Secrets of the Blue Ridge: A Penny for Your Thoughts: The Golden Age of Postcards

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Pennant; postmarked 1913, from Miller School to Charlottesville, VA. Morris wrote, “I thank you so much for the nice Christmas present. Give my love to Uncle Valentine.” Phil James Historical Images

Early picture postcards may have been the forerunners of phone texting. Due to space limitations, messages were brief and to the point—and the price was right: a penny for the postcard, and another penny sent it on its way. From 1873 until 1952, the cost to mail a postcard was one cent, with the exception of two years during WWI when that price doubled.

May sent a postcard picturing Crozet’s popular Liberty Hotel to a friend in Richmond in August 1909. “This is Ellison’s old homestead,” she wrote. “Leave here Thurs. & I do so hate it. Had a swell time on our hayride last night.”

WWI patriotic; postmarked 1918, from Washington, D.C. to Pierceton, IN. Cousin George wrote, “Billy Sunday is in Washington now holding a meeting. Would like to go up and hear him some night.” Phil James Historical Images

October of that same year, “E.” sent to Miss Sophie a trackside view of Crozet’s early, wood-framed C&O RR passenger depot. E. wrote, somewhat apologetically, “This picture was made some years ago. The surroundings are much better now than they were when this was taken. But it’s O.K. just the same.” Perhaps this sender knew that Sophie was also a deltiologist, a collector of picture postcards, similar to philatelists, who are more focused on the gummed stamps affixed to cancelled mail.

On another Crozet postcard titled “View of the Blue Ridge Mountains, Crozet, VA,” with the C&O railroad tracks in the foreground, G.B.J. wrote, “Suppose you are enjoying city life again. Wish you could have been up here last night. We had a dance at Crozet. It poured down rain and the crowd didn’t turn out much. But there were about 27 had the nerve to come and we had a dandy time.”

Fads come and go—think hairstyles, hem-lengths, Hula Hoops… diets, you get the idea. Around the turn of the 20th century, individuals and households were swept up in the mania of collecting pictorial postcards. USPS statistics record that for the fiscal year ending June 1908, almost 700 million postcards were mailed in the U.S., while this nation’s total population approached only 89 million. Neither do those statistics recognize the countless unmailed postcards purchased and carefully protected in special albums that could be found in many homes.

Postmarked 1922, from Batesville to Lyndhurst, VA. Clinton wrote, “Say are you going out to Railkins Saturday night, to that Lawn Party? If I can get there on time I will take you girls out in a car.” Phil James Historical Images

Postcard manufacturers of that day left no stone unturned in order to address the diverse interests of the postcard aficionado. Cards were produced for any and all interests: holidays, patriotic, humorous, expositions, animals, pets, business advertising, automobiles, trains, airplanes; accomplished artists created their own unique lines; series of cards kept buyers returning to the postcard racks again and again.

Especially popular were view cards from cities and towns. Even the tiniest of whistle stops strived to have available images depicting their spot along the line, whether it was only a diminutive train depot, general store/post office, or bridge across the river. A card imprinted with the town’s name put them in the game; they existed and were important enough to have their name on a collectible.

For those places that couldn’t muster a photograph, or wished to augment the scant choices on hand, traveling salesmen had catalogs of “generic” postcard samples from which a local business could choose to have the village name imprinted. Many such examples stated simply “Greetings from ___” and the rural crossroad’s name was inserted in the blank space.

Embossed; postmarked 1909, from Greenwood to Staunton, VA. Myrtle wrote, “I’m going to hunt chestnuts this evening…” Phil James Historical Images

In the early years of automobiles, many former wagon roads were still in primitive condition and the shortcomings of gasoline engines had yet to be ironed out. Drivers would test their driving skills and their machines on difficult ascents. One such challenge began at the eastern foot of the Blue Ridge Mountains at Brooksville in western Albemarle County, continued through hairpin curves near the railroad village of Afton, and culminated, if all went well, at the road’s summit in Rockfish Gap.

Various postcard messages recorded the highs and lows of that challenging 3.75-mile uphill route. Using an Afton postcard titled “Glimpse of Piedmont Valley,” Margaret wrote to the homefolks at Rushville, Indiana, in 1911, “This is the Rocky Road to Dublin. Every body car sick. Now in Va.”

May sent an Afton House postcard in 1911 from Afton to Stuart’s Draft, VA.  She wrote, “Couldn’t resist the temptation to stop over here…”

Embossed; postmarked 1908, from Mechums River to Afton, VA. Sallie wrote, “Hello old Girl, You must have forgotten your old friend at Mechum’s. Hurry up and come down.” Phil James Historical Images

A Blue Ridge Terrace souvenir panoramic postcard was titled “Hairpin Curve, Route 39 [now US Rt. 250] near Afton, VA.” Postmarked 1929, to Winslow, Maine, the traveler noted, “10 miles an hour here.” On a similar panoramic view card touting the “2000 Feet Elevation” at that place, was written with obvious pride, “Alice crossed this Mt., Sept 1931.”

Another Blue Ridge Terrace advertising postcard stated, “Unexcelled for Chicken, Waffle and Honey Dinners.” Postmarked 1932, from Afton to Ridgewood, NJ, Bill and Pat wrote, “Spending a few hours here enjoying the most beautiful scenery we have ever seen.”

A postcard view along a railroad track, titled “Just Before Entering Blue Ridge Tunnel, Looking East, Waynesboro, VA”, carried a message written by Charles in February 1906, and mailed to New York: “I am writing this in a country store at a place called Greenwood Depot on C.&O. R.R. I passed over this road today and through the tunnel which is 7/8 mile long. It is getting colder here this evening. Weather report says a drop of thirty degrees. Will be here until 8 PM.”

Some deltiologists define the “golden age” of postcards as the pre-WWI era, roughly 1907–1915. Indeed, some of the small town views captured during that time contain the only known images of those places.

The passing of that golden age was also the beginning of a farewell to the simpler days of old: when fewer transportation options kept folks closer to home; when values were taught within the security of the family fold and reinforced at church on Sunday mornings, and communities bonded on the front porch of general stores. 

Follow Secrets of the Blue Ridge on Facebook! Phil James invites contact from those who would share recollections and old photographs of life along the Blue Ridge Mountains of Albemarle County. You may respond to him through his website: www.SecretsoftheBlueRidge.com or at P.O. Box 88, White Hall, VA 22987. Secrets of the Blue Ridge © 2003–2023 Phil James 

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