Post Cards - a primary research source - an article by Ralph Beaumont
Back in the late 1970s I was still chasing whatever local railway stations were left with my primitive box camera (no photographer, I), and I happened to call Ralph, who had recently published his Steam Trains To The Bruce, to ask him about the location of some of the stations in his book. We chatted, and then he asked, "have you ever considered writing a book yourself?". I allowed that "no, I hadn't". Ralph replied (he was a partner of the Boston Mills Press who at that time were really into local railway histories) - "well, we'd like to do something on the Hamilton and North Western". "The Hamilton and what ...?" That was 1978. "Oh yes, and we'd like to get it out for Christmas 1980." To cut this story short, I bought myself a used SLR camera for the then princely sum of 50 bucks and dove into the heady world of railway research. Ralph was a great mentor (and editor), and Rails To The Lakes was hatched right on schedule.
With RTTL out, and selling briskly at $19.95 a copy, we did a swift reprise with the Toronto & Nipissing Railway that surfaced as Narrow Gauge For Us two years later. After that, the mid-1980s life-changing career pressures set in everywhere. (Gone were the days when you could get your secretary to type the manuscript, just to keep her busy ...) We lost touch for a number of years, until we had both retired, and I learned that Ralph was partnering with Rod Clarke in publishing his Narrow Gauge Through the Bush.
At the end of 2014, I got a call from Ralph - "would I help in proof reading his forthcoming book Heckman's Canadian Pacific - A Photographic Journey? "Why certainly, I'd be honoured to". "Oh, and by the way, we need it by February." Old editors never die - they just tighten their deadlines! Ralph, it's been a privilege, and whatever I do on railway history research - you got me started - and I am truly grateful for that. This article on post cards sharpens the focus on our collective storehouse of railway history knowledge, and brings back many memories of research yester-year. Thank you.
When Worlds Collide - Railfans and Post Card* Collectors
Railfans seem to have specific aspects of our hobby that most attract their interest. Some concentrate on modelling, while others focus more on the real thing. Some strictly follow diesels and the modern day scene, while others like me have a bent toward steam. With a passion for steam there are always the trips to see preserved steam in action, but also a curiosity for times past when steam was king - making historic photos a prime area of interest.
For someone interested in broader railway history, there is more than just the study of railway locomotives. In fact, I find three-quarter views of engines to be quite sterile. I like the trains in the context of their geography and especially the infrastructure that made the railways run. As a kid in the early 1960s, I mourned the dismantling of roundhouses, engine sheds, turntables and water tanks. This was followed in the early 1970s by the systematic demise of the rural railway station; if not actually torn down, they were often moved off-site to serve a non-railway purpose.
It is in this context that I have always enjoyed the search for historical railway photos. They are a way to literally picture the past. Images can answer many questions for historians, provide a basis for on-the-ground research, and be a boon to the many modellers who strive to create a tribute to the glorious steam era.
When researching old photos, two primary sources previously have been used in railfan-oriented histories. One is museums and archives, for their preservation of local photographic collections, which usually include railway views. The other is the private collections of railfan photographers, especially those in the 1950s who recorded the waning days of steam quite successfully.
Included in this mix is the railway post card, and many historical books and publications include post card views from local museums and private collections. It wasn't until relatively recently however, with the meeting of two new friends, that the resource of post cards was brought more into focus for me. One friend is a railfan who collects post cards, the other a post card collector with only a passing interest in railways. Aha - the two worlds collide!
COMMUNICATION BEFORE POST CARDS
Since I'm writing about post cards as an historical resource, it may be a good idea to provide some background that post card collectors will be familiar with but railway historians only vaguely aware of - and it all has to do with communication.
For verbal communication, other than face-to-face conversation, the telephone has now been a staple of households for several generations. For written communication, fax machines have been around a long time, and we lake the even more immediate mediums of texting and email for granted.
Most readers will know that in the 1870s there was only one primary means of long distance communication. This was the postal letter, where a message written on paper was put into an addressed envelope, a stamp applied and then hand delivered by the Post Office to its destination. Telegrams were of course faster, especially over long distances, but they were primarily used for business and only occasionally by the general public, for special occasions or circumstances.
Postal service was vastly superior than today, especially within individual communities, and it became quite proficient in the use of railways to deliver mail over long distances. I won't touch on the Railway Post Office (RPO) service here - the collecting of RPO franks is a hobby in itself. As letters were relatively cumbersome to compose, expensive to mail and did not make optimum use of the postal system, a quicker and less expensive medium was therefore proposed - the post card.
THREE PHASES OF CANADIAN POST CARD DEVELOPMENT
There were three phases of post card development in Canada, beginning with the first cards issued in June 1871.
During the first phase, production of post cards was a monopoly of the Post Office; the card was of standard size bearing a pre-printed stamp and cost all of one cent. Designed for quick correspondence, the front (stamp side) was used exclusively for the address, and the blank reverse side for the message. At one third the cost of a letter and without the cumbersome paper and envelope, it was an instant success. Canada soon developed a reciprocal arrangement with the USA that enabled cards to be mailed across the border with the addition of a second stamp. In 1878, Canada joined the Universal Postal Union, which extended international post card delivery to many other countries.
The second phase of the post card story began on January 1, 1895. Permission was granted for private (non-Post Office) cards to be produced. This was a good move for the Post Office because it no longer had to print the cards - just sell the stamps. Cards were still required to have only the address on a plain front and the message on the back, but scope-creep soon developed as private issuers began stretching the rules and including illustrations.
This led to the third phase - the full blown illustrated card. In the style we are familiar with today, cards with a divided front were officially permitted as of December 18,1903. The front could now have the address and stamp on the right half and the message on the left, which freed up the entire reverse for a full-size illustration. While railfans may think of the photograph as the most important part of a card and hence its front, the Post Office felt otherwise - the address and stamp were the most important aspect and therefore on the front, the photo being relegated to the back. With these developments the flood gates opened and the heyday of Edwardian-era post card production began.
CANADIAN RAILWAYS AND THE EDWARDIAN POST CARD CRAZE
It is amazing how this simple development led to a huge uptick in the use of the mails. If we think of it in modern day terms, it was quite a marketing success and the use of post cards skyrocketed. From only 27,000 cards mailed in 1900, there were 41 million mailed in 1908 and a staggering 60 million in 1913.
This occurred for two reasons. For practical purposes, the post card had become a part of daily life, especially with the Post Office offering twice daily delivery in non-rural areas. In the time before telephones, there were many examples of senders using the 'morning post' to ask a question and expecting a reply that same afternoon. A sample exchange might read "Would you like to come over for supper tonight?" with the sender knowing they'd get a response by return 'afternoon
post' confirming or declining the engagement.
The second factor was the rise of formal post card collecting, primarily for the illustrations. Illustrations could be corporate advertising, patriotic messages or seasonally appropriate greetings, with Valentine's Day and Christmas being common themes. Humorous sketch or cartoon cards were produced and, of course, risqué cards - at least by Edwardian standards - were in vogue. By far the most prolific were photo-based post cards, depicting every subject imaginable and as we will see, railways were a prime favourite.
Some of the lithographed photo cards were produced by large companies distributing in Canada, such as Valentine & Sons. Although headquartered in Scotland, it produced 20,000 different Canadian scenes, and most were printed by the thousands. The really unique cards were produced by small concerns, however, where the local photography studio or drug store got in on the post card craze. Featuring town scenes and sold only locally in very small quantities, these are the 'real photo' cards that are particularly rare and most collectable today.
Of course, railways were a big part of almost every Canadian community in the Edwardian era and it is therefore logical that the local railway would be well documented on post cards. Remembering that personal photography was still beyond the means of most people, these scenes present an important time capsule of railroading in this period. The most prominent railway subjects were undoubtedly stations. Not only were the large ones in urban centres recorded, but it seems that almost every small community station throughout Canada appeared in a post card view. Picturesque scenes along the right-of-way were also featured, and less often railway yards, bridges and facilities. Especially prized are scenes of local railway 'events' such as wrecks, special excursion trains and visiting dignitaries - often produced in very limited quantity compared to the more common station views.
The use of cards as a daily means of communication came to a quick end by World War I. Not only did the war effort result in the reduction of time and ability to send cards, but the telephone was becoming a more common feature of Canadian households, making the use of the mail for immediate communication obsolete. However, post cards are still with us today, having seen a resurgence in the 1950s for tourist use,
EDWARDIAN POST CARD COLLECTING - YESTERDAY AND TODAY
From the early 1900s, post card collecting became quite the national craze. Amateur collectors of the time created post card exchanges and traded cards with correspondents across the country. Some went to extreme lengths to fuel their hobby, writing into the wee hours of the night to dozens of correspondents in almost chain letter fashion, to increase the size of their collection. Special post card albums were created and proudly displayed in the homes of avid collectors.
All this frenzy also died after World War I, and it was not until the late-1960s that collecting post cards - not the modern colour cards but the old historical ones - once again came into vogue. Up until the mid-1970s, collectors of historical cards could amass sizeable collections at a cost of only pennies per card. The author partnered with post card collector Allan Anderson in 1978 to produce a book entitled Postcard Memories of Muskoka illustrated exclusively with post cards. Allan's collection numbered a staggering 35,000 cards, yet that was quite modest compared to some. He purchased many through antique stores and garage sales and many others by acquiring whole collections from the families of original collectors.
Acquiring original Edwardian family collections is becoming increasingly rare, if not downright impossible. As more and more people entered the hobby, the cost of cards began to increase and prices rose as competition for rare cards increased. Suddenly, the large collections of early collectors reached considerable value, and involved major investment to acquire.
As in our railfan world, post card clubs were formed and formal networks developed. Where some railfans concentrate on one railway versus another, post card collectors also began to specialize their collections. Many wanted shots - any shots - of specific towns or regions while others focused exclusively on subjects like churches or schools, private homes or street scenes, steam ships or canals. As can be imagined, many specifically targeted railway scenes.
Also in common with our hobby, many post card collecting pioneers are advancing in age and fewer young people are taking up the hobby. Unlike the decline of the antique market, the result is not an immediate drop in the post card market, but there has been a general softening. Unfortunately for railway historians, one aspect of the market that has maintained its value is post cards of railway subjects, which are still highly prized and specifically collected.
Some post card collectors remain old-school and prefer to attend swap meets, sales and auctions where cards can be viewed in person. Others buy and sell mostly online, especially through mediums such as eBay, opening up the market literally to a whole world of potential buyers. In late November 2015, more than 33,000 Canadian post cards, including many of railway interest, were listed for sale on eBay alone. And then there are specialist post card selling sites like playle.com, with 73,000 current listings for Canadian cards, of which 16,400 are pre-1920. Among them are glorious 'real photo' cards of Goderich CPR 'first train' ($99) and Listowel CPR with a 4-4-0 out front ($61). The identical Listowel scene is listed twice on eBay, lithographed in colour ($21) and printed black & white ($26), but both are inferior in quality to the 'real photo' card which, in turn, may have a bearing on the asking price.
With the rise in individual values, actually owning some cards is not always practical. In a September eBay sale, 13 bidders drove the sale of a card of the Grand Trunk station at Justice, Manitoba to $348, while at a private sale, another small town Canadian station card went for more than $1,000. Prices of more than $100 can be easily reached for other rare cards, although many are in the more modest range of just above or below $10. Fortunately, in this day of digitalization, some collectors (but obviously not all) are willing to share their images for historical research and publication use. This is great for railfans since the images are usually more prized than the actual cards.
WHAT TO WATCH FOR IN HISTORICAL POST CARDS
From both talking with collectors and personal observation of Edwardian railway cards, I have concluded that there are essentially three categories of historical photo post cards.
One category, which is of little use for historical research, comes in three general types. The first is the stock scene in which a standard view is simply overprinted with a different town name depending on where it was sold. These are completely untrustworthy as to content. The second is the photo-manipulated card. In an age before Photoshop, details were crudely altered right on the negative, rendering the card useless for serious research. The third is the mislabelled card, sometimes easily detectable, but often not. These cards may purport to show a specific railway or location, but only a knowledgeable historian will recognize that it's not correct.
A second category is the colourized card. Sometimes handcoloured in small quantities but most often lithographed (machine printed) by the larger manufacturers, these cards usually retain their historical detail. Be careful however - they may also have had their content altered, and the colours are unlikely to be those of the original subject - the red roof of the station or the green coaches of the train may not be true to the prototype.
A third category is the one I consider to be the best - the 'real photo' card, usually sharp, high quality scenes with no manipulation. Unlike a printed page photograph, which uses 'dots' in the printing process, 'real photo' cards are produced as a continuous tone image on photographic card stock. As such, they can be magnified many times to reveal many interesting details for the historical researcher.
RAILWAY POST CARDS TODAY
Edwardian post cards definitely serve a purpose for today's Canadian railway history researcher. We have all seen publications that include the post card holdings of museums and railfans, and some of these scenes are common and well known. Hopefully, in the future the rarest views of all will come from the post card collecting fraternity, as this non-traditional resource is realized for the potential it presents. We can be of help to post card collectors too. As I type this, the website of the Toronto Postcard Club features a station photo whose location it is trying to identify, something the railfan community could help with in return.
With this article I'm including illustrations to give examples of post card types. Hopefully in future Branchline editions, and through the good graces of post card collector friends, I'll pass along other shots that some of you may have seen before, but maybe not - and hopefully they will be both rare and new to most readers.
I'd like to draw your attention to a great site that exclusively features Canadian railway-oriented post cards, especially stations. It is the long-term collection of a combined railfan and post card collector, the true coming together of the two worlds. The website URL is www.canada-rail.com, and it contains more than 1,500 railway post card images from right across the country as well as brief histories of the railways themselves. I hope you will relish paging through this fascinating collection. So enjoy the accompanying post card images. Hopefully they'll be of interest, and I'm sure Branchline will welcome the submission of your own unique post card photos for publication.
Anderson, Allan and Tomlinson, Betty: Greetings From Canada - An Album of Unique Canadian Postcards From The Edwardian Era 1900-1916, The Macmillan Company of Canada Limited, Toronto, Ontario, 1978
Andreae, Christopher: Lines of Country, The Boston Mills Press, Erin, Ontario, 1997
Plomer, James and Capon, Alan R.: Desperate Venture - Central Ontario Railway, Mika Publishing, Belleville, Ontario, 1979
Steinhart, Allan L: The Postal History of the Post Card in Canada 1878-1911, Mission Press, Toronto, Ontario, 1979
Jeri Danyleyko, Peter Foley, Sean Murphy, Robert Sandusky, Jeffery Young