Luc Sante's "Folk Photography: The American Real-Photo Postcard 1905-1930"

 Img Photos 2010 02 17 Folk Photography T610
In the early 20th century, the popularity of the pocket camera in America led to a wave of DIY postcards. The snapshots depicted anything that the sender wanted to share with remote friends or colleagues, from family snapshots to amateur photojournalism. According to former BB guestblogger Mark Dery, real-photo postcards "are transmissions from the postmortem Internet," and they definitely have the feel of a visual Tweet shared with one's social network. In the Las Vegas Weekly, Dery reviews a recent book on the topic, Folk Photography: The American Real-Photo Postcard 1905-1930, by Luc Sante, author of the seminal account of New York City's underbelly in the early 1900s, Low Life. Dery's review of the book makes me want to start collecting Real-Photo Postcards. Me and everyone else, I'm sure. From Dery's essay, titled "Ghost Cards":
In one of those harmonic convergences of popular desire, profit motive, and governmental intervention that punctuate media history, the emergence of the real-photo postcard as the cell-phone snapshot of small-town America was the result of Kodak’s rollout, in 1903, of its cheap, easy-to-use No. 3A Folding Pocket model; the U.S. Postal Service’s introduction, in 1905, of the penny rate for postcards; and the growing penetration of Rural Free Delivery into heartland America.

To Sante, these postcards constitute a “ghost telegraph,” as he told a radio interviewer. In Folk Photography, he writes, “The real-photo card was typically a product of the small town, particularly the small town isolated on the plains, whose newspaper did not have the capacity to reproduce half-tones, and whose lonely citizens felt an urgent need to communicate with absent friends, distant in those days even if they lived only three stops down the railroad line.” Like the blues, field hollers, chain-gang songs and other folkways of Old Weird America, real-photo postcards served as a social network, a kind of Basement Tapes of the backwoods unconscious, reporting local news, memorializing personal tragedies, scrapbooking sentimental moments.
"Ghost cards: Thanks to Folk Photography, at long last, we’ve got mail" (Las Vegas Weekly)

Folk Photography: The American Real-Photo Postcard 1905-1930 (Amazon)


  1. I’d be very interested in checking this out but sadly the only picture to go by is the book cover. I would like to see more of the content before getting too excited.

  2. Thankfully, I don’t have to spend the money to collect these. I have Boing-Boing to curate the Museum of Many Interests :-)

  3. This reminds me of the postcards I used to find at my grandparents house. They had a box full of saved letters and postcards from the early 20th century.

  4. Hmmm… I bought it very impulsively. If no major source has displayed more pics I’ll throw some in my flikr account. I really love old photography so it’s pretty likely I’ll be pleased with this.

  5. Please check out Prairie Fires and Paper Moons by Andreas Brown of the Gotham Book Mart, in NYC. He authored this book years ago… it remains one of the top books on this subject. It’s nice when the younger generation rediscovers collecting something so ephemeral as real photo postcards. Larry

  6. I live in a small town that had an old hotel building that looked like this catch fire. The photo of this and what i saw burn down are so hauntingly alike.

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