Postcards as Windows into the Past

Vintage postcards, many of which can be found in the archives of the San Joaquin County Historical Museum, are a valuable resource for studying local history and chronicling family history. (Below, Head of Navigation, Stockton, ca. 1920.)

Modern postcard collectors consider the early 1900s the Golden Age of Postcards. This period represents a time when millions of postcards depicting almost any subject imaginable were printed, imported, sold, and mailed.

The first time postcards were sold as souvenirs in the United States was at the World Columbian Exposition of 1893 in Chicago.  Impressed with their popularity, Congress passed legislation on May 19, 1898, allowing them to be published and sold privately.  Soon after, Chambers of Commerce in every town large enough to have a Main Street commissioned photographs of civic buildings, local attractions, and significant streetscapes that they licensed for reproduction among publishers.  By 1907, Congress was allowing two sections to be printed on the back, the right side for the address and the left side for the message.  The ability to use the full front of the cards combined with the low cost of buying and sending postcards marked the beginning of their Golden Age.

The heyday of postcards declined after World War I largely because hostilities prevented their production in Germany, where printers had mastered the lithographic process.  In the early 1900s, many postcards were also based on photographs. However, these were less common because they were more difficult and expensive to produce. Despite their waning quality and rising prices, postcards maintained a significant level of popularity during the first five decades of the twentieth century.

Today, local historians may use postcards to document the changing urban landscape and the popularity of accommodations, or to describe the development of transportation.  Postcards can also be used to showcase historic architecture, illustrate civic growth, verify social activities and events, and afford windows into peoples’ lives through messages printed on them. Because postcards were collectibles, genealogists often use them as a medium for glancing into ancestors’ lives or enhancing historical family albums. 

Postcards may seem small and insignificant at first glance, but their potential research value should not be underestimated.

Alice van Ommeren is a local historian from Stockton and the author of Stockton in Vintage Postcards.

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