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Real Photo Postcards

Candid photos of your house in an earlier guise may hide in collectible postcards.


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Any record of what your old house looked like in the past becomes a valuable guide for restoring altered or lost features--from porches and ornament to landscaping and paint treatments. However, researching a former appearance can be a difficult task without some good photographs. An often overlooked source of visual documentation is the photographic postcard, also called the real-photo postcard.

Real-photo postcards are an early breed of postcard, popular just after 1900, where the image is an actual photograph, rather than one reproduced hundreds of times with the photo-engraving process of magazines and books. Real-photo postcards were made possible by the genius of George Eastman, who developed a light weight, hand-held box camera that greatly simplified photography. Since Eastman preloaded each camera with 100 exposures of film, the photographer had only to take the picture--the source of Kodak's famous slogan, "You press the button, we do the rest." When the film was completely exposed, the photographer returned the whole camera to Kodak for developing, where he or she had a choice of prints or sepia- colored real-photo postcards.

Beginning in 1902 Kodak offered a preprinted card back that allowed postcards to be made directly from negatives. Using this Kodak postcard stock, itinerant photographers roamed towns, cities, and countrysides photographing and selling postcard views of streets, homesteads, houses, and places of business. Local entrepreneurs hired them to record area events and the homes of prominent citizens. These postcards documented important buildings and sites, as well as parades, fires, and floods. Realtors used them to sell new housing by writing descriptions and prices on the back. Real-photo postcards became expressions of pride in home and community, and were also sold as souvenirs in local drug stores and stationery shops.

Fortunately for us, these local photographers often identified the subject of a real-photo postcard by writing the name of the street, town, or homeowner on the negative, making it a permanent part of the photograph. Professionals sometimes used a camera with a sliding door that allowed them to crop the image, leaving a white space on the postcard margin for names. These notations are what make real-photo postcards so valuable as documentation of old houses. They give us an annotated--and often spontaneous--glimpse into the past.

Finding Photos

Where can you find a real-photo postcard of your house or street? With luck, it could be as close as the collection of a local postcard club or historical society. Antique shops, flea markets, and old bookstores in your area may also have vintage postcards. Don't forget to check the family postcard album and that shoebox of postcards in the attic. Visit shows with dealers in antique books, postcards, and paper collectibles. When traveling, explore the region's antique and book stores. Postcards were, of course, often mailed, so you may find one of your town in a place far from home--and at a bargain. Subject, condition, and demand set postcard prices. For example, real-photo postcards of New Jersey seaside towns are very collectible in that area and expensive. In the Midwest, however, they should come much cheaper. Don't buy a card that is bent, damaged, or missing a corner unless you absolutely must have it.

Now that you've located that elusive postcard view of your house, how can you roughly date it? There are useful clues, even if the card lacks a postmark or stamp because it was never mailed. Kodak, the biggest supplier, made real-photo postcards between roughly 1902 and 1910. Before March 1, 1907, the U.S. Postal Service required that one side of the postcard was to be used for the address only; any message had to be written on the picture side. After March 1907, Kodak was able to print real-photo postcards with divided backs for both message and address--a format particularly popular with amateur photographers. Since professionals could order their name or logo preprinted on the card stock, the postcard back may also help identify the photographer.

As with archival photographs, use a magnifier to study your postcards. They can provide valuable photographic evidence of landscape features, missing fences, and architectural elements. If a postcard is faded, try scanning it into a computer. By using resolution techniques, you can bring out details that are impossible to read even with an optical loupe. Also like photographs, store photographic postcards in archival sleeves or archival photograph albums, away from bright light that will fade them.

Real-photo postcard collecting is a thriving hobby, and there are organizations to help with your research (see Resources). Should you want to make your own postcards, Kodak is again producing real-photo card stock in 100- and 500-sheet packs. No special cameras or postcard-sized negatives are needed.


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