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Wishing You Were Here

By Steve Moyer | 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.

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.