The postcard is a format that dates to 1861, when Congress passed legislation allowing privately printed cards to pass through the U.S. Post Office. Until World War I, mailing one cost only a cent. “People were nuts about them,” says Keith Lockhart, a local amateur historian who has amassed a collection of 4,000 cards with Delaware County scenes. “Some people sent three, four, five a day.”
Unfortunately, early cards didn’t offer the option of sending both a picture and a message. Regulations required that one side be used solely for an address. On the other, folks chose to write a note, send a picture or attempt both, filling margins and blank space in their tiniest handwriting.
Then, in 1893, vendors at the World’s Columbian Exposition in Chicago sold thousands of souvenir postcards illustrated with images of the fair’s neoclassical architecture, canals and lagoons—pictures too pretty to mess up with scribbles. “The Columbian Exposition cards proved to be so successful that publishers in other parts of the country were emboldened to issue views featuring large cities, historic landmarks and popular vacation resorts,” says Fred Bassett, senior librarian at the New York State Library.
Bassett dates the hobby of postcard collecting to this period. “During the heyday of the craze, people bought them for the simple pleasure of owning them,” he says. “They preserved the cards carefully in albums, or posted them to friends and relatives, with the expectation of receiving many in return.”
In 1907, postal regulations were changed to permit the divided-back postcard, with space for both an address and a message on one side, so the reverse could be solely devoted to an image. Driven by a growing, profit-oriented network of distributors and jobbers, subject matter expanded to include Main Street views of virtually every hamlet and town. Postcards required little display space and offered high profit margins, so retailers promoted them heavily.
Locally, entrepreneurs like Media’s Philip H. Moore found a niche offering postcards of places that Delaware County residents would recognize. Moore and his competitors chose subjects that were surprisingly mundane—train stations, grocery stores, movie theaters, ice cream parlors. It was a time when many middle-aged people could remember growing up without any of those things. As such, postcards were their way of celebrating modernity and affluence. In our era, when Facebookers post photos of their restaurant meals before they lift a fork, it feels all too familiar.
What ultimately killed the postcard craze was World War I. Many came from Germany, which had the best-quality printing in the world at the time. But after the United States declared war on the country in 1917, postcard albums disappeared from the nation’s parlors almost overnight.
What did our relatives of old scribble on those cards? Nothing much. “Wish you were here” was common then, too. Most of Lockhart’s postcards are blank, but here are some examples of what they might have said.
“Just passing the word that R.J. Baldwin, who runs that little store down in Chadds Ford, is also now the postmaster. It’s a nice way to get people in the door. (Think he knows someone?)”
“How cool is this? Now that the new trolley line is open, you can buy a house and a lot to put it on in just an afternoon. On Saturday, Frank and I rode out to Llanerch—that’s what they’re calling this new neighborhood in Haverford—and looked at pictures and blueprints with an agent. It was as easy as buying dress fabric.”
“Just wanted to share this because I couldn’t believe the numbers. This is a bank that began business in 1891, when it had only a thousand dollars in deposits. Now, it has almost half a million dollars. Who would have thought we’d ever see those kind of dollar signs in Media?”
“Those arty types who insist on making everything my grandfather’s way—stone houses, handmade furniture, turned pots—just won’t quit. They’ve been puttering around the old Rose Valley Mill for the past five years or so, and now some developer over in Edgmont is advertising for ‘craftsmen’ to do the same thing at a place he’s calling Sycamore Mills. What’s wrong with good, solid factory-made stuff, anyway?”
Who remembers John H. Irwin, who gave Morton Borough electricity in 1877, when almost no place else in Delaware County had it? Irwin started the Faraday Heat, Power and Light Company. and built his little plant along the tracks in the middle of town. He also built a machine shop and a gasworks, laid out two streets, built a boardwalk to the Church of the Atonement (which he helped to found), and was the guru behind the first streetlights. They don’t make ’em like John Irwin anymore.”
“Throwback Thursday! Who remembers the time in 1877 when Warden Campbell was making his rounds at Delaware County Prison and noticed that one of the prisoners’ beds seemed higher than normal? He ordered them to pick up the prisoners and found a pile of stone that they’d pried out of the exterior wall. There was only one stone left in the hole between the cell and the outside.”
“Big news: Mom is tired of living alone on the farm and is moving to a room at Brooke Hall in Media. That’s the building at Lemon and Baltimore Pike that used to be the Brooke Hall Seminary for girls. One of its graduates, Ida Saxton, married President McKinley. Mother always liked McKinley, so I think that will make it easier for her.”
“Rum sellers, we’re coming for you! Darby’s new W.C.T.U. office is OPEN on Main Street. (For the clueless, W.C.T.U. is the Woman’s Christian Temperance Union, a worldwide network of noble women devoted to ‘the entire prohibition of the manufacture and sale of intoxicating liquors.’) The strategy is now ‘local option.’ We’re going to convince Darby residents to go dry—and put some of our Main Street neighbors out of business. (Hee-hee!)”
“This is my ride home, the final approach to the Media Pennsy stop at South Orange Street. After a long day in Philadelphia, coming home always feels good.”
“True story: One Saturday, we were coming home late from Philly and didn’t have a cent left between us. A night on the town can have that effect. So, we got to Ardmore and saw from about a quarter-mile away that the light was still on in the toll booth. We did the only thing we could do—pulled over, put out the acetylene headlamps, and pulled some rails out of the fence next to a cornfield. Then we pulled in until we were deep in the corn and drove slowly down the row until we were sure to be well past the tollbooth before going back to Lancaster Pike. I don’t think the toll collector ever heard us.”
“Who else remembers digging potatoes? That was the kids’ job on my parents’ farm in Haverford. But there are houses there now, and we get potatoes out of a bin at our new grocery store in Llanerch.”
January 1912: “St. Rita’s Hall at Villanova College has been burning all day while firemen from five Main Line companies have been trying to put it out. It was 10 degrees outside—so cold their uniforms froze. Students and faculty formed a line to pass a lot of the books, manuscripts and other papers to safety, but the rest of the building will probably be a total loss.”
“Oh my!! Has anyone else seen all the smoke at Marcus Hook? There was a fire overnight in the Union Petroleum plant. It spread to the dock and an oil tanker that was tied up there. The Chester Times reported today that the captain had to jump overboard to escape. One of the sailors went back to rescue the crew’s pet parrots that were screaming, ‘Save me! Save me! Take me off!’ One of them didn’t make it.”
“I’m quite annoyed with these people. I bought an Autocar XV—nice little two-seater—a few years ago, and now they’ve stopped making them. (Word is, they’re only going to be making trucks from here on.) Yeah, I know Autocar is Ardmore’s biggest employer but, if I’d known they were going to do this, I’d have bought a Ford.”
“Anyone remember Claude Dukenfield, the little Darby street rat who used to sell vegetables with his father from a cart on Main Street, but was forever running away from home? Last I heard, he’d gotten into vaudeville. Then, the wife and I went to the movies tonight, and there he was, in a comedy called Pool Sharks, about two men playing to see who gets the girl. Hysterical. He goes by W.C. Fields now. My wife said he was born at the old Buttonwood Hotel at Ninth and Main in this photo, but the ticket seller thought it was the Arlington. Anyone know for sure?”
“We’ve always cranked our ice cream at home—and we liked it because we could make any flavor we wanted. Now, this place in Morton will crank it for you and deliver it to your house. Are Americans getting too soft?”
“Took this today while waiting for the train. Apparently, some developers—the Suburban Company—want to tear down the Dixon estate (the mansion behind the passenger shelter over yonder) and build stores! Ardmore is already jammed! Does anyone else think this will work?”
“Got a quarter? You can catch a new motion picture—Charlie Chaplin! Buster Keaton!—at Media’s Pastime Theatre for 10 cents. Afterward, cross the street to Bossard & Bowers for an ice cream soda (another 10 cents), and arrive home with a nickel still in your pocket. Got two quarters? Date night!”
“Great news!!! I’m now a switchboard operator at Bell Telephone in Ardmore. The other girls and I mostly spend the day connecting Main Line wives to their husbands working in Center City. It’s a fun place to work, and someone always brings in a treat. Plus, there’s an Acme on the same block, so it’s easy to get groceries on the way home.”
“Growing up in Philadelphia, I’d seen plenty of ships in the river. But I’d never actually been in a boat until we moved to Media and John took the boys rowing on Crum Creek at Beatty’s Mill. They loved it! Being able to give them a place like that to play—instead of the dirty Delaware—makes the trolley ride to work worthwhile.”
“Our new home! American Viscose has been building these cute houses for its employees, and that was enough for Fred to go to work here instead of at Sun Oil. The rent is not high at all, and we just moved into a unit on the north side (in the back of this photo). Fred’s boss—he’s from England—says the architecture of our building is Flemish, whatever that means. There are supposed to be several hundred houses by the time they’re done.”