Pretty as a picture postcard doesn’t exactly apply to a postcard on Page 97 of Randy Harter’s new book.
Horrific might be a better word to describe the scene of the smoking, shredded metal of a steam locomotive that had just run head-on into a passenger train Aug. 13, 1911, near what is now Swinney Park. The crash killed four and injured 35.
But back then, says the compiler of a book on Fort Wayne for the Postcard History Series of South Carolina-based Arcadia Publishing, postcards weren’t just about showcasing the picturesque.
The cards were a way of spreading the news before television and even widespread use of radio, he says.
People didn’t have telephones, and they didn’t have cars, so when something big happened and they wanted to share it across the country or across town, they could by sending a postcard, local resident Harter, 62, says.
At the time, he says, Fort Wayne had more than a dozen private photography studios whose owners or employees would rush to the scenes of news to take photos that could be quickly turned into postcards. The cards would be sold for a few cents at corner drugstores, within economic reach of the masses.
In 1913, when the U.S. population was about 95 million, the U.S. Postal Service estimates that 968 million postcards were mailed, or roughly 10 for every man, woman and child, Harter says.
They were quite a fad. People kept them and collected them in scrapbooks and traded them, he says.
The so-called Golden Age of postcards came to a crushing halt with World War I, he says, because many postcard printers were in Germany, America’s enemy, but the cards evolved and continued to be popular through most of the 20th century.
A retired sales manager for Fundex Games Ltd. of Indianapolis, Harter started collection in 1976, when he went to an antiques show at Memorial Coliseum. He saw a postcard from around 1920 showing a young lady standing next to the sunken gardens, a lily pond in Lakeside Park.
That park was right down the street from me, says Harter, who lives in the Forest Park neighborhood. They were selling it for a quarter, and I was intrigued, and I bought it.
He now has a collection of 3,000 postcards, all with Fort Wayne references and images or connected to Art Bird Boy Smith, the native-son namesake of today’s Smith Field.
The handsome daredevil of an aviator made a name for himself by building his own plane in 1910 and 1911 and barnstorming the country and internationally; Harter has found cards of him from as far away as San Francisco and Japan.
Harter’s book has more than 225 postcards from the early 20th century through the 1950s, most of them his own, but some borrowed from other area collectors. He also recently donated about 2,100 cards to the Allen County Public Library and is now digitizing them so they may be accessed by the public through the library website’s Community Album section. A sample of his collection is now on display at the library through the end of the year.
While some of Harter’s postcards show history – such as the train wreck, the disastrous 1913 flood and the 1908 fire at the Aveline Hotel, three of the city’s major 20th-century catastrophes – some have their own incredible stories.
Harter points to a card of a view of Calhoun Street that was mailed in 1902 to Tunis, Africa, from Fort Wayne. I bought it from a guy in Italy on a (postcard) trading site, so it’s interesting how it found its way home after more than a hundred years, he says.
He’s found other cards mailed to Germany, England and Ireland. The Internet has revolutionized the hobby by allowing communication among far-flung collectors and sellers, he says; traditionally postcards were mostly bought and sold in person at ephemera and other antiques shows. Harter and his wife, Patricia, attend several each year looking for postcards he doesn’t already have.
Perhaps his rarest card, he says, is of the Driving Park, which includes a shot of Smith’s airplane. The long-gone park was a horse and automobile racetrack and air show site north of East State Boulevard near the Forest Park addition.
There’s very few images of the Driving Park to begin with, and to have one with Art Smith’s plane in it is extremely rare, Harter says. A lot of these cards, the only one I’ve ever seen is the one I have.
Still, some of those images, Harter says, aren’t exactly true to life. Just as people today get photos made of themselves dressed as cowboys against a fake backdrop, even early postcards employed deception.
Harter has a whole grouping of cards that played on Fort Wayne’s reputation as a river town by showing photographs of real people in fake boats with slogans such as Going to Fort Wayne. Others show people purportedly getting an aerial view of the city in a hot-air balloon.
Still others employed, in the days long before Photoshop, what Harter says can only kindly be called artistic license.
He pulls out a postcard of the city’s Centlivre brewery which looks like a photo but is actually a drawing. The image has a majestic multi-story wing running behind its façade. Trouble is, he says, the brewery never looked like that.
The wing was never built, he says, adding that it is also common for cards to show upper floors of buildings that didn’t exist.
But ordinarily, the postcards provide fascinating glimpses into everyday life in earlier times – a butcher in his apron outside a neighborhood meat market in 1910, what the brand-new Southgate Mall looked like in 1955, the shiny fleet of milk trucks at Eskay Dairy in 1925, more than a dozen elephants parading down Calhoun Street next to a trolley car on their way to the circus grounds in 1913.
The postcard tells you more than just recording a simple scene, Harter says. It takes you back to the era and makes you aware of the way people looked and the way they dressed and what their life was like.
In many cases, the only record of an event or scene is a postcard, he adds. Many times, there is no other image.