Small Cards with Big Stories To Tell: Exploring Postcards in the Archives
By Kieran Robertson
Have you ever sent a postcard? Maybe you were on vacation and wanted to tell a friend all about your adventures. Or maybe you saved the postcard for yourself, as a way to remember the journey. Postcards serve many purposes, even when they make their way into the archives.
Some postcards allow us to document the way that certain places looked at a time, either as drawn by an artist, or sometimes as photographed by a witness to that past moment. Other postcards allow us to document correspondence and human relationships, by looking closely at the message penned on the back. Some postcards document a political movement or even advertise a product.
A carnival at the Ohio State University in the early 1900s.
Some postcards can provide both a significant image and a significant handwritten message. While they may be small, postcards give us a unique window into the past.
Recently, I’ve been working with a lot of postcards in the Archives & Library. I’ve come across two particular stories that I enjoyed, and I thought they would be worth sharing. To learn exactly what I found, keep reading below.
The postcards I’ve been working with come from a variety of sources, many of which are unidentified. So imagine my surprise when I turned over this postcard to find a mailing address for Nimrod B. Allen, former Columbus resident, and founder of a national organization known as Frontiers of America.
Allen was recently featured in an exhibit at the Ohio History Center titled Poindexter Village: A Portrait in Stories, because of his importance to the African American community in the city of Columbus. A large collection of his papers is held at the Archives & Library.
Here’s what the exhibit had to say about Mr. Allen: Nimrod Booker Allen was an instrumental force in the creation of many prominent organizations on the Near East Side. He was born in Alabama, coming to Ohio in the early 1900s to attend Wilberforce University. Allen then traveled to Columbus in 1915, where he served as the Executive Secretary of the Spring Street YMCA and was central to the founding of the Columbus Urban League and the Big Walnut Country Club. Allen also formed the Frontiers International, now a national black service organization.
However, it was actually another name on the back of the postcard that served as my greatest source of excitement. While the postcard was addressed to Allen, it was signed from “The Methods.” I am almost certain that this signature comes from a contemporary of Nimrod Allen who also became an integral figure to Columbus’s Near East Side- Dr. William Arthur Method.
In 1920, Dr. Method, along with Dr. R.M. Tribbit, opened the Alpha Hospital and Professional Building
at the corner of 17th
and Long Street on Columbus’s Near East Side. This was the first hospital in the city designed specifically to serve African American patients. Many hospitals in Columbus would serve black patients at this time, but with dangerously slow and substandard service. This new hospital provided a reliable source of health care for the black community. In the twenty first century, Columbus artist Jeff Abraxas placed many celebratory murals throughout the Near East Side. On the site of Dr. Method’s hospital, Abraxas painted his likeness.
The image is still a visible reminder of Method’s legacy.It was exciting to me that this postcard very tangibly confirmed a relationship between two very important and contemporary members of the Columbus African American community. I immediately imagined other conversations they may have had, work they did together, and moments of personal friendship. Often we focus narrowly on important individuals in our history, without stopping to consider their relationships to each other, and their effects on each other’s thoughts and actions. While messages are often short, postcards can document a relationship between two individuals in a very unique way.
Another interesting story that I found amongst the postcards was a little bit harder to spot. I began to see many postcards addressed to different members of the Bareis family of Canal Winchester, Ohio, all coming from a woman named Grace, who appeared to be traveling across Europe. On the off chance that I might find something, I typed “Grace Bareis, Canal Winchester” into the Google search bar.
The search results
made me examine these postcards from Grace in a new light. It turns out, Grace Bareis was the first person, male or female, to receive a Ph.D. in mathematics from the Ohio State University. However this was only one of her many accolades.Bareis was born in Canal Winchester to George Frederick and Amanda Schoch Bareis on December 19, 1875 (it was actually through finding Grace’s mother’s maiden name that I determined many of Grace’s postcards were written not to friends named Schoch, but cousins). She graduated from Heidelberg College in Tiffin, Ohio, in 1897, before going onto graduate school at Bryn Mawr College and Columbia University. She paused her graduate career briefly to teach mathematics at Miss Roney’s School in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, reentering her schooling in 1906 at the Ohio State University. In 1909, she earned her Ph.D. in mathematics, and in 1915 she became a founding member of the Mathematical Association of America. Bareis taught at Ohio State University from 1908 until 1948. She intended to retire in 1946, however she was called out of retirement for two years due to a shortage of teachers after World War II. Bareis maintained a residence in Canal Winchester, but for the last twenty six years of her life she lived with Margaret F. Jones on 13th
Avenue in Columbus. She died at this home in 1962, at the age of 86.
It appears that Grace Bareis made her journey across Europe in the summer of 1916. While traveling, she sent messages to her parents and her cousins, detailing her journey. Bareis also sent home blank postcards for her parents to set aside for her, as memories of the places she had seen while abroad. Bareis often wrote directly onto the front image of a postcard to make notes to her family about her journeys.
While visiting Saint-Ã‰tienne-du-Mont, a church in Paris, France, Bareis made multiple notes on her postcards about the tomb of Blaise Pascal, a well-known mathematician of the 17th century. This note bears much greater importance now that I know about Grace Bareis’s own contributions to the mathematical community.
Interested in learning more about postcards? The Ohio History Connection’s collections include many wonderful postcards documenting both the people and places that make up our state’s history. Visit the Archives & Library at the Ohio History Center to check out some postcards that interest you, or get started using the large number of digitized postcards on Ohio Memory. You never know what you might find!