Thursday, August 28, 2008

Unplanned Communication With the Future

A few weeks ago, I noticed a box of postcards for sale at a nearby resale shop. Vintage cards, you might call them, but probably not much that would interest a serious postcard collector. Serious collectors probably covet unused, new-looking cards, but for the most part I don't understand serious collectors' obsession with mint condition. My own fascination with a coin, for instance, is increased with a little wear. Think of all the hands, and pockets, and cash registers, and jars a nicely worn bit of copper or silver has seen. Mint condition may be more beautiful, but used is more interesting.

Postcards don't wear quite the way coins do, of course, and are unlikely to have passed through as many hands. Mostly I buy them for their subject image, and mainly to send to someone else. But occasionally I pick up one that I can't really send to anyone else (unless I put it in an envelope), a used card that's all the more intriguing for the one-time original message, waiting there for me on the reverse like an insect in amber. The other day I got 20 cards for $5, which is about the right price for any set of cards, including this one:

It's a "C.T. Art-Colortone" postcard of the Kansas City, Mo., skyline from Penn Valley Park. C.T. stands for Curt Teich Co., a Chicago printer that was the largest maker of postcards in the country once upon a time. The card's serial number tells me (amazingly, via simple Google search) that this particular card was made in 1932 -- so even in the pit of the Depression, people were still buying cards.

But maybe not sending them: a penny was a penny, after all (indeed, domestic postcard rates didn't rise to 2ยข until the remarkably late date of January 1, 1952). Or maybe Curt Teich had it in its inventory for quite a while. But for whatever reason, this 1932 card wasn't mailed until July 19, 1940. The postmark on the reverse tells me that.

Here's the message:

Greetings from #336.

What is your hobby? When is your birthday? My birthday is October 22.

My hobby is collecting handkerchiefs with scenes or maps on them. I prefer post cards of industries especially flour mills. I like historic and geographic views too. Any card appreciated.

Mrs. P.H. Lawson
3724 Broadway
Kansas City, Mo.

The message is neatly typewritten, with no typing errors, and only one time does the text flow into the address side of the card. Mrs. Lawson had a strong typing style and probably a new ribbon, since the letters are -- 68 years later -- still fairly dark, though the paper has yellowed a bit. She was also an even typist, mostly, since the only key she seems to have hit harder than the others is the "m" key, which would be pressed with the right index finger. It all leads me to speculate that Mrs. Lawson was a professional typist of some kind, or at least that typing was an important part of her job. Or perhaps she just trained for it diligently, as many women of her time did.

Why "Greetings from #336"? A correspondence club, perhaps -- adults writing to children, from the tone of the message, which was addressed to a Miss Dorothy M. Hudson. The idea of collecting handkerchiefs seems odd now, and maybe it was a little even then. I especially like how specific she was about the kind of card she preferred (presumably in return from Miss Hudson): "industries, especially flour mills." Flour mills?

Mrs. Lawson (and I supposed Mr. Lawson) lived here in 1940:

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It certainly looks like this apartment building would have been there then. Maybe she was a young bride, in her early 20s, which could very well mean that she's out there somewhere even now. And maybe she's still enjoying her handkerchief and postcard collections at her assisted living home in Fort Lauderdale. Or maybe not. "Throw away all this junk," her daughter might have said to her husband about the box of handkerchiefs they found while going through her late mother's possessions.

As for Dorothy Hudson, if she was (say) 10 at the time, there's a very good chance she's still among the living. In 1940, she lived in this neighborhood in Windsor, Conn.:

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Dorothy, what was your card doing in Schaumburg, Illinois, in 2008?


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