Glimpses of History: Bungalow Postcards

By Susan Marie Bailey
From Issue 13

1Moving into my first bungalow in 1978, 1 knew I was moving “home,” into an established turn-of-the-century neighborhood with wonderfully varied architectural styles. There were large trees, alleys, bicycle lanes, a park across the street, schools and shopping within walking distance and pleasant neighbors who said hello to one another. What I didn’t know was that subconsciously I’d also found the era where I would be at home.

As the third owner of my red brick bungalow — the Bair house — built by Jay and Edith Bair in 1922, I just missed buying the house in its original condition by two years and one owner. Much was left intact, but the second owner had done a lot of 1970s ‘remuddling.’ As I set about repairing the damage and making the house my own, I found books, magazines and vintage needlework patterns were all good sources of historically accurate information.

But surprisingly, my interest in postcard collecting was one of my best sources of information, and also was my creative inspiration to find out more about bungalows, their interiors, and the people who lived in that time. Because bungalow postc ards were printed from photos, the images are inherently detailed and authentic, and when postmarked, even the exact date can be verified.

2My earliest card was mailed in 1913 from Los Angeles, according to the postmark. Occasionally I find copyright dates, or I can estimate the date from the stamp, or design, or through architectural styles and refe rences to dated events.

We do know that postcards first appeared over 100 years ago, coming to the United States from Austria, around 1873. A federal law reduced postcard postage rates in 1898, and before long several hundred million postcards had been sold. Before the widespread availability of the telephone, especially in rural areas, messages of safe arrival and family news were usually sent by postcards. The ‘fad’ peaked in 19 18, when telephones began replacing the need for written correspondence.

I first began collecting bungalow postcards simply for the pleasure of the architectural images. The bungalows on my cards, often with words like “modem, beautiful and artistic,” were grander and set on more spacious grounds than the average bung alows I’ve seen. Many are from California and Florida, or Oregon. Of course, the ideal bungalow always had a garden, and the landscaping shown on these postcards are standouts. Shrubs hug the found ations, with annuals and perennials lining the walks, spilling over arbors and porticos, or hanging in baskets from the exposed porch rafters. No doubt the publishers wanted to emphasize the fine climate needed to allow such lush, vigorous gardens.

I look at my cards now and then, and eavesdrop on the lives of these people, who lived so long ago in bungalow times. I read between the lines, imagining the people writing the postcards. A Mr. E.T.A., in Oregon, writes to Miss Schumacher in Colorado Springs, perhaps with more than climate on his mind, that he will “trade a few oranges or roses for snowballs, if you wish.” Another postcard records a message from one of the large numbers of Western immigrants. “Dearest Mama,” writes Hazel back to Indianola, Iowa. Her yearning to stay connected with her family is evident as she describes the smallest details of her everyday activities. “I made eleven glasses of little yellow tomato preserves yesterday… tell papa to write us a letter. You write soon too. Mama.”

3Advertising postcards were also widely used to sell bungalow-era products. The Independent Wall Paper Company of Chicago promises the recipient of its card “It will afford you the real pleasure to look through the new sample books…” in beautiful warm browns and tans.

On another postcard, Emahizer & Speilman of Topeka, Kansas, announce they are showing Macey Bookcases, made in Grand Rapids. “We believe they are the best bookcases made — in design, style and convenience. That’s why we sell them.”

The messages entertain, and the lovely images of interiors oiler valuable information and ideas about more than wallpaper and books helves. The postcards show color schemes, furniture styles and arrangement, carpet and textile designs, light fixtures, upholstery, houseplants, even artwork and pott ery. All of this visual information I use later, and adapt to my own home.

Postcards were even used to sell homes. One of the Sears, Roebuck & Co. postcards has a picture of the bungalow they built and furnished for the Illinois State Fair in Springfield, a strategy to advertise their mail-order homes. The front porch is especially inviting, furn ished with green wicker porch furn iture, bright floral cushions, hanging flowers, plant stands with ferns, and a sisal rug and doormat — an image that became the basis for many decisions I made about the look for the front porch of my own home.

4The living and dining area of the Sears bungalow gave me ideas about furniture arrangements, a wall stenciling pattern, and color schemes for cushions and curtains. I noticed that the round oak table shows a small circular white table linen with scalloped edges centered on the table, surrounded by white dishes and silv erware placed on the wood. I loved the look, but thought, “this is too much work.” But, what could I do’? I designed, and am now embroidering a similar linen tablecloth for my own dining room table.

As you might guess, postcard collecting is a popular and accessible activity, and for anyone interested in the era, bungalow postcards are ideal — common enough to reward with satisfying finds, but limited and vari ed enough to present an interesting challenge. If you do decide to collect your own bungalow postcards, you’ll have the satisfaction of knowing you’re doing a bit more then foll owing a hobby — you’re joining the many postcard enthusiasts who are helping ensure the preservation of another slice of history about the bungalow and Arts and Crafts movement.

Finding and Collecting Bungalow Postcards

  • Get to know some local antique store owners. Look for dealers who specialize in postcards at antique shows. Some dealers will send postcards to you on approval.
  • Small stashes of postcards will likely be a mixture of subjects. Larger collections are arranged in categories. The best to search for are: architecture, interiors, homes, real photo, advertising cards, and trade cards. Many dealers will have bargain boxes and, when time allows, you may be rewarded with a random find.
  • If there’s a regional postcard club nearby, attend monthly meetings and receive newsletters where members advertise their special collecting interests. Last year, on the recommendation of my local postcard dealer, I spent two productive and pleasant days at the Wichita Postcard Club’s annual meeting.
  • Other resources for postcards and meetings: the monthly magazine The Postcard Collector, Box 37, lola, Wisconsin 54945 and the weekly auction publication Barr’s News, 70 South Sixth St., Lansing, Iowa 52151.
  • How much should you pay? Bungalow postcard prices vary from ten cents in a mixed-subject bargain box, to $10 and up for a one-of- a-kind “real photo” card. Value is subjective and may depend on region, subject, printing and design, condition and age. Personal preference plays a role, too. Some collectors value cards in pristine condition. Others, including me, value the signs of connection with people: postmark, stamp and message. My cards ranged in cost from 25 cents to $8. You may want to consult a pricing guide, such as The Official Identification and Price Guide to Postcards by Diane AlIman (House of Collectibles; $9.95). A word of warning: as your interest and collection grows, you may find yourself spending more and more on those “special” cards you just have to have!

Susan Marie Bailey lives in a bungalow at the foot of the Rocky Mountains in Fort Collins, Colorado, where she is replacing a 1970s retrofit kitchen with a custom Arts and Crafts kitchen adapted from designs of the 1920s. An artist and photostylist, she creates images of textiles and herbs for magazines and books.

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