a messenger of rareness and scenic pleasure itself - Picturesque. The United States allowed the use of a divided back, allowing the front to be primarily for the picture or artwork and the back left for the address and any message, in 1907. Given this, it seems more likely that the Columbia postcard was published between 1901 and 1903.


Konwiser, Harry; "The American Stamp Collector's Dictionary," Tudor Publishing Co., New York, 1949.

Nelson’s guide to the city of New York and its neighborhood. London, 1858. 63pp.

Ober, Corolyn Faville, Alden, Cynthia May Westover. 1892. Manhattan: historic and artistic, a six day tour of New York City. Library of Congress.

Ruggles, Edward.. A picture of New-York in 1846 : with a short account of places in its vicinity : designed as a guide to strangers ... New-York, 1846.

1 comment:

GeorgiK said...

Post cards are most fascinating to me. It might not be the case in your examples, but I was always interested in how private institutions and buildings are claimed for city or national pride. Who gets to put Chrysler building on a card with caption "New York City" or Willis (alright Sears) Tower on a card with caption "Chicago"? And who gets to pick one building over another? You talk about the card being the link between the experience of traveling and home, between experiencing a city and experiencing a relationship with the recipient. I wonder whether such a link is possible and how it is affected by the choice of the card (one from Columbus Circle might do a dramatically different job than one from Rockefeller Center or one from Time Square at night). At any rate, the representation of the landscape in cards is ofter quite misleading. Many tourists find New York (maybe excluding Lower Manhattan) quite spacious to their amazement after seeing numerous shots of the crowded skyscrapers. So I am interested to see what people write most often on post cards and I really hope that the answer is "you really have to come and see this yourself"... It is, at least, what I write on post cards.
It is fascinating that one was not supposed to write on the back of the card. Maybe the picture was supposed to be powerful enough, maybe there was some concern with the privacy of open mailing... On the subject, the same might be the case today - people not writing anything significant for the very same reasons. Or if they do, it will be great to see how that has changed through time and if the change is essentially a change in the way people experience certain landscapes or the way they experience open mailings or long-distance travel or what...