San Francisco Postcards

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I have collected San Franciscana for decades: books, stereoviews, and ephemera, much of it related to the 1906 earthquake and fire. Eventually I stumbled onto a few old postcards, one card led to another, and now I have a collection of several hundred cards. This page gives a brief illustrated introduction to my collection. You can display all the cards by date, by publisher, by subject, or as a slideshow (type q to quit).

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The Private Mailing Card Act of 5/19/1898 allowed private companies to publish postcards; previously, only the Post Office could issue postcards. The backs of cards were required to say "Private Mailing Card" and could only be used for the address, so the front often included blank space for messages. San Francisco is the subject of this lighthearted Private Mailing Card postmarked 3/27/1905, but the card was mailed from Portland OR to Chicago. My collection includes a few other Private Mailing Cards.

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The government relaxed the "Private Mailing Card" restriction on 12/24/1901, allowing cards to use "Post Card" on the back instead. This card published by Goeggel & Weidner is postmarked 4/15/1903, one of the earliest postmarks in my collection. San Francisco photographer Charles Weidner published hundreds of postcards (see my Weidner postcards page). Weidner's cards were printed in Germany, as German color lithography was far superior to American printing technology at the time. Weidner remained active as a photographer in San Francisco until the late 1930s, but he stopped publishing his own postcards before 1915. My Weidner family page contains information about Weidner and his family.

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The earliest 23 dated cards in my collection predate the 4/18/1906 earthquake (8/10/1901 through 3/10/1906). The cards above are postmarked 4/07/1905 and 12/28/1905. Collecting "postals" was an extremely popular hobby in the first decade of the 20th Century, now called the Golden Age of Postcards.

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The 4/18/1906 earthquake and fire was big news, and postcard publishers rushed to capitalize on it. Local conditions were obviously difficult at best, but poorly printed b+w earthquake-related appeared postcards very quickly after the event. These three cards were mailed within a month of the quake (5/12/1906, 5/26/1906, and ca. 5/1906), with texts that describe the sender's personal experience (transcribed here, here, and here).

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The quality of the b+w cards varies substantially. Many were badly printed on poor quality stock, like the Kendall card at left, while later cards tended to be of better quality, like Behrendt 213. Cards often contained incorrect information: at center, the Ferry Building tower was damaged by the earthquake but not destroyed; at right, the ruined church is Temple Emanu-el, not St. Patrick's, and the photo looks south from Powell/Bush past Union Square, many blocks from Mission St. A San Francisco Call editorial of 05/20/1906 complained about disaster postals as "Pernicious advertising": "Are we not damaging the city with every one of these views we send away? ... Why not forget it as soon as possible and cease to keep the fire alive by fanning the dying embers?" In my collection, 19 of 20 cards mailed in the five months after the earthquake (5/07/1906 to 9/25/1906) are b+w, while only a very few cards mailed later are b+w (latest: 10/23/1910).

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These cards (Weidner left, Pacific Novelty right) are dramatically different color renderings of the same b+w photo. The "General view of ruined city" refugee photo above is taken later from the same location. My Mint Hill 1906 page shows more images from Mint Hill before, during, and after the fire.

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Better quality color postcards showing earthquake damage became available a few months after the earthquake. These postcards of the collapsed Valencia St. Hotel use the same b+w photo taken by M. Tanron on the morning of the earthquake, cropped and colored quite differently. The Weidner card at right (postmarked 9/21/1908) is of much higher print quality than the Behrendt card at left (postmarked 4/10/1907). My Valencia St. Hotel page gives more information about the hotel, including many other postcards.

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Starting on 3/01/1907, the Post Office allowed divided back postcards (message left, address right), freeing the entire front side for the image and ending the "undivided back" era. Weidner reissued many of his earlier cards with divided backs, usually changing the front layout slightly, as with No. 1 above. He often added earthquake-related captions to pre-earthquake images (e.g., No. 134).

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Earthquake-themed cards remained popular for years after 1906 (the card at right is postmarked 6/06/1910, four years after the quake), even outside of San Francisco (like the Fairmount Hotel [sic] card mailed from Connecticut to Maine on 10/23/1910).

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Don't trust your eyes... These cards are all based on the same post-earthquake Chinatown photo. In the Weidner card at left (probably closest to the original photo), one man looks into a shop window at left; the Pacific Novelty card at center has two men rather than one at left, plus a man at right who is either cropped out in the Weidner or added here; and the garish Newman card at right (postmarked 7/14/1913) shows two different men at left. The Weidner card is by far the best of the three in print quality. The "Grant Avenue" caption of the Newman card is incorrect: the photo looks west on Washington Street from Washington Place ("Fish Alley", now Wentworth Place, just above Portsmouth Square), and several of the buildings still stand today.

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Sutro Heights was a popular tourist destination, with pedestrian Palm Avenue leading from the entrance (Geary/48th Avenue) to the parapet overlooking Ocean Beach; these cards all look northeast toward the entrance. The left sides of the cards at left (Newman) and center (Mitchell) are clearly the same image, but the right sides differ. I'm particularly fond of the photographer standing at his tripod in the Newman card.

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Campaigning and publicity for the 1915 Panama-Pacific International Exposition long predated the event; the card at left and center is postmarked 11/11/1910, and the 1/08/1912 postmark on the divided back Weidner Cliff House card shown above advertises the Exposition, then still three years in the future. It's unclear to me why the Toledo Scales exhibit graced the Palace of Liberal Arts.

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Expo visitors in 1915 could buy a beautiful hand-colored souvenir postcard like the one at left, a 1915 Weidner photo published by Albertype. Or the family could pose for a real photo postcard instead; the two above are taken on the same Frisco-Expo train car set.


This lovely panorama of the 1915 Panama Pacific Exposition is from the Pacific Novelty Co. folding postcard booklet Jewel City, mailed on 8/11/1915.

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The futuristic Golden Gate International Exposition took place on Treasure Island in 1939.

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I rarely buy postcards postdating the 1939 GGIE, but sometimes I can't resist. Here's the Tonga Room at the Fairmont on a card postmarked 10/06/1951. The sender complains that she's lonesome being stuck in her room all day while her husband plays golf with his boss and co-workers. Upside: her hives are about gone and she got to eat dinner at the Tonga Room. Anthony Bourdain called the Tonga Room "the greatest place in the history of the world".

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I'll close with one of my favorite earthquake images, taken at the Stanford Quad. A passing professor remarked, "I always liked Agassiz better in the abstract than in the concrete." The statue survived, and after minor nose repair it now stands above the entrance to Jordan Hall.

SF postcard collection:

Related pages:

About postcards: