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A career of card collecting

At one point, St. Paul man owned about 750,000 postcards

By BIll Vossler

Jerry Peterson, 80, of St. Paul has about 60,000 postcards remaining in his personal collection, down from his high of 750,000, which he had for many years. Those outside his collection were available to be sold at his antique mall in St. Paul, which he closed at the end of November.

Jerry Peterson sits among his many boxes of postcards on shelves in his Seventh Avenue Antique Mall before he closed the business at the end of November. Photo by Bill Vossler

“While in business, I had a world-class stock of cards for sale, and local people told me they appreciated them, and so did people at postcard shows. When people saw the 350 boxes and 200 books of my better cards, they were amazed. I probably had the biggest stock out and available anywhere in the region, and possibly in the entire country. About 300,000 of them were right on the shelves in the store where people could walk up and see them. People couldn’t believe how many there were. But they’re mostly gone now.”

These cards weren’t just piled willy-nilly. He sorted in boxes by state and city, plus... “I’d sort out different topics, like advertising, hunting, ships, motels, hotels, women with hats, and many more,” he said. “Also foreign countries. I had 30 boxes of cards altogether from the bigger European countries like Great Britain, Germany, France and others. A friend in Czechoslovakia sent me a lot of eastern European postcards.”

His cards in his store came from almost every country in the world. “That included old countries that had different names, like African ones-- Zimbabwe, Swaziland, Gold Coast, and British Guiana.”

Some postcards were housed in three-ring binders labeled by each of the 50 states. “Postcards were a way of recording what happened,” Jerry said. “A lot of postcards showed pictures of fires in small towns, or train wrecks. Area photographers took pictures of the disaster to sell them. There are many fire-related photos of fires in small towns.”

Then there are natural disasters, “Like postcards of the Fergus Falls tornado in 1919, and the Mankato blizzard of 1909. I’ve heard people say that if something ever happened, or existed, it’s probably been recorded on a postcard.”

Jerry said almost every community had postcards with something related to their specific area. “There were large numbers of cards from every state, and many from the small cities, showing a local hotel, or hospital, or library, or major building,” he said.

Jerry began collecting postcards 30 years ago after seeing a group of them in a mail auction in Pennsylvania, while he was living in Shelton, Washington. “They intrigued me. I probably paid too much for them,” he laughed, “because I didn’t know very much about them at the time. But they got me started.”

He moved to St. Paul in 2000.

The history of postcards is intriguing, Jerry said. “In the early 1900s every department store in small towns, every general store, almost any store, might have them as general merchandise.”

Before telephones, farm people at times depended on postcards to get messages to their neighbors.

“People in small rural areas would write a postcard to a neighbor and put a stamp on it and the RFD (Rural Free Delivery) postman would pick it up, cancel it with an indelible pencil, and deliver it to the next mailbox down the road, or somewhere else along his route. It wasn’t taken into the post office in the regular way, but moved from mailbox to mailbox. The postcard might say, ‘I’ll write you a letter in a week,’ or ‘I’ll see you at the dance Saturday,’ brief personal messages, whereas now we just pick up a phone and say it.”

“A golden age for postcards was 1907 to 1914,” Jerry said. “Wives at home wrote and exchanged postcards, but during World War I, it seems like a lot of people stopped writing postcards because they had their mind on other things. Part of the reason was that German printing of postcards ceased when the war started, and they were selling the nicest and most beautifully printed postcards in the world at the time. They were never brought back again with that quality.”

After 1914, people used other kinds of postcards. For example, postcards with a white border were big from 1915- to the late 1930s, while linen postcards were big from the late 1930s to 1945.

“Photochrome cards started about 1945,” Jerry said. “They were not photos, but postcards made from printed photographs. “You can often tell the year of different cards by looking at them for different clues.”

“World War II saw wives at home communicating with each other and family by exchanging postcards. Also, in the 1940s, nearly every motel and hotel had postcards for their patrons,” Jerry said. “They were in the room for people to take and send. Every tourist attraction had postcards, some said something like ’I remember Yellowstone, because I was there.’ All facilities had them available. Some of my best sellers were World War II postcards. People would buy them for memorabilia for a dad or brother.”

Many might think that postcards are made of paper, but in truth, through the years, they were made of many different materials.

“Some had copper crimped around the edge of a paper postcard, where someone might write a message. Arizona was big for having copper postcards,” he said.

Then there were aluminum postcards. “Those were in the early 20th century, and would get pretty bent up, if they were sent at all, because they were so soft.”

Postcards were made of wood, and leather too. “Wooden ones, and also some paper ones, were embossed or had images burned into them. Leather could have images burned in them too,” he added.

A big part of Jerry Peterson’s personal postcard collection revolves around large-print postcards. He has one from every state, except Hawaii, for which none were ever made. These large-letter postcards are all from Minnesota. Photo by Bill Vossler

Postcards could be made like phonograph records, paper with a plastic coating on them with information that could be played. And postcards came in pamphlets that would open up, and a bunch of really small postcards--two and a half inches by one inch--were folded up accordion-style inside. “Some postcards in the 1940s were 10 x 14 inches, bigger than a sheet of paper. I don’t think any of these could be sent through the mail today.”

Postcards were also made for stereoscopes, with one postcard with the same image printed twice, side by side, and when fitted into the stereoscopic machine, would create a 3D image. “They were made so visitors could take them home to look at them.”

Other types of postcards include those done by artists. “Artists who had done major artwork would contract with the postcard company to do postcards. There are virtually thousands of them, and they’re especially popular in Europe.”

He said his basic process when he gets a new set of postcards is to stash them away in boxes until he can get to them later. “The very best ones and the easiest to sell I would keep out, and price right away and put it into stock. Then I’ll take a box or two of them along on vacation and go through them when I have the spare time. My wife likes to watch TV and then I can price postcards. I used to do that when we went down to Arizona in the winters, but I’ve sold most of those cards to other dealers,” he said.

Recently Jerry was poring through a large group of postcards he’d bought, had put away into storage, but hadn’t yet viewed. “It was in a box I stashed away and forgot about it. When someone in the store found one done by an artist in Austria in 1910 in art nouveau style, he was offered $600 for it. “I was tickled pink. So occasionally I’ll find a good card while going through the remainders of what I had. I just found some more postcards in a box today while I was unpacking, and I continue to find more postcards on a regular basis.”

Because he is a retired emergency room physician, Jerry picks up postcards related to medicine for his personal collection. “I have pictures of doctors, hospitals, and nurses.”

He also collects fire-related postcards, as his maternal grandfather was a St. Paul Fire Department captain. Another grandfather worked for the Chicago-Milwaukee-St. Paul Railroad, so Jerry collects those postcards too.

One of his favorite areas for his own collection is large-letter postcards, where a site or situation is listed all across the card. “They were popular in the 1940s and 1950s. The ones from Alaska are very scarce, and I have only one. None of them ever existed from Hawaii.” Jerry has at least one from all the other states.

Wooden postcards, like this front and back from Russia, often have images burnt into them. Public domain photo.

Jerry says he has found postcards in pretty normal places, like antique malls, garage sales, and estate sales, and with knowledge getting around that he bought postcards. “I got postcards from people who brought them into the store to sell them, and I got known in the postcard clubs in the St. Paul area and in general as the ‘postcard guy,’ so when people wanted to sell them, they came to me. I bought the entire stock from a couple of dealers four times. They’d take a bunch of them to a show and not want to take them back home, so I’d buy the rest of them from them.”

He wasn’t always successful in his travels, though. “I was in Moscow, Russia, looking for postcards, and I did not buy a single one. All I could find were non-postcard photos.”

Jerry’s oldest postcards are from the World Columbian Exposition World’s Fair in Chicago in 1893, the 400th anniversary of Columbus’ arrival in the new world. “But age isn’t the only thing that determines the value of postcards,” he said. “How scarce are they? What kind of condition are they in? What’s the demand for that type of card. If only one was made in the entire world, and nobody cares, it has no value.”

Postcards were mailed, so another fascinating part of collecting old postcards was the stamps placed on the cards to send them. “I checked most of the stamps on my postcards, and found a few rare stamps.”

Another aspect is rare postmarks. “For people who collect postmarks, some were called DPO’s, or Dead Post Office. The post office existed once, but closed. The rarity comes from how little mail went through those small post offices. A big post office like Niagara Falls is not scarce. But for those other ones, I’ve sold them up to $100 or $150 because of the postmark.”

Despite selling most of his collection, Jerry still has box after box of postcards in his house and garage that need to be gone through. “Some of them I bought years ago, but still haven’t gone through.”

Jerry has always loved collecting and he believes it may be hereditary.

“I believe there is a collector gene that gets inherited,” Jerry said. “I inherited it from my dad, and my son inherited it from me, though my daughter didn’t. I could never help myself with the postcards. I’m an addict.”

Jerry is now looking ahead to his next chapter.

“People keep telling me they’re sorry that I’m closing, and I guess I am too. But it is time.”

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