JF sends me a picture postcard from the Panama Pacific International Exposition of San Francisco, circa 1915. What follows is a key to valuation of postcards in general – and a big surprise about this particular scenic card.
How does one judge the value of vintage postcards? The first value-factor is subject. Look for subjects that represent change. Here’s an example: the Alps have not changed. A small town, 1900 to today, has changed. The smaller the town, the rarer the card, because cities were best represented.
Picture postcards are more valuable that greeting postcards: those Valentines and Christmas postcards are not as sought after as view cards, especially when those view cards show modes of transport, especially cars, early 20th C. Those cards are ‘cross collectibles,’ meaning car enthusiasts will buy them, as well as post card collectors. Another cross-collectible card is one that features outlandish styles of the period, appealing to costume collectors and card collectors.
‘Cute kids’ postcards are collectible when the kid is holding any other animal OTHER than a dog or cat! Animals dressed as humans other than dogs or cats are also collectible. Another genre is the ‘comic’ postcard, which usually is non-PC and often downright insulting in some way. An example of such a card is an elderly Floridian walking is ‘pet’ alligator on a string. There’s the whole sub-genre of Black Americana cards.
Another type of comic postcards is the politically themed image: take, for example, the postcard picturing Adolf Hitler as a saint. Unbelievably, some postcard collectors look for ‘catastrophe’ postcards: an example would be a flooded small town with a dead cow on a rooftop. That card will sell for $35.
Another valuable category is early advertising cards- especially those for strange machines, like products for feminine enjoyment, if you catch my drift. When valuable cards are backed with linen or printed on leather or compressed wood, they can be more rare and valuable.
Earlier than the categories above are “real” photo postcards. These are pre- 1910, and may picture a live-- or even dead ---baby. Yes, you read right. Since infant mortality rate was high, a memorial to a deceased child was often such a card. The problem with identifying these photo postcards is that photographers put their names and studios in the square where for the stamp, and you’ll not want to peel a valuable stamp!
Early postcards (pre 1920) did not have space on the back for both addressee and message- just space for addressee.
Check the maker of cards 1910-1920; look for the Artura imprint. Collectors consider this the Golden Age of postcards. Cards with the Kodak imprint are from the 1950’s ---and not so valuable.
Now to JF’s great card: it is a World’s Fair Collectable, and a great subject. This is a rare night scene. The image is an illuminated building, a wonder, in 1915. This shows the lighting of the Fair’s Tower of Jewels. Illumination of this magnitude was unheard of; when fair visitors saw this spectacle at night they were moved to write poetry.
The feat was credited to General Electric Illuminating Laboratories, under inventor Walter D’Arcy Ryan. He was hired, because in 1907, he had illuminated Niagara Falls at night, with the installation of batteries of projectors with the power of 1,115,000,000 candles. The huge crowd gathered to witness this event gasped as the spotlights froze the great cascading cataracts.
For the San Francisco Fair of 1915, Ryan designed an approach to dazzle the night: he lined edges of buildings with incandescent light. He floodlit facades. Then he added depth with rose-colored lights inside the porticos and terraces. He lit interiors of buildings for that warm glow. But his piece d’resistance was the Tower of Jewels, dominating the Fair at 400 ft. To make his floodlights ‘pop’, he needed something to set off the white light. He contracted Austrian craftsmen to facet huge cut glass jewels, hung for maximum refraction over the 400-foot facade. The 130,000 glass jewels were delivered on 2/15/15, 3 weeks before the official start of the Fair. Workmen hung miles of these jewels, called Novagems.
The management of the Fair did not know if this scheme would work. When the combined floodlights and shadow- hued gels shown upon that Tower on opening night, the jewel-sparkle was caught in the lagoon below. Imagine that sight in 1915, when few people owned an electric lamp? JF’s card, because of rarity, subject, and condition is worth $50.
Certified appraiser for estates, inheritances and trusts.
Dr. Elizabeth Stewart's column appears every week in the Salon & Style section of the Santa Barbara News Press. Email her your questions and high-resolution photos at ElizabethAppraisals @ gmail.com
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