Postcards speak volumes about San Gabriel Valley’s past

Every year, Pasadena’s Convention Center fills with thousands of eager hobbyists for the Postcard & Paper Show

Written by Stacey Camp, who is working on her Master’s Dissertation at Stanford University

This popular event brings collectors of Pasadena’s past together for a busy weekend of selling, buying and trading.

Today’s postcard enthusiasts collect for many reasons. However, few collectors consider what’s actually written on the back of the cards.

In fact, this writing often devalues and lessens the card’s value. As with baseball cards, top-shelf collections contain only the best cards: those which are unmarked and completely intact.You might ask why anyone should take the writing on postcards seriously. But postcards are special precisely because they have a front and backside. The front bears a photograph of a tourist site or particular image of interest, while the backside sometimes features correspondence.

From its inception, people from all classes used the postcard. It revolutionized the postal service, offering an affordable means of correspondence. Postcards were yesterday’s equivalent of one of today’s primary forms of communication: e-mail.

But the postcard has been ignored by historians in favor of diaries, novels, and other texts from America’s past, most composed by elite members of society. By privileging these forms of communication, scholars have ignored the voice of the everyday Americans.

Last year, I began an exploration of postcards. I chose to look at a local historian’s collection of a thousand postcards from Altadena’s Mount Lowe. (This collection is archived with the Mount Lowe Preservation Society and curated by Michael Patris, Mount Lowe Preservation Soceity Founder and President).

Is it possible, I wondered, to obtain visitor responses and reactions to an early tourist site just by reading what people wrote on postcards? Like a market researcher for Disneyland, I wanted to know how the average tourist experienced and reacted to Mount Lowe.

Mount Lowe’s railway and resort opened in 1893, funded by the inventor and Civil War hero Thaddeus Lowe. The railway was one of the most spectacular constructions of late nineteenth century America, with a steep incline that climbed 6,000 feet to the top of Mount Lowe. As the railway trekked up the mountain, visitors gazed down upon the urbanizing San Gabriel Valley.

At the top of the mountain, visitors lodged at the Echo Mountain House Hotel, Alpine Tavern, or the Chalet, enjoyed numerous donkey rides and hiking trails in the San Gabriel Mountain’s, ascended up to Mount Lowe’s Observatory to see the stars, or even observed bears, cougars, and foxes in Lowe’s small zoo.

Almost every postcard from Mt. Lowe features a specific step of the railway car’s progression to the top of the mountain. Every brochure from Mt. Lowe also featured an image of the famous incline, and almost all of the postcards that contained correspondence were of the “incline” or “circular bridge.” The circular bridge was particularly dangerous for the railcar to navigate, with a 180-degree curve that nearly hung in thin air.

After thumbing through hundreds of postcards from Mount Lowe, I was surprised to see that only a few featured writing. Of the ones that did, nearly all featured a photograph of the incline or circular bridge. Why did tourists choose to write on postcards with these two images? What did these images signify to them?

Today we are still amazed by the opening of a new roller coaster ride that boasts excessive speeds and death-defying heights. Railway rides were the roller coasters of the 1890s. They shocked and exhilarated an America unfamiliar with industrialization’s new-fangled technologies.

On the postcards, visitors consistently describe their height (we’re at 5000 feet above sea level), as well as the fact that they weren’t scared. At the same time, some postcards in this collection challenge the notion of Mount Lowe as just a fun theme park. Several postcards bear writing that has nothing to do with Mount Lowe, and there are several that lack writing altogether.

Does the lack of writing on a mailed postcard, or the fact that the author ignored the photograph on the other side, mean that the visitor did not enjoy his or her experience?

Like most research projects, my investigation has produced more questions than answers. But these questions illustrate the fact that postcards are important objects of research that harbor the voices of America’s past.

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