Visual History Through Postcards

Review of Collection of California postcards (Collection 1351). UCLA Library Special Collections, Charles E. Young Research Library, UCLA.

There are few printed ephemera as ubiquitous as the postcard in twentieth century America. Over the past several weeks, I spent time conducting archival research with the collection of California postcards at UCLA Library Special Collections. It consists of twenty-two oversize boxes, each containing an estimated two hundred postcards of various locations throughout California. The collection includes items that date back to 1890 and continues to grow today.

The material is organized by location and occasionally subject matter, which can be confusing to navigate. The finding aid container list includes close to two hundred categories in alphabetical order. These categories are mostly of specific locations, but some are more general, such as Beach scenes. Many of the location-based categories feel redundant. For example, there are different folders labeled Southern California, Los Angeles, Westwood, Santa Monica, and Ocean Park (Santa Monica). Since the container list is not organized in a nested structure, researchers must take note of and request all the possible folders that might contain a specific item. The postcards are also not organized by date. The same folder might contain both items from the early 1900s and from 2004. This makes it difficult for researchers who might find a specific time period more relevant to their topic. Some postcards have been used and mailed, with writing on the back. Therefore, postcards that might have belonged to a single owner are separated into different areas.

The collection is accessible in the sense that anyone can technically request and look at it at Special Collections during their open hours. However, the requesting and viewing process is highly regulated. Researchers are allowed to request five boxes of material a day. In the reading room, one folder from a box is allowed for viewing at a time, which is troublesome as this collection has many folders containing less than three postcards.

The Special Collections system can be difficult to navigate, but I still feel that the archival research process has been interesting and rewarding. My favorite finds in the collection are visually striking in one way or another. I enjoyed the folder of postcards about the San Gabriel Mission Play, an 1912 outdoor pageant that depicted California mission history. These included meticulous illustrations from each act of the play that I think will be useful for our research. I was also surprised by the number of postcards that portrayed Los Angeles as a lush, green city characterized by its parks, which is a contrast to today’s dry landscape. There are dozens of postcards depicting Westlake Park (now MacArthur Park), Hollenbeck Park, and others.

The collection of California postcards tells a rich history of the state, albeit through a romanticized, sentimentalized lens. The postcard itself is a biased artifact, mostly intended for tourists for the purpose of commemoration. A single image encapsulates a trip, an experience, a place. What subjects are deserving of remembrance? Who decides what images represent a given site? The postcard is a reflection of the dominant view on how a physical place should be snapshotted in time. This collection of California postcards allows us to learn about ways in which California was popularly visually communicated over the past one hundred years.