Postcard Album: Messages on humanitarian postcards still ring true

The terrible earthquake in Haiti has horrified the world, and calls for relief funds have been answered worldwide, proving that people are inherently generous and caring when given the opportunity.

The response has been fueled by the truly amazing communications of the 21st century, especially computers and televisions that deliver immediate images of the disaster.

It wasn’t always so. A hundred years ago even the best reporters had to telegraph their stories, and the public had to wait for the presses to roll. Fund raising for any cause was a slow process, but the lowly postcard played an important part.

Church groups often took the lead in providing food, medical care and educational opportunities in parts of the world where it was most needed. The fact that missionaries were motivated by a desire to spread their faith in no way diminishes the good they did.

Distributing food and medical care was expensive, so fund raising was an important part of any effort.

Pioneer aide workers certainly understood that one picture is worth a thousand words, and postcards supported fund raising efforts as effectively as any other medium available in the early 20th century.

They fall into three categories: scenes of humanitarian activities to stimulate donations, thanks for funds received and, less commonly, postcards sold to raise money for causes.

The Salvation Army was especially active with the poor, and that included working in this country’s worst slums. A whole series of postcard scenes that included the work of “doughnut girls” in Europe during World War I were issued with requests for contributions printed on the back.

There’s no doubt that church members in this country were charmed by scenes of little orphans in far-flung places like China, but some charitable groups used whatever postcards were available to send out requests for help. A good example of this is a scene of a Hawaiian luau with this message on the back:

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“Dear Friend, Hawaii out here in the middle of the Pacific has already pledged its share of The American Legion Endowment Fund for Disabled men and the orphans of Veterans of the World War (I). The home folks should not do less ‘For those who gave the most’ in the Campaign now under way in the States.”

People who donate once are likely to do so again, so some form of thank-you was important. One example of a postcard expressing thanks had a printed message and signature on the back of a picture of orphans at a Franciscan mission in China. Again, mailing postcards was often the cheapest possible way to spread a message and highlight humanitarian needs.
Governments have the resources to respond to a disaster quicker than any private agency, as shown by the U.S. military presence in Haiti.

But what many people may not know is that one of our least popular presidents was also a great humanitarian. Before he was president, Herbert Hoover organized massive relief efforts for war torn Europe after World War I. He was Secretary of Commerce in 1927 when flooding of the lower Mississippi River left 1,500,000 people homeless and destroyed 2 million acres of cropland. He organized relief operations for the stricken area, and the story of his disaster responses is told in his library at West Branch, Iowa.

A postcard is just a little piece of paper, but many were used to rally help for disasters or fight the ravages of poverty. We’ll never know how many people said “I can help” based on what they saw or read on a postcard, but there’s no doubt that they played a part in the history of relief work.

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


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