Postcards from the past

This weekend was the last calendar day of summer. But the signs of the transition to early autumn are everywhere- wedges of geese, calling high overhead, begin trickling down from the Great North; the slowed rasp of the crickets in the weeds; the movement of combines and big tractor equipment to the fields to reap the summer’s harvest. Even the air carries the copper-colored tang of decaying leaves and dry grass, gone to seed. These undeniable indicators of the end of summer’s halcyon days are bittersweet, and twinges of nostalgia for the long, sultry Chesapeake afternoons settle in once the summer’s end is just a few weeks gone.


For a few generations, postcards were one of the ways best to capture summer like a lightning bug in a jelly jar. These colorful little travelling mementos fluttered from resort town to the folks at home during the summer high season, bearing cheerful sentiments and vibrant imagery that could be savored throughout the winter months. Functioning much like text messages do today (the style of writing was termed ‘postcardese’), postcards were meant to be brief but sweet, and often the message they bore was only a sentence or two in length. In contrast to the traditional lengthy missives, sometimes inscribed both horizontally and diagonally with text, postcards were a radical new form of casual communication in the late 19th and early 20th centuries.


“My dear Aunt, We just arrived in Baltimore. The drive from Washington was beautiful, going on to Philadelphia now. Much love In haste Jessie.”

While postcards made their debut in the 1870’s in the United States, they were slow to catch on- mostly because they weren’t very appealing. Initially, the US Post Office was the only entity in the late 19th century permitted to produced postcards, and the majority of these had no imagery, just space for writing. This regulation was lifted in 1898 when “souvenir cards” were allowed to be printed and circulated legally, opening the door to flocks of small rectangles of color and word that became faddishly popular. Postcards proliferated in popular culture, with pictorial mementos printed up of almost anything the Gilded Era could concoct- from vacation destinations, to national landmarks, to holiday sentiments, to cartoons and satirical novelty cards. Some were even a little racy (even if they don’t exactly look it, to our modern eyes).


Don’t look now, but there are women in the water with their ARMS showing in the daytime- scandalous!

Mostly, postcards celebrated the everyday enjoyments of the era- travel, time spent  with family, days at the beach, boat rides, carnivals, evenings listening to music. Of course, they represent an idealized slice of life, but in terms of communicating personal experiences, conveying a sense of the rituals of 19th and early 20th century social interaction, and documenting the trips and treats that comprised leisure time for the growing middle class, they are a treasure trove.



         Tolchester Beach picnic  Image courtesy of the Maryland Historical Society.

Here at the Chesapeake Bay Maritime Museum, we have hundreds of postcards from throughout the Bay’s numerous resort towns from the 1900’s onwards. Postcards from the era typically feature a saturated color spectrum, a vista of a summer scene, and throngs of folks whiling away their summer afternoons in yards of white linen and hundreds of straw boaters. Bearing brightly terse messages, these postcards help us better understand how a generation of bygone Chesapeake people enjoyed and remembered their experiences on the Bay. Unpacked from a dusty shoebox or exposed to the light of day when the pages of a disintegrating scrapbook are turned, these snapshots of an idyllic summer day, a hundred years ago, bring the full sensations of of the season closer for just a moment. And even when the nights cool, and the first brushes of rich claret tones touch the trees along the shoreline, those fond paper love notes to the past hold the warmth and fun of a day on the Bay, if only for an instant.