Buffalo Postcards

by Cynthia Hayes, Buffalo History Museum Volunteer

The Buffalo Postcards collection shows several aspects of Buffalo's history, primarily during the golden era between 1901 and 1915, when its industrialization and population were at a high point and life was centered downtown. At this time, President Theodore Roosevelt was in office, and the Progressive Movement was sweeping the country, hoping to create better opportunities for ordinary citizens by regulating big business.

Buffalo had become a major transportation center, thanks to its location on the eastern end of Lake Erie and at the terminus of the Erie Canal. It was an important inland port, handling tons of grain, coal, lumber, and iron. Postcards show a busy Buffalo Harbor filled with shipping vessels. Buffalo also had an extensive railroad system to bring in raw materials for manufacturing and deliver finished products to market as well as to transport millions of passengers in, out, and around the city. The Belt Line, a freight and commuter line that originated at the Exchange Street Station and ran a 15-mile loop around the outskirts of the city, served hundreds of industries. A close look at many of the postcards reveals an electric trolley, freight train, or railroad track, which is not surprising, considering there were over 600 miles of track within the city limits. Buffalo's automobile industry was beginning to take hold, and in the postcards you can spot cars on streets and on the boat that ferried them to Canada before the Peace Bridge was built. You can also spot an occasional horse-drawn wagon from earlier days.

Buffalo's transportation infrastructure spurred tremendous growth in industry and manufacturing. Thousands of livestock arrived by rail from the Midwest, passed through stockyards on the city's East Side, and provided raw material for the tanning, meatpacking, and soap-making industries. The Larkin Company grew from a small soap manufacturer into one of America's largest mail-order businesses, producing hundreds of household items. Low-cost electric power generated from nearby Niagara Falls also contributed to the rise in manufacturing. Electricity was the major feature of the Pan-American Exposition held in Buffalo in 1901.

The wealth created by industry led to the construction of many outstanding buildings and homes designed by well-known architects. The Buffalo Postcards collection features buildings that have since been demolished, such as the Larkin Administration Building (designed by Frank Lloyd Wright), the Live Stock Exchange (designed by America's first woman architect, Louise Blanchard Bethune), and the D.S. Morgan office building (designed by Green and Wicks).

Business and industry attracted thousands of workers, and by 1910 Buffalo was the 8th largest U.S. city in terms of population. Workers needed space for recreation and relief from the chaos and noise of everyday urban living. Nobody understood that better than American landscape designer Frederick Law Olmsted, who created a magnificent system of parks and parkways in Buffalo for use by ordinary citizens, giving them easy access to peaceful, natural settings.

Postcards and postcard collecting were all the rage in the early 20th century. Postcards were a handy form of communication before telephones became widespread. Mail delivery was twice a day, so a message could be mailed in the morning and be received in the afternoon. Postcards could be purchased for one cent and mailed for one cent, a price so affordable that it was common for people to send one every day. Before World War I, most postcards were printed in Germany where masters produced high quality cards. Later, Curt Teich Co. of Chicago printed many cards. Since publishing dates were rarely printed, an effort has been made to determine the date based on the type of card and the subjects depicted.

For those interested in deltiology, the study of postcards, this collection offers examples from most of the postcard eras, including the Private Mailing Cards issued between 1898 and 1901, divided-back cards beginning in 1907, white border cards, linen cards with romanticized images such as the one of Memorial Auditorium, and Chrome cards.

Postcards for this collection were selected from 5,000 cards that are available for viewing at the Buffalo History Museum's Research Library. Library hours are listed on the Research Library Web page. The library's postcard collection runs from around the turn of the century to the present, with the bulk from the period between 1904 and 1950. Major subjects covered include Buffalo Harbor, buildings (armories, churches, hotels, etc.), lake marine vessels, monuments, streets, towns and villages in Western New York, Niagara Falls, and the Pan-American Exposition.

Almost every postcard tells a story. Use the zoom feature, read the descriptions, and follow up with research using Buffalo History Museum Research Library's Ready Reference files.

Additional Resources

General History of Buffalo and Western New York

Architecture

Business and Industry

Lafayette Square

Niagara Square

Parks

Postcards

Shelton Square

Transportation

Collection owner: Buffalo History Museum