April 8, 2008
Back in the early 20th century, long before computers or telephones were standard, postcards were like e-mail. The letter carrier stopped by three or four times each day and postcards were cheap, costing a mere penny to mail. You could send a card in the morning to a friend across the city to set up a date that night. It would arrive around noon, and your friend still had time to confirm before dinner.
Businesses learned that postcards were an easy way to advertise, and might print up thousands, says Jerry McCoy, a D.C. deltiologist (postcard enthusiast). Last week at the Smithsonian’s Postal Museum, McCoy, who works at the Washington, D.C. library’s Washingtoniana division, gave a presentation on what he calls “hometown Washington” postcards.
These old cards go beyond Washington’s iconic monuments, and leave a legacy of businesses, shops and restaurants of a bygone era. They “illustrate how much of our city has grown, changed and disappeared over the last century,” he says.
They’re also important historical documents. “Researchers almost never think of postcards as sources of visual information,” McCoy says. “But often the only place you can find photos of a business is on a postcard.”
For example, check out this postcard from the Casino Royal, a Chinese restaurant and hot night spot in the 1950s. On the back, comedian Cal Claude scribbled a message about his performance there with Nat King Cole in 1955.
McCoy visits the sites of his favorite postcards years later. By the 1980s, the Casino Royal was an adult entertainment theater and was heavily damaged in a 1985 fire.
The “Palais Royal” card, promoting a “dry goods and fancy goods” department store downtown, dates from 1907. McCoy says the original building was demolished in the 1990s, he visited the site to find an office building that copied the arched entrances of the Palais Royal.
McCoy searches eBay every day, easily spending $60 or $70 for a coveted card. But he says deltiology is more than a quirky hobby. “I’m buying history, buying back a piece of hometown D.C.”
(Photos courtesy of Jerry McCoy.)
Sign up for our free email newsletter and receive the best stories from Smithsonian.com each week.