The Lady is a Tramp,
Among Other Things

[ woman wearing camping gear]

The Donna Reed image of femininity is certainly persistent. It's also irritating, primarily because it has superseded other, more realistic images. Real life offers variety. The women who lived before the upheavals of the mid-twentieth century were as different from each other as women are today.

True, women who lived earlier in this century did, by and large, wear skirts. They did not, however, spend all their time engaged in traditional "female" pursuits. Women flew planes, they played sports, they tamed lions, and many tramped across America or gallivanted down highways on motorcycles. In short, many lived active, varied, and interesting lives.

Luckily, they left plenty of evidence: picture postcards.

[ woman riding bucking bull ]

The Amazing Postcard Fad

Millions-perhaps billions-of antique picture postcards exist today, many depicting real images of everyday folks. These cards are remnants of an extraordinary postcard fad that swept not only the United States, but indeed the whole world. In the decades surrounding 1900, people bought, sent, and collected postcards in staggering numbers. According to Charles Panati's book, Panati's Parade of Fads, Follies, and Manias,

A noted stage actress boasted of owning 73,445 picture postcards. At one point, fanatical collectors picketed in front of U. S. Post Offices that placed their cancellation stamps on the back of a postcard and not on its image-bearing front, for cards that bore the mark of a distance place on the picture were enviously prized.

Reasons for Postcard Popularity

This fad was fed by a confluence of several factors: the development of photography, new printing and publishing technology, a heightened interest in travel, cheap postal rates, and perhaps most important, time for hobbies, which included collecting.

[ early women's basketball team ]

Today, we have photographs, film, and television to bring us the world beyond our property borders. In 1900, the average person had none of these. But a surprising number did have postcard collections, often carefully arranged in bulging albums. Neighbors' Grand Tours of Europe were commemorated, as were birthdays, national holidays, and less public events.

[woman riding motorcycle with sidecar]

Postcards provided intriguing glimpses into a wider world. Suddenly, farmers in rural Maine could see color pictures of Paris or New York or the State Capitol. They could also see black and white photos of Aunt Edna's family, because common camera film was postcard-sized and printed on paper with a postcard backing. Families saved these in albums, mailed them to friends, and displayed them in frames. Vast numbers survive today.

[pistol-packing women walkers]

Modern collectors cherish many of these postcards. I know that I do. My favorites are images of certain women, women I wish I had known. Most display a spirit, a zest, or a uniqueness that attracts me to their pictures.

Rarely do I learn much about the individual herself. However, most pictures speak for themselves.

Plan for this site...

I have hundreds of early images of women, many of which I would like to post online eventually. I will work on one link at a time, putting in a little text and several pictures. Then, I will add additional pictures later. What connects all images is that they show women of spirit. Keep checking back for pictures in these and other categories.

In the summer of 2008, I donated my entire collection of postcards of women to the Schlesinger Library in Cambridge, Massachusetts. The Schlesinger Library is part of the Radcliffe Institute for Advanced Study at Harvard University. It has an exceptionally rich assortment of materials that document women's history. Its holdings includes not only books and periodicals, but also thousands of photographs. While some of these photos depict famous women, others show the types captured on my postcards. I believe my cards belong there. The library has plans to digitize the images, so researchers and other interested viewers will still be able to see and enjoy them. In fact, people will be able to enjoy even more of them, since my website shows only a fraction of my collection.

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