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Postcards To Treasure

By Land ~ Sea Discovery Group Staff

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Postcard of Middleburgh High School around 1909. Note the recess area at the left corner and under the tree to the right. These are good spots to detect.

Deltiology is the word that means the collection and study of postcards. I am by no means a deltiologist. I'm just a simple treasure hunter looking for clues to our great past. As any good metal detectorist will tell you, "You've got to know your history."

Sometimes it's quite easy to drive by a place that you know has a lot of foot traffic and know it'll be a good spot to check out with your metal detector. Other times a friend may say, "Ya know I heard there used to be a store right over there where that field is behind old man Parsons place." So you run over there after work to the field, metal detector in hand, not knowing where to start and you begin searching the two acre field, using all the techniques you've learned over the years and the next thing you know, it's dark and you're pooped. Then after checking your meager finds you surmise that maybe you started in the wrong place after all. Sometimes information isn't even available on new sites so you head down to the beach and hope you get lucky.

Well, to get the odds more in my favor I use postcards. My mom had turned her collection of postcards over to me a few years ago and being an army brat her collection ranged from Fort Riley, Kansas to Fort Totten, New York in addition to cards from overseas. As I sat there marveling at the different views that were represented and had chuckles over the notes on the back, I suddenly realized I was seeing history as it was in this case, up to ninety years ago.

My first clue was a postcard of a place I knew, or thought I did. It was Middleburgh Central School. Hey, I went to school at good ol' MCS but it sure didn't look like this. The postcard was dated 1909 and the building was a totally different structure. By matching up trees and houses I was able to locate the original site of the school and playgrounds. It was on the same acreage that the present school is now but in a different position. I also then did a time travel back to 1968 when somewhere on the grounds I lost my high school ring and made a mental note that I would have to get back home soon to metal detect the school yard.

I found postcards very interesting and I think you will too. The first widely distributed postcards were of the Columbia Exposition in 1893. They were used as souvenir items that were catching on very quickly in the United States. Postcards had been the fad in Europe years before. In 1898 the Private Mailing Card Act opened the U.S. market to great competition for publishers who created the cards. They offered pictures of places that were called views, along with holiday greetings, artists' renditions, and topicals, which could be a picture of just about anything from alligators to zeppelins.

From the late 1890's to the early 1920's collecting postcards was the rage in America. Although the population of the United States in 1908 was only 88 million people, over 677 million cards were mailed! These small, 3 1/2 X 5 1/2, picture cards offer up to us our history and heritage with every viewing.


1. Postcard shows and conventions
Modern postcard specialty stores
Antique stores
Barr's News & Postcard Collector Magazine
Collectable stores
Flea markets, swap meets, and estate sales

What should you look for? I recommend looking first for view cards that depict an area you are familiar with. More then likely you'll find postcards dating from the present back to 100 years ago. You can than match up these views against each other or against what you know to exist now in these same locations. Lots of times the postcards depict happier times and places like parks, picnics, and places of interest. Today's postcards may depict the same places but the spots people congregate in may be different. Are you getting the idea?

I search specifically for real photo postcards, which was a process where an actual photo was taken and printed with a postcard back. One real photo card I found while browsing through a section marked "SAN GABRIEL MOUNTAINS," shows two vacationers writing on the porch of their holiday cabin at a place called Roberts Camp. Through further research I found out that the camp had accommodations for up to 180 guests with a two-story lodge, 24 cabins, and even more tent sites to boot. The guest register of the camp I recently found out, contained the signatures of 5000 guests in the year 1919 . To me it was indeed a lost treasure hunt just to find the site of Roberts Camp and when I did my work was rewarded well with coins, buttons, and an old fork that had a carved ivory handle.

Another bonus you get with postcards is you don't necessarily have to buy them. They are put on display with the hope you will buy but you are allowed to browse, in fact most dealers will offer you a chair to sit in while you look. If you do decide to purchase a postcard you could spend anywhere from $1.00 to $100.00 per card. Most cards are reasonably priced from $2-3.00. Many dealers have bargain boxes that contain unsorted cards from 25 to 50 cents apiece. Many dealers also offer approval services that will send you cards in your specific category and if you want them you simply mail them the payment asked for. If you don't want them you can send them back. You must however pay the postage.

When you first come across a postcard show or a dealer selling cards you'll probably be overwhelmed, I was. Here were millions of little treasure clues just waiting to be plucked out of the haystack. A show is usually made up of a number of dealers each having one or two tables and on the tables they've displayed their postcards for you to see. Each dealer can have thousands of postcards on display. The view cards are usually filed by country, state, county, and in their specialized areas, by city. A dealer that wants to sell cards will have a nice display of organized cards and the cards will be properly priced on the back in pencil. Be sure to ask if the dealer has anything special set aside behind the table. They may have large photos, brochures, and other ephemera worth looking at.

If you happen to come across a batch of postcards at a garage sale or estate sale, chances are the seller knows less then you now know about the cards themselves, the dates, or the values. Pay only what the card is worth to you. To date a postcard first check the back for a copyright date or a postmark. Sometimes the cards were never mailed so look to see how much postage was required. That can narrow down a date. You can also judge the date by the clothes' people are wearing or the cars they are driving. If a flag is waving in the background you could try to count the stars on the flag to date the picture.

So just pull up a chair and start in. Check out the state you're interested in and the city. Take notes if you like. Some other categories to check under are disasters, train wrecks, train depots, ships and shipwrecks, buildings, expositions, fairs, and amusement parks. Actually the list could go on for ever, just use your imagination and have fun. Now that one of my secrets is out of the bag I hope to see more treasure hunters at the postcard shows along side the deltiologists.

Please be sure to check your local laws before diving into an area for metal detecting. Many areas are unfortunately off limits and other areas will require permission first.


1. Diane Allmen, Postcards the Official Price Guide, House of Collectables, 1990.
2. John W. Robinson, The San Gabriels, Big Santa Anita Historical Society, 1991.
3. Authors personal experiences.

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