ArticlesDestinationsHistory & Heritage

Going Postal

Photography by Daniel Vaughan
Postcard images courtesy Bud and Jill Guertin

Vintage postcard collectors help tell the story of cities and crossroads

Most of us still buy a few holiday postcards for friends who don’t receive our Facebook albums or email updates. Once though, the humble postcard was the social media of the day – before even telephones – in a faraway time when trains ran often to the smallest communities, and the mail might arrive twice daily. A time when few owned cameras, and a postcard view might be the only way to show off a holiday destination, or a new town. Few magazines carried illustrations, so people were hungry for images of the exotic world outside their own.

Deltiology is the study and collection of postcards. A visit to the Toronto Postcard Club website reveals the attraction of vintage view and art postcards. The club is one of dozens which sponsor shows, publish books, make presentations, and share online galleries. For modern enthusiasts, old postcards evoke a bygone era – glimpses of what we valued and what amazed us, our taste, our turns of phrase, and the innocence of a gentler time.

It is generally agreed the picture postcard began in Austria in 1869. Initially governments retained a monopoly, printing pre-stamped cards and postal stationery. In Canada, laws changed about 1905, permitting pictures and dropping postal rates to a penny. The divided-back postcard appeared, the format familiar to us today – equal space devoted to address and message, the front reserved for an image.

Photographers began taking photos for postcards, and an industry boomed. English companies sent photographers to capture the grandeur of our natural wonders. Producers like Valentine and Sons of Dundee, Scotland, and Tucks of England produced thousands of high-quality black and white or colourized views of Canadian scenes. Photos were hand-coloured and lithographed; the highest quality images were produced in Germany.

This source dried up with the First World War, ushering in the white-border era. The postcards of the ’20s to ’40s literally paled in comparison as Canadian and American printers tried and failed to emulate German printers’ high quality. The white-border cards are sepia-toned or coloured, and feature ink-saving white edges.

About 1939, the postcard most familiar to us – the high gloss, brightly coloured photochrom view card – appeared on the market. And stayed.

Real photo postcards have greatest value. The images were taken on 8-by-10-inch glass negatives and printed on actual photographic paper rather than produced on a printing press. Real photo postcards can be enlarged to render clear detail, without the dots associated with printed images, and are invaluable to historical researchers.

Today we associate postcards with views of places, but in their heyday the range of images was endless: full-colour embossed holiday greetings, cards featuring ribbons and embroidery, and subjects ranging from flora and fauna, to paintings and sculpture, indigenous peoples and movie stars, buildings and machinery, royalty and presidents, parades and exhibitions, humorous cards, and sentimental portraits of children and beautiful women.. A line of Gruss Aus (greetings from) souvenir cards ushered in the wish-you-were-here era.

The Edwardian era is considered by enthusiasts as the Golden Age of the picture postcard. The numbers, variety, beauty, and quality of the pre-First World War cards made them very collectible, and a new craze emerged. Collectors assembled albums designed for parlour display, and callers would be invited to view new acquisitions. Many collectors advertised in newspapers and conducted extensive correspondence to exchange cards of specific types.

The Canadian post office recorded 27,000 cards posted in 1900, 41 million in 1908, and more than 60 million in 1913 (at a time when Canada’s population was about 7 million.) Postcards linked the country together and contributed to a Canadian identity.

The enthusiasm of modern-day postcard enthusiasts echoes that of Edwardian collectors, but their focus is somewhat different. In the 1970s the volume of postcards on the market increased dramatically, as boomers cleared out grandmother’s attic, or disposed of unwanted turn-of-the-century collections. Flea markets and antique shops featured postcards, clubs were formed, and a new generation of collectors began trading cards.

This is when Bud and Jill Guertin, long-time antique dealers at Harbourfront antique market, caught the bug, becoming vendors and collectors. What was the appeal? Postcards are historical records and collecting them is a hobby that rewards the curious.

Thousands of cards in metal storage boxes wait for the right collector. Bud and Jill know what’s collectible. Elaborately decorated Victorian greeting cards are not hot, and even Santa Claus is not so popular now, unless wearing green or purple. Advertising cards, printed with exaggerated claims for their product, are very collectible. Postcards promoting upcoming local events, like a card promoting Ted Snider playing at the Presqu’ile Pleasure Palace, are scarce, hence valuable. Especially sought-after are signed artist cards produced in Europe.

Most collectors value postcards with personal associations, once-bustling places changed or abandoned by progress, like Hilton and Orland, Halloway and Melrose, Lake on the Mountain and Bethesda. Bud and Jill have four views of tiny Menie, for example. How on earth? In the day, a photographer would visit a community, and take photos of the church, mill, store, bridge, houses – anything that moved – and print postcards. Bud has a card of the Smithfield Railway, a long-gone train line serving the village between Brighton and Trenton.

Some enthusiasts collect the work of specific photographers. Evans captured scenes along the north shore of Lake Erie, J.W. Bald worked out of Owen Sound, Clarence and Henry Herington covered Trenton and area. Bud believes photographers would make a gentleman’s agreement not to overlap territories.

Herington took photos in winter. It must have been fiendishly difficult to capture an image before the photographic plate froze. Bud displays postcards of an iceboat crash on the Bay of Quinte, and yacht races, clearly shot from a following boat, shots difficult enough today with supersonic shutter speeds.

Herington cards are highly coveted. Fortunately, there were lots of them. Bud shows off a photo card of Foxboro Methodist Church. Printed on the back: “125,000 photo postcards made in 1910.” By 1912, the number was 180,000.

The images, and messages, tell us our history. Bud recalls a 1910 card mailed to the Brighton area Loomis Farm from a shipper in Montreal acknowledging receipt of a shipment of barrels of apples, destined for steamship to Glasgow. Another favourite shows local apple pickers. A school report card, replete with subject failures, was mailed on a postcard.

Bud brings out albums, and hovers over each page. Here’s an album of train stations – trains with steam puffing, troops embarking for war, train wrecks. A card features the, 1st regular Canadian Northern passenger train leaving Trenton for Toronto October 9, 1911. “It promptly fell off the tracks at Grafton, and Herington was there to capture it.”

Bud’s passion is local sports teams. In old postcard images we relive the glory days of the Trenton Hockey League, 1908 Champions of the St. Lawrence League, the Deacon Trenton-to-Belleville foot races, and the Trenton Fire Department’s Eastern League win in the hook and ladder competition. Social events like the School Children’s Parade at the June 1913 Old Boys at Home, the Gilmour Band and Grace Church Orchestra, and sedate gatherings at 12 O’clock Point remind us how we once played. A favourite is a card written by long-distance runner Tom Longboat – it’s from Madison Square Gardens; Tom wrote home to share his plans to continue to the Boston Marathon.

Ian S. Robertson began writing local history articles for Bloomfield-based County magazine in 1976; some reappear in Prince Edward County: An Illustrated History (2009). Ian authored Camp Picton: Wartime to Peacetime in 2013, and most recently, The Monarch of Main Street, a history of the town’s beloved movie theatre. Ian uses vintage postcard views to illustrate his stories; the before and after comparisons they provide are fascinating.

Ian recommends taking a drive (no, better a walk) in a community, postcard in hand, comparing yesterday and today. “Walk in the footsteps of a hundred years ago. Look at the rooflines, sightline it. Ah, that’s where the livery stable would have been…” What’s changed, what’s remained?

Ian offers a caution to would-be collectors. “Not every collector is organized; it’s important to remember where you got it.” And where you put it. And whether you already have one. A reference to looking for a particular box in “the dreaded storage locker” points out the perils.

Unlike many postcard collectors, Ian came about his fascination for postcards from the back; his interest was in the stamps and later, the postmarks they bore. Old letters often didn’t survive, but postcards, because they were saved for the images, provided him an affordable way to find rare and unusual local postmarks. As a long-time history enthusiast, it wasn’t long before he began turning over the cards.

Ian is conducting research about (and purchasing postcards by) the Heringtons, toying with the idea of a book. Herington cards sometimes show a backwards N in the descriptive text, an error by an office staffer. The text was scraped in reverse on emulsion side of the glass photographic plate used for printing; N is difficult.

As Bud and Jill noted, the Heringtons were everywhere. Using a heavy wooden camera with a brass lens and the iconic black cloth hood, they would cover events like a parade, then race back to the studio, print postcards, and send children back with the cards drying on clothes pegs, to capture the souvenir hunting market before the parade passed by. And we think of those days as slower.

What cards does Ian want? “Things I don’t have. Interesting examples. The rarest stuff is the interiors of buildings.” But he needs to keep looking. He only has a thousand or so.

For most postcard collectors, the handwritten messages on the back are of no interest. Immortalized in elegant ladylike hand, or painstakingly phonetic spelling, the words are less important than the picture.

In a letter-writing era, postcards were used like texting, a quick way to touch bases. Typical notes were, “Haven’t heard from you in a while” or, “Weather fine, how are you?”

“Got your pretty postal” was a frequent message. How meanings change; in those quieter Edwardian days, postcards were often called postals.

Postcard messages shared daily trivia and candid opinions. The witticism, “Hold this card to your ear, if you hear any sound you will hear more than you would if you were here” is a TripAdvisor review from another time. Breezy messages convey the innocence of a world before the First World War changed everything.

Ian shares a story. A card was mailed from Picton to Bloomfield. “Won’t be home for dinner, have to work late.” The postmark reads, “Picton-Trenton RPO.” The sender knew if he dropped off the card at the station, it would arrive in time to prevent domestic discord. Unimaginable today, but possible then because mail was sorted aboard the trains, ready for home delivery when the train pulled into the station.

Harvest results from western homesteaders, a reference to scarlet fever in the family, a new building project in town all put us in touch with the past. Bud recalls an album containing 800 views of Ontario communities, the story of a young travelling salesman who sent home postcards of Main Street in every town he visited. Then there was an album discovered at an auction. For three years a young fellow wrote from the West. “Weather fine, how are you?” In the final card in the collection he finally became voluble. “Hear you’re walking out with ___. Goodbye.”

Collecting postcards requires research. Collectors consult published price guides and study the market before buying. Herington cards sell really well, for example. Ian recounts an eBay offering of a card featuring Clarence Herington in a long coat recently listed at $500. For a collector of Herington cards, that would have been a wistful moment. Many factors influence price. Cards are more expensive with people in the photos, he explains.

Not surprisingly, the condition of a postcard affects the price it commands. Pristine is the standard, “unless it’s something you’re collecting, or a rare card.” But typically, broken corners and folds are a deal-breaker.

As in all things, prices continue to go up. In the 1970s a mint condition holiday greeting card would sell for 50 cents; today the same card would fetch three to five dollars. But these pretty things are nowhere near as collectible as the high-quality real photo postcards which command a minimum of $30 US today.

If enthusiasts like Ian, Bud, and Jill don’t tempt readers to visit the next postcard show, perhaps some virtual collecting is in order. Websites of the Toronto Postcard Club and others, and online library collections from Toronto to the Smithsonian provide access to an endless array of postcard art, geography, and social history. Locally, the Community Archives of Belleville and Hastings County, the Quinte West Library, the Brighton Digital Archives, and others invite us to go postal – to step through a portal into our ancestors’ lives, and a long-vanished past.



Please follow and like us: