The colorful history of Cape Cod postcards
New exhibit and book showcase 100 years of local postcards
“Greetings from Cape Cod”—one vintage postcard reads—“a neck of land where necking is allowed.” The cartoon illustration depicts a “bevy of Cape Cod cuties” swimming just offshore with lobster pots bobbing in the background, while a grizzled old sea captain puffs on his pipe and digs for steamers. “Life’s a beach,” as they say, but since the turn of the 20th century, postcards have served a far nobler purpose than the circulation of puns or the flaunting of vacations for friends still at work. Postcards may be fun, but they are also important snapshots of history, packaged in a medium that is easily accessible, and almost instantly digestible. For beyond the generic beach images, the lobster illustrations and the bawdy caricatures of old Cape Codders with their mermaid pals, postcards serve as important primary source documentation of the Cape’s towns and ever-shifting geography.
Unlike the deluge of images in today’s ubiquitous social media, postcards are tangible; they are slices of the past, or even of the present, that people can hold on to, and indeed, the tradition of collecting postcards is long and rich. As of early June, Ebay offered 3,209 “Cape Cod Collectible Massachusetts Postcards” for sale, most at prices well under $10. Enthusiasts have established collectors’ clubs to share and celebrate postcards, and, like any good hobby, this one has its own scientific name: deltiology, a term coined by Prof. Randall Rhoades of Ashland, Ohio in 1945.
Until its final event in September of 2013, the Cape Cod Postcard Collectors Annual Show convened for 28 years. Smaller shows continue to take place, and local historical societies and museums often feature postcards in their displays and/or permanent collections. For instance, The Centerville Historical Museum is running an exhibit through December titled “Messages From Cape Cod,” and The Brewster Store maintains a treasury of postcards, many of which were produced by former owners of the business, back when it was known as W.W. Knowles & Son.
The Brewster Store’s current proprietor, George H. Boyd III, who owns the store with his wife, Mary Anne, used many of his store’s cards to tell the town’s history in his book, Brewster: The Way We Were, published in 2016. In the preface to his book, Boyd provides an overview of The Brewster Store Postcard Collection and a summary of postcards in American history. The goal of the book, Boyd writes, is “to provide a visual record of Brewster’s past—its homes, businesses and churches—as well as to provide a view of its beaches and countryside.” The Nickerson Estate, the beaches, the old mill and the Sea Pines School for Girls were the most common subjects depicted on the old Brewster postcards, but many of the town’s other iconic homes are included as well.
According to Boyd, the advent of postcards took place in Germany in 1865, but the first actual postal card was issued by the Austrian government on October 1, 1869. For many years, Germany would be a leader in the production of postcards, though, including many featuring Brewster subjects. Boyd reports that in the United States, the U.S. Postal Service held a monopoly on the cards from the issuance of the first one, on May 13, 1873, until Congress passed the Private Mailing Card Act on May 19, 1898. While businesses were now allowed to produce cards, the government controlled the name “postcard,” so companies had to call them “Private Mailing Cards” until 1901, when the prohibition on the name’s use was lifted.
In 1907, the Postal Service introduced the divided back postcard, which allows one to write a note on the left and the recipient’s address on the right. Prior to this, one could only write on the front of the card. The innovation led to the “golden age” of postcards, which Boyd states, “peaked in 1910.” During this time period, he writes, postcards were especially popular among women from rural, small towns in the Northern states. “In 1908,” Boyd writes, “more than 677 million postcards were mailed.”
Randall Hoel, executive director of the Centerville Historical Museum, also emphasizes the popular phenomenon of the postcard. “Postcards were the email, texting and Facebook of their day” Hoel says. “A postcard craze swept the world, as billions of them were mailed or pasted into albums.” In 1997 alone, he adds, 3 billion postcards were sent in the United States. According to Hoel, the popularity of the cards was instantaneous, even years before they featured any type of illustration or photo. Hoel points out that when the cards first went on sale in New York City, on May 12, 1873, the postal service sold 200,000 of them in two and a half hours. “It was as revolutionary as the phone,” he says.
Over the years, The Centerville Historical Museum has inherited many albums and scrapbooks, and its collection of postcards numbers 270—87 of which are currently on exhibit. “People used postcards not only as a quick communication,” Hoel says. “They became collectables.”
In the collections at the Centerville Historical Museum and at The Brewster Store, one can learn about history from both the images as well as the messages scribbled on the postcards. Many are the typical, “Having fun, wish you were here,” type notes, but others read more like something one sends in a 21st-century text message, such as this one, from Brewster, in 1913: “I wonder where you were all the afternoon Tuesday. I couldn’t find you anywhere?” It can be interesting to glimpse into people’s private lives—albeit in a form they knew would be visible to the public—especially in notes from more than 100 years ago.
However, Boyd points out that, “the writing part doesn’t document a lot, though the date stamp can give a historical view.” Another lesson Boyd has learned involves penmanship. “It was bad then, but it’s gotten a lot worse,” he says. “What’s most important,” he adds, “is that postcards clearly document the way the towns looked a long time ago. You have a whole raft of pictures that show buildings, roads and the towns themselves.”
Many of these postcards were not touristy, at least not in the modern sense of the word. Some were promotional, featuring local inns, stores or businesses. “Some were of strange things,” Boyd says, “like a road in the woods.” Another example in his book features a black whale washed up on an East Brewster Beach in 1934, with two men walking away from it in the background. The composition is interesting, and it illustrates an event that sometimes happens on the Cape, but it’s unlikely that anyone would write, “Wish you were here” on the back of this card. Another card that captures the uniqueness of the Cape depicts fish weirs on the flats off Brewster. Carts drawn by ox and mule are in a line along the netting of the weir. The card reads, “Dear Friend: How would you like to go to sea in a cart? This weir is about one mile and a half from the high water mark. Sat. P.M. Jan. 26th, 1906.”
Though postcards thrived in the 20th century and remain to tell the stories of many classic locations on Cape Cod and around the world, both George Boyd and Randall Hoel wonder what the future holds for this mode of communication—and what the ramifications may be for historical documentation of our brave new world in the webs and clouds. “Today,” Boyd says, “an email comes and is gone; it’s not kept.” Platforms such as the popular Snapchat are even worse in this regard, and applications such as Facebook and Instagram have become saturated with so many images that it becomes difficult for people to manage them.
“The digital age is changing the way we inherit history,” says Hoel. “This really shows in a physical collection.” He further notes that in 2015 only 840,000 postcards were mailed, a decrease of more than 300 percent since 1997. Nevertheless, postcards remain popular and continue to feature subjects—such as aerial photos of the Cape Cod shoreline or of Cotuit’s Elizabeth Lowell Park—that capture items of historical interest. “I just don’t know if there is any other place,” Boyd says, “that will show a town the way a postcard collection will.”
The Centerville Historical Museum is located at:
513 S. Main Street, Centerville • centervillehistoricalmuseum.org
The Brewster Store is located at:
1935 Main Street, Brewster • brewsterstore.com
That Fabled Shore, a home decor retailer based in Scituate, turns historic Cape and Islands postcards into night lights, pillows and tempered glass cutting boards. Shop That Fabled Shore’s postcard cutting boards in the Cape Cod Life General Store.