Calamities & Disasters

Public Calamity & Private Misfortune

Interest in catastrophic events seems to be a universal human characteristic.

At the beginning of the 20th century, most local newspapers did not have the capacity to print photographs in daily press editions. Additionally, few newspapers had “stingers” or roving reporters who could chase emerging news events.

Postcard photographs were a common way of circulating images of natural disasters or spectacular failures of machines or structures’ Train accidents and derailments were often photographed by local entrepreneurs who sold the postcard images.

The wreckage of floods, tornados, or ice storms were also photographed and distribute in this way.

In this collection, we will find examples of a train derailment, a flood, and a collapsed bridge that were commemorated in postcard photographs made by a local business or printing office.

In some cases, postcard photographs of natural disasters were imprinted with the name of a business and given away as advertisements.

A surprising number of postcard photographs of tragic events are labeled with the name of a
commercial enterprise.

Photographs of the devastation resulting from the San Francisco Earthquake of 1906 are among the first images of natural disasters that were distributed by national newspapers; but, in that case, the Hearst empire still used postcards enclosed in the Sunday edition to share those images.

Because postcards were the most common means of sharing personal news, the specific misfortunes of individuals are often related in postcard messages.

The sad vicissitudes of life – unemployment, separation, illness, or injury – all make an appearance in postcards.

For the many people living off the land, such as farmers, ranchers, lumbermen, or orchard keepers, the calamities of drought, pestilence, or frost are noted in postcard exchanges.

The announcement of death, likewise, was often made by postcard.

The members of fraternal organizations or benevolent societies were informed of the death of members through postcard announcements.

When membership in a mutual aid society ensured benefits paid at death for funeral expenses, surviving members received an announcement of their assessment by postcard.