Elizabeth Huntoon Coursen can make collecting vintage postcards sound as exciting as going to an amusement park.
"I've been collecting for 30 years," she said. "It's been nothing but a thrilling roller-coaster ride. You go up, you go down, there are hairpin turns, you do investigating, you contact people. It's very exciting, and it's constantly that way."
Coursen, 50, has now focused her passion for postcards on her hometown. She's just published a collection of vintage postcards, with commentary, in the book "Brunswick & Bowdoin College" (Arcadia Publishing, $21.99).
In addition to postcards from Coursen's personal collection, the book includes pieces from the Maine Historic Preservation Commission, the Penobscot Marine Museum and the George J. Mitchell Department of Special Collections & Archives of the Bowdoin College Library.
Coursen, who lives in Sarasota, Fla., visited Brunswick in March to do signings and give talks about the postcards in her book. She'll be returning to Maine in May for more appearances.
Coursen grew up in Brunswick and graduated from Brunswick High School. She put herself through Emory University by starting a lawn-care service, and spent the next 20 years as a landscape-construction contractor in Atlanta.
She got hooked on postcards 30 years ago, just after college, when a dealer handed her a postcard from 1906. Today, she is founder/owner of AmericanPostcardArt.com, an Internet business that enlarges vintage postcards and republishes them as art prints.
Her postcards have been used in ad campaigns and as wine bottle labels, clock faces, needlepoint patterns and wedding cards. In the past decade, her business has been featured in more than 50 newspapers and magazines.
Q: You started by collecting postcards of Brunswick. Exactly how did this become an actual hobby after that dealer gave you the card from 1906?
A: When you look at these turn-of-the-century postcard views, one of the things that really astonished me immediately was the lack of cars. Just in the short space of 100 years, America has gone from horse-drawn conveyances and trains as our primary means of getting around to cars.
So the first thing I saw when I looked at that view, was I saw that Maine Street – though it had elements that I was very familiar with and I recognized some of the topography, I recognized some of the buildings – there were elements that were totally alien, and that meant the unpaved Maine Street. You could see the ruts, you could see the hoof prints, you could see that something was very, very different in a fundamental way, and I was immediately sucked into the view.
And then your imagination starts to work, and you think, "Wow, not only was Brunswick here before I got here, but how would it have been had I lived in 1906?" I would have been one of those ladies you see on the sidewalk in the long skirts and God-only-knows what kind of undergarments.
Q: How do Maine postcards compare to other kinds of cards? Is there, generally, anything unique about them?
A: No, and the reason why is because everyone is using the same publisher. There were some very good local publishers who were either Brunswick-located or Portland-located, but by and large all the negatives, all the photographs, were being processed through the same large manufacturers.
For instance, I can look at a card and tell because of the colors who the publisher was. They had offices in New York, but they were mostly located in Germany. A lot of times, different publishers would trade negatives, so in my book you can see how sometimes the same view is presented with different embellishments.
Q: On page 101, there's that typical Maine wharf scene showing a sailboat that you said could have been added by the publisher. They "Photoshopped" even back then? I think people have an idea that you can trust what you see in older photographs because you're not messing around with them on a computer, but that's not necessarily true, is it?
A: It's not at all. Publishers routinely took away things like electrical lines, which are very distracting to a view. A lot of times, those are completely gone. One particular publisher, they took out everything that made it interesting. They took out cars and they took out people. So their views are strictly of buildings, and that's not very interesting, is it?
Now, publishers also not only took away things, but they also added things, like that sailboat. And many times you see a lot of American flags that are added. They would take away horse poop. Anything they could do to make the view more appealing to the public.
Q: Is collecting vintage postcards a lucrative hobby? Will you ever take one on "Antiques Roadshow" and have them tell you it's worth a fortune?
A: Collectors collect for fun. If you ever get into a situation where you would want to be a dealer, that's a whole other side of it. Postcards right now are kind of low. If you look on eBay, you see things that were going for substantial sums five years ago are attracting a lot less attention, and I think that has a lot to do with the economy.
Long term, I wouldn't necessarily say that it's a super investment, but then again, you are dealing with the laws of scarcity. We have a very finite number of vintage postcards. That's it; there's not going to be any more. The quality material is finding its way to the passionate people. The mediocre material is languishing.
Q: Your business turns postcards into art. Do you find most people want to save images of their hometowns?
A: Here's an example: I had a fellow in Macon, Ga., a couple of months ago buy a print for his father-in-law of the military base where his father-in-law trained to go serve in World War II in the European Theater. Just a couple of days ago, I heard back from him. He had attached a photo of him presenting this print that had been framed to his father-in-law, and everybody was crying. People have a real emotional impact with these views from their past.
Q: Do you have any tips for people who are interested in collecting postcards?
A: You do need to take care of them, and the time to do it is now. The most damage to a postcard typically happens in the last six months of its life. And the reason that happens is because Great-Uncle Fred dies. You're going through his house, and there's a box of postcards. And you don't dare throw them away, because you know they're intrinsically worth something, so you take them home.
Well, all of a sudden those postcards have gone from Uncle Fred's attic, which is dry as a bone, to your basement. The next thing you know, you've really drastically altered the milieu that the cards have been kept in, and you've got bugs, you've got mildew, you've got all sorts of problems.
What people need to do is, first of all they need to find the material, they need to go through it. And if you don't feel like going through it yourself, there are plenty of really, really good postcard dealers in the Portland area. The first thing you do is take out everything that is personal to your family. I can't tell you how many times I get the most poignant messages on postcards, and I think, why do I have this? Why isn't this a cherished relic of this particular family and their passage through America?
Once you set all that aside, try to give this material to family members, particularly the younger people who never got to know Great-Uncle Fred. It gives them a connection to the people who they're related to who have already gone on. The non-family specific, get those to a historical society, get those to a library, get those to a place where they can be evaluated and donated.
Make sure that people are identified. Make sure you're storing everything properly. I like keeping my stuff in Ziploc bags. Once you have your things organized, decide what's family and what's not, and the stuff that's not family you can let go, either by donation or selling. But the family stuff ought to stay in the family.