Pratt Museum curator Savanna Bradley calls things like postcards “ephemeral” objects — the kind of item that on first glance might seem an unlikely artifact of a museum’s collection.
But postcards have proven “to be an indispensable form of community record keeping across the globe, giving us bite size glimpses into the past,” as Bradley writes in the description to the museum’s latest exhibit, “Greetings from the Past: History in Postcards,” which opened last Thursday in the Pratt’s Community Gallery.
“When seen displayed in people’s houses, they’re on the outside of a refrigerator or pinned to a wall,” Bradley said. “People don’t often think about postcards as being linked to a collection.”
Think of them as the historic equivalent of Instagram or Twitter posts, Bradley said.
“Greetings from the Past” is on display through the end of the year and looks at the history of postcards as seen through the museum’s collection. It also connects to another Pratt project, “Postcards from Unprecedented Times,” in which people are invited to document the current times they live in — especially with the crisis of a worldwide pandemic — and drop a postcard to the museum. They also can pick up pre-printed cards with a prompt on which they may write, draw, paint or collage their response. A box at the “Greetings from the Past” exhibit is set up to collect those postcards. They will be scanned by museum staff, and people can then take postcards that have been contributed.
“Rarely anymore do we actually correspond with each other,” said Pratt Museum Executive Director Jennifer Gibbins of the project. “…It just a simple thing that is kind of fun.”
According to an undated article by the Smithsonian Institution, postcards date back to 1861, when John P. Charlton copyrighted the first postcard in America and the U.S. Congress authorized privately printed cards weighing 1 ounce or less to be sent in the mail. The government printed postcards that cost one penny to send had a space for an address on one side and a message on the other side. Private postcards cost two cents to send, and had to be marked “private mailing card.”
Bradley said Pratt volunteer Sarah Beggs’ research showed one use of such postcards. Because mail was then delivered twice a day, someone could send a message by morning post and get a reply that afternoon — say, an invitation to dinner and a response. There was something of a postcard craze during the late 19th century and early 20th century, Bradley said. Postcards also came to be printed as souvenir items for big expositions.
The modern postcard came about in the late 19th century, when images covered the entire front of a card with space on the back for the address. In the early 20th century, postal regulations allowed for a short note along with the address. Black-and-white photographs also could be printed with the postcard format on the blank back — custom postcards using images taken by the sender. Full-color postcards as we know them came about in the 1940s after World War II. This was also about the time postcard collecting, called deltiology, became a serious hobby like stamp collecting.
The Pratt Museum’s collection come from the collection of people like T.D. Hogan.
“They’re kind of funny,” Bradley said. “They’re sent to a town and not an address, kind of documenting where he had been visiting.”
A display of postcards in the “Greetings from the Past” shows an array of these kind of postcards. Some include handwritten notes, like one that reads, “Been awaiting a letter from you for long time. What’s the delay? My negligence is no excuse for you!” Others feature historic images from around Alaska, like sled dog teams, the Anchorage Fur Rendezvous and a whaling ship.
Postcards from Homer show the historic Heady Hotel — now King’s Landing — and Land’s End Resort when it was just one wing. There’s an obligatory postcard of a large halibut. One postcard shows Pioneer Avenue before it was paved. There’s even a campaign postcard with a photo of the Yule and Ruth Kilcher family and a message on the back that reads, “Vote Kilcher for the House Aug. 24.”
Bradley said she tried to look for postcards with messages, but those were hard to find. Some postcards were never sent, which reflects the 21st century postcard as a souvenir and not something to be mailed.
“Going through my own stuff at my house, I’ve found piles of duplicate postcards I meant to keep for myself and also send out,” Bradley said. “I wonder how many other people do that.”
Some postcards also were used as advertising.
“I think my favorite is an oven pad, a hot pad,” she said. “It says something about hot issues and so-and-so handles them.”
Other postcards might be the kind found in a magazine where you tear it out and send it to the advertiser for more information. Included in the exhibit is a card from Allstate Insurance with a form to mail in to get an insurance quote for a new car.
Postcards have been featured as art over the years as well, such as in mail art shows in which artists made art in postcard format and sent to a gallery for a show. Bradley recalled another trend when she was in college.
“You would anonymously post a subject based on some secret,” she said. “It was something intimate you sent through the mail, but someone on the other end was receiving this deep secret about yourself.”
Bradley said she thinks “Greetings from the Past” opens up “a discussion of postcards and the stories they hold, whether that’s the pages themselves or the thing that are written on them.”