Greetings from Mount Auburn: The Cemetery’s Historical Postcard Collection

May 16, 2012

The visual history of Mount Auburn has been captured in many forms including maps, plans, paintings, drawings, engravings, photographs, and even the quintessentially democratic art form: the postcard. The Cemetery’s Historical Collections Department houses a small, but intriguing collection of historic postcards documenting a variety of burial sites around Boston (from Sleepy Hollow Cemetery in Concord to Copp’s Hill Burial Ground in the North End) as well as captivating views of Mount Auburn, which date from the 19th-century to the present day. Mount Auburn’s postcards come from a variety of sources including donations and acquisitions, and the Cemetery also continues to issue contemporary cards for sale.

After the cost of sending mail was determined by weight rather than distance, postcards became a popular means of communication. The format made its debut in the 1860s with the introduction of simple cards with pre-affixed postage. By the 1870s pictorial cards were in high demand. The souvenir value of these visual mementos took hold with the issue of a series commemorating the 1893 Columbian Exposition in Chicago. By 1908 the U.S. Post Office reported the mailing of a staggering 677 million postcards for an American population of 88 1/2 million people.

Over time, these seemingly commonplace images, purchased at the corner store or tourist site, acquire a historical patina, and today scholars value postcards as primary sources. Mount Auburn’s collection offers telling details about the Cemetery’s history, details not necessarily found in other historic documents.

Some of Mount Auburn’s postcards date to the era before anything but the address could be written on the back of the card, where it was noted, “This side for address only.” On the front of the card, space around the image allowed room for personal messages. By 1907, correspondence was permitted on the back of the card, and a dividing line appeared that separated messages on the left from the address on the right.

Several delicately hand-colored souvenir postcards depict the main entrance to Mount Auburn. A typed caption on the top of the image notes the “Tombs of Longfellow, Lowell, Sumner, Phillips Brooks, Agassiz, Edwin Booth, Charlotte Cushman, Edward Everett, etc.”—those individuals buried at Mount Auburn considered most notable at the time the postcard was issued in 1910.

The card also shows features around the entrance to Mount Auburn that no longer exist including a row of bollards (metal posts), grey cobble stones, and numerous trees.

 

A number of postcards of the Mary Baker Eddy Memorial depict the lot over time. Various views reveal, for example, plants along the water’s edge that have since been removed in recent landscaping efforts to return the lot to the spirit of its original design.

Several postcards with the caption “New Chapel at Mt. Auburn Cemetery” illustrate Story Chapel before it was named for Justice Joseph Story, Mount Auburn’s first president. The print shows the “New Chapel,” as it was called, with the steeple and porte-cochère before they were removed due to deterioration.

Some Mount Auburn enthusiasts created their own personalized postcards of the Cemetery, as evident in views of William Ellery Channing’s grave and the Margaret Fuller memorial. These cards were most likely taken with the popular “Folding Pocket Kodak” camera, introduced at the turn of the century. This Kodak model enabled amateurs to shoot a negative the same size as a postcard. By opening a small door in the back of the camera, photographers could write a caption directly onto the negative with a special metal scribe. The resulting print could then be mounted onto a postcard backing.

Sometimes the juxtaposition between visuals and text assumes a special significance in the postcard format. On the back of several cards illustrating the Egyptian revival gates of Mount Auburn, symbolic of the passage to another world and well-known landmark, correspondence refers to the health or passing away of acquaintances or family. One card addressed to a friend in the hospital reads, “Hope you are feeling well,” and another to an aunt notes, “Myrtle has just written me the sad news of grandmother’s death. I wish I could have seen her.” Within the configuration of the postcard, allusions to mortality could be made through the interplay of image and word.

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This article originally appeared in Mount Auburn’s May 2012 E-Newsletter, and is written by Melissa Banta, Curatorial Consultant, and Meg L. Winslow, Curator of Historical Collections. 

About the Author: Melissa Banta

Consulting Curator, Historical Collections

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3 Comments

  1. Elizabeth Van Ranst says:

    Thanks so much for pulling together this on-line display. Have enjoyed learning new information about old postcard formats and practices.

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