Documenting the American South


Going to the Show

Picture Postcards

Going to the Show includes several hundred picture postcards drawn from the more than 8000 postcards held by the North Carolina Collection. Some postcards show the facades of movie theaters. Others represent streets on which movie theaters were known to have been in operation — whether or not the theater facade is visible in the postcard image.

The "golden age" of the picture postcard in the U.S. roughly parallels the era of early movie theaters and the establishment of moviegoing as a feature of urban leisure in North Carolina. Around 1900, photographs were first printed on one side of a card, with the other reserved for a mailing address. In 1907, U.S. postal authorities began accepting so-called "divided back" cards, which allowed for an address on one half of the back of the postcard and a message to the addressee on the other half. There was an explosion of interest in postcards and in postcard collecting as a hobby. Some 600 million postcards were mailed in the U.S. in 1907 and 1908 alone. Many postcard printers were located in Germany, long a printing center. Importation of postcards printed in Germany to the U.S. ceased during World War I, and the German postcard industry never recovered. Postcards continued to be produced and circulated by the millions in the U.S. after the war.

Downtown streetscapes were popular subjects for picture postcards, and a number of national companies specialized in producing "Main Street" cards. Company representatives would arrange sponsorship for postcard publication from local merchants, news agents, and organizations such as the Chamber of Commerce. Photographs of downtown buildings and streetscapes would be taken and shipped to the company headquarters to be "improved," colored, and printed, with the finished cards delivered back to the local community to be sold for a few cents in drug stores, news agents, dime stores, and other businesses.

Picture postcards are important visual records of urban landscapes in the first decades of the twentieth century, but in many if not most cases, they are reflections of the way local merchants and civic leaders wanted their downtowns to look rather than documentation of actual conditions. One of the most important jobs of the postcard producer was to create idealized visions of downtown life and to accentuate the retail shopping appeal of a given downtown. Telephone poles, power lines, automobiles, pedestrians, overhanging signs, and other visual distractions were frequently removed from the postcard's representation of downtown. Unpaved, potholed, and uncurbed streets were instantly improved. Buildings could be rendered in whatever colors the sponsors wished and set against perfect blue skies or dramatic sunsets. See Alison Isenberg, Downtown America, Chapter Two: "Fixing an Image of Commercial Dignity, Postcards and the Business of Planning Main Street" (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2004).