January 6th, 2014
A uniquely valuable resource for historical research is the picture postcard. First introduced in the later 19th century as a novel method for convenient communication, the postcard soon became a collectible item in itself, apart from its function for conveying messages. Millions of them were published at the height of the collecting “craze,” peaking in the period 1900-1920. For present-day researchers, the sheer quantity of images produced during this period opens a wide window onto the material culture of the era, including the architecture, transportation, businesses, etc. of cities, towns, and even rural areas.
The West Virginia and Regional History Center possesses thousands of such images in its collection, including places like Morgantown, or subjects such as railroads in West Virginia, or rivers in the region.
When collecting was at its peak, postcard albums were produced to meet the organizational needs of consumers. The History Center possesses a variety of such albums that are typical of the era.
The covers of many of these albums are quite ornate, exhibiting graphic designs common to the period, such as this one once owned by Cordella Donley of Morgantown (A&M 3582):
This album, acquired from a contemporary collector, contains holiday greetings, a popular genre of the era:
This small album, once owned by Ruth Ramsey (A&M 3819) of West Virginia, contains her postcard correspondence from 1900-1918; it includes pictures of natural landscapes, among other types of images:
While antique dealers and collectors are interested in acquiring postcards from this era due to their value as collectible ephemera, archives are interested in the postcards’ considerable value for historical research and preservation, which is discussed in the book edited by Norman D. Stevens entitled Postcards in the Library. We hope to facilitate such research with the postcards we’ve cataloged and made available via West Virginia History OnView, our online photograph database.
Blog post by Michael Ridderbusch, Associate Curator, WVRHC.