Before there were emails, before there were text messages, before there were even phones, there were postcards. But postcards are so much more than a type of personal communication.
Postcards are a great many things to a great many people, but there are few people to whom they mean more than Donald Brown.
Brown, a native of Lebanon and current resident of Myerstown, has dedicated his life to the promotion and education and research of picture postcards. He even went as far as to found the Institute of American Deltiology, perhaps in no small part to house his enormous collection of postcards, which at one time was nearly one million strong.
When it comes to postcards, there are few people in the world who know or care more than Mr. Brown.
“Everything you can possibly think of, every item, every event, most likely has been depicted on a postcard,” said Brown. “The picture postcard has been documenting important aspects of our heritage for years. And it’s still around. Often they’re the only pictorial history of places and times. All the postcards produced yester-year, whether they’re places or topics, document history. That history will be practical for historians one-hundred years from now.
“All through the decades of my life, the postcard has been a unifier,” continued Brown. “It has enlightened me. I’m so glad the passion is still with me. We have a lot of fun in the postcard world.”
The origin of the postcard can be traced to Europe and the 1840’s. But over the last 170 years, they’ve evolved into something more than the simple concepts of ‘dropping someone a line’ or sharing visits to far-off destinations.
There are two basic types of postcards—printed and real photo—broken down into two categories—geographical and topics or subjects.
“The picture postcard emerged in America in 1893,” said Brown. “Partly because of their popularity in Europe. It gradually became more popular, but increased because of the World Fair in St. Louis in 1904. Then there came the great postcard craze between 1904 and 1914.”
“Many people think they’ve been replaced by technology, but they haven’t,” Brown continued. “They’re not as prevalent as they were at one time. One of my crusades is to bring them back. You can print them from the internet.”
The 89-year-old Brown has been collecting postcards for the better part of 75 years. Following a career as a librarian, Brown retired when he was 60 and founded the Institute of American Deltiology in 1993 as a ‘retirement project.’
The Institute of American Deltiology is housed at 300 West Main Avenue in Myerstown, in the structure originally the Seidel Building, but better known as ‘The Bowman Store.’
“Originally, I was motivated by a relative who was a missionary in Japan and China,” said Brown, who has authored three books on the subject. “She sent me postcards. I always had a penchant for geography. Maps were my thing.”
“As a librarian, I noticed very few libraries knew what to do with postcards,” added Brown. “Postcards were sort of a nuisance for libraries. The postcards were here, there and everywhere. They weren’t as comfortable as collections.”
The Institute of American Deltiology is home to the remaining 400,000 postcards of Brown’s collection. In 2010, Brown donated 300,000 postcards to the University of Maryland—mostly geographical ones depicting states and their counties—as a way of down-sizing.
Given his advanced years, Brown is concerned about the ultimate fate of the remainder of his collection.
“I worry about that,” said Brown of the future of postcards in general. “I’m trying to maintain some of the best of the past for the future. In a sense, my life has been one big picture postcard. I’ve sent thousands, but I’ve influenced people to see the importance of postcards. I teach history through the medium of the postcard. I’ve tried to emphasize the importance of the picture postcard. I’d like to think my institute has been a factor.”
“In the middle of my librarian career, I realized I was getting close to the 200,000 mark with my card collection,” Brown added. “The main reason I bought this building is that I had this grand idea that I should get postcards recognized. That motivated me to buy this building.”
Brown thoroughly enjoys showing, designing and discussing postcards. To set up a private tour at the Institute of American Deltiology, call 717-866-7747.
“It’s private, but it’s open to the public,” said Brown. “I’m down-sizing, so I’m not emphasizing it as much. We used to have large groups come in, but now I encourage people to come in twos or threes.”