Wish list for a perfect postcard

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At first glance this real photo postcard may not seem exceptional, but the combination of small town street scene and matching cancellation add interest. It shows Colon, Mich., and was mailed in December 1908. It gets better. The sender mentions the new schoolhouse and that "the main part of town is across the creek which is below the school." Colon is still a small town, but it's famous for making equipment for magicians. Many years ago we went to a magic show in the high school auditorium that featured famous magicians who were in town to buy the latest tricks.

Every collector has a different idea of what the perfect postcard is.

Some might favor a particularly beautiful card, perhaps one by an Art Nouveau artist. Others look for the historical importance of a real photo or a bargain on a very valuable card. For those who collect complete series, a particularly scarce card needed for completion would rank highest.
A collector can also be motivated by sentiment or nostalgia, particularly drawn to a significant scene or event remembered from childhood. In fact, there are probably as many ideas of what the perfect postcard should be as there are collectors.

Two things that any “perfect” postcard should have are scarcity and excellent condition. It goes without saying that a common card that can be found almost anywhere doesn’t qualify. If three or four dealers at a postcard show have the same card for sale, it’s not special enough to be on most collectors’ wish lists.

Everyone has an individual standard for condition. Some will overlook minor flaws if the card warrants it. Others will hold out for an example without any visible faults. But virtually no one wants a soiled, foxed, ill-smelling card with missing corners, bends, tapemarks or pinholes. I particularly dislike rotted bits of rubber band adhering to either side of the card, ink smears, crayon marks and cancellation stains that mar the picture side. Cracked gelatin surfaces on old greeting cards are also a turnoff, as are postcards with food stains or marks from being used as a coaster.

For years I collected anything that took my fancy, but recently my quest for the perfect postcard has become more specific. First of all, I want a card that’s been used at its point of origin. That means that the postmark must match the view. It should be a sharp strike that gives both the town and state plus the full date. Pre-1930 cards are preferable, as are hand strikes (as opposed to machine cancels), although this isn’t a deal-breaker.

Small towns are definitely more interesting than larger ones, meeting the scarcity criteria. I tend to collect any decent view if the postmark is good, but main street scenes top my list. If the card is a real photo, all the better. Real photo street scenes vary from dark, smudgy views of empty streets to wonderful “slices of life” with people, transportation, interesting store fronts and signs. Two of my favorites show a banner for a women’s suffrage meeting and damage after Halloween, but neither meets the cancellation criteria.

Unfortunately some postcards have been ravaged by stamp collectors. A“perfect” small town card with a matching cancellation should also have the stamp intact, even if it’s a common stamp. It harks back to condition. There’s something particularly unsightly about a glue stain where the stamp was steamed off.

Then there’s location. Good examples from the Eastern Seaboard states are relatively easy to find, and the Midwest yields a fair number. But go farther west, and cards that meet all the above criteria get much scarcer.

Since this is about the search for the perfect postcard, it’s all right to be even more demanding. It adds to the postal aspects if there are cancellations from both the point of origin and the receiving town or if the postal service added other markings. Then there stamps that are seldom seen on postcards. Think parcel post, airmail, special delivery or commemorative stamps. Sometimes both an American and a foreign stamp are used on the same card, or a foreign stamp has an American cancellation.

 In my whole collection, I only have one card franked with a stamp from the 1893 Chicago Columbian Exposition, and that’s a later greeting. Imagine what a prize a stamped postcard from the expo would be. Another real treasure is an early Christmas seal tied onto a card by having part of the cancellation touching it.

An interesting message is a plus too, especially if it sheds light on everyday happenings in the life of a sender. And the ultimate special feature would be association with a well-known person. I have a few postcards autographed by famous people and one addressed to an entertainer, but they fall short in the town/cancel combination.

Needless to say, I’ve never found a “perfect” postcard that incorporates all the above features, but those that come close give an intense feeling of holding history in my hands.

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More Images:

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This card doesn't cut it, even though it's from Lehi, Utah - not an easy town to find. There are men hanging out on the street corner, a saloon just down the street and lots of signs painted on the wall of the drug store. Unfortunately, the photograph is faded and the postmark, Cedar Valley, Utah, doesn't match. Also it was sent by a collector to a trading partner, not exactly slice-of-life in the message area.
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C.R. Childs, a professional photographer and postcard maker in Chicago, took this picture of Union, Illinois. It shows greater skill than many real photos and includes the State Bank, an interurban on the track and some children to add human interest. A 1918 Union, Ill., postmark and a personal message that it will be "all right" for "Sis" to come make it close to a perfect postcard.

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