Don’t laugh – it’s paid for

According to the U.S. Census Bureau, the percentage of people who own their own homes in this country has risen almost every year since 1960. Today, more than two-thirds of Americans are the king or queen of their castle. And yet we worry that houses cost too much or that we’ll never be able to pay off our mortgage.

Headlines like “This Is the Sound of a Bubble Bursting” from the Dec. 23, 2007, New York Times, with its talk of “a real estate boom gone sour,” fuel our worries. It doesn’t help that you can’t click a link these days without reading about the “subprime mortgage loan crisis,” the “credit bubble,” and the “mortgage meltdown.”

Which just proves that there’s nothing new under the sun. The early silent films were filled with villainous bankers repossessing the family farm and throwing virtuous widows to the wolves. Frank Capra’s It’s a Wonderful Life is all about home ownership, as Jimmy Stewart and Lionel Barrymore battle for the souls of Bedford Falls.

Postcards from the 1980s and 1990s amply document our collective fears about real estate.

Despite the savings and loan collapse, Black Monday, and at least one recession, the U.S. economy in those decades skyrocketed. Housing prices did the same. “Finally Found a Place We Could Afford” was probably inspired by the rise of bidding wars in the ’70s. This card has a number of variations, such as “Finally Found Affordable Housing.”

Some cards specifically pick on Florida, Colorado, and Cape Cod.

Of course, once you’ve outbid everyone and moved to your dream home  – “We’ve Moved.To the Country,” –  your next project is paying off that colossal mortgage. “One More Payment and It’s Mine” suggests that you’re in this for the long haul. This sentiment is sometimes two or even three payments away. Who will get to the finish line first, you or the villain with the waxed moustache? Texas is one of the local variants, as is Florida, which for some reason is a magnet for anxiety.

Surely, after a lifetime of hard work, you can look forward to a comfortable retirement. Not necessarily. It all depends on which state you retire to.

Don’t go near Alaska or the Pacific Northwest. One look at “Oregon Retirement Home” and you’ll want to hold on to your day job as long as you can. Like many of these derelicts, this old house appears over and over, sometimes from a different angle.

I’ve found two examples of housing worries published in the 1950s: “Home, Sweet Home” and “The Phlopp House,”  a vacation wonderland promising “All the Disappointments of Home.” These cards appeared in an era when the G.I. bill was sending millions of veterans to college and helping them purchase their first homes. The country was rebounding from the miseries of the Depression and the sacrifices of World War II. What contemporary anxieties did these cards reflect?

Where do you find cards like these? That’s a challenge! I used to see them in airports; I had particularly good luck in Cincinnati and in Eugene, Ore., probably while on my way to “Florida on $5 a Day.” Those sources have dried up. I’m not sure these cards are currently being published, though they’d be a natural for the “mortgage meltdown” era. I occasionally see them in less-traveled gift shops where the postcard racks aren’t regularly replenished. Your best bet is to search for a card that mentions a state (Florida and Oregon lead the pack) at a postcard show, in your favorite dealer’s selection of chromes for that state. And you never know what you’ll find in the dealer’s bargain box.

If you have more information on cards like these, or if you have examples that I don’t, please contact me. And if you drop by my house, ”Don’t Laugh, It’s Paid For!”