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Postcards from the past

In our modern day and age, it is easy to share your travel snaps with friends and family no matter how far from home you may be. You can simply send them a photo via text or upload it online. It is easy to forget that less than 20 years ago this wasn’t possible, and for much of the 20th century, the easiest and most popular way to share your travels was by the purchase of a postcard.

Though ubiquitous today, postcards only began being mailed around in Europe in the late 1860s, however at the time these were unlike the postcards we think of today. These cards were blank on both sides, apart from being pre-stamped with postage. It wasn’t until the 1890s that illustrated postcards entered circulation, and it would be another decade before they became popular in the United States.

Sending postcards from one’s travels became so popular and commonplace that the exasperated editor of the Mount Airy News in 1909 said that collectors would force their friends to “wade through albums filled with multitudinous atrocities in color, showing where he has been, where his friends have been and where he will go in his next vacation time.”

The popularity of postcards can partly be attributed to the ease of communication they allowed across distances. Telephones were still not widespread, and postcards provided a cheaper method to communicate than sending letters or a telegram. For a time, postcards were able to be sent for a flat rate of just one penny.

Before long the fad took on a new life, as a way not only to share a message, but to share an image of what you had seen on your travels.

As such, postcard manufacturers began producing cards with stunning vistas and illustrations of attractions, which could be purchased from a variety of vendors along the way of your trip such as railroad depots and hotels.

Cameras at the time were usually heavy, clunky and expensive, meaning they were unavailable to much of the general public, or just impractical to bring travelling. This meant they needed postcards in order to memorialize their travels, as a relatively inexpensive way to show off adventures. Travelers would send the cards to friends, add them to their collections, or even frame them to use as art in their homes.

At the same time that the postcard craze was in full swing, tourism to Mount Airy and the surrounding region was at an all-time high. And like anyone on vacation, visitors made sure to purchase souvenirs to commemorate their travels, which of course meant postcards.

As such, there are numerous postcards of Mount Airy and its surroundings. From the mid-1800s onwards, large numbers of visitors would come to the area from cities up and down the East Coast. Many of these visitors would have grabbed up postcards to send back home, sharing the sites and beauty of the landscapes and architecture.

One of the most popular views printed on postcards was of Pilot Mountain.

The landmark, known to the Native Americans of the area as Jomeokee, meaning ’Great Guide,’ has been an important navigational marker throughout the centuries.

Looking at the assortment of different postcards that were created featuring a view of the landmark, we see how popular they were. The mountain appears on postcards from throughout the 20th century and the 21st, in photorealistic illustrations, romanticized depictions, and photographs. The vastly different styles show how even if people did not have cameras to capture their own views, there were options available to customize/choose the way they wanted to remember the views.

It wasn’t just the natural landscape that postcards captured. There were also postcards with views of Main Street, the granite quarry, Martin Memorial Hospital, and illustrations of notable businesses such as Moody’s Funeral Home.

To this day, postcards remain a fun and inexpensive way to share your travels with friends and families. So as the world opens up again, and we can begin travelling once more, keep an eye out for those postcards along the way.

Katherine “Kat” Jackson is an intern at the Mount Airy Museum of Regional History. Originally from Australia, she lives in Winston-Salem. She can be reached at the museum at 336-786-4478.



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