Postcards tell our history

By Wesley Harris

A community’s history can be recreated through the postcards issued to commemorate its locations, people and special events. 

As I collected post cards from my hometown, I realized the hundreds of images printed for the past century could tell the community’s history as easily as a book. In fact, I turned my collection into a book: “Greetings from Ruston.” 

Usually postcards were intended for tourists. They revealed what was important to the community—churches, schools, successful businesses, significant community events. More recently, postcards have been used extensively as advertising which will tell historians a century from now much about how we lived.

Collections of postcards can be found on internet genealogy and history sites. Even assemblages of outrageously corny or ugly postcards can be viewed online.

Postcards featuring Lincoln Parish are easy to find on eBay and other online sales sites, priced from a couple of dollars up. Various views of the parish courthouse have been featured on postcards. Other cards bear images of local churches, schools, homes and street scenes. Views of downtown Ruston in the early 1900s are listed on eBay at a starting bid of $30. 

The U.S. Post Office Department began issuing pre-stamped postal cards in 1873. The cards were created to meet the public demand for a convenient way to send notes by mail. The Post Office was the only entity allowed to print postcards until 1898 when Congress passed the Private Mailing Card Act, permitting private publishers and printers to produce postcards. Initially, the government prohibited private businesses from calling their cards “postcards,” so they were referred to as “souvenir cards.” Prior to 1908, no other information could be placed on the address side of the postcard, so the photo side often provided a margin for a short message.

The first postcard in the United States was created in 1893 to advertise the World’s Columbian Exposition in Chicago. Shortly thereafter the United States Post Office Department allowed printers to publish a 1-cent postcard (the “Penny Postcard”). A correspondent’s writing was allowed only on the front side of these cards.

In 1901 cards appeared with the words “Post Card” printed on the reverse (the side without the picture). Written messages were still restricted to the front side, with the entire back dedicated to the address. This “undivided back” is what gives this postcard era its name.

The “divided back” card, with space for a message on the address side, came into use in the United States in 1907. The back of the card was divided into two sections, the left section being used for the message and the right for the address. From 1907 to about 1915, picture postcards were a wildly popular form of communication. In 1908, more than 677 million postcards were mailed.

The earliest cards in my collection feature Railroad Park and the Chautauqua grounds where the Toma Lodge subdivision now exists. They were produced in 1907. Being divided back cards, writers did not have to scribble their messages across the photograph.

The “white border” era, named for obvious reasons, lasted from about 1916 to 1930. The “linen card” era, from 1931 to the early 1950s, was marked by the use of cards with a textured surface similar to linen cloth. The current post card era of “chrome” cards began about 1939. The images on these cards are usually color photographs on a glossy paper. Modern postcards can also be found made from wood, metal or bearing holograph images.

Today, many Christmas greetings are in the form of postcards, usually with a photograph of the family. Businesses and nonprofits often use postcards to make announcements and spread important information without the expense of stuffed envelopes.

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