Postcard Genealogy

postcards.jpgHave you considered writing your family history? Many others have, and it may seem like a daunting prospect. Imagining all the people in your family tree, perhaps hundreds of them, and deciding who to write about and who to omit is a real conundrum.

Even if you don’t plan to write a family history, as a genealogist you are still interested in understanding your ancestors and their family members’ lives in context. It’s important to place them in their environment and to understand that environment during the years through which they lived. We certainly do this by collecting all types of records. Census records are important because they place a person in a particular location at a specific point in time. You can see a list of other people in the same residence and neighbors on either side of them. Naturally, you can expand your understanding of that area by seeking out and studying local histories of various types.

Photographs can be helpful in your research to help you visualize your ancestors, and sometimes their environment. Since the end of the nineteenth century, when snapshot photography was introduced, candid shots of our ancestors and their families became more common. However, from the 1830s through at least the 1880s, photographs, tended to be made in studios with stiffly posed individuals against painted, artificial backgrounds. Other than allowing us to see these people in the clothing and factions of the period, these pictures do little to help us place our ancestors and family members in their actual, day-to-day environment.

I am a very visual person, and I really want to see the details of where and how my ancestors lived. As a result, I began collecting antique picture postcards, stereographs, posters, and other visual images about twenty years ago. I have found that even smaller towns usually have had picture postcards issued, but larger municipalities may have had scores if not hundreds of postcards produced. The postcards I collect are of towns and localities where my ancestral families lived and worked. They tend to date from the time period when my ancestors lived there and therefore provide me with a visual image of their environment. Some photographers at the turn of the twentieth century actually plied their trade by taking candid photographs of people and quickly printing them all on postcard paper stock. I have found a number of those amongst family papers. However, in order to locate the commercially produced postcards of the given location, I’ve had to look in a variety of places and purchase them. Those places include:

  • Online auction sites
  • Used book stores
  • Antique shops
  • Flea markets
  • Book vendors at genealogical conferences, who may include postcards in their inventory

Picture postcards, travel posters, tourist guides, and other printed materials can provide a glimpse into everyday life in those places where your ancestors lived. It’s like opening a small time capsule each time you view one of these items. These images provide you with visual context of your ancestors’ lives, and you gain a better understanding of their circumstances, regardless of whether you are writing a family history or not.

If you are a family historian, these images are invaluable in providing you with a resource that you can use to physically describe a place, the people, and activities taking place.

Collecting postcards is a comparatively inexpensive hobby. However, it can add to your visual understanding of your ancestors, and they allow you to celebrate the places in which your ancestors chose to live and work.

AWJ Editor’s Note: Ancestry U.S. Deluxe subscribers can search the Historical Postcards Collection, c. 1893-1963.

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7 thoughts on “Postcard Genealogy

  1. This article took me back about 27 years – this week, actually. I had always been somewhat interested in genealogy – but not really working at it until the past 5 years. I did, however, take care to keep family things. (Or should I say, squirrel them away from my family’s home in PA to my new home in Florida) One of the things was a diary of my great aunt Margaret. Margaret did not lead an exciting life – but her diary from 1907 until the teens gives a picture of her life. One of the things she talked about was the Norristown PA Sesquicentennial Celebration. Apparently, there were a week of parades, Industry Day and Education Day being among them. She talks in the diary about how my great aunt Molly rode in a car and “Willie” (my grandfather) dressed as a Quaker. One day I was in a store in Sarasota which had old postcards. I found one with a group of school children dressed as Quakers, followed by cars. I had chills!
    I have since found my great aunt listed among the teachers partcipating in the parade along with another great aunt (or great great aunt – not sure, same name).
    So, the postcards can be as good as a photograph!
    There are also some publishers which specialize in post card books – I’ve gotten several and they have been very helpful in locating places frequented by my ancestors.
    Thanks for the reminder about this great source.
    Carol Clarke

  2. My daddy was recipiant of post cards in early 1800’s of
    his grandmother, my GrGrand Mother Van Horn, who had received
    and saved post cards over the years before her death in 1936.
    When my first cousin, is sister and myself began genealogy in
    1992, the many, many cards became instant history of the Van
    Horn branch. Today, during whatever holidays appear, I
    position the postcards relavant to that stash. It is a very
    wonderful source of information. Gr Grandfather was a Civil
    War Vet who survived and d. in 1912. At my age now, telling
    my own grandchildren about helping take care of my Gr Grandmother before I went to K’garten always amazes them, as
    well as myself. Fortunately, the Van Horn family is easier
    to trace than others in the paternal side. My husband’s
    family, poor dirt farmers, kept grand records. It’s a wonderful adventure to find leads when we get tired batting
    our heads on the barn doors and ship rails …. where are you..
    who are you….where are you buried. I actually found a
    postcard in an antique store simply because it was postmarked
    in MD where my gr gr grandmother was born. The recipient I found on quick as a jack rabbit’s jump, even tho I had no idea who she was. We still have not found our
    elusive gr gr grandma.


  3. You really have given some great ideas on the locality postcards and how to search for them. I have looked and looked for information on a hotel in Los Angeles that one of my husband’s great uncles ran/managed/owned (?) in the late 1800s, without any luck. Now I will look for some old street views.

    One note I might add about the early “formal” portraits: even though dressed in their finest, several of those photos I’ve seen show that the men in particular, don’t seem to have a pair of good shoes to go with their suits, an indication to me of their economic situation. Women could remake and restyle their clothing, but if work shoes were all you could afford, that seemed to be what you wore. Women were probably in the same situation, but the long skirts could cover the shoes.

    Great article! Thanks.

  4. I collect and also sell postcards. There are many shows all over the place. Besides the Postcard shows, try visiting stamp shows as they often have postcards. Now is especially a good time to find them on the West Coast and in the Southwest. Most of my personal collection is of places that mean something to me or my family. I have a postcard of myself at age one taken in a studio and an advertising one of my youngest daughter from a play that she was in about 14 years ago. Also one of my grandfather and some of my uncles outside the depot where he was the agent and one of an uncle and some friends outside another depot. These are the jewels of my personal collection. I am seriously looking for one of the tiny town in the hills of Southern Indiana where I was born. A customer recently gave me a greeting card with lovely old script addressed to a person with my name. What fun and what a nice man to do that. Happy hunting to all of us as we search for treasures.

  5. Thank you for the great article! I have just recently discovered the opportunity these old postcards provide to enhance the the family histories I am compiling. It has now become a second hobby to find ones that relate to the time periods and places of my families history.

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