Send Me A Postcard!

'Picture Perfect' Postcards Of The Past

By Vern Colby

Seacoast Scene

August 3, 1981
Trolleys at the bandstand
A famous Hampton Beach "trolleys/bandstand" postcard.
Great Boars Head in background.

[A courtesy photo/postcard.]

Next time you're in a gift shop, variety store, drug store, news store, motel or hotel lobby -- in fact, almost any retail enterprise at a vacation spot such as ours -- if you will poke your eyes around the chances are favorable that you'll see some sort of rack with colorful picture postcards.

Some of the cards will show aerial views of the busier spots of our beaches, others will be closer looks at points of view; Fuller Gardens, N.H. Marine Memorial, fishing party boats, bathing beauties. One fact to note is that most of the scenes were photographed in the reasonably present day, some as recent as last summer. They do picture the present; show the coastal view of the Late Seventies and Early Eighties.

Last Saturday at a home in Hampton Falls, we met a woman postcard collector from Providence, R.I., Phyllis Ansell. She and Scotty Ansell came to Hampton Beach for their honeymoon eighteen years ago and have returned every summer since. Her mother collected postcards for fifty years, was President and Editor, Rhode Island Postcard Club for 13 years. Phyllis is now editor of the club's news bulletin, and became a collector herself nine years ago. One of her specialties is Hampton Beach cards, and she has more than 2000 different cards of Hampton Beach views. Since she started this collection series, she has purchased every new card each year. Her Hampton Falls' host, Emile Dumont, is a newer collector, serious and full of enthusiasm about the hobby, has over 600 historic Hampton Beach cards.

Longest wooden bridge
"Longest wooden bridge in the world!"
[A courtesy photo/postcard.]
We spent several hours studying the best collection of these to show you -- learned a lot about the old beach, too. Two cards show the sad and disastrous Great Fire of September 1915; one shows event -- flames flaring, black smoke billowing, and people walking on the beach. A c.1908 card shows the mile long, "Longest Wooden Bridge In The World" over the Hampton River; women in long dresses and broad-rimmed hats, a gentleman in a derby, and a trolley car are featured. Years ago there was a ballfield at the rear of the Hampton Beach Casino where the parking lot is now -- making you realize that cars guzzle space as well as gas -- and there is a card of a ballgame, maybe c.1908, or so. Well, we won't steal our own thunder -- we think you'll enjoy the pictures presented.

But the cards prove several points: They show what the cars of many decades looked like -- and the colors c.1915 show some black, one gold-green, and one bright red roadster. They show what people wore: often quite formal with suits, caps or boaters, long white dresses. How the same spots have changed: once an elevated walkway ran across the street, connecting the Casino with the Ocean House )present location of McDonald's). The messages on the cards reveal familiar urgencies -- "Dear Peggie, don't forget your lessons!" "Dear Helen, we are very sunburned -- it's been a lovely day!" "Dear Blanche, I left a lot of stuff for the cat, but it's probably all gone. I think if you go to the garden for strawberries and peas, you could feed her. Having lovely time and weather, Mildred."

A day on the sands
A day on the sands at Hampton Beach.
Hampton Beach Casino in background.
[A courtesy photo/postcard]

Human nature stays much the same. Note the recurrence of "a lovely day -- having a lovely time!" The writer has worked some recently with postcards: one expert tutored him on desirable views, "Remember, people are looking for a picture so inviting that it really says, 'See how pretty it is, don't you wish you were here like I am?" Of course, that's overstating, nobody ever invited anything so perfect for short messages to friends -- and one picture is worth a thousand words!

The history of souvenir, picture postcards is old, but not ancient -- say 90 years. No dating is exact, because post cards themselves go back at least to 1861 in various forms -- brief business messages, short notes, advertisement. Generally, though, picture postcards in the U.S. are credited to Chicago's World's Columbian Exposition of 1893 (400th anniversary discovery of America). That Chicago Fair was our competitive reply to the Universal Exposition, Paris, 1889. America produced the first Ferris Wheel for Chicago to answer the Eiffel Tower built for the Paris Fair -- somewhat same as Russia's Sputnik's spurred our spaceflight program. Paris beat us on postcards -- people could buy a card with a view of the Eiffel Tower at the bottom, and mail it at a special post office at the top.

In 1898, an Act of Congress gave privately printed postcards the same postal privileges as government cards -- e.g. same 1 cent postage rather than 2 cents as had been the requirement. By 1905, postcards had reached what seemed fad proportions. In 1906, people were thinking of reaching the North Pole (Peary, 1909), and that must have seemed as remote as the moon; a newspaper joke speculated about the first sight to be seen at the pole -- answer: Eskimos selling postcards. Post Office records show that in 1913, more than 968,000,000 cards were mailed in the U.S. Quite a group of postcards were in 1905 of the signing of the Treaty of Portsmouth, one favorite view, of course, being Wentworth by the Sea.

Despite our changing times, and inflation in cards and postage, scenic summertime cards show surprising popular appeal -- vacationing people want to send a picture and brief message of where they've been and what they've seen "back home." A good guess of how many cards bought annually in readership area would be a half-million. About everyone buys a postcard now and then; young and old, men and women.

The "Postcard Rack" holds
12,000 cards!
In all our towns, many stores have attractive selections. As a general rule, and as a practical due to the need for mass printing of cards, each area offers views of local interest -- you don't sell Newburyport cards in Portsmouth. The floor stand, revolving rack is one common way to display. Such racks are now used for a number of items -- paperback books, etc. -- but the revolving rack was originally "think up" for postcards in 1908. The largest single rack we've ever seen seems to be a sturdy, old grandfather going back a number of decades. That rack stands at the Casino Gift Shop, is as tall as a 7' basketball player who's have trouble putting his arms around it -- holds about 12,000 postcards.

Card collecting must be fun. For one thing it proves that history repeats. We've just finished a story about antique aeroplane rides from Hampton Airfield.

When we studied the collectors' albums, we found a card that certainly dated to the early days of this century, and it showed a biplane standing on the sand at Hampton beach that might have belonged to the Wright Brothers -- even had a propeller at the back -- and it was giving scenic rides of our seacoast!

True collectors like to stay in touch with each other -- to trade, to encourage beginners. There are postcard clubs all over this country, and in Europe where picture postcards began. Most clubs have annual exhibits, and there is an international show in the U.S. annually. Sources of old cards are antique shops, flea-markets, dealers and club members through meetings and monthly bulletins. Our two new friends have collectors' zeal and hobbyists' friendliness. So if you would like to trade, start this hobby, are a local history buff; don't hesitate to contact Emile Dumont of Hampton Falls, or write Mrs. Phyllis Ansell, Rhode Island Postcard Club, 30 Rodman St., Providence, R.I. 02907.

[See also:Hampton Reprint Postcards
and Postcards "To The Folks Back Home",
and, Hand-made Post Cards From Hampton Beach, Ca. 1916.]