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Postcards Recall Memories Of The American Road

by Peggy Langrall

Volume 4, Issue 2
April–June 1995

Just in time for the summer vacation season, the Postal Museum presents a light-hearted by historical look at vacation destinations and "tourist traps" as depicted on postcards from localities around the United States. "Are We There Yet? Vacationing in America," an exhibit of some 50 postcards, especially evokes those family car trips that generations of Americans recall with nostalgia. 

"Family after family has stumbled across the unexpected treasures and comical gems that comprise America's tourist traps," Nancy Pope, the exhibition's curator, says. "And, decade after decade, families have used souvenir postcards to share their discoveries." Destinations like national parks, world's fairs and scenic wonders, along with side attractions from berry patches to alligator farms, have been commemorated on postcards now beloved by collectors. 

Items for the exhibition, which runs May 12 through February 23, 1996, reflect different geographic regions and time periods—from the early 1900s to the present—at sites both famous and "undiscovered." Many of the cards reflect on travel and tourism in this country and are especially intriguing if the travelers who bought them had a loose schedule and allowed themselves to be drawn off the road to see something special. 

The attraction could have been a cave, a wood carver, a dinosaur park or maybe a house where the verticals and horizontals are out of plumb, causing visitors to lose their balance while walking through it. 

In order to find choice examples for the exhibit, Pope and Tracy Vancura, a research assistant, got in touch with a number of museums, libraries and historical associations. Pope also sent out an inquiry on the Internet, requesting cards that represent interesting or odd tourist traps, and she received a number of helpful replies. Although few made it into the exhibit, all were interesting. 

One such reply was "cars driving through tunnels cut in big trees" in the West Coast forests. These postcards may indicate an environmental unawareness on the part of the average motorist of the time, but some of them give a glimpse into the evolution of American cars, showing 1930s, 1940s, and 1950s models going through the same tree. The earliest card is dated 1915. 

One of the best sources for interesting postcards was Howard Woody, University of South Carolina distinguished professor emeritus of art, who has some 25,000 postcards in his personal collection. A few hundred of these pertain to the subject of vacationing in America. "The cards are tourist-oriented," he says, "originally intended for advertisement purposes, and the variety is unbelievable." 

"States, towns and cities have long used postcards to advertise themselves," Pope says, "often in colorful and amusing ways. An entire genre of cards featuring gigantic produce, fish and animals to boast of a region's greatness has augmented the nation's store of folk humor since the beginning of the century." 

Years ago, magazines and newspapers used few illustrations, and small town publications did not use any before about 1915, Woody notes, "With no radio or TV and few telephones, postcards filled that void. The album of postcards was the mainstay of the parlor. A lucky find for any collector today would be to uncover someone's grandma's postcard album in a trunk up in the attic." 

Major disasters such as the 1906 San Francisco earthquake were popular subjects for postcards. Tourists collected and sent them to the folks back home to let them know what had happened. 

"When traveling," Woody says, "you could get a card and a one-cent stamp, scribble a note to your family to let them know you had arrived safely and be on your way with a mind at ease. A picture was worth the proverbial 'thousand words,' and postcards were popular with people who were not particularly literate." 

Postcards were so popular in the early decades of the century that individuals would buy them by standing order—enough for all the relatives—from small retail stores that handled nothing but postcards. Competition was keen among families to see how many and what kind of cards they could find. 

"If you wanted to be a good guest, for example," Woody says, "as soon as you walked into the host's door, you would pull some postcards out of your pocket for the family to keep or mail. Travelers frequently carried a supply in their suitcases." 

"The show is intended to be fun," Pope says. "It lets us take a nostalgic look back, seeing what was—and still is—out on the American road. What have folks been choosing to see? Why do parents endure long car trips with the kids—hoping that what is at the end of the ride, as well as on the way, will make it all worthwhile?" 

A 1945 postcard commemorating the Miami "parrot jungle," merrily advertised by a smiling woman surrounded by macaws, is one small example of adventure found—that ever-beckoning something along the way. 

"Many such cards record the incredible diversity of schemes dreamed up by grassroots entrepreneurs to lure travelers off the road to draw them into a special experience," Pope says, "We wanted to show some of that and to celebrate American oddness and ingenuity."