ST. PAUL — It’s hard to fathom the number of postcards that line the shelves of Jerry Peterson’s antique shop in North St. Paul.
Hundreds of boxes and three-ring binders — each carefully labeled — are stacked high. Even more are stashed, stacked and scattered throughout Peterson’s house in Maplewood. He estimates his collection contains more than 750,000 cards.
Looking for a card depicting the Lee Motel in Pell City, Alabama? The State Hospital in St. Joseph, Missouri? The blizzard that hit Mankato in February 1909?
Peterson, 80, has them all.
“Here’s one of the June 22, 1919, tornado in Fergus Falls,” Peterson said, flipping through a three-ring binder labeled “Minnesota” to a photo postcard of the tornado that killed 57 people.
“There were a lot of cards of that particular disaster,” he said of the state’s second-deadliest tornado. “Postcards were a way of recording what happened. It’s the same with train wrecks. There were always pictures of train wrecks taken by the local photographer if there was one.”
Peterson’s passion for postcards started 30 years ago. “I saw a group of postcards at a stamp auction that intrigued me,” he said. “I didn’t know anything about them then, so I spent too much, but I liked them, and that got me started.”
Now, after three decades of collecting and curating, Peterson has decided it’s time to stop. His postcard collection and his business, the Seventh Avenue Antique Mall, are for sale.
“It’s just time,” he said. “I’m ready. I have a buyer lined up for the building, and I need to be out by the end of the year.”
Cards for sale
He said last week that he is in talks with two postcard collectors interested in purchasing his entire collection, but he is still selling cards out of his shop for now.
There, you’ll see rows of shelves in the middle of the store and boxes and binders labeled with these topics: advertising, automobiles, aviation, fishing, horses, hunting, humor, space and astronomy, ships, railroad depots, military, mermaids, motels/hotels, women with hats, Halloween, holiday, fairies, death, suffragettes, Route 66, mining, coins, stamps, western entertainers.
The list goes on and on.
There are entire shelves dedicated to Minnesota postcards, with other binders full of cards for Wisconsin and the Dakotas and at least one or two for every other state.
“They say that if something has ever happened or existed, it’s probably on a postcard,” Peterson said.
He’s got postcards printed on wood, leather, aluminum and copper. There are stereoscopic-view cards — two versions of the same image, side by side — and five stereoscopes to view them. Cast in the right light, the images appear three-dimensional. “Because there weren’t TVs back in the day, people would have stereoscopes on their coffee tables to entertain guests when they came to visit,” Peterson said.
There also are hold-to-light postcards — cards where the moon, streetlights, windows and vehicle headlights light up when held up to a strong light. Peterson pages through a three-ring binder and pulls out a postcard depicting a holiday scene with windows, lamps and the words “Merry Christmas” that glow when held up to the light.
The card, addressed to a “Master Robert, Peckham,” was mailed in England on Dec. 22, 1908. “Best wishes for Christmas and the New Year,” the sender wrote in cursive on the back. “I hope you will have a jolly time.”
A pretty penny
Some postcards sell for $25; some sell for a quarter.
The most expensive card Peterson ever sold went for $400. The photo card of a traveling photographer, his motorcycle and his equipment was “in excellent condition,” he said. “Photo cards are kind of the hot thing right now.”
A postcard of a record shop — mailed around 1920 — sold for $50. “It had a very ornate Art Deco sign above the shop, and it had the little RCA dog sitting outside of it,” he said. “It was a picture of the shop with signs in the window and everything.”
The first government-produced picture postcard in the U.S. was issued in 1893; one side of the postcard was for a message, and the other side was for the recipient’s address.
Divided-back postcards were introduced in 1907 after the U.S. Postmaster General issued an order that allowed government-produced picture postcards to bear messages on the left half of the address side of the card. “You often can tell from the backs of cards how old they are,” Peterson said.
The changes to the backs of postcards ushered in the “Golden Age of Postcards,” which spanned from 1907 until 1914, Peterson said. “Sending postcards was really a way of life for people. Everybody sent them. It ended with World War I, when people had their minds on other things.”
Next came white-border postcards, which were popular from around 1915 to 1930; linen postcards, from around 1930 ti 1945, and then photochrom cards from 1945 on. “Different types of cards can give you clues to the year it was printed,” he said, pulling out a postcard of the Louisville, Kentucky, Memorial Auditorium. “This is called a white-border card. It’s from the ’30s era. That’s the type of card that they had then.”
Linen cards “look and feel as if they are made out of cloth, almost,” Peterson said. “They have very fine grains of thread running through them.”
Dating back more than a century
The oldest group of cards in his collection depicts the 1893 World’s Columbian Exposition, a world’s fair in Chicago to celebrate the 400th anniversary of Christopher Columbus’ arrival in America in 1492. Each card sells for about $25. “Age isn’t the sole determinant of value,” Peterson said. “Condition and scarcity are what determine the price of a postcard.”
One of the cards includes this note to Mrs. Wm. H. Cotton in Newport, Rhode Island: “Dear Mama, We are having a very nice time. … A big crowd was here. Papa well. So am I. Willy. Papa says he will start for home.”
A set of 10 cards from the Trans-Mississippi and International Exposition of 1898 is selling for $550. “These are all unused,” he said. “Very commonly, these cards are found with writing all over the front, which kind of goofs them up for a collector.”
One of Peterson’s favorite kinds of cards are those that say “GREETINGS FROM” in large letters. “I like the looks of them,” he said, pulling out a box filled with brightly colored, linen-textured postcards that trumpeted “Greetings from St. Petersburg, Florida!” “Greetings from Catalina Island!” and “Greetings from St. Paul, Minnesota!”
“I’ve got large-letter cards from almost every city and every state,” Peterson said. “Large-letter cards from Alaska are the most difficult to find, and we’re not even sure whether a large-letter linen card from Hawaii even exists.”
Peterson said his love of collecting items came from his father, Raymond, who was an avid philatelist. Peterson, who grew up on St. Paul’s East Side and graduated from Harding High School in 1958, started collecting stamps when he was 8 years old, he said.
His father’s service in the Army’s 10th Mountain Division in Italy during World War II led Peterson to specialize in collecting postcards related to the war. He plans to keep most of those.
“I probably have the largest collection in the United States of World War II postcards,” he said. “I have a lot of military humor cards. There was a lot of military humor in World War II.”
In honor of his maternal grandfather, Frank Boyer, who was a St. Paul Fire Department captain, Peterson collects firefighting- and fire-related postcards. “Whenever there was a fire in a tiny town, a photographer was out taking pictures of it,” he said. “I also collect Chicago-Milwaukee-St. Paul Railroad cards. My dad’s dad (Fred Peterson) worked for them for his entire career. I’m keeping all of those.”
Peterson is a retired emergency-room physician. His personal collection contains a large number of medically related postcards, including pictures of doctors, nurses and hospitals. He also collects postcards of mermaids for his wife, Marcy, who collects mermaid-related items and postcards of spinning wheels and waterfalls. “Most of the mermaid cards are pretty expensive, but I buy her one every once in a while,” he said. “The last one I got her was $125. Who would do that for their wife? Would your husband do that for you?”
'Labor of love'
Peterson built the foundation of his postcard collection in Shelton, Washington, where he lived for more than 30 years before moving back to St. Paul in 2000 to be near his father. “It took the equivalent of two truckloads to move all of my stock from Washington,” he said. He opened his North St. Paul store in 2001.
“I don’t do it for the money,” he said. “It’s a labor of love. I probably make about a dollar an hour for the time I put into my cards.”
Peterson’s son Alan, who splits his time between Seattle and Shelton, Washington, also is an avid collector.
“I believe that there is a collector gene that is inherited by people,” Peterson said. “I inherited it from my dad. My son inherited it from me; my daughter did not … I joke that Alan is looking forward to my demise so he can move the collection out there.
“It’s been an adventure,” he said. “I’m having trouble getting out of my postcard-dealer mentality. I was at a postcard show just a couple of weeks ago, and I had to really temper my urge to buy more for my stock. I can’t help myself. I’m an addict.”