The Ellen Dunable Postcard Collection at the Museums of Oglebay Institute
– submitted by Kelsy Traeger, Curator at the Musuems of Oglebay Insitute in Wheeling, WV
The Museums of Oglebay Institute’s archival collections primarily focus on materials related to Wheeling area and Oglebay family history. This includes the Ellen Dunable Postcard Collection, which features 40 binders of postcards, images, real photo postcards, and articles almost all of which relate to Wheeling.
Ellen Dunable began formally collecting postcards in 1970 when she attended a postcard collector meeting in Bridgeport, Ohio. In 2007, she received a grant from the Wheeling National Heritage Area (WHNAC) to assist in archiving her collection, which WNHAC historian, Rebekah Karelis, completed in 2008. This included housing the postcards in archival binders, creating an index, and a cross-reference guide, which has helped to preserve them and make them more easily accessible for historical research. When Dunable passed away in 2012, she left the collection to the Museums of Oglebay Institute.
The focus of this collection is the postcards in it, which are organized by various topics and date back to the 1800s. Postcards became a popular means of communication starting in the second half of the 19th century. In 1861, John Charlton copyrighted the first postcard. That same year, the U.S. congress also passed an act that allowed privately printed cards weighing less than 1 oz to be sent through the mail. Prior to this, people had sent cards through the mail with postage attached to them and envelopes with images on them had also gained popularity. Until 1907, one side of the postcard was meant to only hold the address and the other an image and a message. This kept messages, if there was one at all, very brief. In 1907, the Universal Postal Congress decreed that messages could be also written on the address side of the post card. This created the format that we are familiar with today, with a divided back and an image on the front.
The year 1907 also marked a surge in the popularity of real photo postcards. In the early 20th century, Kodak had begun producing card backings that photo negatives could be directly printed on. The cards could then be sent through the mail. Professionals in the field were able to order their name or logo to be printed on the card stock to identify the photographers and studios. In 1907, Kodak introduced their postcard camera, which was portable, easy for amateur photographers to use, and produced postcard size negatives. The camera, along with the new divided back, made real photograph postcards very popular among amateur photographers as well as professionals.
The Dunable Collection has many wonderful examples of real photo postcards taken around the Wheeling area. They provide a great insight into people’s daily lives. Instead of a formalized studio photo, it was easier by this time for more people to own a personal camera that they could use to capture what was important to them. Through postcards they could easily share these images with friends and family. The messages written on the postcards help identify the images and offer a further glimpse into the lives of the people who sent or received them.
Postcards and photos also provide a wonderful resource for architectural and neighborhood research. The Dunable collection contains numerous binders with images of buildings and neighborhoods around Wheeling. The messages on the back of the cards can often be as helpful as the images in learning about the business and people that once occupied these places.
Postcards have also been highly utilized by businesses to advertise their location and their product, and communicate with customers. These advertisements and communications provide helpful insights into these businesses including their marketing, general practices, costs, and inventory. Postcards continue to be used up to the present as a means of advertising and reaching customers.
Ellen Dunable’s collection of postcards and ephemera covers a wide variety of topics relating to the Wheeling area. However, the collection is stronger in some areas than others, which in some ways perhaps reflected her own interests. Dunable was a long-time museum volunteer and member of the Committee of the Museums of Oglebay Institute. Her collection contains four binders related to Oglebay Park and Oglebay Institute. These provide historical images and information on programs, places, and people involved with the two organizations.
In addition to the subjects focused on in this article, the collection has several other areas of strength. These include images of methods of transportation, religious groups and buildings, and schools among others. In particular, there are several binders of postcards relating to transportation in the region including postcards focused on aviation, river transportation, railroads, and the National Road. The collection is a wonderful resource for studying the history of the Wheeling area. Postcards offer an interesting, insightful, and sometimes humorous look at the past and are a valuable archival resource.
The Ellen Dunable Postcard Collection and the other records in the Museums of Oglebay Institute Archives are available to researchers by appointment.
- “Ellen Armstrong Dunable: Obituary.” The Intelligencer, Wheeling News Register. March 27, 2012.
- “Localities: Using Postcards as Historical Evidence.” Eastern Illinois University. Accessed September 14, 2016.
- Maureen Zambito. “Bits of Yesterday Preserved for Others.” The Intelligencer, Wheeling News Register. February 17, 2008.
- “Real Photo Postcards.” Old House Journal. Accessed September 14, 2016.
- Robert Bogdan and Todd Weseloh. Real Photo Postcard Guide: The Peoples Photography. Syracuse, NY: Syracuse University Press, 2006.
- Smithsonian Institution Archives. “Postcard History.” Accessed September 14, 2016.