A new book reveals the history and beauty behind the humble postcard
One of my most vivid childhood memories is that of my mother writing postcards. Whether we were simply on a weekend getaway a few towns over or we had traversed across one or more oceans, my mom’s idea of a vacation was to commemorate it by sending a postcard to everyone she knew. The following ritual is ingrained in my psyche—stop at every souvenir stand, drug store etc. that may sell the small works of art and purchase as many as possible. Then, return to the hotel and stay up late into the night writing rough drafts (my mom is an incurable perfectionist known to take hours selecting a suitable birthday card for a friend). Finally, and with much deliberation, she would select the postcards best suited for each person and commence to write lovely little messages that illuminated the highlights of our trip thus far. Sometimes it would take us entire days to find a post office, where my sister and I would risk our lives licking the backs of third-world stamps to allow my mom’s scrawled messages to reach friends and family back home.
It’s no wonder that a new book about the history of postcards has caught my eye. Artist, author and postcard collector extraordinaire, Leonard Pitt’s new tome “Paris Postcards: The Golden Age” highlights the unassuming history of the humble postcard. Once dubbed as a nuisance that would unravel proper society (similar to the text message or tweet of today), the postcard has since emerged as the quintessential way of communicating from foreign shores with the folks back home.
Pitt, who lived in Paris as a young man in the 1960s and has since written myriad books about the French capital, bought a handful of turn-of-the-century postcards depicting Parisian streets on a whim because they were cheap souvenirs. It was only later, upon returning to the U.S. that Pitt realized what real works of art and glimpses into history these postcards truly were. It was then that he began haunting antique shops in an attempt to begin a collection of historical postcards in earnest.
In his book, “Paris Postcards: The Golden Age,” Pitt takes readers, historians and art lovers alike on a historical tour through the streets of the City of Light, illuminating scenes that have long since disappeared in the name of modernization. But it may be the sentiments written on the backs of these postcards that immortalize the wonder still experienced by travelers today. As one postcard deftly explains, “Paris will have to be the most splendid city in Europe.” Even my mom would have to agree.
GT recently caught up with Pitt prior to his visit to The Capitola Book Café on March 7 to find out more about his new book, as well as his mind-boggling postcard collection.
Good Times: What made you decide to turn your postcard-collecting hobby into a book about postcards from Paris?
Leonard Pitt: When I began arranging, sorting my collection a couple of years ago, I saw the incredible document I had. Historically, the cards are an extraordinary portrait of an age long gone. The messages written to loved ones back home are wonderfully evocative of the American experience of Paris at the turn of the century. Artistically, the photos are beautiful in themselves, but most of all, the colored ones. They are all tinted by hand. Each one individually tinted! Then there is the history of the postcard. I did a little research and was struck by what a revolution this most banal item today was at its time. The postcard changed the world just like the Internet and raised many of the same issues about social mores, laws of libel and defamation. This was a story that had to be told.
GT: Are all of the postcards in the book from
your personal collection?
LP: Every image in the book is from my private collection.
GT: How many postcards do you now have in your collection?
LP: Thousands. I’ve never counted.
GT: What is the most interesting message you have found written on one of your postcards?
LP: The one that says, “September 2, 1913, My Dear Little Mama, I am here in fine style. This is by far the most beautiful city I have ever seen. It is beyond description. I am in love with it …” beautifully expresses the American exuberance for Paris way back then. Also the one that says, “Bringing your wife to Paris is like bringing your own meal to a banquet.”
Leonard Pitt will be talking about his book, “Paris Postcards: The Golden Age,” at 5:30 p.m. on Sunday, March 7 at the Capitola Book Café, 1475 41st Ave., Capitola. For more information, call 462-4415 or visit leonardpitt.com.