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MYERSTOWN, Pa. (AP) – When Myerstown resident Donald Brown looks at a postcard, he sees more than just the pretty picture or the “wish you were here” note on the back.
The 89-year-old retired state librarian sees postcards as documents of history and of everyday American life in the 20th century. But Brown has taken his interest to the next level: In 1993 he started the Institute of American Deltiology, which sits in a historic building on Main Avenue in Myerstown, his hometown.
Inside the green and white building sit hundreds of thousands of postcards of nearly infinite variety. At one point about 800,000 cards, Brown’s collection is thought to be one of the largest in the country.
This isn’t a hobby for Brown. It’s an extension of his career as a librarian. Because many of Brown’s postcards capture scenes that no longer exist – such as opulent buildings from a long-ago world’s fair or World War II-era Fort Indiantown Gap – he has ended up preserving pieces of history with his expansive collection.
A ‘lifelong crusade’ for history
In recent years, Brown made sure his work is not lost to history. He has sent hundreds of thousands of cards to be archived at the University of Maryland, where they will also be used for research.
The very fact that college students would even be using postcards for research is also partly due to Brown’s influence. Doug McElrath, the director of special collections and university archives at the University of Maryland, calls Brown one of the “nation’s leaders” in promoting postcards as documents of history and not just pretty pictures.
For Brown, it’s all a result of his “lifelong crusade.”
“It’s important for me not to have just been a postcard collector, hoarding postcards because I like the format,” he said. “I recognized I had a responsibility to do something more than collect postcards.”
Catching the postcard bug at an early age
Receiving postcards from an aunt who was a missionary in Asia piqued Brown’s interest when he was a child, but there was another pivotal moment for Brown in 1943 on a late summer afternoon shortly after his grandparents died.
He and his cousin were handed a shoebox full of their old postcards, and they spread them on the floor.
“From that moment forward, when I saw the tall buildings in Pittsburgh and Chicago and New York, the bug bit me just like that,” he said. “I have not been able to stop collecting postcards.”
And collect he did. Fueled also by his deep interest in geography and history, Brown used the money he made from his paper route to buy postcards from stores around the country. By the time he was done with high school, he had amassed 6,000. His collection doubled during his college years, then exploded to 25,000 by the time he took his first job at Detroit Public Library.
He has focused his collection on his interests, which aren’t exactly narrow: They include North American, Mexican and Caribbean architecture, history and geography.
How postcards can be seen as data
In collecting postcards, Brown has been able to build a record of history.
McElrath said Brown was one of the first people in the country to point out that postcards were more than just pictures.
“Postcards have always been popular as collectibles,” McElrath said, “But he kind of upped the game.”
The size of Brown’s collection is also key, McElrath said, because it’s expanse means that inferences drawn from it are more than just theories, they can be proved. McElrath said Brown’s cards make up one of the largest privately held collections in the country.
“When you build a collection that large, you’re able to get beyond it just being these pretty cards and they actually become a statistically valid data set of evidence of the past,” he said.
The tweets of the 20th century
Brown says postcards have taught him a lot about what people were proud of in the 20th century, and what America’s material culture was like.
Postcards were mostly a communication tool used by the middle class – Brown calls them the tweets of the 20th century – and they show a lot about what common people at the time valued.
Postcards came into use during the 1893 World’s Fair in Chicago, and took off after a similar fair in St. Louis in the early 1900s.
People began keeping postcard books to entertain visitors, Brown said, and using cameras – which were quickly to become more available – to send photo postcards of themselves, their families and their lives to far-away relatives.
The so-called real-photo postcards portray intimate details of ordinary life, Brown said.
“They capture social life and customers and human attitudes even better than a traditional card,” he said.
They also show what people were proud of, he said, beyond the big-city landmarks and monuments. Brown has a series of photo postcards from Campbelltown arranged on a board at his institute. One shows a family smiling for the camera, and another shows a young man standing proudly next to a motor bike. One even shows where carrier pigeons were kept.
“Postcards give you a down-to-earth, almost vernacular sense of what America looked like over time,” McElrath said. “Many of these places that are in these postcards no longer exist. They actually are evidence of a lost world in some cases.”
“They capture social life and customers and human attitudes even better than a traditional card.”
As the 20th century went on, postcards grew to include images of popular advertisements, movie stars or even World War II-era posters.
“There are cards on pretty much every subject you can think of,” Brown said.
Preserving postcards for posterity
Since Brown established his Myerstown institute in 1993, he estimates he’s received thousands of donated postcards, including several complete collections from friends who have passed away.
Managing all the cards has caused a bit of a headache for Brown. He is now the only full-time person at the Institute, although several volunteers help out part time.
About a decade ago, Brown recognized that he needed to downsize and to set up a place for his cards to go. He got in touch with University of Maryland and McElrath, and soon was sending a van loaded with thousands of postcards down to College Park.
He’s sent seven van loads of cards so far, amounting to nearly 400,000 cards, and will likely donate around 700,000 total. Once they get to Maryland, McElrath said they’re sorted by location or topic, and made available to researchers.
They’re also used as teaching tools to introduce students to how to use primary sources for research, McElrath said, and some are being digitized so they can be found online.
Archiving the cards is important for preservation, Lancaster County Postcard Club member Jere Greider said, and might help younger generations appreciate postcards. Greider said he has seen other collections sold to private buyers or broken up.
“He had the forethought to donate his cards,” he said. “Don is finding a home for all his things.”
By NORA SHELLY, Lebanon Daily News
Information from: Lebanon Daily News, http://www.ldnews.com
Copyright 2019 Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed.
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