American Family Archives | Postcards | Family History & Archival Care

Part 9:

Postcards – Family History & Archival Care

Why I Gotta Do This:

A Journey into Ancestry, Genealogy, Family History, Antique Photographs, Disorganization, Dysfunction, Chaos, and One Man’s Search for Archival Salvation

postcards, genealogy
“Cousin Lloyd Standing on His Head.”
While many of us think of postcards as mass-produced color images depicting some scenic tourist destination somewhere, there were millions of often one-of-a-kind “private” photographs that were created on postcard-sized photo paper. These were made from negatives of amateur snapshots (see Cousin Lloyd, above) and of professional portrait sittings (see portrait photos, below). In many cases these postcards were never intended to be sent, but rather kept in the family album or archive. Often these postcards are the ONLY images of a particular scene, event or family grouping that exists, and are thus VERY important to archivally preserve.

In rummaging through my family archive, I have come across a lot of old postcards from trips I went on with my parents and siblings, as well as some from trips I took with my former wife and kids. These run-of-the-mill color postcards are kinda boring, so while I am going to archivally preserve them in the family archive—following the suggestions listed below—I figured I would have some serious fun and make up a family / family history with some of the other postcards I have in my collection that I acquired over the years at antique shops. Those postcards need the same level of archival protection, so why not use those to explain proper archival procedures and to illustrate my points.

“Lathrop’s Pet Stock Shop, 27 East Avenue, Rochester, NY”
A commercially produced postcard from c.1907, as dated in the postmark on the back (see photo below). Please notice the rack of postcards in the red box, as picture postcards were indeed everywhere! This pet shop, run by old Uncle Lathrop, specialized in pet squids. Pet squids were quite popular back in the day. Cousin Lloyd had one named Cthulhu (look it up). I never could figure that one out, but Cousin Lloyd’s friend H.P.-something-or-other from down the street really liked Cousin Lloyd’s squid. He used to borrow it and take it on walks, to the store, to church, stuff like that.
The postmark on the back of the postcard from Lathrop’s pet store dates it to 1907 (see red box, above). This is something that YOU can use to date YOUR family postcards if they had been mailed. Please Note: a postmark date indicates when a postcard was mailed, not necessarily when it was first created. This date does, however, allow you to know specifically when the card was actually used by the friend or relative who originally sent it. (Please click here for a truly rich and detailed web resource for dating and discovering much more about old postcards.)

First, the Facts

Long before smartphones, tablet computers, email and social media, people would send all sorts of postcards to their family, friends and loved ones. The subjects of these postcards included everything under the sun, from locally- or amateur-made photographic scenes or portraits (often referred to these days as “real photo postcards” or RPCs) all the way up to mass-produced color lithographs or halftone postcards of major tourist destinations around the world (and Jackalopes, don’t forget the Jackalopes). Today, however, individuals can create and instantly share real-time travel photos (and the dreaded selfie) over social media, making the physical postcard somewhat obsolete or anachronistic.

postcards, genealogy
A mass-produced halftone souvenir postcard from Luna Park in Scranton, PA. This amusement park opened in 1906, was never really profitable, and closed for good after a fire in 1916 destroyed much of what still remained of the park. This postcard, then, is a wonderful record of “life as it used to be” and therefore deserves archival preservation. BTW, while the park was a bit of a flop, Uncle Lathrop’s Whack-a-Mole booth in the arcade was a big hit (no pun intended). If you won you got a pet squid to take home and cuddle (no pun intended there, either. Get it? Cuddle / cuttle? No? OK, nevermind).

Obsolete or not, the postcard has certainly not lost its appeal. In fact, collecting postcards has never been more popular, as vintage postcards offer a fascinating window onto the past—both public and private. Postcards from the family archive can also provide a vital link to the lives of our relatives, going back generation after generation.

postcards, genealogy
A professional studio portrait of an extended family or perhaps a wedding or an engagement, c.1910, printed on AZO photographic postcard stock (see the AZO imprint in the upper right “stamp corner” in the image below). People often did not smile for professional photographic portraits, as these were serious affairs and called for one to wear his or her best Sunday-go-to-meetin’ clothes. Cousin Lloyd’s parents are on the right. His brother Lester looked a lot like a cross between their mom (seated, far right) and the house plant (on floor, far left).
In all seriousness, folks, this is the back of the same postcard and on it was written the names of who’s who / where they lived. This is tremendously valuable, as it identifies the family tree in very unique and irreplaceable ways. Being able to match a name with a face in THIS photographic postcard will allow one to use it as a “Rosetta Stone” in identifying the same family members in OTHER snapshots in the family archive that might not otherwise be identified. YOU can do the same thing with YOUR identified photos.

Two General Types of Collections: “Family” Postcards and “Collector” Postcards

While there have been a grajillion different postcards created in the last 150 years since they first became popular (click here for the Smithsonian’s history of the postcard), there are essentially two general types of postcard collections:

1.) “family archive” postcards that depict family members (Cousin Lloyd, etc.) / homes / picnics / occupations / events / vacation destinations, amongst many others (see the following three postcards).

Diametrically opposed to the formality of the professional studio portrait above, this informal snapshot postcard of the family eating watermelon reveals yet another side of life of our fore-bearers’ generation, c.1910-1920. Cousin Lloyd isn’t in the picture, as he was at home still recovering from that nasty Whack-a-Mole incident at Luna Park.
The family manse. Wonderful genealogical info is often crammed into the small spaces on the front or back of old postcards. If placed in a clear archival polyethylene bag, sleeve or archival 3-ring binder page (see info below) such hand-written text on either the front or the back of a postcard remains easily accessible. I’d love to Google map this place and see what it looks like now, what with that strip mall pawn shop across the street.
This postcard might be important to a family if it depicts ones’ grandfather or some other relative. It may also be important to a collector because it is an example of an “occupational” postcard from 1910-1920. In either case the need for archival preservation and care remains the same. The factory shown in the background built the guidance system for the Soviet N1 moon rocket out of plywood, busted light bulbs and old fax machines, and we all know how THAT turned out.

2.) postcard collections assembled by “deltiologists“—postcard collectors—who are interested in a particular topic / location / genre / physical “type” of postcard (photographic, chromolithographic, embossed, animated, etc.) / era / or any of a thousand-plus other collector categories and sub-groups.

Reasons why a collector might be interested in this particular postcard:
1.) it’s an RPC (real photo postcard) and many people collect these often one-of-a-kind images
2.) it depicts a baseball game (for baseball-theme collectors)
3.) these are American soldiers in France during World War I (gleaned from info on the back)
4.) this is an unposed “amateur snapshot” postcard (for those who collect amateur images)

5.) Cousin Lloyd is in the back row, 47th from the left. See him? His ability to stand on his head in the trenches saved his entire platoon. They made a movie about it in the 1930s.

More often than not, these two categories overlap or run parallel to each other. As mentioned, yours truly has a few sentimental postcards stashed away in the family archive as mementos of trips I’ve been on, and at the same time I have quite a number of thematic postcards that I have purchased in antique shops or on eBay while doing research for a couple of books I have worked on. Yet in each case, whether you are looking to preserve ten sentimental or family postcards or ten thousand collectible postcards, certain archival practices should be followed to preserve and enjoy your postcards now, and for years to come.

Old photographic postcards can be delicate things. They are susceptible to cracks in either the photographic emulsion or the paper itself, and often tend to “fracture” rather than “bend” if stressed.

Why Postcards are at Risk

Although postcards are made from a thicker stock than your average paper artifact, this does not mean that they’re any less vulnerable to wear, tear, and the ravages of time. Like many forms of paper, postcard stock was often made as cheaply as possible, resulting in a relatively high acid content in the paper that can make it brittle. This is the result of naturally occurring acids in the material used to make the paper, or acids introduced during the manufacturing process to break down wood fibers. These acids can attack the paper itself over time, compromising the card’s structural integrity. Heat and humidity can actually accelerate this breakdown, so never store your postcards in attics, basements or outside storage facilities where temperature and humidity fluctuations are greatest.

water damage
Leaky water heater + old postcards = horror story. (Please see our illustrated blog on true archival “horror stories” here.)

In addition to the “internal” threat of latent acids, if a postcard gets wet (from leaky roofs / leaky water pipes / leaky water heaters) it can be vulnerable to developing mold, which may cause discolorations and deterioration of the paper. Water may also adversely affect postcards that have been written on as the ink might run, and water may warp or distort a postcard as it eventually dries out. Even excess light can ruin postcards—fading either the image on the front (especially photographic postcards) or the writing on the back—if exposed to too much light or direct sunlight for prolonged periods of time (click here for our illustrated blog on preventing light damage).

Individual polyethylene bags and sleeves, specifically sized for postcards, offer archival protection and the ability to see both the front and back of each card.

Handle with Care

Every postcard enthusiast, whether an armchair family historian/genealogist or a seasoned connoisseur/collector, may have his or her own thoughts regarding how best to store their postcards. In most cases, however, the easiest and safest way to store your cards is to place each postcard in its own individual archival polyethylene bag or protective sleeve that is just slightly larger than the postcard itself (to prevent stressing the card while inserting or removing it). This bag or sleeve will protect your postcard from dirt, moisture, and the naturally occuring oils found on hands and fingers. For an added level of safety you may also want to consider wearing white cotton inspection gloves when handling your postcards.

Three archival solutions that together combine to offer maximum levels of protection for your family or collectible postcards:
1.) each postcard in its own archival polyethylene bag or sleeve
2.) thematically grouped postcards placed in a 4×6″ acid-free short top metal edge box
3.) acid-free index cards placed between each grouping to allow for easy organization and quick retrieval

Store Safely and Efficiently

Regardless of how many postcards you have, they should all be stored in archivally-safe boxes or binders. Keeping your collection in an acid-free short top box, which is available in a convenient postcard size, is the perfect solution. The top is designed to fit tightly to prevent dust and other household pollutants from getting in. Using this type of box will not only aid in the long-term survival of your postcards, it will also allow you to sort and organize your cards in a orderly and logical way. Acid-free index cards, which are pre-scored for ease of use, can be used to separate different categories of postcards by date / subject / locale / ancestor / trip, or any other way you wish.

genealogy genealogy

Another popular way of organizing and storing postcards involves placing them in archival 4×6″ polypropylene 3-ring print pages and then keeping these in archival 3-ring binders and slipcases. Organization is a snap, the clear pages allow you to see both sides of each postcard, and the handsome slipcase helps keep out dust and moisture.

Once you are finished either placing each postcard in an archival polyethylene bag or sleeve and then in an archival box organized with acid-free index cards, or you’ve safely tucked your postcards into 3-ring pages and placed them in archival binders, be sure to keep your boxes and binders on a shelf or in a hallway or bedroom closet in your “living space” rather than in the attic or basement. This will help keep your collection safe as temperature and humidity fluctuations are never as drastic in your living space as they are in attics and basements. Keep the relative humidity (rH) below 65% to prevent mold growth and reduce insect activity. Avoid very low relative humidity when storing family papers and photographs because relative humidity below 15% can cause brittleness.

Some postcards just shouldn’t be stored away – because they are SO DAMN COOL! This is an example of one of those. It’s an offset color postcard of “Future New York” and while made over a hundred years ago it offers a terrific, contemporary sense of the “steampunk” aesthetic. It kinda looks like something out of The Fifth Element (and if you’ve never seen that film, well, you’re missing one of the best sci-fi movies EVER MADE). All this being the case, I’ve framed this beauty and it hangs on my wall 24/7 (NEVER in direct sunlight, as that will fade it / destroy it over time). Find YOUR favorite family or collectible postcard and archivally frame it for yourself or as a gift. It’s cool, it’s vintage, and it’s cool (or did I already say that?).

Consider Framing / Displaying Your Favorite Postcard(s)

Some postcards should be matted and framed!!! Whether you have a cool old postcard that you just like for its theme or decorative presence, or you have an old photo postcard of an important relative or family gathering, consider a custom-cut archival mat and a frame kit and do-it-yourself. Boom! A great vintage piece on your wall to enjoy every day, or to give as a truly unique gift.


At the End of the Day

Postcards are a great way to travel back in time to the era of your grandparents or even great-grandparents. Keep these suggestions in mind as you consider what to do to preserve YOUR collection of family or travel postcards, and they will remain in great shape for years (and generations!) to come.

Kids, c.1910, parading down Main Street, USA, to celebrate NPSD (National Pet Squid Day), a holiday that has sadly fallen out of favor over the decades as it conflicted with WWaMW (World Whack-a-Mole Week). Well, at least there are records such as this rare postcard to document important events, places, people and eras that have vanished with the winds of time. There are most likely important postcards in YOUR collection, too. Pull them out this weekend and make them safe with the correct archival solutions described above. You’ll be glad you did!

Contact Us

If you have questions or would like more information on the archival storage and presentation materials that are right for you, please contact us here at Archival Methods. We’re always there to help with any archiving, storage, or presentation questions you may have.