"We ate here"
Old restaurant postcards serve as the nation's Southern dining scrapbook
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Apologies right off the bat for not writing this on the divided back of a linen standard: I’m still getting the hang of this deltiology business.
In fact, until this week, I didn’t even know that a deltiologist was someone who collected postcards. But I guess I count as one now.
As you may recall from last week’s email, I recently moved up to North Charleston and found myself with a whole office to furnish. So in the weeks leading up to relocation, I spent most of my free time browsing thrift shops and antique stores for important items like a wooden desk chair that everyone else over the past century had dismissed as too uncomfortable.
At one boutique-y type place that was far beyond my budget, I noticed a metal card display rack and got the idea that it could be fun to buy a similar stand and a bunch of vintage postcards from Southern restaurants.
I’m sure there are millions such cards for sale online. That’s no exaggeration: According to a history of postcards posted by the University of Maryland’s Hornbake Library, the postcard craze spun nearly out of control in the years before World War I, with Americans sending just shy of 1 billion postcards in 1913.
That works out to nearly one postcard a month for every man, woman, and child in the country. In most homes, the family postcard album was second in importance only to the Bible.
Scholars still don’t know what set off the fuss but speculate that cards issued in connection with the 1904 World’s Fair got folks excited about what they could find in their mailboxes. And at a time when the very rich collected rare books, hoarding paper was considered classy.
But I wasn’t interested in acquiring a hobby that would require spending more time with my computer screen. Instead, I last weekend went to a postcard show at the Volusia County Fairgrounds, near Deland, Florida.
Apparently “restaurant” isn’t a hugely popular category with collectors: Vendors sorted their selections by topics such as parades, windmills, earthquakes, and pin-up girls, but lumped restaurants in with the states where they were located.
To be fair, I got the sense that restaurants eager to stamp their names on freebies in the mid-20th century were more likely to invest in matchbooks: There wasn’t an overwhelming number of postcards from Southeastern restaurants (By contrast, if you gave me 10 bucks and five minutes on the showroom floor, I could put together an impressive collection of cards from New York City hotspots.)
Still, I’m surprised there aren’t more ephemera fans eager to swoop up evidence of bygone meals, perhaps the most ephemeral of our shared cultural experiences.
Not every card I encountered was a keeper. I learned pretty quickly that the cards I like best feature people eating and drinking, although there is plenty to be gleaned about restaurant décor and service styles from images of empty dining rooms.
Take, for instance, the above card from The Cormandel, which operated at the Fairmont Colony Square Hotel in Atlanta from 1974-1977. Even if you didn’t know the hotel had brought in 14 European chefs to staff its kitchens, it’s clear from the way the guest at the center is dressed that it was aiming for a new level of elegance.
A close second are the cards which show people at work, such as the women at The Old Southern Tea Room in Vicksburg, Mississippi. Like many restaurants which bothered to issue postcards, The Old Southern Tea Room—launched in 1941 by white women as a civic improvement project—was a favorite of Duncan Hines.
“I would like to be at The Old Southern Tea Room, enjoying the stuffed garden eggplant and corn pudding,” Hines told reporters who asked what he hoped to do first upon returning from Europe.
The Old Southern Tea Room was staffed by six Black women, who divvied up the cooking and serving duties.
In her history of the restaurant, Mary Beth Lasseter of the Southern Foodways Alliance writes, “Each employee wore a calico dress, a white apron, and a bandana on her head. Especially during the civil rights era, many members of the Black community criticized the mammy costume, but according to former employee Herdcine Williams, for some of the women, the steady income and good tips outweighed some of the humiliation of the costume.”
Of course, the postcard doesn’t identify the women pictured. That’s one of the reasons why what I prize above all else when evaluating a postcard for purchase is what deltiologists call “WOB,” or writing on the back, which humanizes a scene captured for advertising purposes.
WOB doesn’t necessarily have any connection to the picture on the front. Postcards were frequently used as a cheap way to contact companies in the pre-Internet age: Plenty of postmarked cards bear a message along the lines of, “Send me a yarn sample under no obligation.” (Although I’d wager the message found most on card backs is “Hope you’re feeling better.”)
Sometimes, though, you find a Hornsby House Restaurant card inscribed: “Had dinner here Thursday, Mar. 1966, Mom & Dad.” Or a card from The Meadowview in Fredericksburg, Virginia on which someone wrote: “This is where we had brunch at 10:30: Ham, big slice; hash browned potatoes; two scrambled eggs; two toasts and two cups of coffee for 95 cents each.”
It’s hard to make out his or her signature, but here’s hoping the travelers found an equally good breakfast at their next stop in Florence, South Carolina.
Have a favorite restaurant postcard? Drop me a line!
In the meantime, if you’re not a paying subscriber, here’s what you missed this week:
Charcuterie is a verb, not a noun, across the South these days. With the help of scholar Kathryn Jezer-Morton, The Food Section delved into the store-bought snack boards that have become wildly popular online and in real life.
A Maryland couple who moved to the Outer Banks for its bagels were forced to act quickly when Southern Shores’ favorite bagel place shuttered within one week of their relocation.
We all know the quickest way to a man’s heart, but evangelical preachers say the route to his soul is paved with venison barbecue and smothered doves.
my postcard habit!The Food Section by helping to fund the public records requests; research fees and travel that makes it possible.