Published in the Montreal Gazette on April 18, 2015
One potential casualty caused by the great strides in the field of modern communication in this last little while is almost certain to be the now superfluous postcard. Between ‘tweets’ and ‘instagrams’, the once mandatory holiday card seems to be already a thing of nostalgia.
From my youth, I remember sending and receiving postcards. On the receiving side, the further the dispatch had travelled the more fascinating to me it seemed. And if, on the very odd occasion, the card itself wasn’t particularly stirring, its affixed colourful, foreign postage stamps usually made up for it.
Postcards have been with us since 1840. It is said that the English eccentric Theodore Edward Hook probably sent one that year to himself to poke fun at the postal service. The card was in fact a cartoon portraying British postal workers on the job.
Regardless, the truly flourishing age for picture cards is said to have started, not surprisingly, around the same time as the 1889 inauguration of the Eiffel Tower in Paris. Images of the now iconic landmark began to appear on greeting cards almost immediately.
France also became famous around this corresponding period for the production of so-called French postcards in which a woman, invariably young, was portrayed à poil. This unfortunate fad actually spread to Montreal in Edwardian times. In a newspaper letter to the editor dated March 21, 1908, one Montrealer distraughtly wondered “whether there is not some official authorized and responsible for the scrutiny of the filthy, obscene and disgusting picture post – cards on sale in some of Montreal’s most prominent thoroughfares?”
Of course, much to our letter – writer’s consolation, exploitation of image cards could also be found for purposes other than sensual titillation. Postcards with splashy Christmas and Easter representations were frequently used in days gone by as a means of communicating seasonal greetings, while during the two Great World Wars, they were often employed as a way of stirring up patriotic emotions for the homeland.
So popular were Easter picture cards in 1908 that post office employees began to complain about the additional workload involved in delivering them. Officials estimated that their distribution added a further ten percent to their tasks at hand.
Like stamps and coins, postcards were often collected. Both my grandfather and my uncle hoarded the cards they received through the mail. I did as well, for a short time. To this day, I still have the 17 picture cards of Manhattan that I purchased in 1961 while on holiday with my family. They are wonderful to look at, even though they are not, comparatively speaking, that old.
Recently, however, I was given a compilation of vintage postcards from a former Montrealer who left the city a number of years past. Many are from the Edwardian Period and provide a fascinating view of what this municipality was like over a century ago. As a local historian, I was elated in taking possession of them.
Julian Bernard, 85, resided in Montreal for only two and a half years but in that relatively short period of time he developed a great attachment to this town. He married here in 1959 and by his own estimate was in the city at least once a year for the first 75 years of his life!
Bernard’s postcard collection reflects his family’s deep roots in both Montreal and the province as a whole. Some of the mailings were written upon while others were still blank. Some are of this city while others are of very familiar, former anglophone bastions in the Eastern Townships.
Souvenir cards of long lost buildings are always of great interest to urban chroniclers. There are many in Bernard’s assortment, two of which are especially daunting.
The first is of the palatial Windsor Hotel on Peel Street. With six restaurants and 382 opulent guest rooms, the Windsor was one of the most fashionable hotels in North America when it opened in 1878. It was also one of the largest. King George VI and his wife, the late Queen Elizabeth, stayed there during their Royal Visit to this city in 1939. This elegant Montreal landmark was eventually destroyed by fire in the late 1950’s and the site is today home to the Canadian Imperial Bank of Commerce building that opened in 1962.
Below, The Windsor Hotel, 1952
The second card vividly depicts the Queen’s Hotel, just down the street from the old Windsor. This stylish 1893 sandstone edifice was purposefully erected in close proximity to the old Grand Trunk Bonaventure Station that was just across the street. With the closure of the august train depot in the late 1940’s, the Queen’s lost much of its clientele, and finally shut its own historic doors in 1977. Part of it was demolished straight away after it ceased operations, while another section lingered on to the autumn of 1988. Ultimately, it too was levelled.
Below, the Queen’s Hotel, circa. 1955
Postcards can also unintentionally reveal long lost family secrets. In my late uncle’s collection, one from 1916 contains a reference to a family member no one had ever heard of. Some nimble genealogical research eventually revealed why that was so!
Because of their intrinsic timeworn value, vintage picture cards are frequently sold at antiquarian book fairs throughout the country. Similar to postage stamps, a postcard’s value is determined by its rarity and condition. An extremely uncommon one in near mint condition can normally fetch a good amount. Although admittedly exceptional, Theodore Edward Hook’s 1840 postcard sold for some £31,750 (about $50,000) in 2002.
However, the true worth of these vibrant mailings is often sentimental. In perusing through my own assemblage of squirreled away cards, I often come upon some that were affectionately signed by individuals who are but a distant memory, if in fact I remember them at all.
Below, Montreal skyline in 1904