Street scene postcards illustrate urban development

Collectors love postcards picturing the small towns and villages of the early 20th century, especially real photographs.

It would be hard to find a bigger traffic jam than this one on Dearborn and Randolph streets in Chicago. Streetcars, early trucks, and horse-drawn wagons are at a standstill on a card mailed in 1913. Did the ice in the wagon in the foreground melt before it could be delivered? Photo courtesy Barbara Andrews

Collectors love postcards picturing the small towns and villages of the early 20th century, especially real photographs. Many of them existed to serve the needs of a predominantly rural population, but the last hundred years have brought a dramatic shift to a largely urban society. Approximately 80 percent of Americans now live in big towns and cities.

antiques valuesEach big city has a dynamic all its own. Imagine taking a mystery trip to some of the country’s largest urban areas. How many could you recognize without knowing where you were? Most likely you would recognize New York City, Philadelphia, Chicago, Denver, Phoenix, Los Angeles and a host of other mega cities.

Big cities started as trading posts, forts or villages, and each one has a unique history. In the late 19th and early 20th centuries hustle and bustle was a sign of progress, and postcard makers were quick to publish a huge number of crowded street scenes. These cards are a historical treasure trove for any collector interested in the growth of the nation.

The best city street scenes show people, transportation, and “modern” innovations such as light poles, power lines, and streetcar tracks.

Sometimes “unsightly” features like networks of lines were removed in the manufacturing process to beautify the view, but the best cards show them.

The role of the street in people’s lives is demonstrated again and again on big city postcards. Merchants set up shop on the streets, and people shopped, walked, and socialized outside in far greater numbers than is typical in most large cities today, with the exception of New York City and tourist areas.

Parades were a much bigger deal a hundred years ago when entertainment was more limited. Everything from a circus to a convention was a cause for a procession, and many were captured on postcards.

Public transportation in 1910 was easier to use than it is now. A streetcar line was the hallmark of a progressive city, and even relatively small towns might be linked by an interurban.

Sometimes horse-drawn conveyances, early motor vehicles, and pedestrians all vied for space on a city street. Postcards captured the dawn of the traffic jam, one urban problem that is still with us.

Night scenes are relatively scarce, but cities were proud of their first electric lights. They were another sign of progress and well worth a collector’s time to find them.

Buildings in business districts were almost always crowded together, so signs had to be visible from a distance. The art of signs would make an interesting study, and almost every early street scene has a number of them. I’ve never seen one, but a card showing how sign painters worked on two story or even taller building walls would be a gem.

The treasure is in the details. In some cities the American flag flew from the rooftops of commercial buildings, not just government structures. A big water tank on a roof is a reminder that the threat of fire was very real, and a fire escape adds additional interest to a postcard. Colorful awnings hanging over the sidewalks were used before air conditioning when the streets could literally sizzle from the heat and clothing was anything but cool.

Keen-eyed collectors who like to spot early automobiles, streetcars, and clothing will find gold on 1910 era street scenes. It’s rather amazing how carefully color was applied in the days before color photography, and another plus is a clear postmark dating the use of the card.

Big city street scenes are most likely to appeal to people who live in them, but there’s something for everyone in these marvelous records of urban life a hundred years ago.

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 51st book in partnership with her daughter.

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More Images:

Flags and banners decorate a street in Denver as the "Detroit Delegation Knight Templar Conclave" marches. Their convention was held Aug. 12-15, 1913 and seems an unusual reason for a parade.
Printed postcards of big cities are much more common than real photos, which makes this Flint, Michigan card mailed in 1913 rather special. The caption says: "Turning night into day." The lights are on arches spanning the street. The closest one is only a band of light, but the ones farther down the street show up quite well.
A caption on the back indicates this is the "old Chicago road through the state." It begins at city hall in Detroit and goes 300 miles to Michigan Avenue in Chicago. Among the features are a water tower and flags on the roofs.
Big cities tend to grow up near water, which often means bridges. The Grand Ave. Bridge in Milwaukee is congested with pedestrians on a scene mailed in 1913. Bridge postcards appeal to a small but dedicated group of collectors.
A Des Moines scene seems peaceful compared to the congested streets shown here, but it has details of interest including streetcar tracks, overhead wires, ornate streetlights, and what appears to be a motorcycle in the lower left corner. It often pays to look at a city street scene with a magnifying glass. This one was sent from Omaha in 1913, only a couple of hours away from Des Moines by car.
This slice of life postcard is rather unusual in portraying a ghetto scene on the East Side of New York, one of the most densely populated areas of the city. The caption on the back points out that the narrow streets were lined with pushcart venders selling foodstuffs. An "old-fashioned" horse car moves through narrow streets where electric streetcars didn't go. The H.H. Tammen Co. published this view of an undesirable area of the city.

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