Format Highlights: Postcards
by Greta Bahnemann, Metadata Librarian, Minnesota Digital Library, Minitex
Think Like a Historian
Observe a Primary Source Item and Record Your Thoughts
- What is happening in the photograph or letter, diary, etc.? What just happened, or what is about to happen?
- Describe the people you see in the image. How do they relate to each other and to the photographer? If there are no people in the image, what is the subject of the photograph?
- Look for details that show when the photo was taken – time of day, season, and year. Do the people in the photograph look different than people today? How are their clothing, shoes, and hair styles different? Also look for differences in things like transportation, housing, equipment, and general infrastructure.
Think about the Creator, Audience, Context, Relationships
- What is the author/creator's point of view? What was the author's purpose?
- Who is the intended audience for this primary source material?
- Explain how the source tells its story.
- What was happening locally, regionally, or nationally when this primary source material was created?
- How does this item relate to other content in this Primary Source Set and/or the rest of the Minnesota Digital Library collection? Compare and contrast two resources.
Finally, using the clues you have observed, try to figure out why the source was created. By asking these questions, you have begun to understand the what, who, where, when and why of the primary source material – and ultimately, the story it tells.
Discussion Questions & Activities
1. Look at the tall-tale postcards (postcards #4, 5, 6). At the time these postcards were created, many Americans lived on a farm. What do these cards tell us about American society at the time? How do these postcards use humor to talk about things like "manifest destiny" and the American dream?
2. Review the date ranges of postcards as outlined in the introduction paragraph. Based on that information, what date would you assign to postcards #8, 13, 14?
3. During the late 19th and early 20th centuries, most postcards were printed in Germany. After the United States entered World War I, postcards began to be printed in America. Discuss some of the factors that contributed to this trend, such as the rationing of paper and ink, anti-German feelings, and the rise of American nationalism and patriotism, etc.
4. Look at postcard #3 which features both an image of a beach and an inset photograph of a boat posted onto the larger postcard. Think about how much more work it would be to produce an image like this one. Why would that be available for sale? Do you think that postcard would have cost more when it was new?
5. Ask students to discuss the relative permanence of a postcard vs. the more ephemeral nature of texts, tweets, instagram, etc. What are the advantages and disadvantages of each form of communication?
6. Ask students to design their own postcards. Students should think about their intended audience and how postcards can be used to document different aspects of their community. What images would be on the front of the card? Would the postcards be mailed or delivered electronically? What stories could you tell with postcards that perhaps you couldn't tell with a text message or an e-mail?
7. Ask student to design their own version of a tall-tale postcard. Look at the examples featured in Minnesota Reflections and view the the tall-tale postcard site at the Wisconsin Historical Society (see Additional Resources). What aspect of contemporary life could you exaggerate? What points could you make - either serious or humorous? How can you use humor to make a point, tell a story, or direct your audience to think about an issue?
eLibrary Minnesota Resources (for Minnesota residents)
1. "History of photography." Britannica Academic, Encyclopædia Britannica, 23 Jan. 2019. Accessed 11 Jul. 2019.
2. "Postal system." Britannica Academic, Encyclopædia Britannica, 16 Feb. 2017. Accessed 11 Jul. 2019.
3. "Postcards." St. James Encyclopedia of Popular Culture Online, Gale, 2013. Student Resources In Context. Accessed 11 July 2019.
Additional Resources for Research
1. Clay, Christopher S. Minneapolis and St. Paul in Vintage Postcards. Chicago, IL: Arcadia, 2002. Print.
2. "Postcard History." Smithsonian Institution Archives. Smithsonian Institution Archives, n.d. Web. 20 Feb. 2017.
3. "Postcard Galleries." Smithsonian Institution Archives. N.p., 19 Sept. 2013. Web. 20 Feb. 2017.
4. "Real Photo Postcard." Wikipedia. n.d. Web. 20 Feb. 2017.
5. Staff, Frank. The Picture Postcard & Its Origins. London: Lutterworth, 1979. Print.
6. Willoughby, Martin. A History of Postcards: A Pictorial Record from the Turn of the Century to the Present Day. London: Bracken, 1994. Print.
7. Wisconsin Historical Society. Larger Than Life: Tall-Tale Postcards | Wisconsin Historical Society. Wisconsin Historical Society, n.d. Web. 20 Feb. 2017.