Postcards: an Earlier Twitter
by Eric Swanick
Note: Click on any image in this story to open larger versions of the postcards in a new window.
A collection of 8,000 postcards, most from British Columbia, is a rich and largely untapped resource for historians and the public. Special Collections at Simon Fraser University was given the collection earlier this year.
Numbers illustrate the scope – 88 cards of Squamish, 281 cards of Stanley Park (note the reproduction of Chief White Hawk at the Big Hollow Tree), 63 cards of Grouse Mountain (note the occupants in the chairlift), 184 cards of the Vancouver waterfront, and 170 cards of Chilliwack. The collection includes the industries of agriculture, fishing, forestry, and transportation; architectural city and town scenes; Seaforth Highlanders of Canada; First Nations; a large selection of parks, including the Rockies; and other nature cards.
The new postcards join the Special Collections Doukhobor postcards already available on the web and frequently viewed.
Postcards first became commercially available in 1861 with picture postcards introduced in 1894. By the Edwardian era, postcards were the social media of the day – the Twitter, Facebook, or LinkedIn. They were used for everything from bragging about vacations to setting dates for meetings to small business marketing to just keeping in touch with relatives and friends.
Now postcards are increasingly being used to explore our past. In a recent article in Environmental History, "Grand Canyon Postcards," the author looks at four postcards featuring that famous site and analyzes them from an environmental perspective. The first card comes from 1905. An earlier article in the same journal used postcards to track environmental history. Think of the possibilities for research based on the 8,000 now in the SFU collection.
Many of the postcards in the collection are from the "golden age": the period from roughly 1900 to 1920. As well, there are many from the post-1920s era, but far fewer from the last 50 years. There is a lament, often loud in certain circles, of the demise or near demise of postcards. They have been replaced by e-cards or some form of texting, or have simply been forgotten. Several of the postcard messages, often family oriented, are reproduced in the illustrations. As one writer noted, these messages "... require[d] a verbal concision that can rise to [a] high level of eloquence."
To assist in the possibilities for future studies, Special Collections has received financial assistance to digitize approximately 2,000 postcards from the collection. The project should be accessible in early 2012.
Special Collections looks forward to adding to the postcard collection and to its other British Columbia resources.