The tones are softer, the colors muted, but it’s all there.
Arranged on a multi-paneled carousel inside the Tacoma Historical Society’s exhibit center on Broadway, 100 turn-of-the-century postcards depict the city’s history.
The collection, on display through June, belongs to Tacoma resident John Graham, who started to gather vintage Tacoma postcards four decades ago.
“Anytime I was someplace and there was a postcard that had anything from Tacoma, I bought it,” says Graham, 71, during a visit to the exhibit center Wednesday. “I didn’t really start out to have a postcard collection. But anytime you get more than one of something, then other people start to help you. ‘Oh, here, I’ve got an old postcard.’ So sometimes you end up with people giving you postcards.”
What Graham amassed through antique store purchases, rummage sale visits, and gifts from friends is a collection that tells Tacoma’s history through a unique lens. Whereas today’s contemporary postcards are glossy and sophisticated (and, well, dull), Graham’s postcards resemble tiny, hand-painted, PEZ-colored portraits of the city’s defining landmarks: steam billows from trains arriving and departing Union Station; a convoy of streetcars roll down Pacific Avenue; the YMCA building stands regal on Market Street; and Stadium High School’s orange spires climb skyward.
It’s as though Tacoma’s signature landmarks posed for their own portraits.
“I think the postcards capture the city putting its best foot forward,” says Dale Wirsing, president of the Tacoma Historical Society. “I suspect the artists took out a distracting telephone pole or that sort of thing. So it’s a slightly idealized look at the city. In that sense, it’s more pleasant to look at than a photograph.”
The idea to present vintage postcards bloomed approximately one year ago, when Graham, a historical society member, mentioned his collection. That news piqued the interest of fellow society member Jim Hoard, who spent six months curating the collection.
If you visit the exhibit, you will find the collection grouped into themes: churches, schools, hospitals, residential estates, parks, and downtown buildings and theaters. Each postcard panel includes historical information, prepared by Hoard, about the image depicted.
Hoard notes that although the postcards appear to be hand-painted, he believes the images were originally black-and-white photographs later painstakingly colorized. “Modern cards don’t look anything like these,” explains Hoard. “All these old postcards are highly stylized. Artists would exaggerate outlines, and then they would do some coloring. When you do that, it looks like a drawing. That’s what makes the cards interesting.”
Hoard says a couple telling signs of turn-of-the-century Tacoma were revealed to him while he curated the collection.
First, the city is presented in glaze of class and style. No images of tourists in T-shirts and shorts, soaking in a rare sunny day in the Pacific Northwest. These vintage postcards are all business.
“There’s a certain elegance you associated with that period,” he explains. “When you look at those photos, everybody is wearing a coat and hat. If you look at postcards of downtown, all the men are in suits, the women are in formal dresses.”
Second, contemporary postcards depict landmarks significant today: Museum of Glass, Foss Waterway, and skyline views that include Mt. Rainier. Based on the images presented in Graham’s collection, says Hoard, architecture was the city’s jewel: Gothic churches, sprawling residential mansions, and formal school settings appear on most postcards.
“It’s been interesting for me to look at [the postcards] on display,” says collector Graham. “I get to appreciate them moreso than I ever have.” Graham, a real estate agent since 1968, once owned the Rust Mansion. He graduated from Stadium High School, University of Puget Sound, and worked at the military base at McChord a member of the Air Force.
His favorite postcard, however, is not on display.
It depicts a woman in a long dress and wide-brimmed hat playing tennis near Wright Park. When Graham lived in the Rust Mansion, he met a neighbor who bore a striking resemblance to the tennis player. “She told me she was the city’s juniors tennis champion in 1900,” he explains. “I looked at this postcard and I thought, ‘That could be the picture of her playing tennis 100 years ago.’ It was intriguing.”
Unfortunately, Graham misplaced the postcard and the woman passed away.
Still, Graham’s collection is mostly complete. He still visits antique shows, but he hasn’t found any postcards that aren’t already in his collection. “I haven’t bought any postcards for a long time,” he says. “Many of the things I see are duplicates of things I already have. My interest is just having one of each.”
Tacoma Historical Society president Wirsing is pleased to see these items on display because they show a part of the city’s history that has vanished.
“Most of these postcards are from shortly after the turn of the century, in the early-1900s,” he says. “They capture some views we don’t have anymore, some buildings we don’t have anymore, and settings and vistas that we don’t have.”
The Tacoma Historical Societys downtown Exhibit Center, located at 747 Broadway, is open Wednesday through Saturday, noon to 5 p.m. More information is available online at tacomahistory.org or by calling (253) 472-3738.
Todd Matthews is editor of the Tacoma Daily Index and recipient of an award for Outstanding Achievement in Media from the Washington State Department of Archaeology and Historic Preservation for his work covering historic preservation in Tacoma and Pierce County. He has earned four awards from the Society of Professional Journalists, including third-place honors for his feature article about the University of Washington’s Innocence Project; first-place honors for his feature article about Seattle’s bike messengers; third-place honors for his feature interview with Prison Legal News founder Paul Wright; and second-place honors for his feature article about whistle-blowers in Washington State. His work has also appeared in All About Jazz, City Arts Tacoma, Earshot Jazz, Homeland Security Today, Jazz Steps, Journal of the San Juans, Lynnwood-Mountlake Terrace Enterprise, Prison Legal News, Rain Taxi, Real Change, Seattle Business Monthly, Seattle magazine, Tablet, Washington CEO, Washington Law & Politics, and Washington Free Press. He is a graduate of the University of Washington and holds a bachelor’s degree in communications. His journalism is collected online at wahmee.com.