Posted January 27, 2018 7:27 p.m. EST
NEW YORK — Marilyn Stern held out a black-and-white postcard of a baby panda from 1948.
“What’s interesting to me is that it says, ‘Most valuable captive animal,'” said Stern, one of a few dozen postcard collectors who had gathered on a recent Sunday at the Watson Hotel in midtown.
“I have a category that almost no one collects, which is superlatives — ‘the biggest,’ ‘the smallest,’ ‘the newest,’ ‘the oldest,’ ‘the most expensive,’ ‘the most beautiful,’ et cetera,” said Stern, a photographer and graphic artist. She admired the panda, which looked out from a crib. “Isn’t he cute?”
Stuff tends to collect in New York City. So, too, do collectors — who bring more stuff. It is a cycle that over the years has created huge collections in the city — of art, antiques, manuscripts, classic cars, but also some unexpected items: glass eyeballs, buttons, fluff.
The world may have largely abandoned postcard writing, but deltiology — or postcard collecting — persists.
In New York, local deltiologists can be found at gatherings of the Metropolitan Postcard Club of New York City, which for more than seven decades has hosted shows and convened in hotels, churches and members’ living rooms.
Among the club’s more than 200 members are authors, psychotherapists, schoolteachers, a few postcard artists, a retired prison librarian, a former postal worker and Leonard A. Lauder, the emeritus chairman of the Estée Lauder Cos. and former chairman of the Whitney Museum, who began collecting postcards of Art Deco Miami hotels as a child.
Like the members themselves, no two postcard collections are alike. A founder of the club, Joe Nardone, collected postcards of Main Street in different towns and cities around the United States. Current members specialize in postcards of Eskimos; Broadway theaters; kilts; old Baku, Azerbaijan. The list goes on.
Deltiologists like to say, “If it exists, it’s on a postcard,” and indeed, it seems that each of the collectors in the club, like subjects in a Werner Herzog film, has been tasked with tending over a small corner of the universe.
“A lot of the things don’t exist anymore, so they’re an important historical record,” said Rod Kennedy, president of the club. “We are sort of the custodians.”
“There are people who only collect World War I submarines,” Kennedy said. “I met another guy who collected harps and orchestras playing harps. He traveled hundreds of miles, looking for these harps. Maybe once every two years he got lucky.”
As a group, Kennedy said, the club’s members have rescued at least a few million postcards — from junk stores, flea markets, estate sales and basements — many thousands of which have been donated to museums.
That Sunday, some of them had gathered in a conference room tucked at the back of the Watson Hotel for their monthly meeting. Folding tables had been set up and were covered in shoe boxes, each filled with postcards, all sorted by topic.
“Clocks,” “Coat of Arms,” read the labels on one box. “Disney,” “Erotica,” “Ethnic Customs,” “Exaggeration/Fantasy,” “Fairs and Expos,” “Families,” “Fire Fighting,” “Flags.”
The postcards, which had been priced in pencil and slipped into plastic sleeves, ranged from less than $1 to more than $100.
George Gibbs, a dealer, had brought a selection of the 20,000 to 30,000 cards he takes to the club’s biannual shows. He pulled out some “real photo postcards” — these were actual photos printed on card stock, not lithographic or offset prints, the kind of postcard that could easily fetch $100, Gibbs said.
One featured three men lifting 150-pound anvils with their ears for “Ripley’s Believe It or Not!” in 1944. He opened an album and took out another. In it, several men sat around a card table; if you looked closely, they were revealed to be the same person — a fad around a century ago that was later used by Marcel Duchamp in his “Five-Way Portrait of Marcel Duchamp.” Photo studios used to take portraits and create such optical illusions using mirrors, he said — an early forerunner of Bitmojis and face filters today.
At one time, postcards were also printed by governments and political groups, who used them to spread propaganda and push social agendas. He pulled out a postcard, warning that it was graphic. “It’s probably a soldier with World War I injuries,” he said, turning over the card to reveal a man whose face been severely disfigured; his flesh had been crudely sewn together in folds around the eyes and teeth. “It was likely printed in Britain,” he said. “They would make series of cards to illustrate the horrors of war, so it would never be repeated.”
“It’s a little world in here,” Gibbs said. " You can go down the rabbit hole.” Across the room, another dealer, Ira Rubin, showed a collector a stack of Halloween cards. “Halloween is very, very rare,” he explained. “It’s the most popular of all the holidays, so it is the most sought-after.” While the panda card cost less than $5, a vintage linen Halloween card could go for $20 or more.
Hy Mariampolski, a dealer whose wares covered several tables, said the messages written on cards were amusing but often of little interest to collectors. Postcards were the text messages and emails of their day; they were how people invited one another to dinner and to tea, and said, “Thank you for a lovely time.” Like emails and texts, they changed how people wrote, but on the whole, they were pretty boring.
“Have not much time so will write later, thank you for the postcard, it was a dandy,” read the message on a card featuring a pair of women’s shoes, from 1909.
There were exceptions. Mariampolski pulled out a postcard of a comely French nurse in aquarelle, which, according to the sender’s message, had been plucked “from the coat of a dead Austrian.”
Mariampolski added: “I started as a collector, but like all kinds of junkies, you eventually have to become a dealer to support your habit.” He said he found postcards in various places. There were flea markets abroad — “One of the best is in Buenos Aires,” he said— an annual antique fair in Brimfield, Massachusetts. And some were found close to home. “I live out here in the Hamptons. It’s one of those places: ‘God’s waiting room,’ as they say. There are all kinds of articles and collections that come up when people pass away.”
The postcard era began around 1900, when the printing of commercial postcards took off around the United States and Europe, and peaked in the first decades of the century. The golden era is thought to have ended around World War I, when the supply of German postcards, considered by many to be the best in the world, was cut off.
Major shifts followed: White border postcards were introduced, to save expensive ink; linen postcards and Photochrom color postcards, or “chromes,” came along around the 1940s.
Postcard collecting had started almost immediately. It had a lot to do with early mass tourism, said Kennedy, the club president, who has published three books of historic postcards, of the ‘Lost New York,’ Hollywood and Atlantic City, New Jersey. “People would entertain themselves by putting these cards in albums,” he said, “and they would put them in their parlors and share them to show their travels.”
In other words, Instagram before the Internet. But postcards weren’t documentary in the strict sense of the term. Before Photochrom cards, artists created color postcards from black and white photographs and often embellished them with details like clouds or trees that weren’t there, Kennedy said. They could take a single photograph and make two postcards from it — say, “London by Day” and “London by Night.”
They could also create what are known as “exaggerations.” Exaggeration cards at the hotel that day featured, for example, giant apples rolling through an otherwise realistic scene, and an enormous fish rising from the water and tipping a fisherman’s boat (“A fight with a mad pickrel,” read the handwritten caption, from 1911).
While collectors browsed in the conference room, a few women came in carrying thick, brown photo albums, which eventually formed a leaning tower in one corner. Sandra Gottlin was dropping off the last of her father Kurt Gorwitz’s collection, which she had donated to the club. “He was a Holocaust refugee from Austria,” she said. “He collected 22,000 cards. He loved Austria. He loved Canada. He loved national parks.”
She went on, her eyes filling with tears: “He used to sit on the floor. He would put them in the albums and on some of them he would write where they were from.” She opened an album with a sticky, ripping sound, and revealed a page of postcards of museum dioramas of Native American life.
You don’t have to talk to a postcard collector long before the conversation turns existential. Postcard collecting, even if it was given a burst of life by the Internet and the rise of online marketplaces such as eBay, is not exactly a youthful pursuit.
“Can we have silence please?” Kennedy said, standing in the center of the room at the Watson and calling the group to order for the meeting. He shuffled some papers and cleared his throat. “It was a quiet year, and we continued to do well.” Then he read the names of members who had died.
Those present murmured in sympathy. “Let’s face it,” Kennedy said. “We need to get new members. We need to get younger members.”
Unless there is a new generation of postcard collectors, club members say, there will be no one to save postcards from the recycling plant.
A few years back, as part of its mission to promote deltiology, the club became a nonprofit. It has a Facebook page, advertises shows — how else, by postcard — and its monthly meetings, with for-sale postcards, are open to the public. (The next one is Feb. 11, from 9 a.m. to 4 p.m., at the Watson Hotel.) Its members say they hope they might be able to capture a new following.
“Postcards are like a time machine into the past,” said Stern, the collector of superlatives. “Whether it’s fashion, technology or race relations, you can go visit it in the past.”
She added: “And it’s fun.”