The recent past is important to M. Christine Byron, so she collects and shares postcards featuring mid-century Modern motels, restaurants, gas stations, and roadside attractions. Byron will share her collection on April 14 at the 7pm meeting of the West Michigan Postcard Club (2600 7th St. NW Grand Rapids). The public is invited. I recently interviewed this 25-year postcard collector, and she recalled that her interest in the mid-century cards was kindled a few years ago when, as a librarian in the Grand Rapids Public Library Local History Department, she helped in my search for mid-century architecture and design history. Her quest to match the postcards to the actual buildings brought her to a sad conclusion. “Mid Century residential and institutional architecture has survived, while most of the roadside commercial architecture has been torn down, remodeled or re-muddled. People tend to discount the importance of the recent past, and therefore we have a style of commercial roadside architecture that has literally disappeared.“ In the context of pent-up demands, following the Depression and WWII, travel by car blossomed. That spawned a related commercial building boom, and these new restaurants, motels, and service stations published an endless supply of promotional postcards. According to Coronet Magazine (August 1947), “Sending picture post cards to the folks back home is a great American pastime.” Byron has found that the motel postcards are easiest to obtain. Restaurants are next, and gas stations are the most challenging to find. Maps and other details are sometimes found on the reverse of the postcards. More often though, Byron relies on ephemera–promotional pamphlets and booklets from Tourist Councils and Chambers of Commerce meant to be discarded when superseded by newer editions. The April 14 program title “Modern as Tomorrow” comes from a tourist advertisement for the Lake Ranch Resort near Ottawa Beach in Holland, Michigan (now a condominium complex). “Ultra Modern” was also a popular catchphrase.
Research skills are essential in collecting. For example, Byron’s tireless digging has uncovered Michigan State College Cooperative Extension Booklets advertising classes including “Planning Better Motels” (1950) and “Signs and Entrances for Attracting Tourists (1950).”
Postcard collectors are known as deltiologists. Byron and husband Tom Wilson, also a seasoned deltiologist, use eBay, postcard shows, antiquarian book fairs and antique shops and commonly pay $2-3 on the low-end to $15, per card. The height of postcard popularity, Tom explains, was pre-WW I when “the Coney Island Post Office registered 200,000 postcards mailed in one day.” “Postcards,” says Tom, “were the twitter of the day.”
Wilson and Byron are co-authors of four books based upon their postcard collection. A program on Leelanau County postcards led to a book contract with Sleeping Bear Press for Vintage Views of Leelanau County (now out of print). Vintage Views of the Charlevoix-Petoskey Region (University of Michigan Press/Petoskey) and Vintage Views of the Mackinac Straits Region (Arbutus Press) followed. The most recent book, VIntage Views Along the West Michigan Pike published by Traverse City based Arbutus Press, resulted in a book signing tour throughout Michigan.
Chris Byron’s postcard presentation “Modern as Tomorrow: Mid-century Modern Architecture Along the Roadside” is Monday April 14, 7pm at Faith Methodist Church (a beautiful mid-century church by the way), 2600 7th Street NW. The West Michigan Post Card Club meets the second Monday of the month, has a Facebook page and hosts 7-8 speaker programs per year. And when Chris wants to remind you of an upcoming program she will, naturally, send you a postcard!