Postcards from History

Loyola University, Los Angeles, California, c. 1968 (before merging with Marymount College to become Loyola Marymount University in 1973)

What can postcards tell us about the past — both about what they represent and about changing methods communication over the last 100 years? Students at Loyola Marymount University in Los Angeles, California (pictured above c. 1968) are lucky to have access to an extraordinary postcard collection, including the Werner von Boltenstern Collection, now containing over 1 millions postcards covering nearly all of postcards’ 150-year history — one of the largest publicly-accessible collections in the United States.

Students in Prof. Amy Woodson-Boulton’s Spring 2021 (online) course History 3910: Museums & Society selected, researched, and arranged these postcards and stereographs in the pages linked below. As you look at these evocative glimpses into the past, we encourage you to think about how postcards and other, older forms of visual culture like stereographs can help us think about how we use texts and images in our omnipresent (social) media forms today.

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Click on each link to find more examples from the LMU Postcard Collections.

Yosemite National Park

Postcards from early Yosemite advertise the excitement and beauty that drew so many tourists to the valley at the beginning of the 20th century. The Yosemite postcard collection reveals the ways that our interactions and use of our natural parks have changed, and how some ways of viewing nature have remained static. In them, we see men and women at leisure, escaping the hustle and bustle in California’s exploding cities to the quiet of Sequoia forests.


What stereotypes are you consuming through postcards? The ethnographic postcard collection illustrates the impact that larger systems of power (like imperialism and colonialism) have on new media. The postcards still function as advertisements and make foreign lands accessible to Westerners, but do so in a way that reduces cultures down to stereotypes and exploits them for the sake of justifying imperialism.

Courtship & Gender Roles

Courtship postcards can help teach us about shifting gender roles in the U.S. at the turn of the twentieth century. When postcards were first becoming widely distributed, they were incredibly taboo and received much pushback due to their public nature. One of the most controversial types of postcards were courtship postcards, which took the private process of pursuing a spouse and made it available to all eyes. This new form of media would expose the shifting views of what should be public and what should be private, and would connect to the changing gender roles of the time.

Patent Medicine

See what medical advertisements were like before the Food and Drug Administration and radio or television commercials. The Patent Medicine postcards were used as forms of early advertisement before Food and Drug Administration regulations were established. The ingredients were not listed on these advertisements, misleading customers about the quality/content of the product. Strategically put together, many of these postcards focus on the desirable end results and “must-have!” quality of the product.

Courtship & Memes

Courtship postcards from the 1900s demonstrate the similarities and differences in communication over the past century. The combination of an eye-catching image and a comedic caption on these early 20th century postcards may look familiar; modern internet memes share the same format, and the two mediums are more alike than they may seem. Many courtship postcards were flirtatious, jarring and even scandalous, but were often sent between friends and family as a form of lighthearted humor— the same way we communicate with memes today.

The 1906 San Francisco Earthquake

The biggest natural disaster in US history — worth over $390 billion — captured in postcards. During the early 1900s, postcards were used as an alternative form of journalism and documentation of events. In catastrophic events such as the 1906 earthquake, publishers of postcards were able to print and distribute news faster than regular newspapers. Oftentimes, postcards of major events were printed and sold on the same day. These postcards also give us a different view of the San Francisco earthquake and fire.


The science, history, and implications of stereographs. Introduced twenty years before postcards, stereographs were a popular rival form of visual culture that the emerging middle class collected in large numbers. Through visual framing and their collection as status symbols, stereographs illuminate systems of power and the Victorian bourgeois attempt to travel, collect, and categorize the world through the lens of a stereoscope. Warning: contains flashing images.