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Picture Postcards, A Window to the Past

So it was the new divided backs allowing message and address on the same side that ushered in the post card mania. The frenzy, sometimes called the Golden Age, continued until WWI. After this time postcards returned to being just postcards and not a thing that required the building of a new storage closet.

In the last twenty years postcards have again attained “collectible” status, and there are three basic types of scenic cards, (disregarding the greeting card type postcards for holidays and birthdays that were popular in the early days). Linens are colorful prints on a textured paper. The colors are often not quite true, or sometimes are variable (i.e. the exact same scene is printed in somewhat different shades). They have a painterly feel to them and were printed roughly 1930-1945. The earlier color cards were often printed in Europe, sometimes even those of American postcard publishers, but WWI and high tariffs ended that arrangement.

Chromes, taken from Kodak’s Kodachrome film, are basically color photographs printed on a printing press, the type of postcard found on the rack today, and first came out in 1939.The black and white Real Photo cards (1900-1960) were actually individual photographic prints. These cards, being “real photos” as it were, are realistic views of everything and everyplace under the sun, which is what makes them fun and so useful for the researcher. Small-town studio photographers supplemented their portrait work by photographing the local sights. The photos were printed directly onto the photo paper with postcard backs made by a number of companies starting in 1901, and then sold from the studio or local drug store. The scene was identified by a caption etched onto the negative.

A Real Photo card of the Lassen Park Highway by Eastman Studio.

A pre-WWI card printed in Germany

A linen card with fantastically-colored petrified wood from Arizona.

A "large letter" linen card postmarked 1957.

A chrome postmarked 1958.

Major cites and attractions were widely depicted on postcards by many photographers and artists, yet even the tiniest town in America had its street scene post card. This was because the cards were the product of a small local or regional studio, and each Real Photo card was individually printed so that very small quantities could be produced at the same cost. The breadth of subjects is almost endless, resulting in a gold mine of cards that provide a “then and now” time line of streets, buildings, types of businesses, special events, working scenes and everyday activities, not to mention local disasters, that is priceless.

Artfully colored linen era cards often showed things as we wished they might be; blazing sunsets, bountiful blooms, rosy cheeked babies, the whitest snow, the orangest oranges, the reddest redwoods. The cards are appealing but do not provide the historical record that the Real Photo cards do. Saying photo cards are a “window to the past” is trite but true.

In my part of the country (northern California) the itinerant postcard photographer of note was Jervie H. Eastman. Eastman's Studio postcards seem to be everywhere. There are, in fact, 13,000 of them in a repository at the Shields Library of the University of California at Davis, and online. The images span 70 years, 1890-1960.

The postcard photographers respected each other’s territories and there was little overlap. For example, in the Eastman collection, images of state capital Sacramento are absent but Davis and Woodland, a few miles west, and Auburn and Roseville, a few miles east, are well represented. Eastman scoots over the border into southern Oregon a bit and has a few images from the redwoods on the northern California coast, but for the most part he sticks to northeastern California. His panel truck and later station wagon emblazoned “Eastman's Studio, Susanville, California” is often seen in the corner of a postcard, adding a very personal touch.

Eastman bought a studio in Susanville in 1920 from Jack Thompson. He took on a partner, Mirl Simmons in 1936, who bought out Eastman in 1959 and kept at it another twenty years. Between the two of them, mid-20th century life and work in this part of California was well documented. I surmise that other parts of the country had their own “Jervie Eastman”, and for this we should be grateful.
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