Vulpes Libris

A collective of bibliophiles talking about books. Book Fox (vulpes libris): small bibliovorous mammal of overactive imagination and uncommonly large bookshop expenses. Habitat: anywhere the rustle of pages can be heard.

Ohio in Historic Postcards:Self Portrait of a State by H. Roger Grant

Ohio postcardsMy sister and I enjoy attending antique shows and inevitably, there is always a table selling postcards. We always stop and browse and sometimes add to our own small collections. It was with that interest in mind that I approached this book. It’s very well done, with a broad array of postcards from all around my home state and plenty of background information on topics associated with them. The introduction traces not only the history of postcards, but also changes in mail delivery and how Ohio grew in the years postcards were most popular, thus providing a record of some of our most prosperous times.
Though postcards were first introduced in 1893 at the World’s Columbian Exposition in Chicago, it wasn’t until a few decades later that they became a fad. Between 1908 and 1912 there was a “collecting frenzy” where Americans collected and displayed postcards in albums, much like photos.The best postcards were from Germany, where advanced printing techniques were used, but WW1 cut off that source and undoubtedly led to the fading popularity of collecting, as the replacements were less artistic and lower in quality.
Another reason people liked postcards was their lower postage rates compared to letters. However, the U.S. Postal System would not allow anything but the address to be written on the back, so senders were forced to write along the front edges and often on the picture itself. In 1907, the “split back” was finally approved, using the layout we are familiar with today.
Most early cards featured disasters–floods, fires in public buildings and train wrecks. I don’t know why anyone would want to see photos of such events, unless in a newspaper, but thankfully, trends soon went in a more positive direction.The book is divided into some of those subjects:transportation, monuments, citizens at work and play, etc. with some sections more interesting than others. Surprisingly, “Ohioans at Work” was one of the most intriguing, with the horse drawn fire engines and the steam powered trench digger for installing sewer pipes so different from the equipment used today. There are messy industrial sites, with rickety shacks, oil derricks and piles of lumber and pipes often haphazardly scattered about.
Cities boasted of street lighting, its early form was archways of light bulbs over main streets. Banks and hotels reassured customers that their buildings were of brick, a safety feature in those days of frequent fires in wooden buildings and used postcards to advertise their new sturdiness. These signs of progress were often juxtaposed in cards featuring the rapidly changing modes of transportation, from carriages, to trolley cars to autos, sometimes all in the same photo.
Antiques of all kinds contrast with the present day, but in old postcards, the evolution is at times more obvious than in other items. While not as intimate as family photographs, postcards give a glimpse of what was considered exciting or fun for the people at that time. They also show what priorities were and what communities had to be proud of. It makes later cards, such as those from my Baby Boomer childhood, look positively generic.
I did wonder why so many of the photos used for cards were taken in the winter or early spring? You can tell from the leafless trees. At first I thought it might be that leafy branches hid part of the architecture, but the few summery scenes proved this not to be the case. The book did not mention this concern and I’m not sure if I will ever find the answer, though I plan on doing some more research. Perhaps I ought to ask one of the postcard vendors at local antique shows?
While this book focused on one state in one country, I’m sure that other locations would prove just as fascinating. It’s just one of many ways to learn about local history. I’ve noticed that postcards in general are harder to find these days, it used to be that every store and business had a small rack of them near the counter. So this book may be doing more than just recording historical sights and events, it may also be a tribute to a waning keepsake.

The Kent State University Press 1997 257 pp. ISBN 0-87338-569-1

One comment on “Ohio in Historic Postcards:Self Portrait of a State by H. Roger Grant

  1. Linda Gleisser
    October 7, 2014

    Nice job – I always walk right by the postcards – maybe next time I’ll stop.

    Linda G.

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