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Postcards & Stereoviews

Portage Bridge from Inspiration Point, Letchworth State Park, N.Y.

Albertype Co., "Portage Bridge from Inspiration Point, Letchworth State Park, NY" (ca. 1905-1920)

Even when we behold picturesque locations for the first time, that experience has been shaped by earlier journeys. Oral sagas, explorers’ journals, travel narratives, literary fictions—all such accounts described particular places, but equally important created an idealized beholder of places. Until the nineteenth century, travel encounters were limited by distance (it was difficult to journey very far from home) and by the technologies for rendering scenery (paintings and lithographs were expensive). Besides direct experience, a viewpoint usually was a picture made of words. The industrial revolution expanded production both of travel and images, so that by 1900 it had become common for railroading tourists to behold a faraway viewpoint, then dislodge it into the world for circulation and re-viewing by others. The means for accomplishing this was the photographic postcard.

The one-cent postal card came to America in 1873, following its success in Europe, but it was not until the World’s Columbian Exposition in 1893 that illustrated souvenir cards became popular. Congressional legislation in 1898 reduced the mailing rates of privately printed postcards, indirectly facilitating a new form of popular art and communication:

The enormous growth of the postcard craze in this country, within so few years, can be attributed to many factors, including a shift in tastes of the American public from sentiment to modern art, and the development of a sales and distribution network of jobbers and importers that linked German printers with small town merchants (who wanted to immortalize Main Street on viewcards) and retail outlets, such as drugstores, bookshops, newsstands, and department stores, which strongly promoted the sale of postcards, since they required small amounts of display spaceand bore a good profit. (Bassett)

Nearly 700 million postcards were mailed annually by 1908, collected in family albums and experienced “as an inexpensive form of entertainment...just as radio and television were in later eras” (Bassett). Various genres emerged—holiday postcards, comic scenes and surreal “tall tales,” civic or historical landmarks—but the one of the largest catered to travelers who would mail home postcards of picturesque locations, purchase them as souvenirs, or both.

Most of the twenty Kodak picture-spots of 1967 already had appeared as postcards, some of them for several decades. Among the popular views were the three falls, the Seneca council-house, the Mary Jemison statue, and Inspiration Point. One especially energetic promoter was J. Lee Folts of Mt. Morris, a jeweler who partnered with the Albertype Company of Brooklyn to publish the “Genesee Gorge Series” of hand-painted postcards—at least three dozen different views by the 1930s.

Because Letchworth Park postcards depicted panoramas similar to what visitors can see today, it’s important to remember their unique qualities. Unlike poems from Voices of the Glen, they tended to standardize experience; for example, E. Isham’s “Night at the Lower Falls” could not have been photographed, nor the “Voices From the Past” imagined by William H. C. Hosmer. Poems and travel narratives, moreover, often described a particular occasion or moment shared with other people, which aside from Kodak’s “real photo” technology could not be represented via mass-produced postcards. Still, it was appealing to mail friends a picturesque view, the better to “Wish You Were Here,” and a postcard's (very) limited space for words meant that the photographs themselves played an important role in that communication. The essence of a postcard was that a visit and its sights were iconic enough for an individual to want to share that experience.

For some travelers two-dimensional viewing was not enough.  More expensive stereograph or stereoview cards could be purchased at the park and shared upon returning home, momentarily returning travelers (and their friends) to a location at Letchworth. Stereocards were a virtual technology that replicated how human eyes perceive a viewpoint from slightly different perspectives; when images from two camera lenses were placed at the correct distance in a stereocard viewer, it created depth that was perceived as three-dimensional. The dream of a fully immersive technology—of (re-)creating an experience within a location—remains alive in virtual reality hardware like Occulus Rift and smartphone headsets. All of them have postcards in their DNA.

Works Consulted

—Bassett, Fred. “Wish You Were Here!: The Story of the Golden Age of Picture Postcards in the United States.” New York State Library. 2016.

 —Historian, United States Postal Service. “Stamped Cards and Postcards.” United States Postal Service. 2014.

 —U.S. Library of Congress, “Stereograph Cards.”

 —Petrulis, Alan. “A Not So Concise History of the Evolution of Postcards in the United States.”

 —Smithsonian Institution Archives. “Postcard History.” Greetings From the Smithsonian.

Postcards & Stereoviews