History in the Mail
This postcard has a door in it. Not printed on it, but an actual door in the front with a paper hinge and a small brass latch that keeps it closed. When it was printed in 1905, it cost only a few cents, and one penny to mail.
So what do you keep behind a door in a postcard? This one is made from paper pressed together in the days before cardboard, forming a small compartment around a photo accordion. The Rotograph Co. of New York City patented this design in 1905 and copyrighted the pictures inside a year later. They chose for the front, printed over the door, an overhead photograph of White River Junction, Vermont, at the turn of the twentieth century. The remote industrial town in this photo is nestled in the Green Mountains, bordered to the north and east by the White and Connecticut rivers respectively, and filled with stout warehouses and mills. One hundred years after it was printed, the photograph still shows remarkable detail right down to the chimneys--here are houses and businesses together, a railroad line skirting the banks of two rivers, and trees lining hillsides. The details speak volumes, as details often do, but the most interesting detail is the door right in the middle of the card. Opening it, the photo accordion unfolds a street level tour of the city.
“Mr. Linsmper's street address is missing--a tiny detail that spins the brass latch on another door to his bygone era...”
Postcards send at least two messages: the picture on the front, and then whatever is written on the back. We collect them for both, taping them to the refrigerator or a wall and in so doing, hiding the message on the back to keep for ourselves. There are postcards that make nice decorations, and postcards you keep in a shoebox to read on rainy days. But they can also work as touchstones to the past, portals to new places, ways of keeping in touch while bringing others into your life, and of course, simple correspondence. A standard three inch by five inch postcard doesn't have much room for pictures or messages, but can say so much--their details, as it was said, speak volumes that can't fit in just fifteen square inches.
The pictures on this photo accordion are just around an inch square, and are remarkably clear for pressed ink lithographs on a narrow paper ribbon. The first image is St. Anthony's Catholic Church on Church Street at the divide between residential and commercial areas--between work and family life. This was an important building then, as many still find it today, its importance made clear in this--the lead--picture for whoever opened the card in Massachusetts, or New York, or Pennsylvania.
The next print is the three-story high school, and then the Episcopal Church, then one of a long covered bridge labeled redundantly "old covered bridge over White River." Of the ten pictures, two show churches, three show businesses, two are nature scenes, two feature bridges, and one shows Wilder, a town just to the north. The prints are interesting, even though the architecture is quite similar--several of them were built under the direction of the same man, George Smith. But what they show is as important as the image itself. This postcard was made to be mailed to someone the sender did not see regularly--someone who most likely lived outside of White River Junction, and might not see the city in their lifetime. What was it like, they might wonder, for their sister or son in this mountain town? What mattered there?
The accordion shows the churches that were always bustling on Sunday, the modern schoolhouse built in 1884, and that marvel of engineering, the covered bridge spanning the White River. Lest the recipient confuse this industrial town with Boston or New York City, there are two prints of beautiful nature scenes along the Connecticut River. These pictures can represent life in a town that a distant relative or friend might never see. If pictures are indeed worth a thousand words, this postcard says more than the longest letter, and still there is room on the back to write briefly about the day's business.
Letters and postcards kept families in touch before everyone had email, or even telephones. At the turn of the last century, very few people could afford to own cameras or develop film--photographs were reserved for only the most important people, places, and occasions. The only way for a farmer in Virginia to understand what his nephew's city looked like in the Green Mountains was to hear him describe it in a letter, or wait for a postcard. They were treasured not just for the pictures, not just the short messages on the back, but as small views into worlds far away--worlds where their married children lived, or where the jobs were better and "you should move once I am settled," someone wrote.
There are other postcards here in a stack loaned to me by David Briggs, the owner of the Hotel Coolidge. I had only passing interest in postcards, but he was excited to show these off. Each has a picture or cancellation mark that has something to do with this part of Vermont where the rivers and railroads converge, and cover rather well the first thirty years of the past century. Atop the stack was the postcard with the door, which hooked my interest immediately.
Not all of these postcards were mailed--some stayed in private collections--but the ones that found their ways first out of White River Junction, and then back via collector circles and internet auctions, offer fascinating pictures of life well before our time. Each one is its own little door into the past.
Alma V Ernest was still new to town when she wrote to her siblings on November 14, 1915, about her new life. On the back of a postcard addressed to Mrs. William Russell, Lisbon, NH, she wrote:
The card she selected shows the town from overhead, colored in beautiful pastel as a miniature of a painting done from a photograph. The artist captured the railroad trestle and dirt streets in just the right light to make the city look comfortable, peaceful--the sort of place you should be glad your sister lives.
But then there are the unsettling postcard pictures of floods, washed out bridges, and damage from The Hurricane of 1938. Here is a photograph of a man rowing quietly through placid waters past a Bridge Street sign jutting defiantly above the water. He rows past houses during the March 19, 1936 flood that washed out several buildings. A yellowed brown-and-white photo from March 4, 1927 shows a similar scene of water where streets should be, the crest lapping at windowpanes. With dramatic pictures of White River Junction at its best, why would postcard companies print pictures of the town at its worst? It strikes me odd that there is a market for postcard pictures of one's hometown submerged in river water to mail to already concerned friends and family.
But this was front page news, and easier to mail than a newspaper. Would family members higher in the mountains know what floods look like? And if postcards keep distant relations abreast of current events, then why not show catastrophe when it happens? If they are valuable for recording the places and events of importance, the catastrophic has as much claim as the wonderful. There is space on the back to write that the family is safe, after all.
These catastrophe postcards also show the development of bridges across the White River and into the town of Hartford. A magnificent covered bridge was built between the towns in 1868. It is the bridge featured on the photo accordion, and also on several later postcards that show it washed up on the riverbank. It met its fate in March of 1913, when a severe flood raised the river to unprecedented levels. More than two and a half million feet of logs were held in a pen above the town awaiting the annual log drive to mills downstream when the flood waters swept them away. They smashed like torpedoes against the covered bridge until it slipped its foundation and washed ashore. One postcard shows the bridge head-on, with its warning sign clearly visible. It reads: "moving faster than a walk positively forbidden autos go slow danger," a warning that kept the bridge safe from predictable failure until the unprecedented calamity.
This bridge was replaced with a metal bridge, and several postcards deeper in the stack is a view from the riverbank on the White River Junction side that shows its first few feet of steel thrust longingly into thin air--it was washed away as well. Of the whole stack, only three postcards show photographs of the town within the last twenty years; one of them--near the bottom of the pile--shows the concrete Interstate 91 bridge high over the White River. It has not washed away, and is so high above the town that it likely never will. These bridge photos chronicle the accomplishments of laborers who toiled with wood and nails and steel over a gurgling river; they show the awesome power of nature destroying first one bridge and then a second and improved bridge, and the triumph of today's construction over that vengeful water; they show the importance of bridges, and the indomitable spirit of the townspeople. Set side by side they are quite remarkable--a chronicle of bridges and calamities, their stories interwoven with the town and preserved here in this mailable history.
As stories are interrelated in small towns, so are other postcards in this stack. The painting on Mrs. Ernest's 1915 card shows the exact view over the Junction House hotel, centered on the trestle, as was captured in a photograph on another postcard. That black and white print is labeled "View From Barron's Point," and indeed it shows everything a twentieth century baron could want in a city: modern industrial buildings, railroad lines for bringing in supplies and shipping goods out to market, a church, rivers that power mills… There is a fancy border stamped around the card where wet dies embossed ridges onto the paper, framing the picture handsomely and giving the fingers something to feel.
Mr. Tony Linsmper of "Ethan Ave, Westfield, Mass," received this particular postcard. Whoever sent it placed the green one-cent stamp upside down and mailed it without signing his name. In fact, Mr. Linsmper's street address is missing as well--a tiny detail that spins the brass latch on another door to his bygone era.
Few of the cards give street names, and even fewer list house numbers. Addresses like "Miss Mamie Huffard, Hancock, Vermont," and "Miss Helen Paull, Myrichs, Mass," were sufficient. They were delivered in the days of true small-town-America, when the postman knew everyone on his route. The Post Office began delivering mail to homes when Ohio postal clerk Joseph Briggs came up with the idea during the Civil War. 1896 saw the first rural delivery of mail to farms and homesteads across the country, linking families like never before. The streets were short, the country roads were long, and confusion was rare…even in such cases as with White River Junction's two Robert Smiths--father and son. Post Masters knew just about everyone in town, and just about everyone in town knew their neighbors. Should two men from Montpelier have met on the platform at White River Station they might indeed discover a common acquaintance, if they did not recognize each other immediately. It makes sense that writing a name and a city was all one needed to address a postcard. Times were simpler.
So were the postcards. Most of them feature a single picture, rendered in black and white on sturdy cardstock. The exceptions include stunning color prints, originally black and white photos but with pastel colors added later. Early offset printing presses in Germany, where many of these cards were printed as per the printers' stamps, used color to add almost a third dimension to the photographs. The most startling example is in two pictures looking north along West Main Street (called North Main Street these days). In the black and white photograph a dirt road extends into the distance, the ruts from carriage wheels and thin tires leading your eyes out of town, under the sign for Miss M. McCabe Millinery and past the Smith & Son confectionary across the street. The signs are legible and the picture is straightforward, if a little bland coming as it has after paintings of the town and dramatic photos of individual buildings.
Then I turn to the colorized photo--the exact same picture, but presented with the benefit of soft brown, green, and blue. Like a few years' perspective brings history into clearer focus, the colors here bring the picture vividly to life. The signs are easier to read for the contrast, hidden details sprout up like springtime grass, and it looks like you should feel the grain of the boards as you rub your finger over the picture. What a difference a little color can make!
And what a difference a little time can make. Only one of the businesses on the postcards is still operational: the Hotel Coolidge. Some of the buildings themselves are gone, lost to fire like the second White River Station and the Smith & Son confectionary building. Were it not for the picture of West Main Street with the confectionary on a corner I recognize today, I might not have known what a magnificent brick building stood there before the current used furniture store and salon. Moreover, without this vivid postcard, I might not have cared.
And if they do little else for us today, if knowing what used to be where before and why is irrelevant to the here and now, then at least postcards make us care; at least they give us those portals to other places, other lives, and other times. There is no bringing back the Twin State Fruit Co. from across the tracks by the modern courthouse, but there is something special in the feeling you get looking back through a hundred years at a city we'll never see in our lifetimes. What once brought White River Junction, warm greetings, and welcome news to friends far beyond the town now brings those same messages far beyond their time. This is what those deceptively simple postcards can do for us.
Spin the latch, open the door, and take a little trip.
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My fine art photography is on permenant display at Cuban Pete's in Montclair, NJ, and is represented in numerous private collections. I do commercial, documentary, fine art, and other photography by commission.
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