This post was written by Jill Reichenbach, Reference Librarian, Department of Prints, Photographs and Architectural Collections.
At this time of year, many people fantasize about going on a relaxing vacation somewhere exotic, or at least warm. And while some lucky people actually do get to go on vacation, still more might receive a postcard from those kind friends, inspiring envy. Nowadays it’s not uncommon for the sendee to receive the postcard long after their friend has returned, however. It’s hard to imagine, but there was a time when the quickest way to communicate with someone was to drop a postcard in the mail. And postcards weren’t only used to commemorate a trip; they were used to inform the recipients of news and events.
The Postcard File in the Department of Prints, Photographs and Architectural Collections (aka ‘Graphic Collections’) contains over 62,000 postcards. The bulk of the collection is from 1900-1940, but some cards date back to 1890, and it is constantly being added to.
The collection consists exclusively of views of the United States and is geographically organized by state and city (with an emphasis on New York State/City), and runs the gamut from traditional tourist attraction souvenir postcards to advertising postcards for restaurants and hotels, to artistic renderings of nature scenes, to documentary photography of streets and neighborhoods.
While a sizable portion of the cards in the collection are blank, many were sent, which provides a fascinating glimpse into the informal way people wrote to each other in the past. It’s fun to see how bits of colloquial language have changed, even in the last 50 years. The cards also track changes in how addresses and phone numbers were written — in the late 1800s, a recipient’s name and town were often sufficient!
Also included in the collection are souvenir booklets, with multiple views of a tourist destination. These charming foldouts speak to a time before most people had portable cameras, much less camera phones. These booklets were the only way most people would be able to document their travels.
The following images are just a tiny portion of the collection. For more information, see the Finding Aid here.