The House of Cards

3/17/2012 10:00 AM
By Sue Bowman Southeastern Pa. Correspondent

Myerstown, Pa., Home to Institute of American Deltiology

MYERSTOWN, Pa. — Donald Brown of Myerstown, Pa., likes to tell people that he lives in “a house of cards” — and few would disagree once they discover that seven of the 16 rooms in his home are filled with postcards of every variety, covering an estimated 7,000 topics and thousands of geographical places. His collection has grown to encompass approximately one million pieces — with another 50,000 still waiting to be filed.

Brown, who retired as coordinator of materials and materials selection at the State Library of Pennsylvania in Harrisburg 21 years ago, purchased a circa-1848, former general store at the corner of Locust Street and Main Ave., in Myerstown in 1981, with the express idea of turning it into a place to house, display and work with his extensive collection of postcards.

After amassing several hundred thousand postcards, he incorporated in 1993 as the Institute of American Deltiology and is now recognized as one of America’s foremost private collectors of postcards.

The term, “deltiology,” might be unfamiliar to most people, but it is a term specifically coined to apply to the collection and study of postcards. In 1944, the publishers of the “Post Card Gazette,” a national journal, held a contest to find a scholarly name for the collecting of postcards. The winning entry came from two Ohio State University staffers, who combined the Greek words “deltion,” meaning “a small image,” with “logos,” defined as study or science, to arrive at deltiology.

Amazingly, Brown remembers the exact day, hour and location at which he became interested in postcards. It was on Aug. 20, 1943, that 12-year-old Brown and a female cousin accompanied their mothers to 440 N. Seventh Street, Lebanon, Pa., to clean out the belongings of his deceased grandmother. Brown and his cousin found a box of postcards their grandmother had saved; they ended up laying them out on the floor and then splitting the collection in half. The time was 2:15 p.m. when Brown realized he’d been “bitten by the bug” of postcard collecting, which became his lifelong passion.

Not by accident, it was on that same date and time 67 years later, in August 2010, that Brown would sign a deed of gift to transfer his collection to the National Trust Library as a way to preserve his treasured postcards for posterity. He’s already relayed two vans filled with 120,000 postcards to the Trust’s archives, operated and maintained by the University of Maryland Libraries in College Park, Md. He expects to transition the remainder of his American postcards there over the next 10 years, at which time the National Trust For Historic Preservation’s deltiology collection will have become the second largest public collection of postcards for research in the U.S.

There is also a smaller “Donald R. Brown Collection” in the state archives of Pennsylvania. Duplicates in his American Collection remain in Myerstown, Pa. In addition, Brown owns numerous other postcards from around the world.

A member, subscriber and contributor to many of the 30-some American deltiology societies’ publications, Brown is widely acknowledged as an expert in his chosen field. He views postcards as a catalogue of both American geography and history and has often been asked to make presentations about his postcard collection. While he no longer has time to do the six or so programs per year he once did using his display boards with carefully grouped glimpses of the past, Brown still continues to welcome the occasional small group of local homeschoolers to his workroom and uses postcards to teach them about local history.

Postcards as a means of communication originated in Europe around 1870 as a speedier alternative to letters in envelopes. By 1873, they had spread to the U.S., but mostly were blank 3-by-5-inch “standard” size cards on which the address took up the entire front of the card and any written text went on the reverse side. These plain versions were known as postal cards. Picture postcards with artwork or photographs on one side and the other side split between the address and the sender’s written message eventually became popular, beginning as souvenirs of the 1893 World’s Fair in Chicago.

Postcards’ popularity had grown into a craze by 1905 when, Brown said, “Most middle-class homes considered it a necessity to have a postcard album on their marbletop table in the parlor.”

Postcards of all sorts began to proliferate, including those that were embossed and those featuring silks, satins, mother-of-pearl or metal. Some postcards even included actual locks of women’s hair, while other postcards were made of leather or birch bark.

As Eastman Kodak Co. continued to refine their photographic papers and cameras in the early 1900s, a new style of postcards gained favor — personalized versions that could be reproduced in small quantities. It then became possible to show subjects like family members, the family homestead, scenes from around town or other items of local interest. Even the smallest towns often had one or more professional photographers who, based on people’s inclinations and ability to pay, could produce postcards from their own photographs or the photos provided by customers.

Brown has many such locally produced postcards that were commissioned by customers. It is these real-photo postcards that often “fetch so much at auction,” Brown said.

Some postcards that might have cost 5 cents or less apiece when originally made, can now bring $150 or more based on subject matter and quality. Brown notes that many of the cards in his collection have been given to him or obtained through trades with other collectors.

Brown has used his postcard collection and vast knowledge of local history to write two books thus far. “Lebanon County: A Post Card History” was compiled for the Lebanon County Historical Society in 1992; some copies are still available at $15 each. In November 2010, he compiled “Die Shilgrut fun der Tulpehock: Saga of the Tulpehocken, A Post Card View” for Womelsdorf, Pa., Berks County’s Tulpehocken Settlement Historical Society. In both books, his captions provide historical background on the pictorial postcards used to illustrate the publications.

Brown’s Institute of Deltiology was sought out when Ken Burns was producing his “Jazz” series for PBS and needed a view of Chester, Pa.’s poorer quarters to illustrate the town when Ethel Waters lived there as a girl. Brown was able to provide two views with the required look.

Since 1984, Brown has supported and participated in National Postcard Week (the first full week in May each year) by designing a postcard, usually on an historical topic.

Brown’s next project is compiling and providing narratives for postcards that represent life in eastern Lebanon County’s towns and the one where he grew up — Myerstown. This latest publication is part of Arcadia Publishing’s “Post Card History Series,” titled “Myerstown and Eastern Lebanon County.”

Donald Brown can be reached at 717-866-7747 or broiad<\@>

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