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Postcards from the Past: Glimpses of Our Towns From a Century Ago

Updated: Jul 22, 2022

Vintage postcards allow us to step back in time 100 years ago to explore the streets, neighborhoods and buildings of our communities as they looked then.

The diligent and dedicated work of John Harvey, a Maplewood collector of vintage postcards, has provided such a broad picture of local scenes that Mr. Harvey actually published a book of them. Harvey has compiled a detailed history of the postcard, and offers an intriguing story of their development from printed envelopes to a popularity that makes them the third largest collectible hobby in the world today.

“Postcards were social objects, and are appealing because of their broad range of subjects,” Mr. Harvey said. “Almost any subject you can think of has been, at some time, portrayed on a postcard.”

A History of Postcards

The Pioneer Era, 1870-1898

Citing The Postcard Price Guide by J.L. Mashburn, Mr. Harvey notes, “The first postal type cards in this country were privately printed and copyrighted in 1861 by J.P. Carlton. These cards were made until U.S. Government Postals replaced them in 1873. Government Postals required a one-cent stamp, while private mailing cards needed a two-cent stamp.”

Although the first advertising cards were printed in the 1870s, souvenir postcards did not begin to appear in this country until 1893 at the Columbian Exposition in Chicago. They often had multiple pictures and the title “Souvenir of…” or “Greetings from….”

The Private Mailing Card, 1898-1901

An Act of Congress in 1898 allowed private publishers to print and sell cards that could be posted for one cent. Initially, many were reprints of earlier pioneer cards, and they were inscribed “Private Mailing Card. Authorized by Act of Congress on May 19, 1898.”

A Card Divided

Originally, the back of the card was used only for the address, and any messages had to be squeezed onto the margins of the picture side of the card. Following the lead of European countries, in 1907 the US finally allowed the backs of postcards to be divided, with one half for messages. Millions were sold between 1907 and 1915, many of them bearing high quality images printed in Germany. When the outbreak of the First World War halted German imports, US publishers began printing postcards that were either reprints of the European ones or of very poor quality. Most of them had white borders around the picture.

From 1916 to 1930, view cards outpaced greeting cards in popularity. Improved technology led to better quality printing on linen type paper, albeit with cheap inks and garish colored stock. In the years leading up to World War II, view cards and comic cards were most popular, and the best were wartime political humor cards.

Vintage views on exhibit

A large selection of vintage views in microcosm were exhibited at the Durand-Hedden House in November 2002, offering visitors a rare glimpse into a time gone by.

The diligent and dedicated work of John Harvey formed the core of the exhibit, along with valuable contributions from Kathy Leventhal and other area residents as well as items from the Durand-Hedden House archives.

An atlas of Maplewood and South Orange in 1911 and other old maps, along with guidance from Durand-Hedden Trustees Jack Bausmith and Howard Wiseman, helped to identify the location of buildings and streets portrayed on some of the cards.

Ten cards portraying scenes in the Hilton section of Maplewood were loaned by Mrs. George Haas of Boyden Avenue. Six of them, as well as others on exhibit, appear in the Maplewood Arcadia book.

Other highlights included eight c. 1900 cards from the collection of Mary Sciano of South Orange, the librarian at Seth Boyden School. The views include the charming grade-level South Orange train station that preceded the current one, a beautiful shot down Irvington Avenue looking toward First Presbyterian Church, and a bird’s eye view of South Orange center looking toward the South Mountain.


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