One of the most fascinating things about processing an archive is discovering the hidden worlds within it. The project on which I’m currently working, the Gotham Book Mart archive, is particularly interesting this regard. The iconic New York bookstore was central in the development of Modernism and American small-press poetry throughout the 20th century, and the archive is certainly of interest for anyone exploring these worlds, but there are other – perhaps odder – universes contained within it as well: for example, a large and impressive collection of postcards.
Andreas Brown, the owner of the Book Mart from 1967 until its closing, was one of the most well-known postcard collectors (the technical term is “deltiologist”) in America. Like many of the most serious deltiologists, his collection focused on “real photo” postcards: a short-lived style that appeared in the early twentieth century, in which the front of the card was a piece of undeveloped photo paper, allowing for a customizable – and sometimes one-of-a-kind – image.
But Brown’s collection contains many other kinds of cards, as well: panoramic cards, cards that also served as paper fans, and (my personal favorite!) a series of promotional cards for a Russian production of one of Chekhov’s lesser known plays, “Ivanov.”
Taken on their own, these cards are impressive enough, but what makes them especially fascinating is the context which surrounds them. See, Andreas Brown wasn’t simply a collector; as one of the most famous collectors in America, he was also a member of a national deltiological community which, in the pre-internet world, meant he received a great number of newsletters from postcard clubs across the country: the Maple City Postcard Club; the Pacific Northwest Postcard Bulletin; and, of course, the organization which Brown himself helped found, the Metropolitan Poscard Collector.
And, of course, Brown developed a relationship with individual collectors, too, many of whom sent him personalized cards during National Postcard Week. Besides being notable for their range of design style (and, frankly, skill), the cards are interesting for the window they give into the lives of their creators. Who can resist young Barbara Ellen, with her space-related collection? Here’s hoping that she completed sixth grade successfully!
This is what I meant by hidden worlds. It’s remarkable to think about (or, if you have the historical perspective, to remember) just how many of these small mail-order organizations there were in America – almost all of which have been rendered irrelevant by the web – and how many people’s lives were influenced by the networks they helped support. As J.P. Hartley famously put it in his novel The Go-Between, “the past is a foreign country; they do things differently there.” Sometimes, in the act of processing, it can be helpful to stop and consider the customs of the countries one is continually discovering, and their relation to our own.