Why I Became a Deltiologist

Tuesday, April 23, 2013 2 No tags Permalink

For my most recent postcard blog posts, click here.

For the Love of Ephemera…

I guess you could say that really, the study of material culture has been my interest all along. When I went to graduate school (after a very brief stint in medieval studies and before graduating with my degree in public administration), I studied material culture in the public history program at Western Michigan University (Dr. Borish was my advisor). Eventually I determined it might be difficult to get a non-teaching job in such studies, and cashed in my dreams to become a nonprofit administrator. Woot!

Material culture is still my interest. Especially ephemera. Ephemera is “any transitory written or printed matter not meant to be retained or preserved.” Postcards are essentially ephemera; they are items sent to someone else, with short notes and often nothing to tie the card to the person sending it, only the address of the recipient. The majority are thrown away, with little thought after the initial read. But somehow, sometimes, someone has held onto and preserved the card. With a little tracking, perhaps you can find record of the person who once walked to the postbox, studied the image on the card, and read the message on the back.

Del Webb's Mountain Shadows Hotel

If you’re going to have a hobby of collecting things, postcards aren’t bad because they don’t cost a ton of money and they don’t take up much space. If I had more than 200, say, Eames chairs, in my collection, that could take up some serious real estate and some serious cash. My postcards fit in a three-ring binder and I keep the costs down on Ebay ($17 for a postcard? I think not. Anything over $2? That had better be one spectacular card!).

Guess what? I’m not alone. There’s a whole bunch of us out there. Deltiology is the study and collection of postcards (there is even an official place for us – the Institute of American Deltiology in Myerstown Pennsylvania). Deltiologists mostly seem to have a specific reason for collecting, as well as a specific type of card they collect. Those in it for the money are drawn to RPPCs or real photo postcards. Others may prefer the oldest cards from the “golden age of postcards” 1898-1919 (or, god-forbid, linen cards). Other collectors are looking for certain locations, or specific occasion cards (birthday postcards are easier to find than Halloween cards, for example). If you’ve followed my site, you know that I go for the more modern “chrome” cards, dating from 1950-1970, and almost exclusively of motels. In fact, the majority of my cards all are from someplace warm, often with palm trees. I was contemplating this very fact over the weekend, wondering why I have such a predilection for such a specific genre. And then it came to me.

The Pink Motel by Carol Ryrie Brink

My favorite book in elementary school was The Pink Motel by Carol Ryrie Brink (illustrated by Sheila Greenwald), published in 1959.  I constantly checked it out from the library at Minges Brook Elementary School. When I got old and eBay was available I bought an old Weekly Reader copy and have probably re-read it yearly. Don’t look for it in your local library. It is decidedly un-PC. But there is still the thrill of reading about the Mellen family, to whom Uncle Hiram has left a motel that is pink, pink, PINK! The motel was in Florida and the Mellens get there just in time to meet their winter guests and enjoy a nice little mystery solved by the kids and their friends.

Sheila Greenwald illustration

Miss Ferry chats with Kirby Mellen

For whatever reason, that one book really stuck with me. The palm trees. The small pink cottages of the motel. The unusual characters. The idea that a group of people would return to the same motel year after year really intrigued me as a child, and does today. I am personally drawn to the warmth, the sound of the ocean, pink and pastel colored buildings, and palm trees (winter in Michigan is a difficult thing for me, and for those who are around me). And there is something so individual, so personal about the small motels. I’m not sure, but I don’t think you really had to worry about bedbugs, either. So many of the motels featured in my postcard collection are like postcards themselves…long gone, from a previous era.

So that’s pretty much my story of collecting postcards. And hey, next time you go on vacation, do send me one! As you can probably guess, I’ll hang on to it and treasure it.

Do you save the postcards you receive? Do you send postcards when you go on vacation? Let me know in the comments section!


  • Betsy
    July 13, 2013

    Whoa, I thought I was the only person in the world with a random love for old motel postcards. I don’t really have a postcard collection other than those that have been sent to me, but I love ’em!

  • admin
    July 15, 2013

    Thank you so much for commenting! One of the things I like best about old postcards (and old motels) is that their existence is so fleeting. It’s like you’ve got just a moment in time captured. I think it’s a shame more people don’t send postcards these days!

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