Documenting a century through postcards

    A local couple has what could be the largest collection of beach postcards in the country, about 3,000.


    For most people, Labor Day is effectively the end of summer. As they wrap up their vacations, some may be posting pictures of their time online, for friends and family to see. That’s a job that used to be done through postcards.  A local couple is keeping that tradition alive by preserving their own beach postcard collection which tracks a century of the Great American Vacation.
    Art and Sarah Trembanis are academics – he’s a geologist; she’s an historian. They’re also married and live in Newark, Delaware. They have what could be the largest collection of beach postcards in the country, about 3000.

    let’s see… we’ve got these earlier postcards…

    The cards go back to the 19th century. Sarah Trembanis says back then beach resorts were the privelage of the wealthy, and postcards featured people dressed in suits, ties, gowns, and bonnets.

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    In some earliest ones there are very few people in the water – the beach was to be observed.

    Postcards are designed to be disposable – which makes them valuable historic documents. Trembanis uses the cards to show how popular attitudes towards leisure have changed over the last hundred years, as recreation transformed from a wealthy indulgence to a right of the masses. It changed the way the Jersey Shore marketed itself.

    Hotels aren’t selling themselves as exclusive bastions of upper class existence, but as playgrounds.

    Sarah’s husband, Art – the geologist – sees the same postcards in a different way. He uses the images to see how coastlines have become artificially engineered. He says the New Jersey shore is the epitome of constructing buildings and structures along the coast – so much so that geologists have a name for it: New Jerseyization.

    A natural coastline had an aesethic, but it performed in a way that an engineered shoreline can’t. A seawall can’t respond to storms the way a natural sealine can. It’s hard to remember that the vacant lot used to be a field. The postcards can bring that home for us.

    Art and Sarah may look at postcards with different agendas, but they often come to the same conclusion: postcards lie. They present what we believe the beach should look like. Sarah says the serenity, or grandeur, or pristine natural setting seen in postcards reflect the popular imagination of their times, but often not the reality.

    Americans had this ideal of how things are supposed to look. We’re nationalized through sitcoms and TV, the national culture. This is what people want for their vacation.

    Some cards in their collection depict the aftermath of natural disasters – like Hurricane Floyd, or the Ash Wednesday storm of 1962. The Trembanis’ are waiting to see what kind of postcards will come out of the Gulf oil spill.

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