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Hubbard historian collects postcards

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During the Golden Age of Postcards – between 1905 and 1915 – millions of postcards were printed, imported, sold and mailed.

     Official U.S. Postal Office figures reveal that 700 million postcards were mailed in the country in 1908.

     “It’s history. Postcards were the emails of a 100 years ago,” says Russell Brown, a former postal carrier and avid postcard collector. “For a penny, they could send a postcard and it arrived quickly.”

     The 67-year-old has amassed hundreds of vintage postcards from every state in the nation.

     “I have a very extensive collection that’ll be passed on to my grandchildren,” he said.

     Each of his 10 grandkids – 9 grandsons and 1 granddaughter – will receive an album containing a postcard from each year in the 20th century. That’s 101 postcards, bearing postmarks from 1900 to 2001.

     Most of the albums are now about 97 percent complete.

     Brown’s project began in 2002, when he decided he wanted to leave behind something that would “reflect a big part of my life.”

     He worked with the U.S. Postal Service from 1969 to 1985. He started in his hometown Sylvania, Ohio, where his father was a rural carrier. Brown eventually transferred to Willmar, Minn.

     “I delivered postcards from all over the world and the U.S.,” he said.

     In 1985, he and wife Kathy bought White Pines Resort, nestled on Two Inlets Lake.

     “My postal history stayed with me all those years,” he said.

     The collecting and study of postcards is called deltiology (pronounced dell-tee-awl-oh-gee). It derives from the Greek word “deltion,” which means diminutive writing tablet or small letter.

     Brown has been a stamp collector since childhood. He turned his attention to postcards 14 years ago.


     Initially, Brown gathered only 20th century “covers,” or envelopes bearing a postage stamp and postmark.

     The first cover he ever bought, dated 1901, was from the War Department.  The enclosed letter denies a Civil War soldier a military pension because he volunteered for the Union Army rather than being drafted.

     “So now when you think of that, this piece of paper is 115 years old. I paid four or five bucks for it in 2002,” Brown said. “I thought that was a very unique piece.”

     As president of the Hubbard County Historical Society, Brown naturally looks for postcards with a historic nature.

     For instance, he found a cover with one of six commemorative stamps issued for the 1901 Pan-American Exposition, held in Buffalo, New York. The envelope is postmarked out of Buffalo. It’s where, on Sept. 6, 1901, President William McKinley was assassinated.

     “The stamp is common, but the postmark is significant,” Brown said.

     He collected another cover with a 3-cent, U.S. postage stamp celebrating the Victory of the Allies in World War I. The violet stamp was printed in 1919.

     When President Warren Harding died suddenly in 1924, the U.S. quickly issued a memorial stamp, called a Black Harding. Using all black ink, the 2-cent stamp was based on an etching of the late president. It was the first “mourning stamp” for a sitting U.S. president since the 15-cent Lincolns of 1866.

     Brown owns a 1960s cover with se-tenant stamps, French for “connected.” Two stamps connect to make a whole image. In this case, they depict Ed White, the first American astronaut to conduct a spacewalk. The 5-cent stamps were released after White perished in the Apollo 1 fire.

     Brown acquires postcards from antique malls, eBay and postcard shows.

     “When I see something interesting and inexpensive, I buy it,” he said.

     In fact, he’s running out of shelf space. To fund his hobby, he also sells postcards.

The postcard craze

     In the early 20th century, written messages were restricted to the front of the postcard. The entire backside was dedicated to the address.

     When postal regulations divided the back, providing space for both correspondence and the address, the Golden Age of Postcards arose.

     Cards were sent to deliver news of births, deaths, shopping purchases, church activities and other day-to-day occasions.

     Back then, mail was efficiently delivered by railway. Brown has seen postcards from the early 1900s postmarked for same-day delivery. For example, someone might announce they were visiting that very night, and the postcard would arrive ahead of them.

     “It wasn’t the centralized processing system it is today. If I want to send a postcard to you in Park Rapids, it has to go through Minneapolis,” said Brown.

     Picture postcards provide a portrait of American life. Yet, most were printed in Germany, where lithographic techniques and workmanship were superior to the U.S.

     Around 1913, “when war clouds were building in Europe,” printing shifted to the U.S., Brown said. Quality diminished, and the public lost interest in postcards.

     During World War II, a new American printing process allowed postcards to have a high rag content.  These are called linen postcards.

     Today’s postcards are slightly larger (4-by-6-inch) than the old standard size (3.5-by-5-inch). Brown only collects standards, which is why he’s finding it so difficult to find postcards from the late 1990s.

     “You really have to scrounge,” he said.

     What impulse drives him to collect postcards?

     “Nostalgia of the old days, probably,” says Brown. “It’s just a fun thing to do. It keeps my mind busy.”

     “I think it’s his love of history,” Kathy says.

     Most postcards sell for about $5.

     The majority of Brown’s sales are domestic, but he’s had buyers from Australia, Croatia, Russia, Belgium, France, Germany, Poland, Argentina, Great Britain, Canada and others.

     His best-selling postcard was “a real sleeper.” It depicted a life-saving station –precursor to the U.S. Coast Guard – in Ocean City, Maryland. Postmarked 1915, it sold for $128 on eBay.

     Once, he sold a postcard of a little town in northern California. The buyer emailed to say, “Imagine to my surprise, when I turned it over and it was sent by my great-aunt,” recalled Brown.

     A Milwaukee man purchased a 1911 postcard, then was shocked to find it had his home address on the back. Someone had mailed the postcard to his same address 102 years earlier.

     “How would you ever figure the odds?” Brown said. “That’s like winning the lottery.”

     He dislikes the self-adhesive, Forever stamps.

     “There’s no quality in the printing,” he explains. “They remind me of stickers kids get at church.”

     When mailing postcards to buyers, he uses old postage stamps that add up to 49 cents.

     Brown laments that youth are more drawn to video games than stamp- or postcard-collecting.

     He’ll present “Minnesota History in Postcards” Monday, Oct. 24. The Hubbard County Historical Society program is open to the public and free. It’ll be held at the Northwood Bank community room.

     The presentation is brand-new, Brown said, displaying postcards from the Arrowhead to southwestern Minnesota.