Postcard Collection at the Presidio Research Center

by Chris S. Ervin CA

Winter 2017 cover of La Campana.


In recent years, two covers of the Santa Barbara Trust for Historic Preservation’s (SBTHP) membership publication, La Campana, have exhibited beautiful postcard images from Santa Barbara’s past.[1] These mass-produced scenes of gorgeous settings with exaggerated colors represent Santa Barbara’s longtime appeal to visitors. Tourists and locals purchased these inexpensive images of local Santa Barbara sights they may or may not have visited, wrote short messages of news or inquiry on the back, addressed them to loved ones, stuck on a stamp, and put them in a mailbox. Or, they didn’t write on the postcard or send it at all, but instead collected the attractive pictures as personal mementos of their visit to the American Riviera.

Years later, after postcard recipients and collectors aged and passed away, their children were left with the task of figuring out what to do with these souvenirs of their parents’ lives. Some were given away, some ended up in antique stores, some in the trash. Some of them were donated to local cultural heritage institutions. This last possibility is likely how many old-time postcards ended up in the possession of SBTHP. Slowly over time, card by card, the Presidio Research Center (PRC) has built up a modest collection of 300 postcards, mostly from undocumented sources.

“El Cuartel,” Oldest house in Santa Barbara, California.


For the new Archivist, the PRC’s collection of unprocessed postcards presented an opportunity to improve access. About the same time I came on board as a “lone arranger,”[2] Ambi Harsha, a member of our Asian American History Committee, volunteered to help out in the PRC. As a longtime Santa Barbara resident and former UCSB Lecturer, Ambi was well-equipped to arrange our assortment of postcards.

Postcards are typically organized by location or by topic. We decided that location made the most sense for our collection, so we imagined El Presidio de Santa Bárbara, the birthplace of our city, as the center of the universe and then worked our way out geographically from there. To execute this approach, the postcards have been arranged starting with the Presidio Neighborhood, then expanding to capture the architecture and sights of the city of Santa Barbara, and subsequently the California Missions and locations outside of our state.

Hall of Records and Court House Santa Barbara, California.


“Historic postcards constitute a rich visual resource. Buildings and landmarks long-gone can be viewed again. Postcards can be a treasure trove of information.”[3] This significant characteristic of older postcards—the history they contain—is especially true for Santa Barbara. The 1925 earthquake destroyed the historic center of the city, causing an estimated $111 million in damage in today’s dollars. In the business district, an area of about 36 blocks, only a few structures were not substantially damaged, and many had to be completely demolished and rebuilt.[4] This included the Greek Revival county courthouse built in the Victorian era of the 1870s and seen in the above postcard. Its destruction made way for today’s beautiful Spanish Colonial-style courthouse completed in 1929.

The de la Guerra Residence, Santa Barbara, California.


In the early days of postcard design, the postal service required messages to be squeezed in along with the photo or artwork. Only the address was allowed on the stamped side of the card. This postcard of Casa de la Guerra from the PRC collection is a good example of such a card. The white section on the right side and just under the label was the area set aside for writing personal messages. The downside of this requirement was that there was less room for the image to be printed. Starting March 1, 1907, Federal legislation permitted senders to include a message on a portion of the back of a postcard. This was the start of the “divided back” on postcards.[5]

Old Mission, Santa Barbara, Earth Quake.


Another interesting phase of postcard evolution was the real photo postcard. Beginning in 1902, Kodak offered a preprinted card back that enabled postcards to be made directly from negatives. This technology allowed photographers to travel from town to town and easily document life in the places they visited. These postcards documented buildings, important events, parades, fires, and floods.[6] The PRC postcard collection contains many of the well-known real photo disaster postcards from the 1925 earthquake. Here is an example showing the damage inflicted by the quake on the Santa Barbara Mission. Captions were usually written onto the negative in black ink and became part of the image. Because the words had to be placed on the emulsion side of the film, the person writing the caption had to write the letters from right to left and backwards so they would read correctly when printed.

Because the Presidio Research Center postcard collection is small in comparison to most, gaps in the set are obvious. For example, other than pictures of El Cuartel and Casa de la Guerra, there are very few of our city’s adobes. Perhaps the most glaring hole in the PRC collection is the lack of images of Santa Barbara’s Chinatown and Japan town. Cards illustrating the daily life and people of Chinatowns in North American cities are not uncommon in other collections.[7] With the SBTHP’s focus on interpreting the Presidio neighborhood’s evolution, images of its Asian past would be a priority for future postcard acquisitions, if any such postcards exist.

The Guide to the Santa Barbara Presidio Postcards can be viewed at the Online Archive of California at https://bit.ly/2r9rUhe.

Chris Ervin is the new Presidio Research Center Archivist and Librarian. He succeeds longtime Librarian and Archivist, Laurie Hannah, who retired last September. Chris comes to us from the Mojave Desert Archives. He received his Master’s in Library and Information Science from San Jose State University in 2013 and his Certified Archivist credential in 2016.

[1] Postcards depicted on the covers of the Winter 2015 and Winter 2017 issues La Campana were from the personal collection of Mary Louise Days.

[2] A significant portion of U.S. institutions charged with the preservation of our cultural heritage are small repositories and one-person shops.

[3] Michael Redmon, “Postcards from Paradise,” Noticias XXXVIII (1992), 1.

[4] Wikipedia, 1925 Santa Barbara earthquake, https://bit.ly/2DLkmJ0 accessed November 27, 2018.

[5] Wikipedia, Postcard, https://bit.ly/2SmErJN accessed November 27, 2018.

[6] Robert Bogdan and Todd Weseloh, Real photo: postcard guide: The people’s photography (Syracuse (NY): Syracuse University Press, 2006).

[7] Postcards of the Chinese in North America – Chinatowns in San Francisco, New York, Philadelphia and British Columbia, Antipodean Books, Garrison, New York, https://bit.ly/2Qgoszo accessed November 25, 2018. Also see, Online Archive of California. 2006. Postcards of Chinatown, San Francisco, California 1901-1987, https://bit.ly/2zEAOrJ accessed November 28, 2018.

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