Postcards are often the best evidence of how streets, public buildings, parks, private homes and businesses appeared in earlier years. People are intrigued by these older views of the places where they now live, grew up, or used to visit. The scenic beauty and rich history of the Finger Lakes region has been preserved in a vast number of postcards printed since they first became an inexpensive means of communication.
View cards, as they are called, not only show changes in the physical surroundings, but also offer insight into social history. Messages written on the cards reflect the opinions and lifestyles of the times. With the popularity of antiquing in the Finger Lakes, collecting postcards has become a passion for many residents of the region.
Postcard collecting, or deltiology, from the Greek words meaning “small picture” and “knowledge,” is reportedly one of the largest collectible hobbies worldwide. Most collectors can recall the card or occasion which prompted them to begin collecting. For Eleanor Bump of Lyons, it all started with a postcard of East Avenue in Newark, New York, which her mother bought for her in 1979 for $1.00. Now framed in her home north of Lyons, the postcard shows a quiet residential street of 1912 including the house where Bump lived, in a secondfloor apartment in the 1970s.
Bump was prompted to seek out other Newark views and discovered she could find cards at antique shows and by joining a postcard club. “When I’d go to antique shows,” recalls Bump, “people had postcards separated by categories or by towns, so I started to look at Newark for cards of the Newark Developmental Center where I work, and there were a lot.” For 28 years Bump has been employed by the Finger Lakes DDSO (Developmental Disabilities Service Office) and is now director of one of their group homes in Seneca Falls. The facility’s original, large, red brick buildings appear on older cards as “The New York State Custodial Asylum for Feeble Minded Women of Childbearing Age,” which it was called when it began serving as a residential and training facility for the developmentally disabled in the late 19th century.
Among Bump’s roughly 350 views of Newark are similar, but not identical, cards of the Corner of Main and East Union Street (fig. 3) as it appeared about 1910. This bustling intersection is immortalized in postcards while the actual buildings disappeared during Newark’s Urban Renewal Program of the 1970s. Newark’s Deputy Village Historian Chris Davis can identify the Sherman Opera House, in the center of the block, once the tallest building in Wayne County. The Erie Canal was located behind these buildings, according to Davis, and the RS & E (Rochester, Syracuse and Eastern) trolley, visible in the foreground, ran through Newark and other canal towns.
Bump is amused that on one card of this intersection there is a man leaning against a utility pole on the street corner, while on the other card, all poles and wires have been air-brushed out and he seems to be leaning on thin air! A third card of this location appears in a souvenir postcard folder, Seeing Newark, NY (fig. 2). Folded inside, accordion fashion, are 24 tiny but easily identifiable Newark postcards, including the busy Union and Main Street hub. Here the man is again, casually leaning against the pole.
Postcards depicting forms of transportation that are no longer common, such as canal boats, trolleys, steamboats, trains, horse-drawn vehicles and early automobiles attract many collectors. Only the tracks of the trolley which ran from Geneva to the Cayuga Lake State Park are visible on a card of Main Street Looking East, Waterloo (fig. 11) which dates about 1920. It is from the postcard collection of George DiPronio of Waterloo. The view is just west of the intersection of Routes 96 and 5 & 20, (Main Street). Buildings on the north side, known as Hunt Block, remain today as part of the Main Street Center. DiPronio, a native of Waterloo, recalls that a local druggist, whose business, Smith’s Drugs is visible on the postcard, was instrumental in finding the funds to print many local postcards.
“I was always interested in history,” explains DiPronio, adding, “so why not local history? I got into collecting postcards because I was interested in what the village looked like prior to my birth, in some cases, or at least when I was younger.” While a postcard of the Seneca River at Locust Street (fig. 13) appeals to collectors of canal boat views the location also has the distinction of being the historic site of the Cayuga Indian village around the year 1500.
Waterloo Body Works Company (fig. 10) became the Mid-State Body Co., Inc. in the 1930s, manufacturing automobile station wagon and truck bodies called “woodies.” DiPronio, who was employed by Mid-State before working for the Department of Transportation, recalls, “Back in the 1940s and 1950s there was a shortage of steel, so they started making automobile bodies out of wood.”
Today, DiPronio is on the board that oversees the Waterloo library and two local museums, including the brick mansion at 35 East Main Street which has become the Memorial Day Museum (fig. 12). A chrome postcard (see postcard eras) in his collection may date to when it first opened in 1966.
If a community is relatively small, the number of postcards produced may be limited. Chuck Kennerson owns about 40 views of Honeoye where he now lives. He has 12 of Dresden in Yates County (one of the smallest and oldest incorporated villages in the state) where he was born, and another 60 of Penn Yan where he went to school. While he and his wife, Barb, together have 13,000 to 14,000 postcards, a relatively small portion are view cards. “We probably had 3,000 to 4,000 cards before we ever looked at a view card, which is what most people look to collect,” says Kennerson. The former teachers, who moved to Honeoye in 1977, began collecting postcards seriously in 1992. His specialty is holiday cards and “anything else that takes my fancy,” he says. She looks for cat postcards, views of Scotland, and the Wizard of Oz.
Most of Kennerson’s Honeoye cards are referred to as “real photos.” They are not reproductions but actual photographic prints. Kennerson explains that once a roll of film was taken up, it was printed on the postcard paper. “You could have 100 of the same photo printed,” explains Kennerson, adding, “When you get a real photo, it might be the only one, or it might be one of 100.
“In terms of value,” says Kennerson, “the real photo cards are more valuable than the regular cards with an artist’s rendition of a view. People who collect real photos like to see them cancelled. Then you know the date it was mailed.” Based on his own cards and the collections of two friends, he estimates there may be 60 to 70 real photo cards of Honeoye.
Just Killin’ Time (fig. 1) is a real photo card of men sitting on the stoop in front of a Honeoye business. With the help of a local historian, all the men pictured outside Ned Gilbert’s store in 1909 have been identified. Today the store and a landmark gazebo which appear on many postcards (fig. 6) no longer exist.
Another of Honeoye’s Main Street businesses immortalized on a postcard is referred to by Kennerson as the Ice Cream Parlor (fig. 9). The building also housed a jewelry store according to this early real photo card. Later, the building was moved to become the village’s first library and today it serves as a dance studio. “This card is unique and appeals to different collectors,” says Kennerson. “People collect postcards of ice cream parlors anywhere in the country.”
Kennerson is an avid soccer fan and coach, as well as a postcard collector. In an aerial postcard view of Honeoye Lake (fig. 8) from the early 1990s, he points out the school and its athletic fields. A much earlier postcard, Bird’s Eye View of Honeoye (fig. 7), postmarked 1908, looks west over an open field where the school ultimately was built.
Like Bump and DiPronio, Kennerson is one of over 100 members of the Western New York Postcard Club and often attends the club’s annual show and sale. The 2002 show is already scheduled for October 20 at 1200 Buffalo Road in Rochester. Monthly meetings are held September through May (except January) and offer programs and the opportunity to buy, sell, or trade cards. The WNYPC Club is “organized for the dissemination of knowledge and news relative to the collecting of picture postcards and paper memorabilia,” according to literature provided by Josh Canfield of the 27-year-old club.
Sometimes postcards reach new admirers. A unique quilt made by Waterloo resident Kate Litzenberger involved transforming 34 images of Waterloo, many from postcards, onto fabric, and enlarging them to make quilt squares. The finished quilt, now at the Terwilliger Museum on East Williams Street in Waterloo, is known as “The Waterloo Historical Postcard Sampler Quilt.” Litzenberger says that she enjoys knowing that older people who grew up in the town remember some of the images.
Lisa Compton of the Seneca Falls Historical Society, while not a collector, values postcards as historical documents. “I’m fascinated by what they can tell us – sometimes on the front, sometimes on the back, or sometimes from the dating and stamp,” says Compton. As the Society’s executive director, Compton estimates that there are 500 cards in this public collection available for exhibit or study. A number depict the famous Steamer Frontenac on Cayuga Lake (fig. 14) that held its maiden voyage in 1870, and for over 30 years provided a popular mode of travel around the lake for both business and pleasure. The ship burned in 1907 with 150 people aboard. Nine passengers were lost. Its tragic demise is also documented on postcards.
“Postcards also tell us about tourists and their mementos and souvenirs,” says Compton. She particularly likes one in the Society’s collection; The Elms-Best in Cabins (fig. 15), shows local tourist camp cabins built in the 1930s. The simple one-room dwellings located at 2120 Route 5 & 20 between Seneca Falls and Waterloo may again be restored. These views fall into a postcard group referred to by collectors as “Roadside America,” which are still relatively easy to find. Other examples include views of diners, gas stations and drive-in restaurants.
A “large letter” card such as one printed with, “Greetings from Cayuga Lake State Park” (fig. 16) is a form of generic souvenir postcard from the 1940s. This style of card, with oversized capital letters which frame views of scenery, events and people, was printed for tourist locations across the country. Cayuga Lake State Park, three miles south of Seneca Falls, had trolley cars at the turn of the 20th century which carried passengers down to the lake front. It became a state park in 1928.
In Newark, Jackson & Perkins Co. (fig. 4), once the largest rose garden in the world with 36,000 rose bushes, drew many visitors to its South Main Street (Route 88) location during its nearly 30 years of existence. “On a couple of the postcards, you can see the crowds,” points out Bump. She remembers participating in annual kiddie parades in the gardens. Bump reads the caption from one of her cards, “There was also a charming kiddies parade during the colorful month-long rose festival, starting about June 17. I can remember all that,” she says with a smile.
Buying view cards is still within reach of the average collector, although Kennerson cautions, “Anyone who starts looking for older cards now will find they’re expensive.” He bought the ice cream shop postcard for $30 from a dealer. “That’s a high price,” says Kennerson.
Identifying the Age of Postcards
The collector of postcards discovers their history is divided into seven different eras based on changes in appearance. Dates may vary depending on the source.
Pioneer Era (1893-1898)
The popular sale of cards at the Columbia Exposition in Chicago in 1893 enhanced the future of postcards. These government printed postal cards and privately printed souvenir cards usually had multiple views. The governmental postcards had an imprinted 1-cent stamp while the souvenir card required a 2-cent postage stamp.
Private Mailing Card (1898-1901)
Starting in 1898, American Publishers were allowed to print and sell cards bearing the inscription, “Private Mailing Card.” These private mailing cards were to be posted with 1-cent stamps. Writing (as they had been with earlier pioneer cards) was reserved for the front (picture side) of the cards.
Undivided Back Era (1893-1907)
The above three eras can be grouped in the general heading of “undivided back.”
Divided Back Era (1907-1915)
Postcards started to have a vertical line down the middle, so the address and the message were both on the back of the card. This prevented the face of the card from being written on. The decade of 1905-1915 is known as the “Golden Age of Postcards” when postcard collecting became wildly popular. The majority of U.S. postcards were printed in Europe, especially in Germany where printing methods were superior.
White Border Era (1915-1930)
Due to World War I, imports from Germany ceased and U.S. publishers started printing most American postcards. They were printed with white borders around the picture to save ink. The quality of the cards was not high due partly to inexperience.
Linen Card Era (1939-present)
With improvements in printing, cards were printed on a linen-type paper stock with bright colors from inexpensive inks. Linens are considered to be the only true American postcards. Most important events in history were recorded on these cards.
Photochrome Era (1939-present)
Publishers began producing cards that had beautiful colors on a shiny paper surface. Known as “Modern Chromes,” they are becoming increasingly popular with collectors.
The value of postcards is affected by their rarity as well as condition. “At least once a week I get a call from someone who has postcards they say are in ‘mint’ condition,” says Bill Cody, editor of Barr’s Post Card News, a twice-monthly publication that has been around for 28 years and is well-respected by collectors. Cody says the cards rarely turn out to be ‘mint.’ In 1983, Barr’s developed a list of postcard “collection grades” which have become the standard for postcard collecting worldwide.
The standards range from M or Mint (“A perfect card just as it comes from the print press. No marks, bends or creases. No writing or postmark. A clean and fresh card. Seldom seen”) to PR or Poor (“Card is intact. Excess soil, stained, cancel may affect picture with writing on either side. Could be a scarce card and hard to find in any collection with heavy creases”) and SF or Space Filler (“Poor Condition and least desirable”). The complete list is on Barr’s Web site at www.bpcn.com.
The monthly publication, Postcard Collector, is another helpful resource. It is currently celebrating its 20th year and has asked people to share postcard-collecting stories by sending them to Claire R. Fliess, Editor, Postcard Collector, P.O. Box 1050, Dubuque, IA 52004. The stories can be read at their Web site at www.collect.com/postcard.
For more information on the Western New York Postcard Club, contact Josh Canfield at (585) 582-1438.
Special thanks to:
• Postcard collectors Eleanor Bump, George DiPronio and Charles and Barbara Kennerson.
• Lisa Compton and Bernadette Murphy of the Seneca Falls Historical Society, Seneca Falls.
• Chris Davis of the Arcadia Historical Society, Newark.
• James Hughes of the Terwilliger Museum, Waterloo.
• Josh Canfield of the Western New York Postcard Club.
by Laurel C. Wemett
Laurel Wemett is a correspondent for the Daily Messenger newspaper in Canandaigua. She owns a gift shop named Cat’s in the Kitchen and lives in Canandaigua.