Wish you were here: Postcards’ odd and artful past is seen in one man’s collection
by Brooke Carbo
bcarbo@annistonstar.com
Dec 16, 2012 | 2774 views |  0 comments | 10 10 recommendations | email to a friend | print
Jerry York’s collection is full of turn-of-the-century street scenes, family portraits and county fairs. York estimates he has about 600 postcards from Calhoun County, with separate albums for Anniston, Oxford, Jacksonville and Fort McClellan. Photo: Brooke Carbo/The Anniston Star
Jerry York’s collection is full of turn-of-the-century street scenes, family portraits and county fairs. York estimates he has about 600 postcards from Calhoun County, with separate albums for Anniston, Oxford, Jacksonville and Fort McClellan. Photo: Brooke Carbo/The Anniston Star
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They travel near and far, by truck and train, from locales both tropical and temperate — messages from loved ones, scrawled on the back of a 4x6-inch paper record of their travels. “Greetings from sunny California.” “Aloha from Honolulu.” “Virginia is for lovers.”

Or, “My parents went to Pascagoula and all I got was this lousy postcard.”

No matter the wording, nothing cheers up a mailbox full of utility bills and junk mail like the bright colors and wish-you-were-here sentiments of a postcard.

In the age of instant uploading, fewer postcards may be going to and fro, but the hobby of collecting these quintessential souvenirs is still going strong in Oxford.

There, in an apartment off the main house designated as the Man Cave, Jerry York houses his collection of around 30,000 postcards, in binders bearing labels like “Airships,” “Fort McClellan” and “Favorites.”

A born collector, York began collecting stamps in elementary school, a few of which were attached to advertising covers — “envelopes that have little advertisements on them,” he explained. While working as a salesman in Meridian, Miss., he would take these covers with him on sales calls “as a conversation piece.”

During one such call, a State Farm agent put York in touch with a kindred spirit, a collector not of stamps but of postcards.

“He said, ‘I got someone you need to meet.’ I drove out there in the afternoon and didn’t leave until 11:30 that night,” York recalled. “I’ve been a postcard collector ever since.”

York spent the next 15 years amassing his collection “just here and there,” he said, browsing thrift shops and estate sales, running ads on local radio. He became a registered dealer and began trading at postcard shows on the weekends.

York’s collection, which dates back to the late 1800s, is a visual aid to history, tracking the progression from cheap correspondence to glossy memento while providing tiny windows to another place and time.

“There’s a story to everything in here,” York said. And 30,000 wish-you-were-here moments can tell a lot of stories, from the romantic to the absurd, the heartbreaking to the macabre.

“It’s a fascinating hobby,” York said. “Sheep herders, convicts, parade floats — everywhere you look there is something fascinating.”

A grand debut

When the World’s Columbian Exposition came to Chicago in 1893, Americans were introduced to more than just the Ferris wheel and those souvenir penny-flattening machines. Against the magnificent and high-profile backdrop of the World’s Fair, the first picture postcard made its debut.

“Before 1893, there were no postcards,” York said. “There was no such thing.”

What there was were government-issue postal cards — a perfectly sensible if lackluster method for spreading news on a budget.

The 1-cent cards were “truly a way to correspond cheaply,” York explained.

Next to such stark formality, the World’s Fair postcards easily captured the imagination, setting off a craze that has put the flattened souvenir penny to shame. Ironically, those picture postcards were printed on the back of government-issue postal cards, with the permission of the U.S. Postal Service. It would take five more years and an act of Congress before private printers were allowed to make their own private mailing cards.

Windows to the past

Once postcard production was no longer an exclusive right of the government, everyone wanted in on the act. Anyone could have a photo printed on postcard paper, slap a stamp on it and grace the mail system with an image of their choosing.

These real photo cards, as they were called, were as varied as the people who sent them. They captured something the idealistic landscapes of modern postcards can’t, something York appreciates.

“My very favorite are real photo postcards,” he said. “I like the ones that truly picture the way it was back then.”

One of his favorite scenes dates back to around 1910 and shows two shop proprietors standing in their hardware store. The image’s sharp details allow viewers to get a meticulous glimpse into the past. “You can actually read the signs up on the wall,” York said.

York’s collection is full of turn-of-the-century street scenes, family portraits and county fairs. Itinerant photographers traveled around the country taking pictures of whatever folks fancied putting on a postcard, he said.

“They’d go out to people’s farms and take pictures of their horses,” said York. “People would send postcards to show they’d had their house just built.”

Another image in York’s collection shows two convicts — one black, one white — standing in a yard holding shovels. A large stick can be seen tied around the leg of the white convict, to hobble him should he try to run away, York explained. On either side of the prisoners stands a guard, one holding a shotgun and the other a buggy whip.

It seems an odd image to choose as a greeting, but as York said, “That’s the kind of thing you find in old real photo postcards.”

Don’t wish you were here

Farm animals and convicts may seem like strange postcard fodder, but they’re a virtual Hawaiian sunset compared to some other fads from postcards’ youth.

One common theme from the era was the disaster card. Every calamity from train derailments to national tragedies seemed to make its way onto a postcard.

“Disasters were a big thing,” said York. “I have a real photo postcard of the Hindenburg burning away.”

But perhaps the most peculiar trend was what was known as the postmortem postcard. As York explained, starting in the 1900s all the way into the early 1920s it was common practice when a loved one passed to have a photographer present at the funeral. A photo would be made of the deceased dressed in Sunday best and laying in a coffin, and postcards printed. The family then had a handy way to announce the death to distant friends and relatives.

Greetings from beautiful Calhoun County

York estimates he has about 600 postcards from Calhoun County, with separate albums for Anniston, Oxford, Jacksonville and Fort McClellan.

Many are real photo cards — Noble Street both day and night, a baseball game at Zinn Park, Oxford Lake at the turn of the century, scenic shots of churches across the county.

The card York calls his “pride and joy” captures Anniston’s first fire chief, Roscoe Rainwater, sitting stoically atop the fire department’s horse-drawn wagon, taken around 1910, he estimates.“That’s my treasure,” he said.

That postcard is included in the new book “Calhoun County Memories: A Pictorial History,” presented by the Anniston Star. The new coffeetable book features more than 250 historic images and newspaper front pages, from the 1800s through today, drawn from local residents and organizations, as well as the newspaper’s archives.

Fort McClellan offers a treasure trove of postcards as well. A number of advances in printing technology occurred between two world wars. The domination of real photos began to give way to brightly colored cartoons and illustrations, printed first on linen, then on photochrome cardstock. As the Greatest Generation embraced its patriotic duty, military postcards soared in popularity.

One of the greatest finds in York’s collection is not his rarest card or the oldest or the most valuable. It doesn’t show a dead body or a burning airship. It’s a simple color shot of a quaint Oxford home taken in the 1930s, of what was once a county tourist attraction. The Mellon House sits six miles down the road from York’s home. It’s the only card of its kind he’s ever seen. He found it sitting in a bowl in a thrift shop in Tucson, Ariz.

“Only postcard of an Oxford residence I’ve ever found, and I found it in Tucson,” York marveled.

Like he said, “There’s a story behind every card.”

‘Calhoun County Memories’

Many of Jerry York’s postcards and historic photos are included in the new book ‘Calhoun County Memories: A Pictorial History,” presented by the Anniston Star.

The coffee table book features more than 250 historic images and newspaper front pages, from the 1800s through today, drawn from local residents and organizations, as well as the newspaper’s archives.

The book can be purchased for $39.95 in the lobby of the Anniston Star, 4305 McClellan Blvd., or online at calhoun.pictorialbook.com.
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