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Old Postcards Offer Glimpse Of South Florida's Appealing (And Appalling) History

In this digital age, when vacationers to South Florida can grab their smartphones and send jealousy-inducing photos to friends and family within seconds, it’s hard to believe the humble postcard is still hanging in there.

Visit most any local souvenir shop and there they are, usually on one or two racks tucked behind the seashell bracelets and painted coconuts.  But Sarasota author Liz Coursen doesn’t think much of the postcards being sent from Florida these days.

“You've got your basic beach, your basic alligator, your basic palm tree,” she says.  “And it could be, geographically, anywhere in the state.  There’s a deplorable lack of quality and specificity to the modern-day postcard.”

To Coursen, the vintage postcards she began collecting more than thirty years ago are more than just souvenirs; they’re small, oblong fragments of history.

Throughout the year, she’s been making a tour of Florida cities with a presentation featuring about 100 of the 70,000 postcards in her collection.  Coursen uses them to illustrate Florida’s dynamic growth and development in the first half of the 20th century.

“Postcards were really instrumental in promoting the state as a destination,” says Coursen.

The presentation, titled, “Having Fun, Wish You Were Here: An Illustrated History of the Postcard in Florida,” is part of the state’s Viva Florida 500 celebration, highlighting the 500th anniversary of the arrival of Juan Ponce de León to these shores.

Most historians trace the birth of the postcard back to Chicago’s Columbian Exposition (e.g., the World’s Fair) held in 1893.  They arrived on the scene in Florida not long afterward, mostly in the form of photographs taken along the state’s lengthening railroad track.

The earliest Florida postcard Coursen has in her possession is dated 1905 and features a photograph of a ferry drifting along the Ocklawaha River, loaded with passengers and produce.

During what Coursen refers to as the “Golden Age of Postcards,” the grainy photos gave way to vividly painted renderings of Florida's finest hotels and most brilliant thoroughfares printed on high-quality linen cardstock.

And since the postcards merely reflect the language, customs and mores of the era in which they were printed, many are shocking by today’s standards.

For example, there’s the infamous “Mammy From Miami” card, dated around the late 1940’s.  It features a painting of an African-American woman dressed in a hoop skirt and head bandana, in the manner of Aunt Jemima.  The caption reads, “Folks sho’ like this card with a message from Florida.”

From the same era, a postcard from a Miami Beach hotel boasts how it offers guests an environment with “restricted clientele.”  Coursen says that was double-speak for “No Jews Allowed.”

But most of Coursen’s collection is comprised of the colorful scenes that introduced Florida to the rest of the world; the beaches, the orange groves, the glamorous hotels.

“The new cards just can’t hold a candle to the old cards,” she sighs.


Sarasota-based author and speaker Liz Coursen brings her presentation to the following public library:

Coral Gables Library : August 17, 3 p.m.

For more information, contact Miami-Dade Public Library System’s programming coordinator at (305) 375-1413 or melgarejoj@mdpls.org