Historical Postcards on Display

Did you know that the Society’s archives includes a large holding of historical postcards? For the summer months, we selected five of these cards to display in the Old State House, each one portraying an iconic Boston site. Purchasing and sending postcards first became popular in America after the World’s Columbian Exposition in 1893, and this display will give our visitors and blog readers a glimpse into the history surrounding these souvenirs.

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The oldest postcards in our collection date to 1898 and depict the Old State House, Old South Meeting House, Faneuil Hall, and scenes from the Public Garden. As you can see from the image to the left, these postcards were printed in gray scale with a color image of the seal of the City of Boston on the left-hand side of the card. The back of the card includes the line “Private Mailing Card (authorized by Act of Congress, May 19, 1898)” which is referring to the Private Mailing Card Act of 1898. Prior to this date, only the Postal Service was permitted to produce and sell postcards. When the Act was established, it allowed private companies to distribute cards; however, they could only refer to them as souvenir cards or correspondence cards, and it was also required that the line “private mailing cards” was printed on the back. This practice ended in December of 1901 when private companies were allowed to start using the term postcard.

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One of my favorite postcards on display is a 1904 card of Old South Meeting House. This postcard was sent to Miss Hester Johns of Pittsburg, PA and is one of the few in our collection that includes a personal message, which reads, “We are having a very nice time. Going to the beach tomorrow.” From the picture to the right, you can see that the message was written right below the image of Old South. In the early 1900s, the back of postcards could only include the recipient’s address, so personal messages had to be written on the front of the card. It was not until 1907 that the Postal Service allowed postcards to have a divided back, which provided space for both a personal message and address.

The Society continued to collect postcards of Boston Proper through the 1970s and over the years we have accumulated quite the collection of cards depicting famous Boston sites. The cards illustrate the ways that the city has both stayed the same and changed over the past century.

By Elizabeth Roscio, Library and Archives Manager