Do you remember when oil was called “black gold” or “Texas tea” in the “Beverly Hillbillies’” theme song? Striking oil was the ultimate source of wealth, more desirable than gold or diamonds. It flowed out of the ground, and no one gave much thought to running out of it.
My home state of Michigan was at least a minor player in the search for underground wealth. One of my father’s friends took him to see a rig drilling for oil near Allegan in the late 1940s, and for some forgotten reason, they took me along. The friend, a restaurant owner, wanted to get in on a possible boom. I have no idea why a man who knew very little about the oil business wanted advice from my father, who knew nothing about it, but that’s the nature of speculation. For my part, I was disappointed by the metal arm pumping away in a field — no derrick, no great gush of oil shooting into the air.
Of more than 50,000 wells drilled in Michigan, 21,000 were dry holes.
One of the early ones, a Saginaw well drilled in 1925, first produced 23 barrels a day but dwindled to six the second year. This doesn’t mean that the state wasn’t a viable producer, but it could help explain why my father’s friend never struck it rich.
It’s not too difficult to find postcards that record this country’s oil production. After the discovery of oil in Pennsylvania in 1859, the United States became the world’s No. 1 producer and is still the third largest. From Appalachia to Alaska, wealth flowed out of the ground, and it was a cause for celebration.
Oil well postcards have special value, not because they’re particularly rare or unusual, but because they reflect the attitude of the American public at the time they were made. Oil production brought wealth to individuals and states and improved the lives of ordinary people. Coal furnaces became obsolete; homeowners no longer had to shovel the dirty black stuff into their furnaces. Oil and natural gas were cleaner, easier and more efficient.
An abundance of petroleum fueled the automobile industry and made horse-drawn vehicles as obsolete as whale oil lamps. This meant cleaner streets, and buildings weren’t coated with grime from burning coal. In the 20th century viewpoint, what was not to like about oil?
Postcards from the first half of the last century reflect this acceptance and celebration of petroleum. There were plenty of things to worry about in that century: war, disease, poverty and social ills, but the environmental concerns of today weren’t among them. If there’s a future for postcards as collectibles — and I firmly believe there is — it lies in their “hidden” value.
As long as people care about history, these small pieces of paper give unique insights into what mattered in the past. Armies of photographers recorded everything that was important to earlier generations, and even the subjects of art add to the total picture of yesteryear.
If you’ve seen one postcard showing gushing oil, the next one you see won’t seem that unique. What matters is what you can’t see: How people felt about a new and growing industry in the 20th century. ?
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 firstname.lastname@example.org
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