The colorful history of Cape Cod postcards
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.”
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