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Going Postcard

Talk Preview: Postcards From Vermont author Allen Davis


Published August 4, 2004 at 4:00 a.m.

I love postcards. A friend claims I spend more time looking at the postcards in a museum gift shop than I do looking at the art. I get my oil changed at a place next to a flea market just so I can go paw through shoeboxes of musty old postcards. I send about two a day, a habit I've had for 15 years. For me, nothing connects better. When I send a postcard to a friend, the image side must be something apropos to our friendship. The stamp must be a commentary, too. The address must be thematic, or at least artistic. The message, being public, is an opportunity for a double entendre. The restrictive writing space requires welcome brevity.

My daily challenge is to find a postcard somewhere in my disorganized collection that almost magically connects. For example, some friends of mine in Chelsea recently hosted a dinner party and showed Fritz Lang's first Hollywood film, Fury. Supper followed the movie and, somewhere between the salad and the tart, my host happened to mention that NASA's countdown originated from Lang's 1929 German film, The Woman on the Moon. Lang calculated there was more tension counting down from 10 than up to 10.

At this point in the conversation, a stupid grin must have spread across my face, no doubt revealing arugula caught between my teeth along with my childlike amazement. In my head, I was on my knees, fists clenched, screaming, "Yes! Yes!" Because that morning, looking for a Fritz Lang-themed card to send as a thank you, I had stumbled upon a postcard of a movie still from The Woman on the Moon! Before that morning, I hadn't even known Lang made a movie with that title.

There must be a word in English for what happens when you learn something new and, within hours or at most days, bump into another reference to it. For me, this serendipitous collision often involves a postcard.

This connectedness is rampant in Vermont, of course. One example: A few weeks ago, I was hanging out in Norwich with film producer Bill Stetson. We were talking about Jay Craven and Bess O'Brien's TV sitcom "Windy Acres." Bill had recommended to Jay and Bess that they glean what they could from the late Vermont humorists Alan Foley and Francis Colburn. When I was very young, I had seen Alan Foley speak, but I had never heard of Francis Colburn (the namesake of the gallery in the University of Vermont's art department).

Then, last week, when I was interviewing Allen Davis, author of the delectable Postcards From Vermont: A Social History, 1905-1945, I discovered that he attended Dartmouth College after a stellar run at Hardwick Academy. Knowing Alan Foley had taught at Dartmouth, I asked Davis if he knew him. Knew him? It turned he'd been a favorite of the prof's and had even helped him grade papers over bourbon.

Now a Professor of History Emeritus at Temple University, Davis is scheduled to give two talks in Vermont this month in connection with his book, and in his capacity as an avid "deltiologist" -- that is, a postcard collector -- and lifelong Vermontophile. The first is this Thursday, August 5, at the Fleming Museum in Burlington, in conjunction with the current exhibit, "Wish You Were Here: Vermont Postcards." Davis' second talk, August 19 in St. Johnsbury, was organized by Selene Colburn -- Francis' granddaughter!


The "golden age" of postcards was glorious but short: 1907 to 1915. In 1909, close to a billion postcards were mailed in the U.S., according to Davis' book. The mania was juiced by new technology (the popularizing of the camera), new laws (the RFD Act of 1896), and good old-fashioned marketing. Before World War I, a drugstore in, say, Barre, would have had postcard racks full of these selections: the Robert Burns statue; every church, school and hotel in town; the Aldrich Public Library; the Opera House and City Hall; the post office; the railroad depot; the hospital; the Masonic Hall; Main Street and... you get the idea.

Evelyn Hankins, curator of collections and exhibitions at the Fleming Museum, recently moved to Vermont after working at New York's Whitney Museum. She comes from a long line of postcard writers; her sister recently typed "Hankins" into an eBay search and found a collection of her Pennsylvanian grandmother's postcards in the Midwest.

For the Fleming exhibit, Hankins says, she trolled through "thousands" of postcards in Special Collections at the University of Vermont's Bailey/ Howe Library, before winnowing her picks to 500. Of these, she eventually settled on 200 for "Wish You Were Here." They are displayed in the museum's Wilbur Room, under glass, so of course you can't pick them up to read them. But in many cases the exhibit provides printed versions of the messages written by the card senders.

The day I went to the Fleming to see the postcards, I arrived at 3:40 p.m. The Museum closes at 4 sharp. That gave me 20 minutes to look at 200 postcards. Six seconds per card. The first one held my attention for two minutes. Isn't it noteworthy that in 1907 the women's basketball team in Stowe wore hightop sneakers? Close by in another card, an American flag lies on the ground behind a schoolgirl. She's standing in front of the Fort Bridge-man Memorial in Vernon.

This image threw me further off my pace. My mind began to wander: When did it become forbidden for the Stars and Stripes to touch the ground? Maybe it's a relatively recent addition, like "under God" in the Pledge of Allegiance... What the hell was Fort Bridge-man? Is Vermont Yankee built on Fort Bridgeman? Is there a postcard of fuel rods in a swimming pool?

Next, a postcard sent from Montpelier on April 8, 1911. It arrived in Washington, D.C., the next day -- early postcards often had sending and receiving postmarks. This was exciting news: A century of technological advances has brought within our grasp the efficiencies of a hundred years ago. Nowadays it's natural to call up, on our cell phones, anybody at any time and tell them exactly what we are doing at that precise moment. Future anthropologists may note, though, that this strange behavior is not unlike that of postcard writers, traced back as far as the World's Columbian Exposition in Chicago, 1893.

And few of today's terse email memos or cell calls can top the prosaic banality of postcards in their heyday. One of Hankins' favorites in the Fleming show is a clutch of three postcards sent by a woman to her husband in 1922, who must have been working or visiting in a nearby town. She curtly reminds him in every missive to "Please bring home some eggs."

Another modern expectation -- "I need this yesterday" -- also has a postcard precedent. Prof. Davis told me about a postcard sent in around 1910 from Greensboro to Greensboro Bend. The message: "You are invited to a birthday party tomorrow. Please bring cake."

Nowadays critics claim that electronic communication is hastening the decline of the English language. But that's so early 20th century! Davis writes in Postcards From Vermont: "A number of articles appeared in the popular magazines after 1905 criticizing postcards for encouraging poor grammar, sloppy spelling, and poor writing, as well as encouraging intellectual laziness. Many predicted that the postcard would lead to the decline of the art of letter writing."

Since I've begun emailing, I've noticed a decline in my postcarding. I knew this was going to happen. Every technological innovation distances us a little more from our nicely imperfect humanness. This is why I prefer illuminated manuscripts to the Gutenberg Bible, handset type to the typewriter, the typewriter to the computer. No doubt my golden years will be full of nostalgic reminiscences of the wonderfully organic G4.

There is a 1910 postcard in the Fleming show of a woman perched on a cliff: Peaked Mountain, Townshend. She's wearing a white blouse and a long, black skirt and looks like a Henry James heroine. This image reminds me of a photo postcard in the family album of my neighbor Kermit Glines. Kermit was born in 1908, and the photo is a snapshot of his aunt Lena, a beauty in a white dress standing by the railroad tracks in Pompanoosic.

From Kermit's Lena, I make the mental leap to a monologue by the character "Mr. Bernstein" in Citizen Kane: You're pretty young, Mr. ... Mr. Thompson. A fellow will remember things you wouldn't think he'd remember. You take me. One day, back in 1896, I was crossing over to Jersey on a ferry and, as we pulled out, there was a girl waiting to get off. A white dress she had on -- and she was carrying a white parasol -- and I only saw her for one second and she didn't see me at all. But I'll bet a month hasn't gone by since that I haven't thought of that girl.

That's what a postcard can do to me. What can an email evoke?

The lights in Fleming's Wilbur Room dimmed as I squinted at a postcard reading, "Of all the girls I met in Tin-mouth, you're the one for me."

The message slanders a rival and proposes a tryst at the grange. I rushed past a card depicting a creamery burning in Hinesburg, another of Company E leaving Bellows Falls for Mexico to chase Pancho Villa. I passed by hundreds of elms, now all gone.

In the gloom I could barely make out a postcard with a quartet of little black-and-white interiors advertising the Vermont State Hospital in Waterbury. Who would have sent this card, and to whom? "Wish you were here" doesn't really seem to apply.

At 4:10, a very kind docent found me in the dark, unlocked the front door and escorted me out. Later, on my way back to Tunbridge, I wondered if school children still use Waterbury as a threat, as in, "They're going to send you to Waterbury!" From I-89 above the village, I looked to the right and saw the great smokestack printed with the initials VSH -- Vermont State Hospital. Two exits later, I looked west again. Where the interstate rises towards Berlin, the sun was setting behind Camel's Hump. At home, I have a postcard of that exact prospect. And I asked myself, "Who would like that card?"