Are You a Deltiologist?

By: Carolyn L. Barkley

If you aren’t, you should be – and this term does not refer to some strange profession pertaining to the Army Corps of Engineers! A deltiologist is a collector of postcards, and speaking as a genealogist, postcards can provide interesting visual documentation for your research. Deltiology is considered to be one of the three largest collectable hobbies (with coin and stamp collecting) in the world today.

First, I need to include a slight disclaimer. I develop topics for this blog several weeks, if not a few months, in advance. Thus, as I was planning the content for this article, I opened my newly-arrived NGS Magazine (January-March 2012) and reaffirmed the fact that great (writing) minds think along parallel lines. The issue includes an article entitled “Picture the Past at Your Convenience” by Smiljka Kitanovic, PhD. That’s right – it’s about postcards and their use in genealogical research. I urge you to read that article – right after you’ve read this one!

Several years ago, a reference librarian on my staff began to collect vintage postcards of Virginia Beach, purchasing many of them on eBay. After her death a few years later, her collection was donated to the library and, as the C. Michelle Norton Postcard Collection, eventually became part of the Virginia Beach Public Library’s digital local history collection. Michelle’s passion for collecting, however, led me to my first experiences on eBay, and I began to purchase my own (as yet unorganized) vintage postcards of places that pertained either to my own research, or to sites important to the history of Barclays in Scotland. I happily purchased postcards of the municipal buildings in Springfield, Massachusetts (my grandfather was city clerk); Classical High School, also in Springfield, where my mother went to school; and late nineteenth-century photographs of Stonehaven in Scotland, the home of the Barclays of Urie. Then I retired, I moved, and I became involved in activities that drew my attention away from searching for postcards.

My interest in postcards, however, has been reenergized. Searching through a box of photographs I had brought home from my mother’s house, I found postcards sent between my great-grandmother and my great-grandfather while one or both were away visiting friends. They offer valuable information: postmarks to document a date, pictures to commemorate visits to specific places, and personal notes that provide context to their lives together – all on one small card. In addition to those discoveries, I recently purchased a copy of Elizabeth Spilman Massie and Cortney Skinner’s Waynesboro[VA?], published by Arcadia Publishing. As I’m a newcomer to this part of Virginia, I take every opportunity to learn about the history of the area. The illustrations in Arcadia’s Images of America series, often postcards, provide informative, visual links to present-day locations.

With this renewed interest, I have just checked eBay to see if there are any postcards available for my hometown, East Longmeadow, Massachusetts. I discovered that there were twelve available, including a picture of the train station showing the railroad tracks running beside it. This image is particularly interesting to me as my daughter-in-law and I were there at that site two weeks ago, taking a picture of the station, still standing but no longer in use. Now, in the place of the railroad tracks, there is a walking trail, well-used by community residents. Finding that postcard further fuels my interest in “then and now” juxtapositions of pictures. While looking at other available postcards, I discovered that while almost all have an “enlarge photo” feature to afford an informed choice for purchase, a few have multiple images with close-ups of the postmark as well as images of the message included on the card. (Having just stopped to buy three postcards, I’m back at it!)

The adhesive postage stamp was first used in England in 1840. Prior to that, cartes de visite or other prints on small cards were hand-delivered. In 1861, John P. Charlton of Philadelphia developed the private postal card and these remained on the market until 1873, when the first government-issued pre-stamped postcards appeared. In about 1900, postcards with real photographs became available.  The government, never one to miss an opportunity for regulation, proscribed by law any writing on the address side of postcards until 1907, when the back of the card was split into two areas, allowing for both address and message to appear. Prior to that date, messages were written on the front on top of any photographs or artwork that might appear. The golden age of postcards in the United States occurred during the twenty years between 1898 and 1918. In 1908, United States Post Office archival statistics indicate that 677,777,798 postcards had been mailed, representing, when compared to the population at the time, almost eight cards per person. The beginning of World War I, however, would signal the end of such wide-spread use of the postcard for communication and, with the advent of the telephone, and later the Internet, today’s postcards are purchased usually only as vacation souvenirs, and then, perhaps only because the picture is one that we could not take as well ourselves (or we have aged parents who wonder just where we’ve gone to).

If you would like to learn more about postcards, one significant source is the Institute of American Deltiology, founded in 1993 by Donald Brown, and located in Myerstown, Pennsylvania. Its collection contains over one million postcards, as well as books, periodicals and slides. It includes postcards printed and published by North American companies, real photographic cards from all fifty states, and postcards from all sixty-seven Pennsylvania counties. A small part of this collection is available in the National Trust for Historic Preservation Library Collection, part of Special Collections at the University of Maryland.

In addition to eBay, other commercial sources provide vintage postcards. (The following represent selected links found on Cyndi’s List).

  • ePodunk, although it currently has no Virginia postcards for rural areas such as Nelson County, does offer several for Norfolk, Richmond, Roanoke, and Staunton, among others locations. Postcards are initially shown as thumbnails, but may also be enlarged and may be emailed to yourself or to others at no cost. ePodunk neither prints nor creates digital copies of the postcards on its site.
  • Postcadia: The Document Arcade for Family Historians, based in the United Kingdom, is has a catalog that is searchable by both surname and location. If you find an image you would like, it is scanned and emailed to you, and they accept credit cards and PayPal. I found no postcards for the surname Barclay, but searching under Edinburg, I located two postcards. One of them, postmarked in Edinburg in 1902 (although the image was of the Wallace Statue in Dryburgh), looked interesting, but I could not find any method of enlarging the thumbnail to get a detailed look. Although the £3 cost is reasonable, perhaps I’ll wait.
  • CardCow provides searchable access to postcards on a wide-range of subjects and geographical locations. I was successful in locating several postcards of Nelson County sites including views of the Rockfish Valley from Afton Mountain. Several of these views included the Blue Ridge Terrace Inn, now apartments, but still providing a commanding view of the valley.

Postcards can also be found at flea markets, garage sales, in antique stores, at libraries and archival institutions, and in many other locations. Many of the sites not only sell postcards, but purchase them as well. If you have postcards and would like to learn about their value, you will want to refer to such sources as Philip and David Smith’s Picture Postcard Values 2012, 38th ed. (IPM Promotions, Feb. 2012).

I invite you to be a deltiologist and to enhance the visual interest of your family history with postcards – and remember – read the article on postcards in the January-March 2012 NGS Magazine!

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