Long before postcards were relegated to reminders of dental checkup and oil changes, they delivered well wishes and news of safe travels. Their pictures prompted hearty laughs, showed off notable landmarks and delivered visuals of titillation and destruction.
Deltiology is the study and collection of postcards — a fascinating intersection of culture and history that just happens to come with a side dish of philately (the study of stamps).
The years 1907 to 1915 are considered the golden age for postcards.
“Remember, there was no TV and no radio,” says Herb Staub of Coralville, a dealer in the historical postcard hobbyist trade who used to live in Cedar Rapids. “Back then you had newspapers, gossip and postcards.”
People worked for 10 cents an hour in the 1910s. A postcard cost 2 cents and could be mailed for another penny. They were sent with care, and recipients kept them in a treasured collection book, usually in the main parlor for guests to see.
They were like real-time history books — handy glimpses of places and events your friends and family shared with handwritten messages on the back. Those books became heirlooms.
Many a passed-down postcard book has been sold at estate sales over the years. Collectors buy them to get the three or four postcards pertinent to their own collections. The rest of the postcards became fodder for trade with other collectors, which is how postcard clubs and trade shows came to be.
According to Staub, there is no common holy grail for postcard collectors. Some folks collect memories of their own lives, seeking out postcards of the hospital where they were born, the school they attended, the church where they were married, etc. Others zero in on genres like street scenes, cars or landmarks.
Antiques of Marion owner Steve Koenig likes postcards of trains. His shop sells photo enlargements of old Linn County-specific picture postcards taken by his friend and fellow deltiologist John Roberts.
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“The best pictures made their way onto postcards,” Koenig says. “I get a lot of history buffs in here, and they’re always amazed by the stories that can be told through those blowups of old postcards.”
Old Linn County postcards match up to the hobby’s main categories quite well.
There were “disaster cards” like the Cedar Rapids Douglas Starch Works explosion and the Lyman building collapse 100 years ago. “Exaggeration cards” featured humor via prodigious proportions, like an ear of Iowa corn so big it had to be hauled by a flatbed trailer. “Classic eateries” postcards showed places like Krebs Dutch Girl, De Var Restaurant and the Kozy Inn No. 1.
Examples of “events cards” include the See Der Rabbits Carnivals from 1897 to 1911 and the Eastern Iowa Exposition of 1911 that featured a Wright Brothers biplane flown by P.O. Parmalee. “Large letters” is a classic genre replicated from coast to coast. It showed a range of landmarks inside the large block letters of a city’s name.
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It’s not unusual to see an old postcard that was mailed to a name and a city, with no street address. Folks at the post office knew who you were. Sometimes the drugstore was the post office.
With potentially nosy handlers and little space to write on, it’s no wonder that postcard senders were shortening words and making up acronyms way before texting and emojis were a thing.
Stamps were rotated to embed hidden meanings. Codes varied, but Staub says a common one was to rotate a stamp upward to imply “give me a kiss.”
Joe Coffey is a freelance writer and content marketer in Cedar Rapids, who writes this monthly column for The History Center. Comments: firstname.lastname@example.org