Postcard Album: Collectors search for prehistoric giants

My brother found a mammoth tooth in a gravel pit when he was a college student working summers on road construction. It was chalky white and beautiful, and I coveted it mightily. I still haven’t forgiven his ex-wife for giving it to a neighbor.

Those who follow auction news know that finding prehistoric fossils is like striking gold. Museums and private collectors are willing and eager to pay huge amounts, especially for complete dinosaur skeletons. Alas, it’s unlikely that anyone reading this will ever own so much as a toe bone, but dinosaur watching has become a popular activity, especially since “Jurassic Park,” and the many TV documentaries. Fortunately for collectors, it is possible to tap into the history of prehistoric creatures through postcards. Museums and other institutions that own complete or nearly complete fossilized skeletons frequently issue postcards to attract visitors and enhance their reputations.

There’s potential for finding fossils wherever conditions were right for preserving them, but the La Brea tar pits, South Dakota badlands and sites in Western states like Utah, Wyoming and Montana have been particularly rich in finds. And perhaps best of all, science has advanced to the point where new knowledge keeps adding to the picture of prehistoric life. Who would have thought of feathered dinosaurs, the probable ancestors of birds? Who knew they hunted in packs? And why wouldn’t skeletal remains inspire legends of fierce dragons? There’s not much for dinosaur postcard collectors before the 1930s when the Sinclair Oil Company used the brontosaurus as their logo. They created a full-size dinosaur for the Chicago World’s Fair in 1933, and several different postcards show this model of a 70-foot long creature, certainly a favorite of visitors who liked to be photographed standing near the giant.

Dinosaur Park near Rapid City, S.D., made a tourist attraction by creating five full-size concrete reproductions of the prehistoric animals that inhabited the region of the Black Hills millions of years ago. Besides a huge brontosaurus, the park features a Tyrannosaurus Rex, 16 feet high and 35 feet long. Scientists now speculate that the fierce monster may actually have been a scavenger and that his small arms weren’t much use in a fight. Of course, with teeth like his, who needs claws?

Museums are, of course, the best source for postcards. My favorites are the photographs sold mostly in the 1940s. They’re not colorful like later chromes, but every bone stands out, as well as the framework that holds up the massive skeleton. Major museums can’t be blamed for the pride they take in full fossilized dinosaurs, but one of the most dramatic is a Barosaurus on display at the American Museum of Natural History in New York City. (One of their early dinosaur hunters was Roy Chapman Andrews, the inspiration for Indiana Jones.) A plant-eater, it’s posed with an incredibly long neck soaring up to a high ceiling. The people viewing it look tiny in comparison.

Somewhere along the line, museum curators decided that prehistoric beasts could best be depicted by giving them skin, fur eyes or whatever was needed to make their models seem more real. Once example is shown on a black and white card, possibly from the ’30s or ’40s, of an “ice-age elephant” that once roamed Minnesota. It was on display in the St. Paul museum. The Smithsonian went a step further when it exhibited an “armored dinosaur” complete with simulated skin, a technique used by other museums too.
Among the more common postcards are artist-drawn depictions of dinosaurs. These are mostly chrome cards and include some large enough to frame. As learning tools for children, they’re great, but adult enthusiasts may also enjoy them.

Digging up, preserving and moving fragile bones is an art that requires extreme care and patience. The paleontologists who do this are seldom pictured on postcards, but when they are, the cards are real winners. Several scenes from Dinosaur National Monument in Utah feature work in progress.

Although I don’t usually collect continental (4×6) postcards, one of my favorite dinosaur-related cards is a modern-size picture of Mary Anning (1799-1847) issued by the British Natural History Museum. At the age of eleven, she found the first complete ichthyosaur in Dorset.

For years she made her living selling fossils she found. She was untrained and unschooled, but she was definitely a pioneer in the field. Those who really want to own a fossil may be able to find the outline of a plant or a small creature imbedded in rock, but the best bet to find the big guys is to hunt them on postcards.

Barbara Andrews has contributed postcard articles to Antique Trader for more than 35 years. She’s an author of women’s fiction, working on her 50th book in partnership with her daughter. She is available at

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