Greetings from Illinois: A Journey Through Postcards

U of I Commencement, 1913 RS 39/2/28
U of I Commencement, 1913 RS 39/2/28

Written by Anna Trammell

As the end of the academic year draws near, Illini all over campus are daydreaming about summer travels on the horizon. Since the end of the 19th century, one of the primary hallmarks of travel has been the postcard. The first American postcard was copyrighted by John Charlton in 1861.[1] In 1873, government issued  “postal cards” with a one-cent postage fee debuted.[2] At the 1893 World Colombian Exhibition in Chicago, picture postcards were sold as souvenirs.[3]

From there, postcard collecting and mailing increased in popularity and public demand eventually forced congress to grant the one-cent rate to privately printed cards in 1898.[4]

Postcards reached the height of their popularity in the first decades of the 20th century with over nine hundred million cards mailed in 1913 alone.[5]

Frederick A. Mendel Postcard RS 41/20/26
Frederick A. Mendel Postcard RS 41/20/26

In the Student Life and Culture Archives at the University of Illinois, postcards can be found in personal papers, correspondence files, and scrapbooks. Frederick A. Mendel, a former engineering student, collected postcards sent from his family during trips abroad between 1899 and 1913 in an album. These cards provide an illustration of how postcards were used and preserved during this period.

The Public Information Postcard Collection contains postcards received by the University as gifts, exchanges, or donations. These postcards represent locations worldwide, illustrating a variety of scenes and subjects.

The University of Illinois is documented in these postcards, which feature both illustrated images and photographs of various campus scenes including events, buildings, and class memorials. Images of Urbana, Champaign, and Allerton Park are also included as well as many other towns throughout Illinois. While the golden age of postcards has come and gone, they continue to serve as a valuable research tool by documenting changes in communication and graphic arts as well as illustrating local history and popular culture.

Champaign, Illinois RS 39/2/28
Champaign, Illinois RS 39/2/28

[1] “Postcard History” Smithsonian Institution Archives

[2] Semowich, Charles J and Enid T. Thompson (1979). Postcard Collections in the Local Historical Society. American Association for State and Local History.

[3] Bassett, Fred. Wish You Were Here!: The Story of the Golden Age of Picture Postcards in the United States.

[4] “Dating Postcards” Smithsonian Institution Archives

[5] Bassett, Fred. Wish You Were Here!: The Story of the Golden Age of Picture Postcards in the United States.

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