Where did all those photo postcards come from?

Beginning around 1901, U. S. Postal regulations and the widespread availability of inexpensive photo printing launched a boom in the production and mailing of photo postcards. Anyone with a camera could take photographs and have them printed directly onto postcard-size paper stock, or onto card stock via offset printing. It was that era’s equivalent of social media, utilizing relatively new technology and cheap postal rates to send a card with a picture on one side and a short note on the other. While delivery was not instantaneous, most localities were receiving three or more mail deliveries daily, and the time between mailing and receipt of the postcard was twenty-four hours or less when distances were not too great.

Miltonians of the early twentieth century were no strangers to this form of communication; there are dozens of different photo postcards that turn up again and again in various family collections. Some of these have reached the level of iconic, and have appeared in various print over the decades.

Very recently, a startling discovery was made in the Milton Historical Society storage attic: 56 photographs printed on photographic paper rather than card stock, dating from about 1900 t0 1920, in very good condition. Many of these are recognizable from their postcard versions, but some have not been seen in decades. These prints all have one thing in common: they were made by Dr. William E. Douglas (1885 – 1961).

Dr. Douglas was a lifelong resident of Milton until his retirement from a busy medical practice in 1947. From newspapers of the time, we know that he had served as one of Milton’s physicians for 37 years, and had delivered, by his own reckoning, over 1600 babies. By the time he retired, he was in such a state of exhaustion that Mayor Robbins himself recruited Douglas’s replacement, Dr. Thomas Tobin. We have to wonder where Dr. Douglas found the time to pursue his hobby, but pursue it he did; his greatest output was from 1905 to 1925.

Dr. Douglas did not do portraits at all, and very little event photography. Most of his work was of Milton streets, houses, and businesses, with bystanders included in the photo when they were in proximity to the camera. Despite the general absence of people, his photographs provide fascinating visual record of Milton’s downtown area and factories, before and after the fire of 1909.

Highlights from the collection are displayed in the viewer below. For the technically minded, the images are high-resolution scans of the original prints, which are approximately 3.5 x 4.5 inches in size. I have not established what kind of camera would have been used to make these images; the nearest roll film size is 3.25 x 4.25, for a folding camera, and that size was called quarter plate.

The high resolution scanning allows for enlargements without loss of quality. In addition, I’ve done some digital manipulation: the originals are sepia toned, but I’ve converted the digital images back to black and white for greater clarity and contrast, and airbrushed out some minor damage. The sepia tones in old photographs do not result from aging; sepia tones were chemically added by photographers of that era to the black and white silver halides on the photo paper; this was done to provide a 50% longer life for the image than would be afforded by the original chemistry of the paper. One might argue that I’m tampering with the photographer’s artistic vision, which I would dispute; in any case, my interest in these photographs is forensic as well as artistic.


6 thoughts on “Where did all those photo postcards come from?

  • Great info. Thank you so much. It is wonderful to read this and see these photos. Thanks.

  • Weldon

    Enjoyed. Very interesting to see images of yesater year.

  • Ellen Passman

    Loving the blog. Great research. Judy Fisher turned me on to your site.
    You might be interested in my home at 305 Federal Street; A Grande Dame of Milton. It’s the old Sam Wilson home and subsequently, the Wilson Funeral Home.
    I am under currently contract and will be leaving by May 15th. Please feel free to contact me if you would like to see it or do some research on it while it’s still my beloved home.
    Best regards,
    Ellen Passman

  • Terri Pleasanton

    My Ancestors were Ship Builders and Farmers in Milton and Milford..The name was LANK / Pleasanton…any photos or info would be greatly appreciated…..I love the fact that you have an interest in the history…my Family (both sides ) has been in Kent and Sussex Co. since the 1700’s

  • John

    Love the blog and the the photos but union street is east/west not north/south.

    • Phil Martin

      I stand corrected – somehow after several years here, I still get disoriented.

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