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  Library News: Walsh Library Exhibit Hall

POSTCARDS FROM FORDHAM, Fall 2001

Click to see enlarged imagePenny postcards were introduced in the United States and Great Britain in the late Nineteenth Century by the government postal services. They were plain white cards with no images. The picture postcard originated in Germany. In 1893, at the Columbian Exposition in Chicago, the first picture postcards were introduced in the United States. They were not printed by the Post Office, and it cost an extra penny to mail them. Later in the 1890's, two events paved the way for the immense popularity the picture postcard enjoyed in the first twenty years of the Twentieth Century. In 1896 rural free delivery was introduced in the United States, and in 1898 Congress passed a law dropping the cost of mailing a privately printed postcard to one penny.

Early postcards were of varying sizes, but eventually the current size of four by six inches became the international standard. Messages were originally not permitted on the address side of the card, hence many early cards have messages scribbled over the images. To preserve the images, the address side was later divided in half into a message side on the left and an address side on the right.

Deltiology is the term for the collecting of postcards. Many of the cards in this exhibition are from the private collection of Law School Assistant Dean, Robert Reilly. In 1981 Dean Reilly came across his first Fordham postcard at the Third Avenue Street Fair in a dealer's shoebox. It was from St. John's College, as Fordham was called n the Nineteenth Century. He bought the card for two dollars. The dealer told him about the Annual Postcard Show scheduled for the next weekend at the Penn Plaza Hotel in Midtown. He went to the show and got hooked, but "only on Fordham postcards and memorabilia," he insists. 57 of the cards used in the exhibit belong to Dean Reilly. The other 54 cards are from Fordham's Archives.

This small exhibit contains examples of most of the methods of postcard production, the most common being lithographic printing. Some, such as the card showing an aerial view of the Rose Hill Campus, are actual photographs reproduced from negatives. These are rather rare. Another early method was by rotogravure, a process of color printing from engraved copper cylinders. The "General view of St. John's College, Fordham, N. Y." is a rotogravure print further enhanced by applying sparkle to the image.

Some early postcards, especially those from Germany and Austria, are excellent examples of fine design and printing, and some were done by well-known artists of the Art Nouveau period like Alphonse Mucha and Leon Bakst. But the real value of postcards is their documentation of architecture, sculpture, art, and popular culture. Almost no place, not even the smallest hamlet, seems to have escaped being the subject of postcards. There is even a book called Boring Postcards by Martin Parr (London: Phaidon, 2000.) Individuals who collect cards may or may not be aware of this value, but some libraries and other institutions are. As it turns out, the largest known collection of postcards in the world, over a million of them, is in the library of Fordham's sister Jesuit university, Loyola Marymount of Los Angeles. Werner von Boltenstern, a Los Angeles photographer, amassed a huge collection which he donated to the library in 1967 and added to it until his death in 1978. Since then other donors have made contributions. Users of the collection include architectural preservationists, film and theatrical set designers, local historians, sociologists interested in American car culture and other types of popular culture, and even environmentalists trying to locate the toxic sites of former gas stations.

Even this small collection of Fordham postcards contains a wealth of information about lost Fordham. The original mansard roof and cupola of Dealey Hall and the original configuration of the University church leap out at one instantly. Others include Edwards Parade as an athletic field with a small grandstand; the Third Avenue El station at Fordham Road; the original furniture in McGinley Center and the Lowenstein Building; the Duane Library Center Hall without the book stacks and with its original floor and rood screen; the ivy covering of many of the buildings; and Fordham Hospital, now completely gone.

In his book, The Postcard Century (London: Thames and Hudson, 2000), Tom Phillips says that the postcard will eventually disappear, to be replaced by images sent through email. That does not seem very likely soon, but who knows? It would be sad, however, to lose these small physical objects that can spark so many fond memories and supply so many surprises about our past.

James P. McCabe, University Librarian


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