Celebrated Texas historian Lewis Fisher has been collecting San Antonio postcards for more than 20 years; his assortment of colorful cards is currently in upwards of 7,000. Taken individually, each shows a different side of the River City beginning in the 1890s, but as a collection they offer a compelling visual narrative of San Antonio in the early twentieth century. Six hundred postcards from his archives have been compiled into a fabulous comilipation called Greetings from San Antonio. Here, Lewis tells us a bit about how his collection came to be.
Q. We’ve all gotten postcards from friends and relatives—and sent them too. What makes them so compelling that people enjoy postcard collections?
A. Postcards can tell a story better than words when they are carefully selected around a theme. Most of the postcards in Greetings from San Antonio are from the first half of the twentieth century, organized and identified in context with the times and providing an unusual visual portrait of San Antonio as the city was entering the modern age.
Q. There is such a unique assortment of subjects here from seldom-seen images of downtown, including the Alamo, and early suburban neighborhoods, churches and schools, to entertainment venues and festivals like the annual citywide celebration Fiesta. Where did you find all these?
A. I bought a large collection more than twenty years ago to pull from for book illustrations for the regional publishing company I’d started. Since postcards were made for popular appeal, they were well designed and featured sharp images not always available to authors. I have since added cards I purchased online and from dealers at postcard shows.
Q. You have been collecting such a long time. How many postcards are in your possession?
A. Six or seven thousand, I haven’t counted precisely. That may seem like a lot, but I often had to choose from dozens of the same landmark or scene as it changed through the years. That includes a large variety of images captured on black-and-white photo postcards produced in small numbers.
Q. With such a large assortment, how did you go about selecting which postcards to include in the book?
A. I keep cards grouped by subject, which helped. They had to be chosen and arranged carefully to provide a flowing narrative. The sequence ended up portraying a visit to San Antonio, starting with cards of railroad stations and hotels and moving on to places to live, sights to see, places to dine, and so on, with one section on the military. We tell the story with 636 postcards.
Q. What is your oldest postcard?
A. Picture postcards were first produced by high-quality German lithographers in the late nineteenth century. It took a while for the cards to become popular here, so my earliest San Antonio cards are from the 1890s. Receiving and sending these novelties became a huge fad pre–World War I, and millions were printed.
Q. It might be hard to whittle it down, but do you have a favorite?
A. I particularly like a 1909 photo card of a small, strange-looking bus packed with a dozen elegantly dressed tourists and “Seeing San Antonio” painted on the front. But my favorite is probably an advertising photo card from the same era, showing a primitive delivery truck parked in front of the Alamo and loaded with boxes prominently marked “Don Juarez Cigars, 10 cents.”
Q. What is one of the most surprising San Antonio postcards you’ve uncovered?
A. A hand-tinted card of a young man in shirtsleeves and tie kneeling beside a cook fire, with the caption “Preparing the Weekly Rattlesnake Fry, Reptile Garden, Brackenridge Park,” is hard to beat. Another surprise was a postcard drawing of chili queens by Mary Bonner, which is the frontispiece in the book.
Q. With so much focus on the front of the postcard you must have been fascinated by what was on the back, as well. What did most people write on postcards?
A. Tourist messages were often of the “wish you were here” variety—meaning “look where I am and you’re not.” Postcards also helped people keep in touch. Telephones were not reliable early on and postage was low, so it was an easy way to send greetings or news even across town. A frequent message is “haven’t heard from you lately, please write.”
Q. What is a memorable message you found written on a postcard?
A. Probably one used as the caption on a photo card of a family struggling across the Rio Grande with their belongings roped on the back of a burro. It was during the Mexican Revolution, and many refugees were headed to San Antonio. The caption reads, “With all their earthly possessions.”
Q. With such a large San Antonio interest, it begs the question, do you collect any other kinds of postcards?
A. My first encounter with postcards came years ago, when I inherited a shoebox full of hundreds from my grandmother. They’d been mailed around 1910—the glory years of postcards—to cheer up her sister, who was suffering from tuberculosis in Colorado, from family and friends in the Northeast. They represent about every kind of card imaginable. I don’t need any more.