Collecting Antique Florida Postcards
By: Donald D. Spencer, Ph. D.
As seen in Antiques & Art Around Florida, Fall 09 - Winter 10
Florida’s history is the story of hard times, good times, of success and failure. Our history has been so rich, so diverse, so filled with such a marvelous and sometimes outrageous cast of characters that every Floridian should consider it their duty to learn as much about their home state and people as they possibly can—about the early Native Americans who lived here before the European explorers arrived, about people like Spanish explorer Juan Ponce de Leon, Seminole War leader Osceola, railroad pioneers Henry M. Flagler and Henry B. Plant, city developers Carl Fisher and George E. Merrick, and many, many others.
Having a wonderful time! Wish you were here! This was an often-penned phrase used in early 1900s Florida on the back of postcards which were purchased for a few pennies and mailed with a one-cent stamp. From Jacksonville to Miami, from small remote places like Green Cove Springs in Clay County and Perry in Taylor County, and from places now wiped off modern maps, like St. Joseph in Franklin County, picture postcards were mailed by countless thousands. These colorful views of everyday life—schools, main streets, libraries, hotels, beaches, post offices, churches, attractions, animals, Native Americans, forts, citrus groves, rivers, fires and hurricanes—all captured a view of early 20th century Florida that is recorded nowhere else. They are firsthand pictorial accounts of the past. They are truthful representations of past days because they are from those days. Most of the early postcards began as black and white photographs and, through the skills of anonymous painters, became works of art. Some of the earliest postcards from the first half of the twentieth century were individually hand colored after being printed. Many display photographic tricks, illustrated embellishments, or unique design elements—making them far more evocative than mere snapshots. Even humorous cards furnish us with a look at sorts of ideas that our parents and grandparents thought were funny.
In the 1870s and 1880s the greater part of tourist’s travel was by way of Steamboats on the St. Johns River to middle Florida: Green Cove Springs, Palatka, Enterprise, Sanford. After railroad and hotel developments were initiated in the 1880s by Henry M. Flagler and Henry B. Plant, pioneer Florida financiers, the volume of travel was turned to the east and west coasts. After World War I, reports of large profits in real estate brought speculators by the hundreds of thousands to Florida. The hysterical buying and selling of land so inflated prices that it was profitable in many cities to dredge sand from the bottom of bays and build artificial islands. People rushed in by boat, train, and automobile, intent upon making a fortune in a few days. As a result, between 1920 and 1925, the population increased four times as fast as in any other state. One and a half million visitors came annually in the early 1920s. At the peak of the real-estate craze in 1925, two and a half million people entered the state. The bubble burst in the spring of 1926. Banks failed, and individuals who had made millions became penniless overnight. Thus Florida experienced a depression in advance of the rest of the country. During the years 1926 through 1929 tourist trade helped Florida make a partial recovery. After 1934 many building improvements were made in towns and cities throughout the state: courthouses, post offices, roads, bridges, and recreation centers. By 1939 there were three scheduled airlines, approximately 150 airports, 4,500 miles of railroad trackage, streamline trains, 9,000 miles of hard-surfaced roads, and steamship lines bringing tourists to all parts of Florida.
Postcards first appeared in Austria in 1869, in England and France in 1870. These early European cards carried no images, only space on one side for an address, the reverse side for a message. But they enjoyed an advantage over first class letter mail— they could be mailed at a reduced rate of postage. The first picture postcards appeared in Germany in 1870, and offered images of the Franco-Prussian War. The first picture postcard appeared in the United States in 1893, in conjunction with Chicago’s World Colombian Exposition. It was not long before a wide variety of printed postcards were available. The postcard phenomenon spread rapidly across the world as one nation after another authorized their use. The cards became instant collectibles, with millions of Americans filling albums and exchanging views with fellow collectors. And not only did postcards visually capture the diversity of our nation, but they provided an easy way to communicate with relatives and loved ones. Acceptance by the public was immediate and enthusiastic. The millions of postcards that have been printed provide an amazing and comprehensive visual documentation of life in America in the twentieth century. For over 100 years this unique method of communication has made a distinctive statement in its own right, in addition to capturing the hearts of today’s collectors.
In the early part of the twentieth century, people didn’t throw away the postcards they received in the mail. Collecting picture postcards was a craze for thousands of people. All over America and Europe people pasted them in albums and then put the albums on coffee tables, where they became conversation pieces. Some families gave "postcard parties" at which the evening’s entertainment after dinner was looking at the family’s postcard collection. The period, sometimes referred to as "the good old days" by the grandparents of the baby boomers, covers a time before World Wars were numbered, before many roads were paved, and when almost every small Florida town had passenger rail service. For Florida workers, the hours were long, the pay was low, and benefits were nonexistent. The wife at home, often on a farm, ran her household without modern conveniences.
The golden era of picture postcards was in the first part of the twentieth century. Billions of cards poured from the printing presses. In 1906 and 1907, Rotograph Company, Stengel and Company, and Trenkler & Company in Germany; Valentine Company in Scotland; and Raphael Tuck & Sons in Great Britain, created thousands of designs for worldwide distribution, including Florida and other parts of the United States. Between 1898 and 1920 several publishers in the United States supplied postcards by the thousands, featuring local views throughout Florida—Albertype Company (Brooklyn, NY), Asheville Post Card Company (Asheville, NC), A.C. Bosselman & Co. (New York, NY), Detroit Publishing Company (Detroit, MI), S. H. Kress & Company, E.C. Kropp Company (Milwaukee, WI), Hugh C. Leighton Company (Portland, ME), G.W. Morris (Portland, ME), Curt Teich Company (Chicago), Tichnor Brothers Inc. (Boston, MA), and United Art Publishing Company (New York, NY).
Florida publishers that produced many local picture postcards were J.N. Chamberlain (Miami), Cochranes’ Book Store (Palatka), Daytona Beach News Service (Daytona Beach), H. & W.B. Drew Company (Jacksonville), Duval News Company (Jacksonville), Florida News Company (Tampa), Florida Souvenir Company (St. Augustine), W. H. Harris Company (St. Augustine), Hillsboro News Company (Tampa), M. Mark (Jacksonville), Murrell Post Card Company (Daytona Beach), Orange News Company (Orlando), Sam J. Rodes (DeLand), Southern Card & Novelty Company (Daytona Beach), St. Petersburg Post Card Association (St. Petersburg), Sun News Company (St. Petersburg), Walker News Company (Daytona Beach), and Eli Witt Company (Daytona Beach)
Between 1900 and 1920, Americans took endless numbers of photographs of their families, friends, major events, and even catastrophes, with their Eastman Kodak cameras. These snapshots were printed on special Kodak stock paper with the words "Post Card" on the back. It had become possible for anyone who owned a camera to make his own personalized photo postcard. These homemade cards (called Real Photo cards) were sent to friends and relatives. Today they are important historical documents of the time.
Postcards with a divided back were permitted after 1907. Until 1914, German printers, who were far ahead of this country in the lithographic processes, printed millions of these cards. During 1915-1930 most of our postcards were printed in the United States. To save ink a border was left around the view, thus they are called "white border" cards. During 1930-1944 new printing processes allowed printing on postcards with high rag content that caused a "linen-like" finish. After 1945, the "chrome" postcards started to dominate the scene. In 1970, a king-sized chrome card (4-inch by 5.875-inch) was introduced and by 1978 it was in general use everywhere.
The historical value of postcards lies not solely in the picture, but often also in the messages that were mailed to family or friends. Examining postcard views is fun and the messages on the back add to their interest—providing news of a new baby, news of an engagement, or of the sender’s safe arrival in Palm Beach. The messages share a moment from people’s lives. A poignant message and the date and place from where the card was sent add interest for some collectors. Consider the following messages that were taken from postcards mailed from Florida:
• You have no idea how beautiful everything is here. I love it.
• I am on my way to Sanford on this grand steamboat.
• I am way down in the jungles of Florida.
• I just landed a good job picking strawberries. I will be paid two cents a quart; and that means if I can pick fifty quarts I will earn a dollar a day.
• Here I am at the beach having a fine time. Wish so much you were here. We must come here together sometime.
• What do you think of this hotel? I tried to get a room here but they wouldn’t have me!
• Went to visit an Ostrich Farm yesterday. They are very large birds.
• I am writing this card on the front porch of a cabin on Lake Harris, and just as I looked up I saw a large alligator.
• We don’t like Miami but this (Naples) is a pretty town.
• I am just going downtown to mail my card. The photographer has gone and I can’t get any view cards now. Look for me when you see me.
The postcard craze has passed but deltiology has not. Derived from the Greek term "small writing tablet," deltiology refers to collecting postcards, a hobby that is becoming increasingly sophisticated and specialized.
Where To Find Old Florida Postcards
My modest collection of postcards currently stands at around 31,000, with over 21,000 of Florida alone. I have gathered and saved cards mailed to me since childhood and brought cards home from vacations since high school. When the Marine Corps shipped me to foreign countries, postcards were the souvenirs I collected. But my serious collecting did not begin until after college when I started attending conventions and postcard shows throughout America. At first, like most novice collectors, I bought junk—torn, smudged, or common cards for a dollar or two—but I quickly developed an eye for judging a card and, more important, I determined the categories I wanted to acquire.
Once you know what interests you—Florida, or any town in Florida or in any other state, or a topical category such as Rivers, Steamboats, Alligators, Seminole Indians, Attractions, Beach Scenes, Cats, Sports, Street Scenes, Railroad Depots, Pin-Up Girls, Lighthouses, Golf, Farming, or Automobile Racing—you can search a postcard dealer’s categories for treasures to add to your particular file. Of course, you will often find many versions of the same view; postcard publishers reissued certain popular cards every few years. Choosing which view of Lake Eola in downtown Orlando you want is part of the fun, and arranging your album pages to show off seven or eight cards of the same subject is very satisfying. Postcards of Steamboats on Florida Rivers, Early Forts of Florida, Early Attractions in Florida, and Cities that have come and gone are popular collecting areas for Florida postcard collectors.
Most postcard dealers are happy to spend time educating a new collector on the finer points of a chosen category, so getting to know a dealer by going to a show or visiting a shop is time well spent. Good places to pick up old postcards include flea markets, postcard shows, book shows, estate auctions, antique stores, garage sales, antiquarian book dealers, paper collectible shows, and the internet. There are also several books on collecting postcards, postcard price guides and postcard history. You do not have to be wealthy to enjoy postcard collecting as a hobby, and you will find an amazing assortment of subjects to tempt you. Florida is only one of twenty categories I collect, but that’s another story.
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