I recently posted about one of my favorite art forms, especially for commercial art and design: posters. Another – and even more diverse – source of great imagery from the past is the postcard. Literally billions – maybe trillions – of these lowly, mundane objects have been printed and circulated since their invention (or allowance by postal rules) at the end of the 19th century. Already by 1910 they were a huge deal – sending them became a hobby of people all over the world.
If you are interested in visual history – local, commercial, industrial, travel – there is no better or more affordable source than the world of postcards.
All those postcards are still out there circulating. And there are thousands of collectors. Drop by any antiques store or book and paper show and you will find plenty of interest. If you pick almost any town, monument, natural feature, world’s fair, hotel, airline, courthouse, railroad, or hundreds of other things, your odds are high of tracking down a picture postcard sooner or later.
There are a ton of postcard websites, but I usually start with an eBay search like (if I am interested in my hometown) “Anderson Indiana PC” or “Anderson Indiana postcard.” You will likely be amazed at what turns up.
Postcards can be beautiful things. They are really small works of art or photography, sometimes a combination of both (like the famous big letter cards; for examples see http://www.judnick.com/LargeLetters.htm or http://www.cardcow.com/c/1/large-letter/).
Postcards are one of the best ways to study and learn about architecture. American Architecture: a vintage postcard collection by Luc Van Malderen (with forward by Cesar Pelli, Images Publishing, 2000) is one of my favorite architecture books. It is full of beautiful color images.
Arcadia Publishing does a great series of books on local history, and many of them are postcard collections, although they are not usually in color. For color, check out the “Greetings from” (Houston, Chicago, Pittsburgh, etc.) series from Schiffer Publishing, another excellent publisher for those interested in nostalgia and history.
You can find numerous other books about postcards, even including the most boring ones and the ones with the most interesting inscriptions on their backs!
If you really want to go deep into this wonderful world, there is no better place than the Curt Teich (pronounced “Tyke”) collection. His Chicago-based company was the largest US postcard producer, making over 300,000 different cards from about 1900 to 1970. They are all saved and in an excellent museum in the northwestern suburbs of Chicago, which is well worth a visit. Here is the website: http://www.lcfpd.org/teich_archives/.