Sunday, June 22, 2014

Postcards Tell a Story

Recently I came across this article about a postcard from the Titanic that went up for auction. The postcard was reportedly expected to fetch $140,000. Why so much? Because this postcard is a rarity, and it tells a story.

The postcard to be auctioned off.
It says:
"S.S. Titanic, April 11th, 1912. Nearing
Queenstown. Good voyage up to now.
Kind regards to all.
J.W. Gibbons."

You see, the Titanic wasn't any different than the hotels of today. They plastered advertisement on just about anything, including the postcards that served as menus for each class. In this case, Gibbons, a second-class saloon steward, dashed off a quick message to his family back home before the final leg of Titanic's voyage. This postcard offers a rare glimpse into what the second-class passengers had for their breakfast:  "Yarmouth bloaters; grilled ox; kidneys and bacon; American dry hash au gratin; grilled sausage; mashed potatoes and Vienna and Graham rolls." I don't know about you, but that sounds like a filling and hearty breakfast! Very few second-class menu postcards are known to exist, so this one is especially a treasure for any collector.

Front image of the Titanic postcard.

As you can also see, this postcard also tells a story. I bet you're sitting there, wondering whether one Mr. Jacob Gibbons survived the sinking? I'll get to that in a minute.

Postcards have recently taken me on a strange trip down the avenues of history. This postcard story of the Titanic probably wouldn't have sparked much interest in me, if not for the fact that I've been researching some of the largest ocean-liners ever built. By the turn of the 20th century, immigration was at an all-time high for the United States. More and more immigrants were leaving oppressed or violent circumstances in Europe in search of a new beginning elsewhere. The number one destination for most immigrants became the U.S. and most notably, Ellis Island.

I had created a character for my story, but I didn't know where to start or where to place this certain individual. I decided to do what is often given as the first instruction to new writers: "Write what you know." At the turn of the 20th century most immigrants came from eastern Europe, from places like Germany and Austria. There were also many Italians and Irish flooding in. But I don't have much knowledge of those countries, so I went back to the one country I know best, which is France. France was more known for trying to slip prostitutes into the U.S., but they also had many immigrants who came seeking a new life like so many others. I got tangled up in researching French history and soon found myself immersed in the Champagne Riots of 1911. And guess what? I found postcards!

Revolution in Champagne -- 12 April 1911
This is a champagne house that was burned by rioters.
It was located in the city of Äy, which is found in the
Champagne region.
These postcards present some of the best lasting images of a time come and gone. They are like gold to any writer looking for historical information on a topic. 

Yes, it seems a bit strange that someone would pick up a postcard showing a burned out champagne house and decide that it was a good choice on which to write a message back home. History is strange, though. We don't always understand the mindset of the time or why things turned out the way they did. One thing we do have, if it's well-preserved, is a photographic history to offer us some insight into what once happened. That's why I like these postcards. There aren't many photos around about the Champagne Riots, but there are these snippets that are up for sale to avid collectors. They chronicle an important page in France's history.

Speaking of chronicling history, some of the very first "news" footage was filmed during the Champagne Riots. That's the only thing police had when it came to arresting those who partook in the destruction of Äy. I have no idea if the footage exists today (I've had no luck doing some simple online searches), but if anyone does know if the film is out there, I'd love to see it!

So, back to Mr. Jacob Gibbons. You can breathe a little easier, because he survived. He ended up getting rescued from a life boat. As soon as he could, he sent a brief telegram back home that read, "Saved, well, Daddy."

Do you have an interest in historical postcards?


  1. I have a few, including one from Oil City PA back when the first "oil rush" began. We have a local club that puts on a show once a year, and I love browsing. By coincidence, postcards will figure somewhat in a new serial I started on my blog. :-) I also like to browse through old photos I find at flea markets. It's fun to wonder who some of the people were and their lives. (It's amazing how many people have old photos and no clue where they came from or who the people are.)

  2. Yes, Li, I hadn't thought of that, but old photos at flea markets are also very intriguing! There's just something about old photos that make you want to know the real story: what the day was like the day the picture was taken, who are the people in the photo, etc. The oil rush postcards would be pretty cool to see!

  3. That breakfast sounds like food for an entire day! And I though Weck's had huge portions. :) What a fascinating little tidbit ... I would never have thought old postcards would be so valuable for historical research. Cool post!

  4. Hello Mary Mary. Yes, I do. Would you believe I have a whole box full of old postcards dating back to the 1800s that I haven't even looked completely through. I'd better. Who knows what I might find?

    1. I think it's cool you have a bunch of old postcards! I was very surprised to find how many are out there, recording some valuable events in history. Let me know if you find anything good!

  5. What an interesting topic, Sister MM! I didn't know about historical postcards, but I'm kind of obsessed with old photographs. For TBL I looked at so many old photos (in books and online). I have a folder of photos called inspiration :)

    Wow, that menu! I don't even understand what half of those items are! I also recently researched ships for my latest historical novel and I came across this Spanish ship called Valbanera which sank in 1919 in a hurricane in the Caribbean (so of course, I now use it in my novel :)) The strange thing is they never found the passengers' bodies and all the lifeboats were still there. A big mystery surrounds this accident but nobody knows about it, yet everybody knows about the Titanic.

    1. Yeah, I'm not even sure what some of those things are either. I've never had yarmouth bloaters or grilled ox, so I'll put those on my bucket list!

      I love your story about Valbenera. Very intriguing! No bodies, but the lifeboats were still there? Hmm, makes me think of questionable things happening in the Bermuda Triangle...


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