The items in the Tennessee Postcard Collection span a broad timeframe and include images from across the state. Unlike other collections at the Tennessee State Library and Archives, the items in this grouping are similar only in format. The postcards that comprise the Tennessee Postcard Collection have been gathered from various manuscript collections and placed in a central repository to facilitate research and to ease storage.
While not united by any particular theme (except for their Tennessee provenance), these postcards offer a multi-faceted glimpse into different aspects of the state’s history and geography. The cards in this exhibit are intended to showcase the diversity of Tennessee in a unique and interesting format, rather than to simply provide a forum for rare postcards.
Tennessee’s four major cities, as well as several smaller towns and various rural locations, are represented among the postcards. Images of street scenes, aerial views of towns and colleges, and commemorative images of historical figures are all displayed in the collection. The 64 postcards displayed here were taken from the more than 2,000 postcards in the broader collection, and were chosen to be representative of the state’s three grand divisions: East, Middle, and West Tennessee.
The postcards in this collection allow the viewer to take a virtual tour of the state. Tennessee’s geography is notably diverse, stretching from the Mississippi lowlands in the western portion of the state to the Appalachian Mountains in the eastern portion.
To begin this virtual tour of the state in Memphis, look at "Greetings from the City of Memphis" postcard. This postcard features several of the most prominent Memphis attractions and industries from 1909. The Cossitt Library (forerunner to today’s Memphis Public Library and Information Center), an early city skyscraper, and the important cotton industry are each shown on this card. Also noteworthy on this card is the image of the Nathan Bedford Forrest Monument, a Memphis statue that had been erected in 1905. With many Confederate veterans still living in 1909, the legacy of Forrest (a renowned Southern general) would still have been quite powerful in the popular imagination.
“Greetings from Tennessee, the Volunteer State” reveals what sites were of particular interest when this postcard was printed. Although the postcard is undated, it appears to be from the 1950s. The postcard, a montage of notable Nashville attractions, displays sites that remain just as popular today as they were fifty years ago: the Hermitage, the Parthenon, and the State Capitol, among others.
The Cherry Mansion, an antebellum home overlooking the Tennessee River in Savannah, served as headquarters for several Union generals during the nearby Battle of Shiloh in 1862.
Moving east into Middle Tennessee, “Mule Day” shows an early scene in Columbia, Tennessee. This annual mule-centered festival continues today, and was recently the subject of an exhibit at the Tennessee State Library and Archives.
The postcard, entitled “Stopped for Inspection,” serves as a light-hearted end to a postcard trip across the state. Two black bears appear to be begging for food from a Great Smoky Mountain National Park motor tourist. foreshadows the problems with human/animal interaction that increasingly plagued the popular national park. Today, feeding wildlife in the park is forbidden by federal law.
To the casual observer, some of the postcards in this collection may seem mundane or insignificant. The Cornfield postcard, for instance, reveals the importance of this crop to the Tennessee economy. A poem by John Greenleaf Whittier on the reverse side of the card celebrates the harvest of this agricultural product. Many of the postcards shown here similarly celebrate everyday objects or locations that contribute to the unique experience of living in or visiting Tennessee.
Although postcard collecting enjoyed its highest popularity around the turn of the twentieth century, the practice of sending postcards began around 1870. Deltiology, or postcard collecting, became a popular way of documenting people’s travels or of sharing images of one’s hometown with others.
In the early twentieth century, postcards with “divided backs” allowed printers to devote one entire side of the card to an image. The reverse side was then split between an area reserved for a message and an area for the recipient’s address. Previously, senders wrote their message on the image side of the card, with the reverse completely devoted to the recipient’s address. This new form of postcard encouraged the so-called “Golden Age” of postcards, roughly considered as the years 1895-1920.
According to writer Tom Phillips (The Postcard Century, 2000), deltiologists divide postcards into three categories: topography, subject, and artists. Postcard collectors highly prize cards that were produced by specific artists or photographers, especially limited runs of particular happenings, areas, or people.
The “real photo” postcard remains a highly-sought form of card that enjoyed widespread popularity in the early 20th century. “Real photocards” allowed individuals to fashion unique correspondence that carried one-of-a-kind images. Special cameras, manufactured by the Eastman Kodak Company (see Image 4), enabled users to produce photographs sturdy enough to be sent through the mail. Few, if any, of the postcards in this collection appear to be this form of card.
Postcard enthusiasts enjoy the hobby for many different reasons, but several important aspects of deltiology can explain its popularity. Postcards that have been mailed are easily dateable: most postmarks display the day and city in which the card was sent. Additionally, postcard printing methods have changed so often over the years that the certain quality and texture of card can often be traced to a definite time period. Postcard collecting is also a comparatively cheap hobby, and many people buy the cards as souvenirs without any intent to mail them to friends or family members. Another attractive aspect of deltiology is the democratic nature of postcards; they depict virtually everything and have been sent or received by every demographic of people in many different countries.
Many active clubs around the country and throughout the world still promote the art of the postcard and the hobby of collecting postcards. Postcrossing, an online postcard club, allows members to exchange postcards with individuals from all over the world. Postcard organizations in metropolitan areas of the U.S. often hold monthly meetings for members to share their collections with others who enjoy the hobby.
Works Consulted/Further Reading
Bogdan, Robert and Todd Weseloh. Real Photo Postcard Guide. Syracuse, New York: Syracuse University Press, 2006.
Monahan, Valerie. An American Postcard Collector’s Guide. Poole, England: Blandford Press, 1981.
Phillips, Tom. The Postcard Century: 2000 Cards and their Messages. New York: Thames and Hudson, 2000.
Staff, Frank. The Picture Postcard and Its Origins. New York: Frederick A. Praeger, 1966.
Vaule, Rosamond B. As We Were: American Photographic Postcards, 1905-1930. Boston: David R. Godine, 2004.