"I started collecting when I was about six years old," says JoAnn Van Scotter. "That was 60 years ago. Let's just bring it right out in the open." The Tropical Post Card Club of South Florida member isn't shy about revealing her age or talking about her hobby-turned-avocation. Relatives gave her a couple of boxes of post cards to get her started. "I thought they were fascinating," she recalls. "And from then on, I had a lot of aunts and uncles that sent cards when they were on trips.
"I've always liked cats," she continues, "and there're some cute post cards of cats and cats dressed in people's clothes." Van Scotter also collected cards depicting the area in which she grew up -- Dayton, Ohio. "People are always interested in the area they live in," she offers. That may help to explain why some of the most popular post cards portray small-town scenes. "It may be a picture of the street where you grew up," notes Bill Cote, publisher of Barr's Post Card News, an Ohio-based weekly newspaper. "You won't find that anywhere [today]. That's part of the popularity of the real photo cards -- finding out about one's past," Cote speculates. "People shot their own photos and had them developed on paper that was post card-backed, with the stamp box and dividing line. So everyone was making their own post cards."
Photo cards, Cote adds, are the third most popular category of post card. (Halloween cards are the most popular, followed by ones featuring Santa Claus.) Cote points out that "1903 was the beginning of what they called the post card craze. Back then they didn't know what Santa looked like, so there are various depictions, even those that show him in clothing other than the traditional red suit."
Cats, small-town scenes, and maybe even some Halloween and Santa cards will be on exhibit this weekend at the eighteenth annual Tropical Post Card Club Winter Show, a collector's convention in Pompano Beach. There Van Scotter and approximately 40 other dealers will display and sell an estimated 1.5 million cards that cover hundreds of topics.
Post cards became particularly popular around the turn of the century, Cote says, when millions of cards were created; many of those early cards were manufactured in Germany because of the superior photo-printing processes used in that nation at the time. Artists were commissioned to create art for the cards, and those are some of the most sought-after today. A signed card by artist Alfonse Mucha -- a Waverly Motorcycles advertisement depicting an alluring woman posed on a bike -- sold for $14,000 eight or nine years ago, according to Cote.
But that's the absolute high end of the scale, he says. Collectible cards sell for as little as 25 cents, and the 50-cent-to-$1 range opens up an array of topics for beginner collectors, adds Van Scotter, who got into the business of dealing in 1978. "Before that I would buy them [post cards] and not let them out of my sight," she recalls. Early in her dealing days, she remembers, she was buying large batches of cards and selling most of them after scavenging some for her collection. That accounts for the sheer volume of post cards she now owns. "I probably have 4000 cards that I've personally collected," she claims.
Some of her cards are valued at $5 to $10, a few even higher. "As you get more serious about it [collecting]," she notes, "some of the topics get very expensive." Take Cote's personal collection, for example. "I collect 'Buffalo Bill' Cody cards," he states. "Some are advertising cards he put out while overseas and in England for his Wild West Show." Those cards are worth $150 to $200 on average, he says. "That seems like a lot to me for a three-and-a-half [inch] by five-and-a-half [inch] piece of cardboard."
Most cards are now printed in the continental size, four inches by six inches, explains Cote, who's also a fan of "pennant" cards. "I find them all the time," he says of the cards that are cut out in triangular felt-pennant fashion. "Many were issued in the early 1900s. Dealers went from town to town to get the local retailers to buy them, then they would stamp the name of the local town on them." Today they sell for anywhere from $1 to $20.
Who's buying all these post cards? An estimated 70,000 collectors are active in North America alone, Cote points out. His publication has about 7000 paid subscribers. And more than 90 clubs and societies in the U.S. and Canada are devoted to post card collecting, according to a November 1997 survey by the monthly Post Card Collector magazine, the hobby's other main national publication. "It is quite strong, and it is growing," Cote claims of the pastime, which even has its own term: deltiology. The hobby's future growth, though, depends on getting a younger set of deltiologists hooked. "If you can't get children interested in it, the whole thing is just going to die out," Van Scotter surmises. "That would be a shame, because there is so much educational value in the cards, so much history."