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, most over a century old. This page gives a brief illustrated introduction to my collection, roughly chronologically. It touches on U.S. postal history and includes a little postcard collector geekery, but it's primarily about local San Francisco history as embodied in these wonderful artifacts. As the sender of the Fort Point card above wrote on 4/24/1900, "One cannot help but like this place—it has so many interesting things to see."

Steve's SF postcard pages:

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This U.S. Postal Card postmarked S.F. 1/03/1887 is by far the oldest card in my collection. Postage was 1¢ for an offical Post Office card but 2¢ for a privately published card. Only the address could be written on the front of the card.

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The Private Mailing Card Act of 5/19/1898 fixed domestic postage for all postal cards at 1¢, making privately issued cards competitive with Post Office cards. The backs of cards were required to say "Private Mailing Card" and could only be used for the address, so the front layout often included blank space for messages. San Francisco is the subject of this lighthearted Private Mailing Card postmarked 3/27/1905, though the card was mailed from Portland OR to Chicago.

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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, mostly on San Francisco subjects (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 around 1915. My Weidner family page contains biographical information about Weidner and his family.

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The earliest dated cards in my collection predate the 4/18/1906 earthquake (8/10/1901 through 3/10/1906). These cards postmarked 4/07/1905 and 12/28/1905 are by local San Francisco lithographers Britton & Rey. 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 postcards appeared 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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Hearst newspapers throughout the US included sheets of crudely printed souvenir postcards with Sunday editions in May 1906. People all over the country saved them, so they are still very common a century later. They haven't improved with age; they look terrible.

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The quality of b+w earthquake/fire 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. Information printed on the cards was scanty and often incorrect; cards from the Souvenir Post Card Co. of NY were particularly inaccurate. The Souvenir card at center is identical to an earlier Ferry Building card with an added incorrect caption (the tower was damaged 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, almost all 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 Weidner card at center is postmarked 6/06/1910, four years after the quake. Cards were popular even outside of San Francisco, like a 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 (2019).

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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. Palm Avenue looked like this in 2020.

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San Francisco recovered quickly from the 1906 disaster. The Portola Festival in 1909 celebrated the rebuilding of the city.

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Campaigning and publicity for the 1915 Panama-Pacific International Exposition long predated the event. The Cardinell-Vincent card at left is postmarked 11/11/1910. The 10/16/1911 Mitchell card at right has a P.P.I.E. cancellation, though the exposition was then still more than four years in the future. Both cards display the offical exposition seal.

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Real photo postcards (RPPCs) are photographs printed directly onto postcard stock, as opposed to postcards produced by lithography or offset printing. The RPPCs at left are posed on the same "Frisco-Expo" train car set, presumably at the P.P.I.E. The subject often kept the postcard rather than mailing it; these cards both have blank backs. The handwritten 1915 dates on the sightseeing tour cards at right (10/20/1915 and 11/21/1915) suggest that these excursions were probably to the P.P.I.E.

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A giant Underwood typewriter and a Toledo Scales exhibit graced the Palace of Liberal Arts at the P.P.I.E. If you're wondering what might pour out of a giant cornucopia, Iowa supplies the obvious answer: corn.

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Expo visitors in 1915 could buy beautiful hand-colored souvenir postcards like these Weidner cards, printed by Albertype.


This lovely panorama of the 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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The decoration of this gigantic G.G.I.E. fruitcake is amazing: the top shows Treasure Island at center with bridges connecting to Oakland/SF/Marin around the perimeter, and the lower level represents the buildings of the exposition. It's from the Soya and Lima Bean Bakery in Ojai, and the baker's name is Baker.

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I rarely buy postcards postdating the 1939 G.G.I.E., but sometimes I can't resist. Here's the Tonga Room at the Fairmont on a card postmarked 10/06/1951. The writer 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 (transcription here). 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.

Steve's SF postcard pages:

Related pages (on my site):

About postcards (on the web):