Postcards become instant artifacts

By Regina Villiers.  Originally published October 17, 2001 in The Suburban Life, added October 16, 2017.

Nelson Hoffmann talks about postcards “instant artifacts.”


Nelson Hoffmann has been a mainstay of the Madeira Historical Society for what seems like forever.

You can always count on Nelson to be there or to help out, and one of the ways he occasionally helps is to provide a program.  Nelson is an expert on many things historical, and one of them is picture postcards.  In his lifetime, he has collected thousands of them.

Recently, Nelson did a program for the historical society, using a part of his postcard collection.  He called the program, “Cincinnati History Through Postcards,” using what he called personal favorites.

Starting in the early 1800s, he covered all areas and all subjects in Cincinnati history.  There were pictures of the early hotels, schools and al buildings of early Cincinnati.

His cards depicted natural disasters-fires, tornadoes and transportation wrecks.

He showed a 1903 automobile and the 1912 Auto Show at Music Hall.

He went into history of gypsies in Cincinnati and showed scenes of Shantytown and river “gypsies.”

He explained the German influence in Cincinnati by showing cards.  Ink for Cincinnati postcards, up until World War I, came from Germany, he said.  German ink was superior.  He showed the before and after difference.

Nelson gave an almost complete history of Cincinnati by using his postcards.  “Postcards are instant artifacts,” he said.

Now, I have never collected postcards as a hobby, but I also have a large collection, which just collected itself over a lifetime.  I am a letter-writer.  People who write letters receive letters back.  I’ve received good mail, and some of it has been postcards.  I could never bear to throw one away, so I’d toss them in a special drawer where they quietly piled up.

Just before Nelson’s postcard program, I had dug into my postcard drawer.  When Cal Collins, the great jazz guitarist, died recently, I remembered postcards he sent me back in the 1970’s, when he was on tour in Europe with Benny Goodman’s band.  I decided to look for them, just to remember my old friend, Cal.

My postcards are a total jumble.  They aren’t even sorted or banded together.  I started digging, looking for Cal’s cards.  I spent the entire evening reliving my life.  I even found cards going back to high school and a card one of my college teachers sent me from Argentina over spring break.

There are many old, old cards that people have sent and just passed on to me, many from Brownie and Helen Morgan.  Helen used to tuck a couple of cards into letters they’d send me.

I also have some old cards with advertisements that appear to be very old, on heavy stock with movable parts.  I found these in the attic of an old house we bought in our early-married years.

But many of the cards from friends and people I’ve known, people whose paths have crossed mine.  Some of them are now passed on.

My card drawer is also a “Who’s Who” file, and I could name-drop for hours.  But I won’t.  I’ve crossed paths with some memorable people, one of my life’s blessings.  There are lots of cards from celebrities-radio, TV, writers and authors.  Writers nearly always write you back.

There art some well-known names in my drawer.  One that I will mention is a note from actress Carol Channing.  It has her picture on the back.  There are several cards from syndicated columnist and author Dave Barry, who really writes back.  He responds personally with his inimitable humor.

As I sorted through the cards, stacks from the same person started to build.  One stack came from Kenny Kemp, my old friend and neighbor who rode his two-wheeled bike all over the world after he retired, more than 50,000 miles.  He sent me cards galore.  Kenny had a wicked sense of humor and filled the backs of his cards with funny stuff.  I laughed out loud as I read them over again.  It was like a visit with him.

My friend, sportswriter Mark Purdy, always sent me cards from the Olympic games he covered, going back for years, since first we met.  I also found a card from him on a rare vacation he took, postmarked Littleriver, California.  When he got away, he got away…from everything.

Many of my cards are from family members, both ancient and recent.  My son, Kelly, ever the writer, has always sent cards.  He sent many from summer hockey camps when he was a kid.  One says:  “I just bought a very funny crossword puzzle book.  Last night, I rode a bus, then a subway, down to Lake Ontario.  I feel very fine, but I’ll still want to see you.”

Nelson Hoffmann’s postcards are a history of Cincinnati.  My postcards are a history of my life.

And yes, I did find the cards from Cal Collins.  One from Stockholm in 1976 describes the “great” Scandinavian people and mentions the “excellent reviews we’re getting.”  It’s a memory of a truly great musician, who briefly touched my life.