Animal wonderland on postcards

A huge project is underway to catalog every one of the 1.8 million species on planet earth. According to a BBC News report, this huge Encyclopedia of Life now has 30,000 pages and is scheduled for completion in 2017. It will be a treasure trove of information on new, current, threatened, endangered and recently extinct species, a virtual who’s who of life on earth that includes both the animal and plant kingdoms.

No one will ever have a postcard collection picturing all 1.8 million life forms. In fact, only a few rare collectors ever accumulate more than a million different postcards, let alone a million plant and animal cards, but the scope of this scientific project can serve as an inspiration to nature lovers/collectors.

There’s no way to know how many postcards have been produced picturing different species, but animals, in particular, have been favorites for more than a hundred years. Raphael Tuck, an early British publisher whose name is well known to collectors, was a pioneer in issuing animal studies in sets, but some of the most interesting came from zoos and museums.

The New York Zoological Society was particularly clever in the cards it issued to sell to visitors and promote the Zoological Park. Two good examples are zookeepers handling an especially long snake and bored chimps wearing keepers’ uniforms. Early ones date to 1907.

Zoos across the U.S. and in foreign countries tapped into the public’s interest in animal life, although cards from some smaller zoos show big animals like bears in small cages that would be considered cruel today. Private and tourist-orientated animal displays were also prolific producers of postcards. It’s a rare collector who hasn’t run across a card from an alligator farm. They were popular attractions from Florida to California, two states also known for ostrich farms.

Museums used a more scientific approach, also including information on the backs of postcards. Unlike zoos, their exhibits were stuffed, often in backgrounds depicting the natural habitant.

The National Wildlife Society, pioneers in conservation efforts, published some very attractive matt finish artist-drawn wildlife scenes in the 1930s. Some collectors have also made an effort to collect all the state birds drawn by Ken Haag in the 1960s. Others prefer more fanciful cards like the dressed cats published by Max Kunzli of Zurich.

Not all animal cards are pleasant. It’s hard to enjoy a 1913 real photo showing a whale being cut up or the reproduction of a scene where a school of 1500 “black fish,” washed up on the beach and died in1884 at South Wellfleet, Mass. The dead whales sold for $15,000, divided among 300 inhabitants.

Collectors tend to specialize in one or a few animals. Elephants are popular with good reason. They’re apt to be one of the first exotic animals a child sees. I can remember riding on one at a Chicago zoo even before I started school. Bears are favorites, and the antics of chimps never cease to amaze. Some prefer more cuddly creatures like domestic cats and dogs, and birds offer immense variety. It’s hard to resist a beautiful racehorse or a more lumbering beast of burden.

Animal life is plentiful on cards from the early 1900s to the present, with many beautiful wildlife scenes from Alaska to exotic “Z” countries in Africa. The huge effort going into the Encyclopedia of Life may inspire some nature lovers to see just how many different species can be collected on postcards. It would also be a wonderful way to introduce children to collecting, especially if they have an interest in science.

Postcard publishers, artists and photographers have put the natural world within reach of all collectors. At a time when many postcards have become too expensive for the budget-conscious, there’s unlimited potential at modest cost for those who want to admire and learn more about the species that inhabit our earth.