Gregory C. Wilson collection of African-American postcards and trade cards

Biographical and Historical Notes

Gregory C. Wilson is a Massachusetts collector and dealer of antiquarian items and an expert appraiser of postcard and trade card collections. He is an alumnus of the University of Delaware (Class of 1960-1961) with a Bachelor of Arts degree in History, and also the University of Pittsburgh (Class of 1963) with a Master of Library Science degree.

Sources

"Our Dealers." Pioneer Valley Antiques Dealers Association. http://www.pvada.com/our-dealers.html (accessed December 1, 2014).

Additional biographical material derived from collection.

Scope and Content Note

The Gregory C. Wilson collection of African-American postcards and trade cards comprises 1.3 linear feet of postcards, trade cards, printed ephemera, and letters. The majority of the collection consists of nineteenth- and twentieth-century American postcards and trade cards that feature a diverse array of positive and negative images of African Americans. The collection as a whole documents the history of harmful stereotypes that represented social values and mores across the country. Images include ridicule of black religion, harm to black children, scatological humor, poverty, crime, music, and labor, as well as race relations, military service, domestic scenes, transportation, women, and tribal depictions.

The collection represents the evolution of depictions of African Americans in the United States over nearly a century—predominately between the Civil War and civil rights movements of the 1960s. As artifacts of burgeoning American tourism and consumer culture, the postcards and trade cards offer examples of racism and stereotyping in advertising. Images reveal prevalent social values particularly toward race, but also gender and class, in their use of denigrating humor and stereotypes. Positive images of black leadership and legacy, representations of place, political activism, and national celebration provide insight into more modern, empowered representations.

Although the postcards are arranged by a general subject, multiple contexts and narratives can be read in each image; for example, depictions of women are not limited to the topical designation for women. The trade cards are arranged by goods or services offered. Multiple representations (that is, women and children or women and domestic space) may be present in individual trade cards as well.

Series I. Postcards, comprises the bulk of the collection with over three hundred postcards arranged into three subseries: I.A. People; I.B. Places; and I.C. Topical.

Subseries I.A. People, consists of twenty jumbo stamp image postcards depicting African-American leaders from the 1700s to the early 1900s, as well as postcards of Nelson Mandela, Martin Luther King, Jr., abolitionist and women’s rights activist, Sojourner Truth, Jamaican actress and musician Grace Jones, and poet Allen Ginsberg.

Subseries I.B. Places, consists of postcards intended to send greetings from various landmarks and states. These include places marked by their infamous histories, such as an old slave market in St. Augustine, Florida, and an original whipping post in Dover, Delaware. Other places include landmarks relating to black leadership and history, such as a postcard from the home of Booker T. Washington at the Tuskegee Institute in Alabama. As artifacts of early American tourism, postcards in the collection sought to combine representations of specific towns, cities, or states with recreational, domestic, agricultural, and industrial scenes.

Subseries I.C. Topical, consists of cards arranged by their varying representations of African Americans as visual subjects. Topics include children, women, language, "The South," transportation, race relations, military service, religion, music, tribal depictions, and the cotton industry, among others. As pieces of actual correspondence, the writers of some of the postcards further reinforce the inequities and prevalent attitudes of the time.

Many of the postcards in the collection were printed by Curt Teich & Company, developer of the C. T. Art Colortone process. During the 1930s and 1940s, the so-called golden era of postcards, Curt Teich developed and sold linen postcards—those made of inexpensive card stock with a high rag content—which held a vibrancy and color that was unattainable in earlier postcard printing. Other postcard and trade card printers in the collection include Currier & Ives, Dr. J. C. Ayer & Co. and A. Hoen and Co.

Series II. Trade cards, is arranged into categories of advertised products and services. The trade cards in the collection include advertisements for restaurants and hotels; dry goods and groceries; medicines; entertainment and events; toiletries; cleaning products; clothing; sewing, hardware, furniture, and industrial products; and other general merchandise. This form of small, collectible advertisement contributed to the developing consumer culture during the nineteenth century and is also demonstrative of the innovations in color printing and illustration techniques during this time. The Joseph Dixon Crucible Company, which specialized in metallurgy, and J. A. Wright & Company, which specialized in varnishes and metal care, offer two examples within the collection of prominent companies using trade cards for advertising their products.

Series III. Correspondence, ephemera, and other materials, includes items that reflect the collecting and personal interests of Gregory C. Wilson. The material includes wood engravings by American artist and illustrator Michael McCurdy (born 1942) and items of Delawareana, including thirteen Delaware postcards and a clipping from Harper’s Weekly with an engraving of "The Whipping-Post and Pillory in Delaware." Also included is a 1978 letter from educator, activist, and author Kay Boyle (1902-1992) to Gregory Wilson discussing family and asking after Wilson’s involvement with a volunteer prison program. Kay Boyle taught a six-week course on the short story at the University of Delaware for the 1957 summer session. The letter was written during a time when Boyle was teaching creative writing at San Francisco State College (now San Francisco State University). As a faculty member, Boyle had earlier been involved in the 1968-1969 inter-ethnic student-and-faculty-led protests and strike at the college which culminated in the development of the first institutional Black American Studies program in the United States. Wilson and Boyle became friends around 1967 when he was a librarian at Harvard University.