Photographing the Postcard Collection

Allyson photographing postcards.

Ever wonder how much work goes into digitizing a collection for view on our Collections Portal?  Here at MCNY, the digital team has been hard at work numbering, shooting, and cataloging our collection of 7,691 New York City postcards.   It took about 20 days of photography shooting 400 to 600 postcards each day.  After imaging, the files are sent to our catalogers who research information such as location, date, and publisher. The keywords they apply allow the images to be searchable in our database and online.

Our postcard collection ranges from the 1890s through the 1990s, with particular strength in the early 1900s, when a postcard craze swept the nation, as explained by the Metropolitan Postcard Club of New York City:

An accumulation of factors led to an explosion in the popularity of postcards during these years. The American middle class had grown much larger in size, and the excess money it had to spend on nonessential goods was enough to support a large industry […] Photography and printing technology had also advanced to a point that enabled high quality images to be produced in tremendous numbers and they were. Card dealers began to outnumber booksellers. Over 7 billion postcards were mailed worldwide in 1905, almost one billion in the United States alone; and this does not account for those that ended up in collections rather than the mailbox.

The images include popular tourist subjects such as aerial views of  lower Manhattan and major landmarks, but also incorporate some eccentric imagery and views outside of Manhattan,  like the three examples below.

Greetings from the Bronx, ca. 1910. Museum of the City of New York. X2011.34.1795.

Central Park Menagerie. Feeding a Snake, New York, 1905-1914. Museum of the City of New York. X2011.34.1588.

Kings County Jail, Raymond Street, ca. 1915. Museum of the City of New York. X2011.34.1823.

While most of these were purchased as traveler’s cards to be sent to family and friends back home, quite a few were actually sent within New York City  limits.  In an age before you could just send a quick text or email, postcards were a fast and informal way to get in touch with someone who did not yet own a telephone.

Capturing some of the postcards in a digital format proved challenging.  Most were the standard 3 1/2″ by 5″ but some were specialty fold out postcards. Here is an example of a particularly complicated one.  This was a folded paper postcard from the 1939 World’s Fair. When expanded and viewed through a hole in the front of the card, the viewer sees a three dimensional landscape.  Our photographers found that the best way to capture the view was to tie the postcard underneath the lens and allow it hang open while being photographed.

View captured through the lens. New York World's Fair, 1939. Museum of the City of New York. F2011.33.2119.

Front cover of the postcard - by looking through the cutout one can view the telescoping image.

Several other postcards include special fold-out sections that provide a view of the New York City skyline.

Irving Underhill (d. 1960). New York Skyline, 1900. Museum of the City of New York. X2011.34.3006.

As an added enticement to the consumer, postcard companies often hand applied tinseling or glitter to the views to enliven the image – often incongruously, as in this bedazzled depiction of Grant’s Tomb.

General U. S Grant Monument & Tomb, New York, ca. 1910. Museum of the City of New York. F2011.33.14.

Not every postcard showed exciting and interesting places such as Coney Island and the Empire State Building; here is a postcard showing the Metropolitan Life Insurance Co.’s new women’s lunch room:

Lunch room, Metropolitan Life Insurance Company, ca. 1910. Museum of the City of New York. X2011.34.325.

One of our favorite postcards is this multiple choice “busy person’s correspondence card” showing the Empire State Building.

Empire State Building at Night, New York City, 1934-1940. Museum of the City of New York. X2011.34.3492.

We are in the process of uploading the postcard collection to the Portal. Look for it online in the next week or two.

77 responses to “Photographing the Postcard Collection

  1. Wow these are really cool. great work.

  2. Sounds like a lot of hard work, but the results last practically forever … which is a great thing!

    Congrats — beautiful images…

  3. Those are so awesome! I love old timey NYC pics, the city has changed so much.

  4. Wow. That last one in particular is beautiful.

  5. This is really exciting and beautiful! Keep up the hard work!!!

  6. Postcards always make us aware of how much people from the past were like we are…I’d love to see the fold out 3D one in our days 3D – captured with two lenses so we can see the 3D effect, that obviously our ancestors were obsessed with at least as much as we are obsessed with it in or days!

  7. I’mma do same for Accra in Ghana

  8. great job!
    i enjoy it :)

  9. The postcards are beautiful, glad someone is taking the time to capture them!

  10. That sounds like an incredible amount of work, but SO worth it!

    Congrats on being Freshly Pressed! :)

  11. Wow, as some of the other bloggers have said this does seem time consuming, but they look great! I love the vintage looks. Awesome post.

  12. That’s a really neat collection! I love the “busy person correspondance”! Send more money please!

  13. Wow, I loved that. I have a book that I found in an antique store that dates back to 1900 and some amazing shots of New York. Great post!

    http://valentinedefrancis.blogspot. com

  14. Very cool! I love these kinds of things – especially anything to do with the history of NYC.

  15. I love the Empire State one! I found a sent copy of that one at an antique store in northern Wisconsin and had to snag it for a dollar! :)

  16. Cool

  17. I love old postcards and fell in love with NY -a great combination. I found a wonderful old souvenir metal NY in a funny little outback town in Australia. I often wonder how they end up sprawled all over the world. Cheers Sue

  18. nice! time consuming, but nice! i’ve actually been involved in a couple projects that involved digitizing older images and compiling them. Not fun, but the end result is so worth it. a little bit of history at your fingertips. good work and thanks for sharing!

  19. Awesome. I love everything about old postcards. The historic photographs and imagery, the stamps, the small amount of postage, and the messages written on the back.

  20. i like them so much .thanks

  21. Love the postcards that were shown here! Shows a great piece of our history! Keep up the great work!

  22. i love postcards. and these are beautiful

  23. Wow. I still love postcards… Love the pop out one and the busy person’s one!!

  24. Awesome collection, must have taken you lots of work but the result is great :)

  25. Im new here and I would like to just say hi.

  26. Good story. I have some postcard collection. I like that it has many stories.

  27. Those old postcards are so charming; you can tell they’re from a different era. Lovely.


  28. What a treasure! the postcards are fascinating! I once collected postcards and stamps, this inspire me to collect more! awesome pic and post! congrats for being Freshly Pressed!

  29. A moment in time. Thanks for the post.

  30. I have an old postcard collection of my own, Some that have been passed down in my family and had been sent when postcards were one cent to mail.I love seeing the beautiful handwriting and noticing how much more formal people were in their correspondence back then. This is a really interesting post.

  31. You know I wouldn’t mind getting a post card from time to time.

    More genuine to read something written by hand, then a text message.

    Nice Post


  32. Documenting these postcards appears to be a very time-consuming, probably at times tedious task, but well worth it! These are lovely examples of NYC’s history. The feeding-the-snake postcard at the Bronx zoo is so funny–imagine needing that many people to feed a snake!

  33. Great post!

  34. great postcards and wonderful pics,

  35. This is fantastic! Love postcards.
    And, Metropolitan Postcard Club of New York City? – How great is that, a postcard club!
    And, ya really gotta reissue the lunchroom card!

  36. Really cool collection!! :-D

  37. great job.keep it up………….

  38. I’ve always loved early 1900s postcards, some are beautifully detailed, and others are quite creepy! The World’s Fair postcard is amazing!

  39. loved the whole idea,,,!!

  40. Terribly well written writing!!!

  41. Its a treasure from the past!

  42. Great piece of work.. U really have it in you !

  43. Awesome! I’m a huge collector of postcards and love the vintage-looking ones. I’ve purchased quite a few postcards in New York City myself. :)

  44. Belíssimo trabalho. O cartão Postal tem sua magia própria. Hoje temos muitos tipos de formatos diferentes e galerias como vemos no Flickr sugerem assumir esse posto do Postcard, mas ainda a sua linguagem perdurará. Claro que assumirá um caráter cult, mas não importa, mas que pelo menso não suma.

  45. Wow, really neat. Thanks for sharing. You guys must have been exhausted from shooting that many postcards.

  46. Love the World Fair PC – it makes me realise how its so important to keep things as they are fascinating in the future.

  47. Digitising is such a wonderful thing (until you have to do the hands on work). Well worthwhile but, oh boy, I’m so glad it’s not me. I love postcards and used to collect the hand tinted photo images and street scenes. I preferred it if they’d been used. They came from a time when there was more than one postal delivery a day and there’d be whole conversations back and forth within the 24 hrs, and folk saying that they’d be popping in that afternoon and would bring a cake! Let the good times roll – any cake for Allyson and fellow workers?

  48. Alessandro Paiva

    Thanks for sharing such an amazing collection!

  49. Excellent!! I have some a few postcards published by Pomegranate of postcards in your collection. I also tend to buy new postcard books with interesting art or historical information at Amazon.

    Would you consider publishing these in a collection, say a box of 50 to 100, on various subjects, or perhaps one big sampling of the best, most interesting cards? I would certainly buy it.

  50. Super cool job. I was considering a postcard a day blog from having photographed my nanas world travels postcards!
    Thanks for the inspiration!

  51. Despite being bored in the early ’80s, I really do enjoy vintage things such as these postcards you’ve featured. Awesome!

  52. This is awesome. Love NYC and vintage postcards. so cool.

  53. This is really interesting, thank you so much for writing about this! Also, congrats on being FP :)

  54. Wow, marvelous collection! . . . The second postcard, “feeding a snake,” is intriguing!!

  55. JamieCurtisBaker

    That snake postcard is really cool.

  56. Love the busy person postcard! I need a stack!

  57. I do not understand this? whats the point? other then the history aspect i find no point

  58. So much work into a postcard. Great post.

  59. Amazing work and great postcards! Can’t wait to see more!!

  60. hey you have really a very nice collection

  61. Nice. It is another dimension of the postcard.

  62. Quite some work you did here, takes a lot of curage to continue.
    We visited New York 2 times last year (see my blog at, unfortunately there was no time to visit the MCNY. But is we ever return to NYC, we surely will.

  63. So many cards! Well, NYC has many postcard worthy scenes :) -Mark

  64. Indeed, this is an archival labor of love!

  65. Great Blog i come again to your blog …..:)
    see this

  66. Pingback: Weekend Special: Vintage charm « Reel Librarians

  67. Pingback: NY postcards | * * * * *

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