With all of the means of communication that exist in 2012, it's hard to imagine the humble postcard could still have any appeal. But travel to just about any corner of the globe, from Rome, Italy to Rome, Georgia- and you will probably find a rack of colorful cards that feature pictures of local attractions on the front and a space on the back with room to scrawl some variation of the timeless greeting, “Having fun, wish you were here.”
But for folks like Jeff Donat, longtime member of the Allentown Postcard Club, which will celebrate its 30th anniversary next year, those cards are more than just pieces of colorful cardboard. They are history. “I used to collect pictures of racing cars,” he says. “Then I started to collect pictures of cards that had old grist mills on them. And finally I decided that I liked the ones with the grist mills better than the cars so I ended up collecting ones with just grist mills.”
Today Donat says he has collected somewhere between 3,000 and 4,000 postcards- almost all of them grist mills. Although most of those cards deal with local grist mills, one of them features the Maybury Mill on the Blue Ridge Parkway in Virginia. And Donat's collection of grist mill cards has inspired him to get involved in a passion- the movement for the preservation of old mills.
The Allentown Postcard Club, Donat says, was started in 1983 by three local men: Bill Toth, Tom Kish and John Sipos. “They were all members of the Allentown Stamp Collecting Club and it is my understanding that it grew out of that,” he says.
Donat recalls first catching up with the club at Allentown’s Merchant’s Square. Today it has 45 members, with a fairly even mix of men and women. Its current president is Joe Kovas, a postcard dealer from the Philipsburg-Easton area. The group meets once a month, on every third Tuesday. “Sometimes we have a speaker on a particular topic,” says Donat. “We also always encourage members to bring their cards and share ideas.” Today the older cards attract a lot of national and international dealers. Among the best known postcard dealers from the Lehigh Valley is Robert A. Bungerz. Active with the postcard club since 2007, he has authored with Myra Yellin Outwater, “Allentown Remembered,” a wonderfully illustrated book and price guide of Allentown postcards going back into the 19th century.
It is hard to believe but once upon a time there were no postcards. Before regular postal services came into existence, outside of government communications, private letters were a sometime thing. If a sender was lucky he or she would give it to a friend going on a journey with a request that they give it to the intended recipient. This type of system was the norm in Europe up to the 18th century.
With the growth of literacy came the growth of mail routs, the first one in America said to have been established by Benjamin Franklin. But it was really not until the 19th century, with the advent of a wider school system and general growth of literacy, that the concept of postage stamps and letters spread.
By the 1860s the growth of the railroad system and the transportation system in general led to people traveling farther away from home to seek work or to start a business, and the industrial revolution had people working longer hours with less leisure time to write letters. With telephone service in its infancy and telegrams often too expensive by the 1870s, there was a need for a system of cheap, speedy, mass communication. With twice-a-day mail delivery now common in cities, the era of the postcard was waiting in the wings.
As Donat recalls it was a Philadelphian who in 1862 first came up with the idea of a postcard. But it was not until 1872 that the first cards began to appear, largely as advertising.
In 1893 government printed postal cards and private souvenir cards began to appear. Government cards had a printed one-cent stamp and souvenir cards required a two-cent stamp be attached. These cards did not allow for messages to be written on the address side.
In 1898 Congress granted private printers permission to create “private mailing cards” that required a two cent stamp. But messages were still forbidden on the back. Sometimes folks attempted to get around this by writing a few brief message words on the front, like “Found work. Emma.”
From 1901 to 1907 another step was taken when private citizens started to take black and white photos and have them printed on postcard backs. But it was not until March 1, 1907 that the U.S. Post Office agreed to allow cards with divided backs with a space for writing. The practice had already begun in Britain in 1902.
From 1907 to 1914 almost all the picture postcards sent in America were made in Germany. “They had the better printing process, the better inks and the better lithography,” says Donat. But, along with changing the course of history by sparking World War I, the assassination of the Austrian Archduke Franz Ferdinand also reshaped the postcard industry. “Almost all of their postcard making industry was destroyed during the war,” says Donat. This opened the market for the producers of the postcard in the U.S. The next major change was the creation of glossy “chrome” cards in 1939. After 1945 they came to dominate the postcard industry and continue to do so today.
But for members of the Allentown Postcard Club, those cards most importantly offer a sense of the past.