Travel Notes | Newberry

Travel Notes

Have you been dreaming of travel to faraway places during these dull days? What a coincidence, because I have not been. No need. I have been working with postcards and road maps.

There are people who find these things intensely boring, and some who find them terrifically exciting. Your Uncle Blogsy stands rather between those two poles, because I have handled enough of both these travel souvenirs to know what it’s like at each extreme. Show me a box of National Geographic maps and I will show you a job that will make even the hardiest volunteers say, “I’d love to, but, gee, my neighbor has offered to let me come over and watch paint dry.” And there have actually been two book collections entitled Boring Postcards, involving, among other things, those supposedly inspirational photos of motels and motel rooms just certain to get you to want to travel to Elizabeth, Illinois just to sleep in a room with two twin beds, air conditioning, and color television!

I have to admit, I kind of like the motel pictures. (It may or may not have come to your attention that the postcard collection which recently enriched the Newberry contains, among other things, one of the largest collections of motel pictures in America, because the Teich Company had an exclusive contract for postcards featuring Holiday Inns across this nation. Some people claim that one Holiday Inn looks much like another, and that includes most people I know, but to the historian…well, I shouldn’t have mentioned it, since once the front doors reopen, the crowds will be storming in and that Holiday Inn just a few blocks down the street will have lines that will make the toilet paper waiting line…where were we?)

See, as someone who has priced postcards for many years, I can tell you that virtually every tourist donating their generation’s worth of postcards from their trips has bought postcards from art museums. Art museums love to sell postcards of their most famous paintings, and tourists love to buy them. But, um, as far as the art loves at the Book Fair go, that’s what we have an Art section for, so you can buy big picture books with 15 x 19 illustrations of the works of Joan Miro or Grandma Moses. The 3 x 5 versions don’t have quite the same appeal.

But there are postcards and then there are postcards. Even some art postcards can be stunning, if the artist had to skip exhibition in a museum and went straight to the postcard. For truly individual (read “weird”) art, the straight-to-postcard artists are nearly as reliable as the straight-to-video filmmakers of decades past. A high heeled shoe in the shape of a pink flamingo, or a black cat up in a tree, perched next to a red mushroom and a pink pig…I fancy you will look in vain at the Louvre or even the Art Institute for these personal expressions.

And even if the picture on the front isn’t that exciting, there are the messages on the back. I have had volunteers ask, nodding at me to show they knew they were right, “You don’t sell USED postcards, right? That’s a person’s mail, and no one wants to sell that.” Wrong, cider shake: I want to sell that. If someone donates their mail to a sale, they have to expect these things.

Besides, it enlivens your umpteenth copy of that postcard of the Coliseum to find Harvey has written on the back that Rome is “very very very hot and very very dusty. But magnificent.” (Harvey continued this discourse over half a dozen postcards, though, alas, he did NOT write anything on the back of his postcard showing Benito Mussolini. Did I mention that Harvey made his trip to Rome around 1929? It doesn’t really matter: I am sure any number of footsore tourists have agreed since about the heat and the dust. It’s what you get for going offseason.)

We even got a few RPPC: that individual art form that started some time before World War I, when it became possible to take a photo at home of your Alfred is his costume for a dance recital at the age of four and have it printed on postcards to amuse your family and humiliate Alfred for centuries to come.

No, postcards may be boring to some, but they can be as exciting as road maps. And I see I have run out of space, so I will have to tell you of all the thrills I found in a stack of official Iowa highway maps next time. Try to get some sleep in spite of the promised excitement.

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