Postcards were the email, Facebook and Instagram of the early 1900s

Collector Ken Wilson seeks historical messages in antique cards.


Ken Wilson takes a startling view of the way people used postcards 100 years ago.

“Postcards were the email of the day,” says Wilson, who collects historical cards. “Also the Facebook and Instagram of that era. People sent a picture with a note. It was quick and easy.”

Between 1900 and 1908, according to Wilson, Americans sent 700 million postcards a year at a time when the country’s population was roughly 89 million.

Not only that, many people sent singular or limited edition photographic cards instead of mass-printed images.

“Only in the past 20 to 30 years have scholars discovered that some of these ‘real photo’ cards are one of a kind,” Wilson says. “Postcard use and collecting from 1900 to World War I was all a craze. A fad. And very efficient.”

On Sept. 30 and Oct. 1, Central Texans can view — as well as buy, sell or trade — selected artifacts during the Austin Postcard and Paper Show at the Frank Fickett Scout Conference and Event Center, 12500 N. Interstate 35.

The oldest antique postcards date back more than 150 years. Later, more evolved cards can tell the modern viewer a lot of about the art, design, photography, history, geography and sociology of the day.

Wilson warns, however, that the notes written on the cards are about as reliable — and as unedited — as today’s digital messages.

“We can’t take what people wrote on these things as sacred,” he says. “It’s just like the Internet. We are working with history that is first-person — and of that time. It varies in accuracy and political correctness.”

Born with the bug

Wilson, 72, a retired jewelry maker, was born in Brownsville. His family moved 11 times, mostly in Houston and Sweeny, when he was growing up. He father flew jets for Pan Am, and his mother — a real “Rosie the Riveter” machinist during World War II — became a homemaker.

He grew up collecting souvenirs from travels, pennants, comic books, rocks and a few sculptural things, such as wood carvings.

“I think collecting, it’s a disease you are born with,” Wilson says with a laugh. “My two children do not collect. Someday, the kids are going to put the cards out on the lawn for a garage sale.”

His wife, Debbie Wilson, a printmaker who shares a packed but tidy studio on Raeford Creek near Dripping Springs, collects postcards, too — many from the suffrage movement — as well as other paper stuff. The couple met because they were drawn to photographic postcards of early rodeo cowgirls.

Long before his excursions into “deltiology” — the study and collecting of postcards — Ken Wilson earned an undergraduate business degree in 1967 and an MBA in 1968, both from the University of Texas. Later, he collected club posters during the Armadillo World Headquarters days.

He was hitting the antique stores and junk joints pretty hard when he discovered the historical allure of postcards.

“When I was doing jewelry — and I had a workshop in Buda — I sold postcards,” Wilson says. “Then I began seeing cards I didn’t want to resell. I wanted to keep them.”

After years of collecting, he treasures between 7,000 to 10,000 cards, filed under different subjects — such as topics or views — in wooden drawers that measure 4 inches by 6 inches. Old standard library card catalogues — which look very similar — are usually 3 inches by 5 inches.

How does Wilson know how to date his finds?

“The dating of ‘real photo’ cards is done by the type of postcard back or details in the photo, if not stamped, postmarked and sent,” he says. “Other clues are used for ‘printed’ cards.”

Most of his show stock is priced between $3 and $20. Wilson recently sold 20 boxes of cards to an eBay dealer.

“I kept some of the best,” he says. “I’ve still got four boxes of show stock. And then my own collection.”

A focus on Texas

Last spring, Wilson attended a lecture on the subject of postcards and their production by Jeffrey Meikle, who teaches American studies at UT. There, he met Stephen Siwinski from the Texas State Library and Archives Commission, who, after hearing of his expertise, asked Wilson to speak on July 9 at the Zavala Building, where the small state exhibition “Wish You Were Here” closes Sept. 20.

While preparing for his talk, titled “In Their Own Words, Texas Real Photo Postcards and Their Messages,” Wilson carefully spreads out some of his own collection on his studio surface.

“Each postcard, each message, each postmark, tells you a little social history,” he says. “You can use the Internet, and especially Ancestry.com, to help track down who these people were.”

On display that day were tourist destinations (the Breakers Bathhouse in Galveston), transient amusements (a carnival in Schulenberg) and industrial monuments (a rotary drilling rig mailed from Petrolia near Wichita Falls).

People sent postcards about gruesome disasters, such as floods in ravaged San Antonio or mass graves after the 1919 hurricane in Corpus Christi. From Austin, there were the famous twin tornadoes of 1922 and the Colorado River flood up Congress Avenue in 1935.

“The X marks the spot where our two-story Kash-Karry was located,” reads one message about the flood. “Note where the water is on the Gulf filling station.”

It also should be mentioned that postcards of the horrific 1916 lynching of Jesse Washington in Waco were printed and sold.

The upcoming show at the Scout Center is run by the 150-member Capital of Texas Postcard Club. Who buys, sells or trades them?

“I collect them because of the history involved,” Wilson says. “Some just like the art or the subjects. Some scholars collect them to illustrate their books.”

One thing helped end the frantic postcard craze of the early 20th century: World War I.

“Many of the cards had been printed in Germany,” Wilson says. “After the war ended, the collecting hobby as people’s focus changed. Everything changed.”

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