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Underground History

By Molly Parris

Tom Phillips, author of A Postcard Century stated that “postcards provide the world’s most complete visual inventory.”  I’ve never been a postcard poster (sender), nor have I received enough to count, but my interest and imagination has recently been sparked by the idea of postcards as a source of ‘underground’ history.  Postcards are an everyday object, found in gift shops, convenience/general stores, junk drawers, and old shoeboxes.  Some are valuable collectibles, others sentimental pieces of a personal postcard relationship.  All, however, fulfill the most basic requirements of historical record (time period, subject, and context).

At the intersection of these little cards, everyday items that document everyday human experiences and the requirements of historical record, lies a curious dichotomy of indefinite record.  Postcards document the lives and lifestyles of a given time from the viewport of the people living in that time.  They connect you to a specific moment of the past, as opposed to conventional history that typically includes broad accounts of history written by specific characters such as an ancient scribe, civil war soldier, or modern scholar.

Architectural history is largely focused on major design movements, influential architects and planners, settlement patterns, and politics that have shaped our structures.  Representative samplings of architectural works tell the story of what was going on at the time of their construction in bullet point terms: politics, culture, finances, religion, etc.  We can find insight into the experiences of those living within this list of parameters by examining the nature of structure.  These experiences can also be detected in a most subtle way by postcards.  Typically a specific building or scene is printed on the front, and a personal account of that location’s context, or the context of the conversation, written on the back.  Architecture may be the subject, or it may simply partner conceptually with the author just as it does in real time.  Building users may rarely speak about the building they are occupying, but the content of their words and behavior often contain rich embedded historical information.  Because postcards have only been in use for about one hundred years, it is a young history they are telling.  Those who send postcards today are in contributing to this underground history without even realizing it!

When designers and community leaders seek to revitalize neighborhoods that may have suffered from undesirable development, poor policy making, or economic change, postcards may be an unlikely source of sociological information.  Perhaps for exterior restoration projects, a technical approach to discovering the history of a building or neighborhood can be supplemented with a sensitivity from the stories that may prove to be inseparable from the building itself.  As the building is restored, the stories are restored, and in turn the community is restored.