Sometimes whimsical, often colorful and usually the bearer of happy tidings, the postcard offers a window to a time and place that is often remembered in a nostalgic haze. That’s why Liz Coursen began collecting them right out of college 30 years ago.
“People are immediately drawn to an image they recognize in some way,” says the Sarasota-based writer. “They usually see something that reminds them of when they were kids.”
But postcards also do much more. They track history in a compact, visual format. They offer clues to popular sites and to the values and traditions of an era. And in the case of Florida postcards, they also were instrumental in selling the state as both retirement haven and vacation mecca.
To illustrate the long-standing bond between the state and postcard industry, Coursen selected the best 100 of her Florida postcards to include in a traveling presentation that is coming to Miami-Dade public libraries over the summer. Titled “Having Fun, Wish You Were Here: An Illustrated History of the Postcard in Florida,” the program is presented in conjunction with Viva Florida 500, the state’s celebration of the 500th anniversary of Ponce de Leon’s arrival on these shores in 1513.
In an hour-long PowerPoint talk chockablock with anecdotes and historical tidbits — Coursen had to enlarge the postcards so they could be shown more easily — she takes the audience on a trip back in time, from the turn of the century when Florida was a backwoods swamp to the 1950s when bathing beauties cavorted in the sands.
“The joy of this program,” Coursen says, “is that there is no other state with a history so tied to the postcard. Postcards were an integral part of the marketing of Florida.”
Coursen, who has been traveling the state for several months, tailors the event to each library location using postcards from that area to underscore her points. In South Florida, the difficult part is choosing among the many examples.
“I could do a presentation on just the Art Deco hotels in Miami Beach.”
Some of the highest quality postcards feature the most unlikely places, too. For example, Homestead has the finest linen postcards. (Linen postcards use a cloth-like paper known for its excellent absorption of color.) “I can’t get over how amazing the material is, how rich the colors,” she says.
Whether in large cities or small towns, audience reaction tends to be the same. “They get very excited looking at things just like they remember them – the cars and the buildings, even the clothes.”
In Lake City, as she was showing a 1940s postcard of three boys fishing in the area, an older man in the audience jumped up and yelled, “That’s my brother!” Indeed, it was his older brother and the man remembered the day the photo was taken because the older boys had left him at home that morning, telling him he wouldn’t be able to keep up.
In addition to providing a stroll down memory lane, Coursen recounts the history of the postcard. Postcards were first introduced in Florida soon after making their debut at the 1893 Columbia Exposition in Chicago. In 1906, Americans purchased 863 million of them, importing more than 32 tons of postcards from Germany alone. By 1913, Americans were sending more than a billion postcards annually.
And while this was a national craze, postcards from Florida were uniquely plentiful. “No other state had a history illustrated this way, from citrus growing to sugar cane grinding, from cards promoting businesses to cards promoting beaches.” Much of this was due to Florida’s sunny weather, easily captured on camera and mailed to friends and family suffering through winter blizzards up north.
“People got these in the middle of February and they came here in droves,” Coursen says.
Surprisingly, Germany and Britain were the major postcard manufacturers. “German publishers,” she adds, “were absolutely fascinated by alligators. They were convinced we walked out the door and fell over an alligator.”
Coursen calls her postcard collection “the only bad habit I have.” The passion eventually led her to her online business, www.AmericanPostcardArt.com, which enlarges vintage postcards into poster size art.. Over the years she has collected a variety of images, from postcards of her hometown in Maine to postcards of women fly fishing — and pretty much everything in between, including, yes, alligators. She has no idea how many cards she owns, though she confesses that “when I go to a postcard show, I forget to eat.”
In the era of Facebook and Twitter and smart phones, when a tourist can snap and send a beach scene to a friend in a matter of minutes, she concedes that the postcard’s days may be numbered.
“They’ll be here for this generation and the next. After that…” her voice trails off, then regains strength. “There may not be postcards as we know them, but there will always be postcard collectors.”