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  • Roots and Branches - Postcards: A Window into the Past

    Miriam Weiner

    Published Date : December 1989
     When a fellow genealogist invited me to a postcard show at the Penta Hotel in New York, I arrived unprepared for the huge gathering of postcard enthusiasts all eager to sort through thousands of postcards neatly cataloged by subject or geographic area. Those few hours were the beginning of a new dimension to my collection of family memorabilia.

    Within minutes, I found postcards of the S.S. Celtic , the passenger liner which brought my grandfather Morris Weiner to this country in 1912. That first purchase a few years ago led to many postcard shows and a collection which now chronicles my familys history -- beginning with scenes of Jewish cemeteries in Russia, the train station in Kiev, the dining hall at Ellis Island, Essex and Hester Streets on the Lower East Side, and Emigrant Landing in New York.

    The collection includes scenes of Lackawanna Ave. in Scranton (where my family lived in 1907), the Brooklyn courthouse where my grandparents obtained their marriage license in 1905, the Wallabout Market in Brooklyn where my family shopped, and one postcard of “Busy Corner, Broadway and Flushing Avenue.” Since my grandmother once lived at 858 Flushing Ave., I can almost see her house in that postcard. There were even postcards of the schools my grandmother attended, including one of P.S. No. 123 on Irving Ave. in Brooklyn.

    My mother was born in Albany and I was able to locate contemporary postcards of the public market and various street scenes. When I saw the two postcards from Albia, Iowa, where my father was born, I reluctantly paid the princely sum of $15.00 for a scene of the West Side Square. I can make out the faces of shopkeepers standing outside their establishments, with streetcars in the background.

    Street scenes from Des Moines, where I grew up, include the first school that my father and I attended, the State Capitol (where I worked during my first summer job) and other places which form part of my childhood memories.

    Postcards first appeared in the late 1860s in Austria, conveyed brief messages in the form of advertisements, announcements, or communications among friends and relatives, or represented a souvenir from the sender. Their popularity grew rapidly with the addition of photos. Sometimes these postcards are, in effect, our only family photographs.

    An important reference is a French book on Jewish postcards. In Images et Traditions Juives by Gerard Silvain (CELIV, Milan: 1980, 476 pp.) the colorful reproductions are chronicled by country from Abyssinia to Yemen, with 34 countries in between. The personal notes on some postcards reflect the life and times of the writers while also giving a poignant peek into their thoughts. The jacket cover notes that a thousand postcards (1897-1917) represent the history of the Diaspora.

    One of my favorite postcards is titled “Children of the Ghetto and the Ice Cream Man,” ca. 1907, Chicago, from the collection of Gotham Book Mart in New York City. Another favorite is “Immigrants in the Dining Hall at Ellis Island,” ca. 1900, from the Granger Collection of New York. A recent exhibit at the Judaica Museum of the Hebrew Home for the Aged in Riverdale, N.Y., entitled “Having a Wonderful Time -- Wish You Were Here!” depicted turn-of-the-century postcards for the Jewish New Year.

    Although many postcards can be obtained for as little as 25 cents, some (depicting, for example, a synagogue in Poland which no longer exists) carry a price tag of $50.00. An extremely rare postcard can command as much as $300.00.

    A publisher specializing in albums of ready-to-mail views is Dover Publications, Inc., 31 East 2nd Street, Mineola, NY 11501. Some titles in their catalog are “Picture Postcards of Old New York”... Old Boston…Old Brooklyn ... Old St. Louis.

    You need not travel to a postcard show to discover special cards relating to your ancestral roots. Try such obvious places as shoeboxes (among your photo collections), old correspondence files, and boxes stored away in attics or basements. And don’t forget the treasures you can find on dusty counters in second-hand stores or antique shops.

    Miriam Weiner, C.G., author and lecturer, has prepared a beginner’s guide (55 pages) on how to research family history that includes charts, a list of archive/libraries, bibliography, maps, family group sheets and more. It can be ordered for $12.50 by writing to her at 136 Sandpiper Key, Secaucus, NJ 07094.

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