One-Off

Wishing You Were Here

Collection of vintage postcards leaves its stamp.

HUMANITIES, January/February 2014, Volume 35, Number 1

During its heyday—from about 1905 to 1920—the American postcard was a hot item to collect. Mrs. U.S. Byrd of Louisville, Kentucky, claimed to possess a hundred thousand of the illustrated greetings. They could be sent for a penny and offered a tableau of the near, the not so very far away, the banal, and the majestic.

A grove of beechwood trees, dimly lit
Photo caption

This view of Beechwood trees, Cherokee Park, Louisville, KY, was printed by Raphael Tuck & Sons, “Art Publishers to Their Majesties the King and Queen,” and was delivered to a young man in 1907. The recipient, William Gilliam, Jr., grew up to become a historian at the University of Kentucky and a collector of Kentuckiana.

The Gilliam Family Collection, Eva G. Farris Special Collections, Steely Library, Northern Kentucky University
Night view of fourth avenue, with a full moon shining in a cloudy sky, lights on in the buildings
Photo caption

Capturing a nocturnal mood as much as depicting an urban setting for folks down on the farm, this brooding view of Fourth Avenue, Louisville, KY, 1907, harks back to an era before night photography became practical.

The Gilliam Family Collection, Eva G. Farris Special Collections, Steely Library, Northern Kentucky University

In the NEH-supported digital collection at the Steely Library at Northern Kentucky University, this is borne out by Gilliam Postcards, covering the years from 1905 to 1958, with images running the gamut from views of unspectacular municipal buildings in Bowling Green, to a sweeping scene that follows the progress westward of a locomotive steaming across the Big Four Bridge in Louisville.

Messages, in what little space was provided, are poignantly to the point. “Feed our pigs good,” a father writes a son, “and see after ‘Lora’ and ‘Peweeoie.’” And, more times than not, for this collection largely devoted to in-state travel, an address was nothing more than a name and a town.