Tuesday, October 30, 2012

The Shadowy World of Night View Postcards

While Hurricane Sandy has temporarily eclipsed such thoughts from many people’s minds, fall weather is remarkable for crisp, clear nights illuminated by a harvest moon, highlighting everyday scenes with an eerie glow and beauty. This dark, mysterious quality inspired night-scene postcards, very popular in the first half of the Twentieth century.

Court Square, Springfield Massachusetts, postmarked 1920

I enjoy collecting these because of their evocative atmosphere and charm. In the frenetic, rapidly changing world of their heyday, night view cards seem to take a step back and relax, and even often to bring a bit of nature back into an artificial and developing world.

Moon over State Capitol and Bushnell Park in Hartford, Connecticut
They often capture the naïve appeal of Currier and Ives prints. In addition, many of them with their spooky drifting clouds, bright moons, and dark color schemes punctuated by yellow-orange lights, are a perfect complement for Halloween.

Columbus, Ohio postmarked 1942

River Front, Milwaukee, Wisconsin

Oddly, the photographs on which these cards are based were not really taken at night. These were day scenes, with the clouds, moon, lit windows, and pall of darkness all painted in. Often you will find matched day and night views, identical down to parked cars, strolling pedestrians, or bits of debris on the beach.

San Antonio, Texas

The Perry Monument in Put-in-Bay, commemorating the great hero of the War of 1812

Night-scene cards can be divided into two periods. The first is roughly from 1900 to 1925. These cards often are more romantic in nature, and tend to preserve the night effect by having the dark scene extend to the edges of the cards. The artwork also tends to be a little finer in this period.

Around 1925, Art Deco kicked in, and these cards seemed to have a special affinity with Art Deco ideals, such as geometric shapes and streamers, and blocks of light and color, all of which showed up well with nighttime contrasts. Also, the not-quite-realistic look of these linen-finish cards worked better with night scenes in which atmosphere rather than detail predominated. These later cards frequently have a white border containing the title of the card in black type. Night cards were produced after the 1950’s, but these are often real photographs and outside the scope of this post.

This view of the State Capitol in Lincoln, Nebraska is pure Art Deco.

In my opinion, this painted sky is too bright and colorful, and fails to complement the Mormon Temple in Salt Lake City, Utah.

This attempt at showing the Temple in Salt Lake City, postmarked 1930, produced an Art Deco masterpiece of lighting.
In addition to important buildings, streetscapes of small towns were popular subjects:

This linen-finish card, postmarked 1943, depicts Columbus Avenue in Sandusky, Ohio

Many night cards reflect the influence of the Ashcan school of gritty, realistic art, showing industrial scenes such as railways, bridges, and docks. Even city skylines were often shown from a vantage point which included a water or harbor view.

Bridge and Skyline in Cleveland, Ohio, postmarked 1954.

Early view of Charlestown Bridge and Boston Elevated. No postmark, but early format is verified by 1906 copyright date.

Restaurant Ship Hotel in Venice, California, postmarked 1910.

Nature was also a favorite theme for these cards, and again water is often involved, partly for its reflective qualities. These scenes, while quite beautiful, can also seem desolate without any sign of human habitation or life.

Moonlight on the Mahoning River, Warren, Ohio--no date, but its early date is evident from the typeface and the lack of a border.

Mt. Hood, Oregon, another early card.

Another use for the moon that people found in 1911.

Night cards are fascinating because they show how the people who produced and purchased them were able to see their world in more than one way. Night has always held a special symbolism in art and literature, indicating things that are to some degree evil or frightening. Night-scene cards, while capturing some of that ‘dark’ mood, also imbue the photos with beauty and color.

Murphy's Hotel in Richmond, Virginia

Special Postscript:
Storm after Nor'easter, Old Orchard, Maine postmarked 1911
This wave-tossed scene of a nor’easter is a special reminder, if any were needed, of Hurricane Sandy that at this moment is severely affecting the United States from the East coast all the way to the Great Lakes. Old postcards or photographs may romanticize storms and disasters, but it is quite different having to live through them.I hope that everyone in Sandy’s path is able to stay safe and secure.

Please let me know if you have a favorite scene here, or whether you have any preference between the ‘old style’ and the ‘Deco style’ cards.

(All cards depicted here in possession of the author.)


  1. Hello Jim:
    Well, this is an absolutely fascinating collection of night scene postcards. Your post has certainly highlighted to us the development of the 'art work' in these cards and the different moods and styles which were created in them over the years.

    if were were to be pressed to mention favourites, then ours would be the 'Art Deco' cards. We like the way that there is a focus on the architecture of the period and find the way in which lighting effects are highlighted on them to be most attractive. Of all the cards you show here, it would be the one of the 'State Capitol in Lincoln'which we should wish to 'steal'!!!!

    This post is particularly timely in relation to Halloween, but also the last image is a haunting reminder of the distress being experienced by so many in the wake of Hurricane Sandy. Like you, our thoughts and prayers go out to those concerned.

    1. Hello Jane and Lance, I didn't want to let Halloween go by without some acknowledgment. These cards capture the mood of the holiday, if not the overt imagery.

      The Lincoln, Nebraska Capitol card does have remarkable clean lines and absence of clutter, so I can understand why you favor it. There are also a lot of 1930's Exposition night cards which feature rays of light, although some of them tend to be more garishly colored, so not as classic as the Nebraska example.

  2. Hi, Jim ~ Very cool! They have a very Batman / Gotham City vibe. I've not seen these night scene postcards before. Will start searching for them at shows. My favorites are the ones with the dramatic skies....really ominous. Are all of the cards shown from your own collection?

    We made it through Hurricane Sandy okay. Thank goodness. The photos of lower Manhattan and New Jersey are awful....really bad.

    1. Hello Loi, I love the Gotham City remark--absolutely perfect for these cards. Yes, all these are in my collection. I am sure that you will find lots of them if you start looking--they are so ubiquitous that I think they have receded into the background, and people have just stopped seeing them.

      I am glad that Sandy spared you. My own family is in Ohio, and although that seems too far away for a major effect from Sandy, the Great Lakes have a way of intensifying weather patterns and producing violent storms.

  3. Dear Jim - really enjoyed looking at your collection of night view postcards. Many of them do convey a sense of mystery and foreboding - totally appropriate for the Halloween season.
    I am very keen on the Art Deco period and much enjoyed the stylised postcard of the State Capitol in Lincoln, Nebraska.
    The view of Mount Hood, Oregon does not have any sinister overtones to it, whereas your first image Court Square, Springfield Massachusetts has a much more threatening and edgy quality.
    The last postcard of the sea does reflect television news pictures tonight of Hurricane Sandy, and I am so pleased to learn that our friend Loi is safe.

    1. Hello Rosemary, I am glad you noticed that the first one was very Halloween-y; I selected it for that exact reason. I think that the scary effect derives a lot from the overall darkness of the card. The Mahoning River card is very dark and grim, although I may note that the Warren area contains much handsome early architecture.

      I agree that the Mount Hood card has little menace to it. As one of the earlier examples, it falls more in the romantic category. In fact, it reminds me of sheet music of the period, and one can almost see a little Indian canoe on the lake!

    2. Dear Jim - Olympia has left a message for you on my blog.

  4. Great post about the cards of night view.
    I carefully read the information that you mention and I admit that not
    I knew about. Thank you for sharing your collection !

    1. Hello Olympia, I am very glad that you enjoyed this post; I have enjoyed so many of yours. That is the fun of collecting a variety of objects. You are always exploring and learning something new, and seeing how it fits into your other interests.

  5. What a fabulous collection and informative post. It is only in the last couple of years that I have gotten into postcards, and I have much to learn.

    I like them all but think the art deco style really shines here. The Cleveland bridge and skyline may be my favorite. I really like the nature ones too--the night scenes really bring out the wondrous, mystical qualities of nature.


    1. Hi Jen, Postcards are such a great adjunct to many interests. When you look at postcards not just as small pictures, but as a form of art with its own history and aesthetics, you get much greater pleasure out of them.

      I also very much like that Cleveland card, partially because I am from there, but mostly for the way it features the built-up and lit-up city rising from its industrial roots and the Cuyahoga river.

    2. Do you display them in any way? Someone I know who owns a beach house took some antique postcards of the town, had a mat cut to fit the cards and then framed it. It looked great. I have several waterfall postcards I would like to display, and also some Catskills ones. Hanging them from a piece of twine with nice looking clips works too, and is a lit less expensive.

    3. Hi Jen, Most of my cards are in Cleveland, although I do have some in Taiwan. The problem with hanging things on the walls here is that it attracts lizards and mosquitoes, both of which I can do without.

      I do think that your ideas for display are good ones, and I hope to do something like that one day.

      I can imagine that your waterfall cards must look great together, and would be perfect for your house.

  6. I love it! I've never seen these in person but it would be a fun thing to start collecting and frame together. I know you're torn on en masse displays but these would be so neat all together. I really adore the almost sinister look of the clouds in the moonlight in a few of them - perfect for Halloween. :)

    1. Hello Ann, These would look great displayed together. I love collections displayed in quantity, which adds interest to the individual items as well as makes a larger statement.

      Objects with a little bit of "edge" to them appeal to me, and I think that we were both responding to the special quality these night views possess.

  7. At last something elegant to acknowledge the day, (rather than the Hallmarked-to-death - although appropriate?), tat we have to put up with. Nonetheless, it would perhaps be a little odd to send cards quite so dark, unless in amusement. Are you familiar with the "London at night" postcards, or these: http://motorwayservicesonline.co.uk/Gallery:Postcards ?

    1. Hello Columnist, Your comment perfectly expresses why it is fun to resurrect the cards at this time. (Although actually, I don't mind the traditional Halloween look, providing that it is well done.) I have seen some European night-view postcards of tourist sites, but on the whole I think that it was more of an American phenomenon.

      I'm not sure that people really thought about matching the picture with the message. For example, the Old Orchard storm card has a message on the back requesting details on someone's visit to the circus.

  8. Hello Parnassus - What a unique collection! I agree with Ann that these would make a very dramatic grouping, though, if your place is anything like mine, wall space is at a premium. I like the San Antonio card for the better water reflection, and the Sandusky card because it reminds me of a particular evening in the small Pennsylvania town of my childhood.

    1. Hello Mark, As I just mentioned to Jen, I have to keep my walls blank, which is why almost everything I have collected here is put away.

      The San Antonio card is very well composed--I'm not surprised that your artist's eye noticed it. The most special collectibles are those that can bring back a memory, and the Sandusky card does resemble many Midwestern towns. I like the glimpse of Lake Erie at the end of the street.

  9. I have never seen any of these before, but they do appeal to me. I love the mood created by the silvery moon and the silvery clouds. I will have to look out for these on my auction trawls!
    Thanks for the education.

    1. Hello Dianne, The best thing about blogs is how we all learn from each other's specialties. I too admire the exotic illumination of the moon on these cards. Good luck searching for them; I've noticed that England has produced lots of great postcards.

  10. Dear Jim,
    Thank you for this visual treat! I just saw Rosemary's post, with similar night scenes-- great minds think alike! These postcards are wonderful, and much more interesting than night photos-- something in the colors used and in the printing, perhaps? My favorite would have to be Mt. Hood, as I was just in Portland a couple of days ago, and was unable to get much of a glimpse of Mt. Hood through the constant rain-- what a wonderful coincidence that I would finally get my view here! Thank you- you have a beautiful collection.
    Warm regards,

    1. Hello Erika, You have hit upon the essence of these cards. I often consider postcards as a second-choice substitute for photos of the same scene, but these are an art from all in themselves, and they way they are created and printed creates a very individual charm.

      Too bad your trip to Mt. Hood was spoiled with so much rain, but it seems to be raining everywhere recently. Even Taipei has been deluged with rain from a small typhoon.

  11. Dearest Jim,
    Glad you pointed us to this previous post and as for me, I like the first period best. Also that painted sky above the Mormon Temple in Salt Lake City, Utah not only fails to complement but it very much distracts!
    Kindest regards,

    1. Hello Mariette, You have put your finger on the issue with these night cards. The nighttime appearance was usually painted over a regular daytime scene. When the effect was thought out in advance by a good artist, the result could be both beautiful and mysterious.


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