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Postcards from the Past

Sharing Berks County’s Visual Beauty through Artifacts

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"Wish you were here!"

Thanks to Niépce, Daguerre, and all those other geniuses who changed our lives forever with the development of photography, those four words — though clichéd — say much about emotion and eyes. When we travel someplace new, want to share with friends and loved ones a vision of what we’re looking at, or want to remember exactly how something appears (aware of memory’s limitations), we rely on the camera to help us out. Words alone lack the power to fully and accurately explain how, exactly, the world looks. Paintings and drawings are great, but even they depend on artistic interpretation; they stray from being flat-out representation. 

From the time when postcards came into vogue starting around the 1890s, they were a hit. Many were printed in Germany, a leader in lithographic processes. By the 1900s, you could hop a train from Philadelphia to Reading and mail back to your family a colorful picture of that bright red, gracefully Japanese-looking architectural oddity called Witman’s Pagoda, which overlooked the City of Reading, an urban hub which — with the exception of this Asian-style building — otherwise looked a whole lot like Germany, Belgium and Britain with its factories, matching brick rowhouses and multi-storied, sprawling Victorian mansions.

More than 100 years later, postcards from the past call up nostalgic recollections for older generations of Berks Countians who remember life and the way things looked before malls, big-box stores and arching highways. 

One little postcard can stimulate a long, large conversation around a family table; it can launch a truly unique dialogue between a 7-year-old and a septuagenarian. It can even foster dynamic municipal change — toward re-greening by planting trees and flowerbeds; building handicap-accessible pathways and shelters; or creating rest stops for meditating, writing or conversing with friends on downtown streets. Sometimes, an old picture can spur communities to consider a return-to-the-past development plan for a skating rink, a lily pond, or rail service. 


Comparing Views: Then and Now

Views of “how things used to be” spawn contemplation. For some folks, they jog the brain back to their own perceptions of the buildings and landscapes of their parents’ and grandparents’ lives. Comparing those to today’s actuality of the same geographical location can be a challenge, but with decent Google Earth skills, one could probably check out the current vista online. Or one could travel, DIY-Pokémon-Go-style, in the general direction of an old postcard’s image and see what has become of the site. 

According to postcard expert and contemporary Berks postcards photographer Anthony Iezzi, “There are some people that really enjoy that. There’s actually a website where they hold up the old picture and the new one.” He says, “That concept is enjoyed by many. The contrast is appealing.”

In some cases, new excavations and infrastructures can make a comparison quite tough, if not impossible. But a surprising number of impressive buildings, pastoral settings, monuments, cityscapes, historical landmarks, and bridge structures still match up fairly well with earlier photo-cards. 


Personal Sense of History

Reading City Councilwoman Donna Reed, former editor of the Historical Review of Berks County for the Berks History Center, is a fan of postcards from the past. “Like so many others,” she says, “I truly enjoy finding and acquiring old postcards of the Reading area. I love seeing what an area looked like decades or a century or more ago.”

Her private collection is typical for someone who mostly enjoys revisiting the sights that recall the past. “I have several favorites,” she says, “one a view of the Tuckerton area where I grew up, a circa 1904 'aerial' [actually rooftop view of Reading looking east before the construction of the Pagoda], many Pagoda scenes [from the 1920s to the 1960s], and a pre-1920s view of the old Rajah Theatre.”

Why postcards? Reed explains, “I think the attraction to old postcards of an area one knows well and perhaps has been raised in is this: While generations come and go, the places remain. We walk in the same steps in which our ancestors did. Old postcards give us a glimpse, an understanding, of what they saw. They create an important intergenerational commonality. I find that both fascinating and important to our understanding of place and time and where we fit in it. Old postcards and the scenes they reveal draw our eyes and our hearts into a time of history that has created the present as we know it.”


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