Separated from loved ones during the pandemic, many of us have been staying in touch with good old fashioned postcards. Americans’ love of postcards dates back to 1893, when the first souvenir postcards were sold at the World Columbian Exposition in Chicago. The postcard craze caught on quickly. By 1915, millions of postcards changed hands. Many were carefully preserved in albums and displayed in homes across America. Before radio and television, postcard collections provided entertainment and a window into the wider world.
Historic Saranac Lake recently acquired a wonderful album of some 80 postcards portraying the daily life of TB patients in Saranac Lake during the early 1900s. Over many years, Florence Wright carefully collected and preserved cards mailed from the booming health resort. One postcard, sent in 1909, summed up Saranac Lake at the time, "We leave here today, had a big time. The Village is just fine, lots of sick people here."
In the early 1900s, postcards were printed in Germany by highly specialized printers, and the images are startlingly clear. Beautiful buildings appear in now empty lots, a horse pulls a pair of friends in a sleigh down Main Street, a speed skater takes a turn.
At first, postal regulations prohibited writing on the flip side, so senders wrote messages over the image on the front. Eventually, rules changed and allowed for writing on the back, making for longer and more interesting messages. Looking at old postcards, one phrase at a time, human experience comes into focus, from the mundane to the deeply personal.
Many of the cards from Saranac Lake are written by TB patients. They describe intense cold on cure porches and personal health facts like daily temperature readings and weight gain. Messages tend to be short, and many sentences are fragments. Yet there is often an easy familiarity between the sender and receiver. Many of the postcards are clearly written in the context of frequent exchanges of letters and cards.
Just before WWI, the U.S. enacted tariffs that disrupted the postcard industry. Printing moved from specialized German companies to firms here at home that lacked the technology and expertise to create clear images. Inferior, cheap postcards flooded the market, and the postcard craze started to wane. Still, postcards continued to be purchased and shared, documenting daily life in the health resort.
Florence’s postcards show that one hundred years ago, people were coping with the personal and public health threat of tuberculosis in many of the same ways we are responding to the pandemic today, with a mix of worry, fear, and sadness, but also hope, gratitude, and love. Each postcard is a poignant statement of the human need to connect with one another. In 1908, one person wrote to a friend in Cazenovia, “I can't help but be a bit lonesome. Still people are very kind to me. Be sure and write soon."
This summer we will unveil a new exhibit titled, “Pandemic Perspectives,” exploring connections between our experience of the current pandemic and life in Saranac Lake during the TB years. The exhibit will include some of Florence’s postcards, and visitors will be invited to write their own notes describing what they have felt in the past year. We hope you will come drop us a line!
RESOURCE: “Wish You Were Here!: The Story of the Golden Age of Picture Postcards in the United States,” by Fred Bassett, Senior Librarian, Manuscripts and Special Collections, New York State Library. 2016.
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