Greetings from Kansas City Captures Appeal of Post Cards

Postcard courtesy of Missouri Valley Special Collections
Postcard courtesy of Missouri Valley Special Collections

The common post card is a relic of a pre-digital era when “snail mail” was the only way to send an image between cities.

Back then there were no cell phones, satellites, or Internet to instantly transmit a vacationer’s photographs to friends and family.

Travelers marked their progress by mailing post cards with pictures of the places they had visited – everything from the hotel in which they stayed to the stores where they shopped and the amusements they experienced.

In meeting this demand, the makers of post cards left an invaluable visual record of a long-gone time. That analog age is celebrated in Greetings from Kansas City, an exhibit of more than 200 post cards – most of them from the 1930s and ‘40s — on display from late January through April in the Guldner Gallery at the Kansas City Public Library’s Central Library, 14 W. 10th St.

The cards exhibited were chosen from the 16,000 in the Kansas City Public Library’s Missouri Valley Collections.

Eli Paul, manager of the special collections, said the sheer number of images was daunting.

“Looking through these thousands of postcards we had to ask ourselves, ‘What story do they tell?’,” said Paul, who put together the display with senior special collections librarian Jeremy Drouin and senior designer Anne Ducey of the library’s public affairs staff. “Then we realized that these are the cards that Kansas Citians would have sent to the world to explain their city and to express their civic pride. That became our hook, our story.”

Postcard courtesy of Missouri Valley Special Collections
Postcard courtesy of Missouri Valley Special Collections

The first post cards were “postal cards” — blank cards sold by the U.S. Post Office with a stamp printed in one corner. Addresses went on the stamp side; the sender’s comments were written on the opposite side. There were no pictures. It was basically a letter without an envelope.

But in the early 20th century legislation was passed that allowed anyone – business or individual – to design, print, and mail post cards as long as a stamp was affixed. These changes came just as photography was becoming a hobby for many Americans. “That was when the true postcard craze began,” Paul said. “Post cards were the e-mail, Twitter, and Pinterest of that era – a way to send a quick, cheap message.”

In the first full year after the loosening of postal regulations, Americans mailed 600 million post cards. Each citizen mailed an average of six or seven
cards annually.

Many of the exhibit’s best examples of post cards represent the “linen era” when cards were printed on heavy, textured matte stock and featured photos (or, more often, drawings based on photos) often enhanced with  gaudy hand-applied colors.

By contrast, post cards after 1950 usually featured photographs printed on glossy stock.

The exhibit is divided into three categories:

  • Business and Industry features images of local stores, factories, the stockyards, and transportation (trains, trolleys, automobiles).
  • Entertainment, arts, and culture emphasizes museums, theaters, parks and boulevards, and shopping districts like the Country Club Plaza.
  • History and heritage centers on local monuments, cityscapes, and traditional events like the American Royal.

Most of the cards displayed in the exhibit are reproductions. But several original cards – especially the booklets that allow several cards to unfold accordion-style – can be seen under glass in display cases.

While virtually every community in America generated post cards, Kansas City has a special connection with the phenomenon.

Joyce C. Hall, the founder of Kansas City’s Hallmark Cards, began his career as a post card dealer. “It was only later that he got into greeting cards,” Paul said.

The cards on display in Greetings from Kansas City were drawn from the collection of Mrs. Sam Ray, a retired teacher who for 23 years wrote a weekly column – A Postcard from Old Kansas City – in the Kansas City Star and Times. Each column featured a post card from her extensive collection; in very personal prose Mrs. Ray wrote about the historic background of each image.

This feature proved so popular with Star readers that two books based on Mrs. Ray’s columns were published.

Mrs. Ray did much of her research in the Missouri Valley Room. Upon her death in 1996 at age 100 her collection of 16,000 post cards was turned over to the Library. More than 600 of the cards and accompanying articles have been made available to the public through the Missouri Valley Special Collections Digital Gallery.

Paul explores some of the stories behind the exhibit’s images in the presentation Greetings from Kansas City on Wednesday, January 30, 2013, at 6:30 p.m. at the Central Library. Admission is free. A reception precedes the event. RSVP online or call 816.701.3407. Free parking is available at the Library District Parking Garage.

Robert Butler

For more than 40 years Robert W. Butler has covered movies for "The Kansas City Star." He also reviews current films at butlerscinemascene.com, at seniorcorrespondent.com and on KCUR-FM’s “Up to Date.”

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