JOHN M. KELLY LIBRARY
Closing the Distance
Exchanging Postcards in early 20th Century and Today
Front and back of postcard sent from Lenie Hall to Olive Plowman, October 1909. Courtesy of University of St. Michael’s College, John M. Kelly Library, Special Collections, Plowman family postcard collection.
In the fall of 1909, Olive Plowman, age 27, was living in the Yorkville region of Toronto when she received this postcard from her friend Lenie Hall. This postcard, depicting Toronto’s Union Station, carries a request for Olive to be prepared to teach at church on the following Sunday. Like many young women of the time, Olive collected postcards. Her collection of postcards is the source of most of the limited information available about her. Olive received postcards from her friends and family, sent from England, the United States, and Canada. While some of the postcards carry messages of travel or holiday greetings, many messages reflect everyday exchanges, like the postcard featured above.
The Golden Age of Postcards
Olive lived during what is considered the Golden Age of postcards. Picture postcards came into use in North America in 1893, and quickly became popular as souvenirs, collectables, and communication technologies, not much different from letters and today’s emails. During the Golden Age, spanning from 1895 to 1920, scholars estimate that between 200 and 300 billion postcards were produced and sold globally. In Canada, as in other parts of the Western world, the popularity of picture postcards was tied closely to technological advances in printing and production, shifting demographics, and improved postal service.
While the end of the 19th century saw technological advances in the areas of photography and photo processing, these methods remained expensive and difficult for the average person to use. Picture postcards provided an affordable means of accessing and sharing photographs and photo reproductions.
At the same time, Canada was undergoing a significant demographic transition as the country became a major receiver of international immigrants. Combined with a growing middle class and the rise of consumer culture, people in Canada were buying more and corresponding over long distances more often. Postcards provided a link, offering a convenient alternative for long and short distance communication without time and resource commitment that came with the formality of letter writing.
The use of postcards as a form of local correspondence, as seen in Olive’s postcard, was supported by quick and inexpensive postal service in Toronto during the early 1900s. Mail was delivered to people’s homes twice daily, and the postage cost at the time varied from 1 to 2 cents for a postcard.
Postcards from Home
Front and back of postcard sent from Marian Jerry to Maeghan Jerry, April 2016. Image by Maeghan Jerry.
Going through Olive’s postcards, I was struck by how many were sent not as souvenirs of travel, but simply as a means of keeping in touch. Like Olive, I receive postcards as a form of regular correspondence, most frequently from my grandmother. Her postcards include updates about her and my grandfather, comments on the weather, and responses to my letters and phone calls. The fronts always feature photos of the Rocky Mountains, so that I have little pieces of home now that I live away. Olive’s collection makes me feel more connected to Toronto’s past, as I continue the practice of postcard exchange that Olive and her friends partook in.
Maeghan Jerry was born and raised in southern Alberta. In 2008, Maeghan moved to Istanbul, Turkey for one year, during which time she began exchanging postcards with her grandmother, a practice that has continued as she moved first to Edmonton and then to Toronto for school. Maeghan is currently in her second year of a double master program at the University of Toronto iSchool and hopes to return to the Rockies when she finishes her degrees.